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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Death and destruction visited Gans during the winter tornsdo outbreak of 1957

George T. Metesky

Tuesday morning on January 22 started out much like any other winterly, eastern Oklahoma

On the world scene, the never ending controversy in the Middle East would see Israel withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula on that day and The New York City "Mad Bomber", George P. Metesky, was arrested in Waterbury, Connecticut and charged with planting more than 30 bombs in sixteen years.


In Oklahoma, the Sooner basketball team was coming off a weekend 67-56 Big 7 loss to Iowa State, but no one cared in the wake of an undefeated football season that had ended three weeks earlier under head coach Bud Wilkinson.


The night before, those well-heeled enough to own a television set probably watched a snowy “Tales of Wells Fargo” or the ill-fated game show “Twenty-One:” that was during a scandal-ridden run with champion Charles Van Doren emitting from the four-year-old KFSA -TV out for Fort Smith.


Life was hardscrabble in the area, but carefree. At 6:45 the next morning, the world changed… at least for those living in the tiny Sequoyah County farming community of Gans about eighteen miles due west of Fort Smith.


Monday night a storm system had resulted in a path of tornado destruction in and around Warner, forty miles to the west between Vian and Checotah. The storm front lingered in southern Muskogee County for a time before slowly moving to the east and picking up intensity.

Just before sunrise, the twister touched down near the southwest corner of the community of Gans. Six minutes later, after the tornado went on a north-northwest path, Gans lay in rubble and eight (some accounts say ten) area residents were dead.

Four of those were members of the same family.


The Jenkins family victims, Ted, 55, his wife, Norma, 49, their daughter, Bonnie Lou, age 14, and their son, Deral Glen Jenkins, age 8, were all buried together in the Sallisaw City cemetery a few days later.

The body of one of those killed was carried a half-mile away by the winds as were several refrigerators and automobiles. Massive, widespread damage occurred, and the tornado dug numerous holes-- about 10 feet in diameter and about one and one-half feet deep-- into the ground.


 The half mile wide tornado traveled for 5 miles, but dissipated before itreached the Arkansas state line.


A newspaper account published the next day gave the horrific details:


"The Lights Went Out"

“The storm that struck in Gans a few minutes after 6 am leveled the Jenkins and Meeks homes and damaged heavily another dozen houses in the town of 500 population. It hit the town after destroying three homes about a mile southwest of Gans, which is located about nine miles southeast of Sallisaw.

Probably the closest to being an eye witness of any portion of the tragedy was Ernest Henry, who lives across the road from the Jenkins home. He was the first man on the scene after the twister smashed the Jenkins home and two neighboring homes.

"I was up getting ready to milk when I heard what sounded like a freight train" Henry recalled. "The lights went out and I rushed to the door where I could see the Jenkins home had been hit."

Henry rushed across the road and was joined by his brother-in-law, Bradley Dyer, who lives next door to Henry. They found the bodies of the Jenkins couple and their three children widely scattered about the area.

Nothing, not even a foundation remained of the house. Indicating the strength of the storm, the crushed remains of the Jenkins refrigerator were found in a ditch more than a quarter-mile up the road.

Henry found the parents and two children dead. The other daughter, Helen, was laying about 200 yards from the house, screaming from her trauma and injurues.She was taken to Gans in a car. The Jenkins home was the first in a line of three leveled in that area. Next in line was the home of the Bryan Tinney family, and the third house to go was that of Bill Davis and his mother.

Henry reported Tinney had heard the roar of the tornado and had rushed his wife and two teenage daughters into a storm cellar next to the house just seconds before their home was splintered into kindling.”

 The F-4 tornado---with winds exceeding 206 miles per hour -- is still listed as one of the strongest to touch down in Oklahoma history. National Weather Service personnel said on Monday that the fact the tornado hit in such a largely rural area is the only thing that kept the storm from taking “hundreds” of lives.

Gans never fully recovered from the destruction. The town that had once housed a bank, two cotton gins, a sawmill, six general stores, three doctors, two drug stores, two blacksmiths, and a restaurant would fade into obscurity and become primarily a bedroom community for surrounding cities and towns.

Gans will also always be known as the hometown of Oklahoma State legend and NBA legend Bryant “Big Country” Reeves.

But in 1957, death and destruction were its claim to fame.

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