Blink and you’ll miss it.
Codell is a small farming community much like many others scattered throughout Kansas. Located in the windswept prairie north of Hays (and the bustling traffic of Interstate 70), Codell was established as a railroad town in 1887 and once boasted hundreds of houses, a school, multiple churches as well as a business district with a bank, telephone central office, lumber yard, grain elevator, stores, a doctor, and a barber. But, also like other small towns in the area, time has not been kind. Census estimates put the population now at barely 100. Most businesses have closed. The railroad was long-since abandoned.
Codell is, for the most part, another forgotten piece of Americana.
Except for one very distinct difference.
Once a year, on May 20, former residents and visitors flock to Codell to remember ‘Cyclone Day,’ an event commemorated at what used to be the town’s high school. Attendees gather around a steel sculpture of a tornado with three dates etched onto its concrete base: 1916, 1917, 1918. They pause to remember and reflect, to share memories of those who survived and those were lost, on the most bizarre and horrific of coincidences.
Because on May 20, for three straight years–1916, 1917, and 1918–Codell was struck by tornadoes.
In 1916, the first tornado (which residents of the time referred to as ‘cyclones’) formed three miles south of Codell. Estimated as an F2, with winds of 113 to 157 miles an hour, the funnel struck the east side of town. The Topeka Daily Capital estimated damage around $12,000, with destruction confined mainly to farm buildings.
The second tornado, in 1917, was classified as an F3, with winds of 158 to 206 miles an hour. It hit west of town, again sparing lives and most property.
When May 20, 1918 rolled around, it was no wonder residents were on edge. Although the first two twisters had been mercifully minor in scope and damage, “ss a kid, I was always afraid when May the 20th came around,” former Codell resident Sharolyn Lamb-Gramm told the Hays Daily News in 2018.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a fear that would go unfounded.
“When the last tornado struck, it hit right down the middle of the town, and wiped out most of our buildings,” Codell resident Joel Russell told the same publication. “It hit our schoolhouse, houses and a lot of the larger businesses. After that, many businesses left and many businesses were hesitant to move to town.”
The 1918 twister was the strongest yet, an F4, with winds of 207 to 260 miles an hour. It left a path of destruction 35 miles along that went right through the center of Codell.
Celesta Adams Glendening lived in Codell at the time and later wrote about the experience in an essay entitled “Cyclone Day.”
Unable to make it to their storm cellar due to the intensity of the storm, Glendening recalled huddling in the kitchen with her family. “Thunder roared, lightning flashed, rain and hail beat against the windows with such force that I knew they would break,” Celesta Glendening wrote.
“We smelled wet plaster, heard nails pulling out of the wood and heard wood breaking. … The house had an upstairs in it, and they told us afterward that the floor of the house was completely covered with debris, all except the small area where we stood. … The house was gone all except the floor, and we had stood up all the time.”
She writes of holding her youngest, Max, in a quilt in her arms as the storm raged over head:
″… Max was still wrapped in the quilt and I was still holding him tight, when all of a sudden he was gone. … Grandpa says I went berserk and tore his shirt completely off of him, as he tried to hold me and, of course, he was holding Worden, and I tried to get away to go find my baby. Grandpa says he finally just pushed me down on the floor, and in a flash of lightning, we saw Max sitting up just a few feet off the floor.”
The child, miraculously, did not a single scratch on his body from the experience.
The same could not be said for Codell.
The town was practically wiped off the face of the earth. Most buildings were demolished, including the school house, businesses, and homes. Ten people were killed and dozens more injured. Although some residents chose to stay behind and rebuilt, many others jumped ship, abandoning what was left of their homestead and livelihoods. The small farming community never truly recovered.
But those who remain–and those who remember–still gather every May 20 to commemorate the town’s unbelievable and nightmarish claim to fame, when the town that was barely a pinprick on the map somehow became a big, glaring bullseye–three times in a row–for nature’s horrific fury.