HomePlace-Based ForumVoices of Spoon River: Elmwood Tornado Relief

Voices of Spoon River: Elmwood Tornado Relief

Voices of Spoon River is a collaborative effort that celebrates the sense of place in small, rural communities located in western Illinois’ Spoon River Valley. Sponsored by The Rural School and Community Trust’s Center for Midwestern Initiatives in conjunction with the Knox Writers’ House project, the Voices of Spoon River provides a school-centered narrative of how students, teachers, and townspeople make up the community fabric. “Authored” by recent Knox College graduate Emily Oliver (Newton, Connecticut), Voices uses audio recordings, essays, and pictures to celebrate community pride and purpose.

The first installment of the series features Elmwood, Illinois (pop. 1,945), whose school played an integral role in the town’s recovery from the devastation of two tornadoes, which ripped through the heart of the town on June 5, 2010.

Add your “voice” to the Voices of Spoon River on this website or Facebook.

Voices: Elmwood Educators and Their Many Hats

About Elmwood, Illinois and Tornado Recovery

“The kids in Elmwood are really good kids,” says Luann Landau, Elmwood PE and freshman Health teacher and the girls' Junior High track coach in response to how the small community in Western Illinois’s Spoon River Valley maintains their high standards in public schools. “I’ve lived in other small towns….Elmwood just takes a lot of pride in education.”

Elmwood is home to around 2,000 people. The public school system is the largest employer in town. Yet, none of the half dozen teachers and administrators organized around the conference table appeared stifled by Elmwood’s size. “You don’t have the worry about the traffic, the crime. We are a nice little isolated community…” says Grey Meyers who teaches junior high math (“to every 7th and 8th grader”), one high school math class, coaches boys’ cross country, girls’ varsity basketball and high school boys' track. Despite its charm, Elmwood has not escaped unscathed from changes in agriculture and widespread deindustrialization in the American Midwest over the last three decades. In 2010, before the June tornado, the town was facing some mild economic decline.

“Prior to the storm, we had some empty store fronts … it was one of those things where as time goes on you start to lose a business and then maybe the next year another one leaves…” says Dick Taylor, who served as a Disaster Recovery Administrator and was kept on afterward to work as the city’s Economic Development Director.

Then the storm hit. Brad Crisco, Elmwood PE, Health and Geography teacher recalls, “I had witnessed it [the tornado] from our son’s West bedroom window. I thought it was coming right at us. I bounded down the stairs, got in the basement with the rest of the family. I looked at my wife. She said she never seen a look like that on my face before … I thought it was coming right at us.” Miraculously, no one was hurt or seriously injured.

The tornado left 41 buildings damaged in Elmwood’s downtown business and 33 buildings of those were damaged to the extent that the county would not allow them to be occupied. After the tornado the school served as a triage center and a communications center because Elmwood was left “without power, without a newspaper when a small town is used to having a newspaper,” says Superintendent Roger Alvey.

Elmwood, according to its teachers, Superintendent and economic development director, is a do-it-yourself type of community.

“…In a bigger place the [recovery] process would be more governmental where as here it was if you have a chainsaw, you start walking around town chopping up trees that fell down for people or you went up town and just starting cleaning things,” Todd Hollis, who teaches science and coaches football, says.

The town’s energy did not end once the trees and debris were hauled away and the flooded basements of stores cleaned out of their wrecked merchandise.

“When you have so many business that are vital to the community shut down because of the storm people realize how important it is to be able to drive a half mile to get groceries or to a pharmacy … things like that … Our post office was closed for a month and a half. If you want to realize how important these things are to a community take some of those things away … it really made people aware of what could be lost through economic decline.”  

Through the community efforts after the Elmwood tornado, the majority of businesses reopened but the town was not satisfied. They had since a grim premonition and wanted to ensure the way their town’s way of life for the future. Since the town’s been “getting the word out that we are not only still here, we're better than ever and looking for businesses… we’ve had three restaurants come in the last year and a half… for a town of 2,000 people, that's a lot,” remarks Superintendent Alvey.

Post-storm, City Economic Development Director and the Superintendent teamed up to write an application to the Illinois State Governor’s Hometown Pride Award, of which Elmwood was the 2011 recipient for population division II, Communities with a Population of 1,501 – 5,000.

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