Though numerous tornadoes visited the land we call Cass County over the centuries, the county’s first verified tornado struck in May of 1845 (like many historical events, the exact date is up for debate).
It was born in Morgan County, where it destroyed a number of barns and fences. Moving into Cass County, the twister smashed a few houses and leveled the Walnut Grove School near Princeton. Though the storm did considerable property damage, there was no loss of life.
Things were different on Friday, May 18, 1883. The day dawned calm and mild. As people went about their routines, a deadly weather system was brewing in Missouri. As that system grew in strength, it pushed eastward. Clouds spread into Central Illinois shortly after noon. All knew a storm was coming, but no one could guess that it would bring with it massive destruction and the loss of life.
Contemporary accounts report the storm closed in on Liter sometime between 8 and 8:30 p.m. A local merchant named J.B. Griffin was in the process of closing his store when he saw it. A black, swirling funnel was bearing down on Liter. (Literberry originally was known as Liter. It was named after John H. Liter, the first postmaster. The name was officially changed to Literberry on Sept. 29, 1886.)
The Jacksonville Journal of May 20 reported what next occurred:
“Next in the track came the large, fine residence of Wm. Rexroat, which was unroofed and moved several feet from its foundation. Mrs. Rexroat was cut on the head by flying debris, but not seriously injured. The rest of the family escaped with plenty of scratches and bruises, none serious. Mr. Rexroat’s large barn was carried away and several horses killed.”
The newspaper continued:
“Following came the large two-story frame building of Thomas Hammond, which was torn into splinters and scattered for miles, along the track of the storm. Mr. Hammond, wife and four children, who were in the house at the time, are all reported as being very seriously injured, and being cared for by the neighboring families, who were more fortunate than they in escaping the storm.”
Within Liter, the first house to be destroyed was the elegant resident of Aaron Petefish, burying him and his six children in the debris. However, the family managed to escape with their lives. The tornado destroyed 16 more homes. Both the Baptist and Christian churches lay in total ruin.
Still, the cyclone raged on, as the Jacksonville Journal reported:
“Not a business house has been left standing in the place (Liter), the buildings as well as the contents being scattered for miles east of town. The following business houses are swept away: Carpenter shop of Liter & Ray, Griffin’s dry goods and grocery store, Dr. S. Griffin’s office and museum of stuffed birds and animals, P.H. Rucker’s dry goods and grocery store, postoffice (sic), Fleming’s drug store, Coons & Liter’s hardware store, Liter & Ray’s agricultural depot and Hitching’s blacksmith shop. The railroad depot was also totally destroyed. The scene beggars description.”
Next Week: The storm moves into Cass County.