April 24, 1975 began like any other spring day in Southwest Missouri. Flowers were in bloom, kids were in school on that Thursday, and along Neosho Boulevard, shoppers bought groceries at Consumer's Market and other businesses. Residents could dine on Sophisticated Chicken from The Wildcat Drive-In or buy fabric for a sewing project at Mary Lee's Sewing Center. Downtown bustled with many businesses long gone, two five and dime stores, department and drug stores, a hardware store, a paint and card shop, photography studios, sporting goods, several cafes and more.
It was humid and by late afternoon, it was hot for April. Sunshine turned to overcast skies but few residents could have imagined the change coming in the weather. During the evening news from Joplin, weatherman Lee George first mentioned the possibility of stormy weather. In that era, there were no computer graphics or satellites images, just a maps of the U.S. and the Four States with weather emblems like a sun or clouds.
In the early evening, Lee George interrupted television programming to announce a tornado warning. "This is not a watch," he told viewers, pounding on the map with his pointer for emphasis.
Skies to the west of town were overcast but to the north, near Joplin, dark clouds gathered. At 8:01 p.m. a tornado roared from the west, cutting a path of destruction along Old 60 Highway into Neosho. As it crossed US 71 highway, the storm flattened a highway department building and the Terrace Motel before striking a trailer park at the corner of Neosho Boulevard and Daughtery Road. Several adjacent houses were also destroyed as the storm moved onward. It struck the area of Neosho around Oak Cliff Drive and demolished Century Village Apartments. The funnel moved on over Cemetery Road. In addition to the destruction, damage occured throughout the city and surrounding area.
Three people were killed and 22 were injured. At the time, it was reported as a "maxi-tornad0". On the Fujita scale it was later rated as an F-4 tornado, which clocks winds at 207-260 miles per hour.
Damage estimates are in the millions, somewhere between 10 and 18 million dollars. A headline from the April 28, 1975 Neosho Daily News read "Tornado damage estimates now swell to $17 million". A headline on Friday, April 25 read "Killer tornado leaves three dead in Neosho." A page of local tornado damage included one of two children with the title "God Save The Children". That photo and others, along with news of the tornado went out on the Associated Press wire throughout the nation and around the world.
The tornado impacted Neosho hard and the community rallied to help those who were affected by the storm. Local families opened their homes to those whose homes were destroyed. The National Guard was called in to assist in crowd control, allowing residents back to their homes while keeping sightseers out. The Red Cross arrived and set up on site canteens to provide food and drinks. There were reports of theft and looting - like any major event the Neosho 1975 tornado demonstrated both the best and worst in human nature.
In the days and weeks following the tornado, residents sifted through the debris, some of which scattered for many miles. For years, debris remained visible in the trees on the south edge of Neosho Boulevard, deposited there by the storm's wrath.
Century Village Apartments rebuild and so did many homeowners. And, in time, the visible scars from the tornado vanished.
Today, the path of that tornado travels past Carver Elementary School and is very close to both the Neosho Junior High School and Neosho Middle School. On the south edge of Neosho, the portions of the Boulevard that were not in the city limits in 1975 are now home to numerous businesses. On the site of the trailer park, Guaranty Bank and a car wash now stand. A ditch that travels through the area is the sole physical feature that marks the site of the Brookwood Trailer Park to those who remember.
That tornado struck Neosho forty-five years ago today, on April 24, 1975. In that time, Neosho has grown. The city limits which stopped about where Waldo Hatler Drive intersects Neosho Boulevard now stretch miles southward. The Four Way Stop is now the hub of a commercial district. Newer and younger residents are often unaware of the Neosho tornado, Those who lived here, most of all those who lost loved ones, homes, and possessions to the storm's fury - they will never forget.