When the 118,000 plus volunteers came to the aid of Joplin's recovery efforts, many of them left more than their hard work. Since the tornado that struck Joplin on May 22, 2011, thousands of volunteers have inscribed messages of support and prayers among the remains of a house at 2502 S. Joplin Ave.
Tim and Stacy Bartow who own the house were hunkered down in its basement with a total of eight people when the tornado hit. Like others in the neighborhood, the Bartows initially were not aware of the danger they faced on that late Sunday afternoon.
If it weren't for Sherry Neely, the mom of Taylor Neely, the visiting friend of the Bartow's daughter Abby, they might not have survived, explained Adam Wright, a neighbor who lived next door. He and his wife Tiffany and their children had relied on taking shelter in the Bartow's basement in the event of a dangerous storm.
Adam Wright explained that at first no one took Sherry Neely's phone call seriously. She apparently had been prone to over-reacting. But after turning on the TV, he paid more attention to her warning. After noticing the dark sky to the west rapidly moving in their direction and the wind picking up dramatically, he yelled to everyone that they had to move to the basement pronto. By this time they had no more than a minute or two to seek shelter.
Stacy Bartow was almost sucked out by the intensity of the storm. She held on tight, her husband said, recounting the harrowing moments that passed. Abby Bartow, pregnant at the time, recalled the tremendous suction that pulled the air out of the room. "I couldn't breathe for a second," she said. Yes, she heard a noise that sounded like a freight train but she added that "noise wasn't important if this was going to be the end." All around her she heard the house splintering apart, but when it was over, she was happy to find that everyone in the basement was okay. As for the Wright's house next door, it was completely destroyed, even swallowing up the crawl space below.
From what was the brick porch of the Bartows' house the destroyed property of the Salvation Army Thrift Store at 26th and Main still can be seen. "It was a natural thing for volunteers to come over here," Tim Bartow said, pointing to the south wall of his house where he had painted a large heart with the message, "We love you volunteers!" He would often provide water for the volunteers working in the 110-degree heat of the summer. The resting place for them with the owner's permission soon became a shrine attested by the thousands of messages written on whatever building material remained.
The Bartow's insurance company ruled the house a total loss. Without plans for preservation, the house "would have been like any other house that had to be torn down," Tim Bartow said. He welcomed the opportunity to keep the house as a reminder of how the volunteers supported Joplin with their hard work, prayers and encouragement.
With evidence of weather-related damage to some of the messages on the walls, volunteer crews from Tracker-Marine of Miami, Oklahoma came to apply a type of shrink-wrap to the house to protect it from further damage. Work to shore up the house was accomplished on Friday by volunteers from various organizations including AmeriCorps, Willey Construction and Altura Homes, the company that purchased the Wright property to build a new house for resale (by the way, complete with a FEMA-approved storm shelter). Materials also have been provided by Ridout Lumber, Transhield and Contractors Equipment.
David Glenn, an historic preservationist who was responsible for moving the train station from 10th & Main to 29th and Range Line, said that after walking through the Bartow house and seeing the messages, he couldn't refuse the city's request to help move it to another location. After Glenn's volunteer efforts, the house will be moved in tact and stored in Schifferdecker Park until a final site for it can be determined.
As to what to do with the remaining property at 25th & Joplin, Tim Bartow said "it was up in the air." "Maybe, I'll come back and build a giant bunker," he said. Reminiscing about the house, he called it, "something that took on a life of its own...something he couldn't take credit for." He also described it as "the house that saved us." He looks forward to being able to walk through it with furniture in tact in its final resting place.
For The New York Times story about the house (A.G. Sulzerburger, 12/25/11) go to this link:
Lynn Onstot, Joplin public information officer, contributed to this story