One year later: Conway still feeling tornado’s effects 

  • The roof and front part of the Thomas home were destroyed by the tornado in Conway. They were having dinner with friends in another part of their home when it happened and were unharmed. Recorder File Photo/Paul Franz

  • Steven Thomas with the replaced portion of his home at 100 Whately Road that was heavily damaged in last year’s tornado in Conway. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The replaced portion of 100 Whately Road that was heavily damaged in last year’s tornado in Conway. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The home at 100 Whately Road in Conway that was damaged in the 2017 tornado. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Steven Thomas has no shortage of firewood from last year’s tornado in Conway, with more waiting in background. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Steven Thomas is trimming out the replaced portion of his home that was damaged in last year’s tornado in Conway. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The replaced portion of 100 Whately Road that was heavily damaged in last year’s tornado in Conway. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Steven Thomas in his “new” basement that holds up the replaced portion of his home at 100 Whately Road that was heavily damaged in last year’s tornado in Conway. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Friday, February 23, 2018

CONWAY — One year ago, a tornado ripped through Conway roads and woods, flattening a barn, clawing at roofs and snapping trees with 80 to 110 mph winds.

While Conway has largely recovered from the first February tornado recorded in Massachusetts history, some residents are still picking up the pieces from Feb. 25.

But those who lost the most have looked for a silver lining in the disaster.

“There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes something like, ‘with destruction comes opportunity,’” Steven Thomas said.

Thomas and his wife, Jeanne, had guests over for dinner when the tornado suddenly struck that Saturday evening. They heard a whole side of their 1865-built home peeled away. Yet, there were no injuries.

“We first heard a strong wind coming through but didn’t think much of it,” Thomas said.

The Thomases and their guests were in a newly erected post-and-beam addition to the house that was unscathed. The power went out, a door swung open, but not until a few of the Thomas’ guests started to leave did they notice the damage.

The original section of the house was unsalvageable, but a year later Thomas has nearly completed replacing the front of his house.

“I want them to look like cousins, at least,” Thomas said of the newest addition and the slightly older side of his home.

Thomas, a former science professor with a background in carpentry, is rebuilding the house to have features the old did not; he has an area for woodworking in the basement, a quiet sanctuary for him. He calls it “Santa’s workshop.”

Thomas spends most days working on the house, hardly doing carpentry for private clients anymore. Reflecting on the past year, Thomas said he has learned much about his community.

“There was an outpouring of people saying you can stay here,” Thomas said.

In the aftermath of the tornado, neighbors came to help pick up branches and fallen trees, Thomas said, and the town designated a day for cleaning up.

“I’m sure glad I live in Conway and not somewhere else that doesn’t have the community cohesion,” said Thomas, who had seen disastrous landscapes hit by tornadoes on the news, but never thought it would happen to Conway.

Down the road from Thomas, John Maggs and his wife, Jan, lost their barn to the tornado.

The barn housed the Maggs’ antique businesses, and most of their collection was ruined. Moreover, the two-century-old barn was an antique itself.

But when talking about the tornado and its effect on their lives, the Maggses are optimistic and excited.

“It’s going to be visually more appropriate compared to the rest of our house,” said Jan Maggs, standing in the towering foyer of the new barn.

The new building has conveniences the old did not: It will have private offices and a library, and will be fully heated, allowing for more comfortable business in the fall and winter.

“Your feet won’t freeze,” John Maggs said.

The only parts of the previous barn that remain in its rebuild are two wooden braces. They are propped against one of the new timber posts in the showroom. John Maggs fondly looked at the braces, remembering the neighbors who helped him recover them.

“We had 20 odd people out trying to help clean up,” John Maggs said. “Neighbors have been fabulous.”

The Maggses never gave up on their antique business, holding shows on the road. On May 5 and 6, they are holding a Spring Post-England Show. But this show isn’t just any antique show to the Maggses; it’s the grand reopening of the barn.

“We’ve had shows here twice a year, so it will be like that but special,” John Maggs said. “It will be one of the more exciting experiences we’ve ever had.”

In Pumpkin Hollow, the neighborhood where the Thomases and Maggses live, snapped trees are still strewn about fields, and the nearby woods are noticeably thinner. Most of the houses were spared heavy damage, and most of the people are still there. There were no deaths or serious injuries.

But there is one notable absence from the neighborhood. The United Congregational Church’s congregation, a 250-year-old assembly, has been displaced because the white steeple church structure was been weakened.

“We are anticipating — we haven’t heard officially — that the building will be declared a loss,” said the Rev. Candice Ashenden, the congregation’s pastor.

The congregation has met in the nearby Conway Grammar School since the tornado. According to Ashenden, its roughly 30 members are hopeful, but realistic, about the building.

The building, which had undergone renovations in 2012 and 2013, was built in the 1850s and is valued at $1.6 million, according to church Building Committee member Bill Leno.

Ashenden said that the United Mutual Insurance Company has not been helpful, and that the congregation only received a preliminary payment after the disaster. The congregation has hired an insurance lawyer for assistance.

“We’ve been given many windows,” Ashenden said regarding when the church will know definitively whether or not the building is lost.

Ashenden has personally climbed up onto the wrecked roof of the building on a makeshift catwalk, and, looking through a hole in the roof, saw that “every structural support has been split.”

However, Ashenden said she and the congregation have been trying to be optimistic.

“The community is coming together,” said Ashenden, explaining the enormous amount of support the congregation has received.

The fire department has given the congregation a place to continue serving community meals, and Ashenden said she’s visited the church, with people stopping their cars, getting out and giving her a hug.

“A few hours (after the tornado) we would’ve been in there worshipping,” Ashenden said.

The congregation’s current space in the school’s library is not unfamiliar, with the congregation having worshipped there during the church’s renovations.

“The congregation as a whole really enjoys the intimacy of worship in the library,” Ashenden said.

If the building is to be razed, Ashenden said the congregation will learn from its experience in the school, and attempt to carry over its small, personal atmosphere to any potential new place of worship.

As the late Conway resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish once wrote, “There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience.”

David McLellan can be reached at
or 417-772-0261, ext. 268.