International Harvester to the Rescue in Wake of Tri-State Tornado of 1925

In the wake of the deadly Tri-State Tornado of 1925, International Harvester stood between farmers and crop failure.

Homes Destroyed

Homes shattered to pieces at Murphysboro, Ill., in the tornado of March 18, 1925. About 1,200 homes were completely destroyed in an area 1 mile wide and 2-1/2 miles long.

Photo Courtesy Bob Good

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When Farm Collector reader Bob Good, Harrison, Ark., read this article in a nearly 90-year-old farm magazine, the years fell away. “All the recent disasters — from the Joplin tornado to Superstorm Sandy — have been on our minds, or maybe on the hands of those who were able to assist in relief and rescue work,” he says. “When I came across this article, I thought it was timely enough to send to Farm Collector. Just a reminder, maybe, that they had storms, rescue missions and relief efforts nearly 90 years ago too — and more response than we might expect in 1925. It is also interesting to see a big company (International Harvester Co.) with a heart. Wonder what became of those 20-some tractors? Who finally footed the bill?”

With 695 deaths attributed to it, the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 remains the most deadly tornado in American history, one that wielded a lasting blow to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

The article appeared in the May 1925 issue of Farm Mechanics magazine. Written by young reporter Edward Jerome Dies, who went on to a noteworthy career in writing, ag marketing and public relations, the article describes an exceptional connection between the small farmer and the big manufacturer.

Part of southern Indiana was laid waste by the recent (March 18, 1925) tornado. Modern invention played a striking role in the staggering disaster that took a toll of nearly a thousand lives. First cries for succor came by radio. First medical aid went by airplane. First supplies were dispatched by motor truck, guided by messages that clattered in over tottering telegraph wires. Medical science attained a higher goal than ever before in history.

Hundreds of farmhouses had been swept away. In many instances nothing remained to mark the site except a cook stove or a farm implement. When survivors in the general district of Princeton had been properly housed and fed, a new and serious problem arose. Throughout this rich farming section spring work had just gotten well under way when the tornado struck. Farmers saw their storm-strewn fields in hideous ruin. Great numbers of farmers thereabout depend for a living solely upon melons or other truck crops.

Quick action only could save them from further ruin. They must get their crops in without delay or it would be too late. Farm horses were dead or injured. Harness was ripped and ruined. Hay and feed had been blown away. Before enough horses and equipment could be shipped in and the ground plowed it would be too late to plant the crops.

John Covert is the district supervisor of the Indiana Farm Bureau Relief. His heroic efforts in this stricken area will long be remembered. When he saw the plight of the melon and truck farmers he was for a time downcast. Then he found a way out.

On the long distance telephone he called the International Harvester Co. “We need help and we need it quick!” he said. “But,” asked a startled official, “hasn’t our relief fund reached you?” “Oh yes, we have money down here,” said Covert. “But money won’t plow or harrow the ground. We are in dire need of tractors. How many can you send to these destitute farmers — NOW?” “A carload, two carloads, three carloads,” replied the company official. “Fine!,” shouted Covert.

And four hours later that same night, a special train carrying five carloads of tractors and plows chugged out of Chicago and with tracks cleared, raced for Princeton full speed ahead.

A little crowd of farmers, new hope lighting their haggard faces, gathered at the station as the train rolled into Princeton the next morning. The brakes had hardly stopped grinding when the unloading process began.

In less than an hour the tractors were on their way to the melon fields. Those going the greatest distances were sent by trucks, which had also been furnished by the company, while the others, lined in single file like war tanks headed for the front, marched off to the nearby fields and swung into action. Fields comparatively free from debris were being plowed the afternoon following the cry for aid.

From that day on — March 29 — 20 tractors plowed and made ready hundreds of acres, assuring a complete crop in an area where all hope of a crop had been lost. Relief directors in the farm district said that each of the 20 tractors contained an internal combustion engine capable of delivering more power at the tractor’s drawbar than 10 good horses could equal. They declared the 20 tractors were the equivalent of 200 good horses for fieldwork on a single shift, or 600 horses if used night and day.

All these tractors worked steadily in the fan-shaped district around Owensville some 12 miles from Princeton. News of the saving of the crop spread in all directions. And on April 7 there came another emergency call.

“The Griffin district can still save its crop with tractors,” the Indiana Farm Bureau Relief advised. “How many are needed?” asked the official in charge of the Harvester company’s relief work. “We’ll send what you need.”

That night 12 more tractors and plows were dispatched by special train. The town of Griffin had been virtually snatched from the map. The farming community about it was so cruelly wounded that hardly a building remained. Barns, homes, sheds and other small structures were crushed and tossed about like cardboard shells. Between Griffin and Owensville, an area of 28 miles, is the fertile, highly productive region to which was consigned the second shipment of tractors and plows.

Immediately on their arrival every surviving man, woman and child old enough to work went out into the fields and with the happy assurance that a new crop would be certain. Commenting on the situation, Mr. Covert said: “One must first visualize the tragedy in order to understand the happiness that has sprung up in these districts where all hope of another crop had been lost.” 

Farm Collector extends appreciation to Bob Good, who shared this article with us. FC