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George Wilcox diary entry No. 3

Pictured is aftermath from the 1917 tornado in Kouts.

The tornado of 1917 was arguably the worst natural disaster to strike Northwest Indiana. The Hebron-Kouts area was especially hard hit, not so much Baum's Bridge. Kankakee River guide George Wilcox wrote of it in his 1916-1917 diary.

-- May 26: Sowed my clover. We had a cyclone. Done us no particular damage. Tore Hebron, Kouts and surrounding country all to pieces. Killed several.

-- May 27: I went over to Section 7 (Jasper County) and sowed some alsike and timothy. Then went over to Hebron to see the effect of the cyclone.

The tornado started near Mendota, Ill., and ripped through the countryside traveling close to 300 miles until it finally lost power east of Kouts. At least 383 people were killed and many more were injured. The most severe single incident of injuries took place at a Pan Handle Construction Camp west of Hebron. The V-M (Vidette-Messenger) printed that "Eleven box cars on the Pan Handle just west of Hebron were occupied by about twenty laborers, most of whom were colored. The cars blew over, took fire, and nearly every occupant was wounded."

From accounts of the time it appears the tornado skipped along its path of destruction through Illinois and Indiana. In Indiana: Crown Point, Cedar Lake, Hebron and Kouts were touch-down points.

Some area farms saw the greatest devastation. The Giles Aylesworth farm was especially hard hit. Giles was in his fields when he saw the approaching storm. His wife Lillian had just returned from an outing along with two of their seven children and a neighbor. They did not even have time to reach the cellar when the tornado hit. The V-M wrote: "The group huddled together in the middle of the floor, with the exception of Giles who wanted to go outside. It is believed he met his injury as he passed under the falling chimney."

One surprise was the numerous occurrences of vandalism, especially in Hebron. The Vidette-Messenger printed that "Vandalism was one of the things with which the Hebron people had not reckoned. Before Saturday night was over the parasites were busy. From homes left without protection they took valuables and escaped detection.”

On the other side of the coin there were great examples of community spirit and volunteerism. The V-M wrote: "The Boy Scouts of this city (Hebron) and Kouts did good service all day yesterday. They set to with axes and other tools and assisted in clearing the streets and highways ... The town hall at Hebron was turned into an improvised hospital, and here young men of the town did genuine Red Cross work. They assisted the doctor in looking after the patients, and served hot coffee for those who were becoming fatigued in the work of rescue and reclamation." Hearses were pressed into service as ambulances.

What strikes me is how the community responded to this tragedy. Somehow the people were able to come together utilizing their talents and resources and rescued the injured and began the work of recovery. Except for the immediate deaths all of the injured recovered.

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Community Coordinator

Annette is Community Coordinator for The Times. She has been with the paper for two decades. A resident of Hobart, she graduated from Purdue University with degrees in English and German.