White River Valley Historical Quarterly

Volume 1, Number 9
Fall 1963


Melva
by Dorothy Cummings

10-11 March 1920: There was a storm center moving out of Kansas and eastward through Missouri with quite a bit of storm activity accompanying the passage of the storm center. On the 10th, the weather forecast was, "Rain tonight and Thursday, not much change in temperature." (Records of U. S. Weather Bureau, Springfield, Missouri)


Wednesday night there had been a heavy rain storm at Melva, Missouri, and early Thursday morning hail battered the town. Turkey Creek, across the railroad tracks and down the hill, was a raging torrent so high and dangerous that it could not be forded.

The morning was dark and showery as the men left for their jobs on the railroad section and bridge gangs. The women went ahead with their chores-washing, ironing, cooking, looking after the children.

The children stayed home from school that Thursday, March 11, 1920, because with the creeks so high, they knew that their teacher, Mrs. Jean Layton, would not be able to get to school.

Anna Box had said goodbye to her husband, William, when he left to work on the railroad bridge below Melva, and she soothed her children when they cried because they couldn't go to school. Even though it was a wet morning, she began her washing. About noon, with the laundry done and the clothes hung on the line, she set the light bread to rise and decided to return a tub she had borrowed from her sister-in-law, Florence Box. She and the three children

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noon meal ready and invited them to stay to eat. At the Buell Hotel, Mrs. Buell went about her morning work as did her neighbor, Lucy Woods. Miss Woods was a Presbyterian missionary at Melva, and was the leader of the Sunday School which met in the schoolhouse.

Nearby, C. P. Mahnkey, the postmaster, tended his store. His two young sons played in and around the store during the morning, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, and their daughter, Bertie, were at the Mahnkey house a short distance up the hill. His oldest son, Douglas, was working with one of the railroad crews. Toward noon, Mr. Mahnkey went to the house, and his daughter took his place at the store while he had lunch. A Mrs. Melbourne had come in on the train and stopped at the store to use the telephone. To make the connection, the switch which was at the Box house had to be closed. Reggie and Bill Mahnkey went on the errand and stayed to play with the Box children for awhile.

At the railroad siding, Mrs. Gertrude Peppers and Marjorie Underwood were at work in the cook cars.

Farther down the hill and across Turkey Creek, Alva Howard had left for his job on the section gang, and his wife, Cora, and their daughters were doing the housework, looking after the baby, and finishing the ironing. Between showers they would step out into the dark morning and watch the black clouds. They began cooking the noon meal. Mrs. Howard went to the door, looked once more at the clouds, now smoky and rolling, coming from the southwest. She said, "Girls, come here, a storm is coming." Holding her three-year-old son, she told the girls to bolt the doors. They tried to lock them, but they kept coming open. Then they heard a crash as the well house was blown against the side of their house.

View of Melva the day after the storm, titled 'Melva, Mo., after the cyclone, March 12th, 1920.' View of Melva the day after the storm, titled 'Melva, Mo., after the cyclone, March 12th, 1920.'
View of Melva the day after the storm, titled "Melva, Mo., after the cyclone, March 12th, 1920."  

Anna and Florence Box had been anxiously watching the clouds, too. The noon dinner was on the table and as they were ready to sit down, Florence said, "Let's wait a minute; that cloud looks awful bad." One of Anna's nieces came to

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her and took her hand; with her other hand, Anna held one of her children.

C. P. Mahnkey walked from his house to the store and asked Bertie, "Where are the boys? There's a storm coming." Mrs. Mahnkey was out side, and the three of them saw the black cloud rolling on the ground. In the strong wind, they were having difficulty standing up and they ran to the nearest door, an outside one leading to the basement of the house, just before the storm reached them.

Mrs. Buell, seeing the cloud, ran nextdoor to Miss Woods' house and the two women took refuge by the massive stone fireplace in the center of the house.

With a savage roar, the storm struck. The sound was like a mighty train as the swirling, twisting cyclone hit the ground and, Anna Box remembers, "everything went black just like night-just like black smoke-it was as if something had burst."

The Mahnkeys, fearful and anxious about the two boys, watched as their store with the post office was snatched off the ground and its pieces swirled around like autumn leaves in a whirlwind.

When it was over, Anna Box's three children were dead: Mearl, who would have been twelve in May; Oleta, who would have been nine in June; and George whom they called Budge, who was five in February that year. Florence Box's children were killed: Hubert, 13; Jessie, 10; Nancy, 5; John, 2; and the baby Florence was carrying would be born dead the next day. Anna and Florence were badly hurt, as were the Howard children: Nezzie, 15; Edith, 12; and Ruby, 9. Their mother, Cora Howard, was dead. Seven-year-old Bill Mahnkey was dead.

As the storm passed, Mrs. Peppers hurried down the railroad tracks to where the men were working two miles away to tell them about the tornado. The cook cars had been derailed but had not turned over. Marion Oliver, whose house had been blown away, ran up the tracks to report the disaster. Ira Rittenhouse, whose parents lived at Melva, was a student at The School of the Ozarks, and as the story reached him that Melva had been blown away and everyone killed, he immediately left for Melva, fearing to find his parents dead.

Mr. Mahnkey and Bertie rushed down the hill to the creek which was more swollen now with the rubble from the houses. As they searched for the boys, Anna Box who had been blown into the creek regained consciousness and clutched a board in the water. As she struggled toward the bank of the creek, she prayed, "Lord, help me to know what's become of my children."

Reggie Mahnkey had grabbed a bush at the edge of the rushing waters and seeing his brother being swept by him, reached out desperately but was unable to catch him. Reggie managed to pull himself out of the water. As his father tried to cross the flooded stream to him, Ben Layton came by on a horse and somehow got the animal across the creek to rescue the boy.

John Rittenhouse, Ira's father, whose home was a quarter of a mile from the Howard home, was the first to reach the Howard family. He found Mrs. Howard dead, lying on her youngest child, William, who was only slightly injured. He carried Ruby back to his house, a sturdy log structure which had withstood the storm with minor damage. After the child was put to bed, he returned to carry others to his home and to help in the rescue work. A short time later, Alva Howard reached the Rittenhouse home, and asked where his wife and the other children were. Ruby, not knowing about her mother, could only tell him that there had been a storm. He left to search for the rest of his family.

At the creek, Ben Layton and others were recovering the bodies of the eight children from the water. The injured, suffering from shock, bruises, cuts and broken bones, their clothing in tatters, were being cared for and were placed on the train which had been signaled to stop and was waiting to take the dead and injured to Branson, a few miles north.

The storm, which left most of the people at Melva homeless and mourning, did other damage in the area. Soon the reports began to come in, and the Taney county Republican on that date, March 11, 1920, carried the story:

"TORNADO LEAVES DEVASTATION AND DEATH IN ITS TRACK
MELVA STORM-SWEPT

"About noon today our townspeople (at Forsyth) were startled by a rushing, roaring sound. First thought was that it was the water pouring over the dam, but it was too loud. One look at the sky across the river told the story, and soon the news began to come in. So far as known, the tornado began, about Oasis or Cedar Valley, in the southwest part of the county.

"At Oasis one house and its occupants, John Gross, his wife and child are missing. The next we hear the Huckstep house was badly twisted. Then it struck Melva and literally wiped the village off the face of the earth, only a part of one house being left standing. Here nine were killed and several injured.

"The youngest child of Mrs. Mamie Mahnkey was found dead in the creek.

"Alva Howard's wife was killed and three children injured, two having broken bones and one being injured about the face.

"Mrs. Sarah Oliver had her thigh broken.

"There were two Box families in Melva. In one, three children were killed and the mother is dangerously ill. In the other, four children were killed, and the mother is in a critical condition.

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The dead and injured from Melva were taken to Branson.

"The next stroke was at W. W. Jackson's. It was reported that Uncle Bill had been killed, but it seems he was only slightly injured. His house was destroyed and his two elder sisters injured seriously, Miss Frankie not being expected to live.

"The storm wrecked the old farm home of Captain VanZandt southeast of Kirbyville.

"The St. James school house has completely disappeared. One man whose children were attending the school went in search of them after the storm had passed and found them and the teacher, Mabel Morris, wandering around. The children, the only ones who were in attendance, were only slightly injured but the teacher's eyes were filled with bits of broken glass and she was not able to see.

"Passing on to Pleasant Hill district, where it could be seen from Forsyth, the storm tore up huge trees by the roots and carried them up in the air, dropping them later. John D. Coffelt's house was blown away. Lee Thurman's new house was blown from the foundation and badly twisted. Widow Thurman's barn was blown away and the roof taken off of John Thurman's house. Henry Brock's hay shed was generally scattered. Charlie Edward's house was blown away.

"From Lee Thurman's the storm crossed the river and tore up things about Abe Hankins' place, passed a mile or so southwest of Taneyville, blowing down Sam Clement's barn and tearing up the cedars in his yard. Will Casey's and Joe Stilts' barns were wrecked and much damage done to timber, orchards and fences.

"It went on toward Bradleyville where our knowledge of it ends."

The Howard family a few years before the tragedy at Melva. Ruby is between her parents, Alva and Cora Howard. In front are Ethel, Edith, and Nezzie. William Richard Howard.
The Howard family a few years before the tragedy at Melva. Ruby is between her parents, Alva and Cora Howard. In front are Ethel, Edith, and Nezzie. William Richard Howard.

A week later, March 18, 1920, the Republican carried more details about the storm. After naming the Melva dead, it reported that "Miss Frances Jackson, 45, died Sunday from injuries received. Her skull was fractured and she suffered concussion of the brain." Mrs. Ranzy Box's condition was critical and her injuries were "two or three ribs broken, jaw bone broken, one eye knocked out and two or three holes in the head." Nezzie Howard had a torn mouth in which five stitches were taken. Ruby Howard was practically helpless from a back injury and broken collar bone. Edith Howard had a broken collarbone, also. The newspaper continued: "The wind caught them (the Howards) and carried them up into the air, the baby in its mother's arms. When they came down she still held the

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child, falling on top of him, and the other children were likewise thrown in the same heap. The mother had coals in her shoes and was otherwise badly burned . . . ." Of the family's belongings, what was not blown away was burned up. Only two pillows were found.

Boarding cars on Melva siding. Emma Oliver and Florence Box at left. 4th from left, Walter Robertson. His snapshots of the children of Mr. and Mrs. William Box were the only ones they had. 5th from left, Ranzy Box, and 7th from left, Wilson Bell. Others are unidentified.

Boarding cars on Melva siding. Emma Oliver and Florence Box at left. 4th from left, Walter Robertson. His snapshots of the children of Mr. and Mrs. William Box were the only ones they had. 5th from left, Ranzy Box, and 7th from left, Wilson Bell. Others are unidentified.

"Mr. and Mrs. John Gross reported missing, later came walking into what had been Melva in a dazed condition with no recollection of the events of the previous twenty-four hours.

"Miss Mabel Morris' sight is not lost as at first reported.

"An emergency hospital was established at Branson under the direction of Dr. Guy B. Mitchell, assisted by Miss Margaret Keet and Miss Betty Manley, special nurses from the Red Cross chapter at Springfield . . . A relief fund for the sufferers was started by the business men of Hollister and Branson.

"The property damage is estimated to exceed $250,000.

"The storm seems to have originated in Kansas and moved down into Arkansas, turning northeast after passing through northern Arkansas. It entered Taney County in the southwestern part and continued a northeasterly direction throughout the county.

"The path of the storm was reported to be 200 to 400 yards in width along the greater part of its course. It lifted at several points in crossing the hilly Ozark country and little of the valley land was damaged, the worst damage being done when twister dipped into the Melva district."

One of the children killed in the storm, George (Budge) Box, shown at the Melva depot.
One of the children killed in the storm, George (Budge) Box, shown at the Melva depot.

In the days which followed the storm, many freak incidents were reported:

Rubber roofing was found wrapped around and round an oak tree.

A large barn on the farm of Allen Cogburn south of Hollister was blown from its foundation and wrecked. Six horses tied in the barn were left standing unharmed in the stalls.

A dog was blown uninjured through the window of Jesse Whorton's farm near Branson. The dog was in a pasture near the house when the storm hit and was carried more than 100 feet.

The house and barn of Jim Rose in the Pleasant Hill district near Forsyth were entirely blown away, the family remaining in the house until it was blown away from them but escaping injury. The horses in the barn were also uninjured.

An oak joist was found driven through a concrete wall a foot thick.

Another freak of the storm was the route of a tax receipt belonging to J. P. Gross. The paper had been blown practically across Taney County, then Christian or Douglas and almost across Wright County before coming down. Found in the woods near Loring, Missouri, it was returned to Mr. Gross by G. H. Allen of Loring.

Residents at Seymour, Missouri, were surprised by large numbers of oak leaves dropping from a clear sky after the storm.

Bartley Schwegler, a student at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, forwarded an item from the Fulton Daily Sun: "An unopened letter, postmarked Melva and addressed to a man living at Hollister,

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was picked up in a field eight miles north of Hartville last week. It is believed it was carried there by the tornado which destroyed the Taney County village a few weeks ago."

Two days after the storm, funeral services for the Melva dead were held at Branson.

The two most seriously injured, Florence Box and Ruby Howard, remained in Dr. Mitchell's office for several days. Ruby was then moved to a temporary hospital in a Branson lakefront rooming house owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jim Eoff. Anna Box remembers spending a few days in a temporary hospital on the second floor of the Parnell Store in Branson.

Compared to many other towns, Melva had a short life. There had been some mining activity in the area in the 1880's and 1890's, and as the railroad was completed north to Branson in 1906, the site was first shown on the railroad map as Turkey Creek, Missouri. In those days, G. N. Whorton had a store on the bank of Turkey Creek.

By April 1906, the place was known as Melva, named for the baby son of William N. Anderson, one of the promoters of the town. One of the first things the townsite people did was to give the railroad company the ground for a depot and section house which, according to the April 13, 1906, Branson Echo, would soon be built.

The same year the railroad was completed, several people became interested in the mining prospects around Melva. In August 1907, prospectors there had taken out over a hundred pounds of clear lead from a hole three feet deep. The next year saw more prospectors in the neighborhood. William N. Anderson had started mining the old "Silver Moon," and was hoping that it would soon be opened into paying ore. I. W. Heryford, whose farm was east of Melva, planned to do prospecting there. Later Mr. Anderson reported that he had found a nice lead of copper on the Melva town site. G. F. Huckstep and others were prospecting the old Newt Whorton place which joined the "Annie Lee" diggings west of Melva. Other mines in the area were called the "Josie B.", the "Morning Star," and the "King Solomon."

By December 1908, the reports of mining operations near Melva prompted E. McIntyre to visit the "Silver Moon." The Taney County Republican carried the story of the visit:

"Having heard several indefinite reports of the richness of the Silver Moon, I decided to see it myself; this morning I went to Melva on the train and walked out to the prospect, a distance of one and a half miles. It is situated in section 26, with a good smooth road leading to it.

"Work has been done on the fissure leading from the King Solomon to the Bennett prospect, about midway between the two.

Near the foot of the hill a shaft had been sunk about 40 feet. About 30 feet higher on the hill three holes have been drilled 150 feet deep. Two of these are seven feet apart and will mark the wall of the new shaft to be sunk. Work will be resumed this week. The old shaft will be deepened to the level of the new one and a cut made connecting them- in the language of miners, a 'drift' from shaft to shaft. The vein of zinc ore now exposed in the shaft is 16 inches wide and grows wider in the direction of the drift.

"From 12 to 15 tons of ore are on the dump ready for the crusher. The owners of the lease are enthusiastic over their rich find, and anxious to develop the prospect as much as possible this Winter, as they expect the state geologist to examine it in March. The ore is similar to that found in the Bennett prospect at about the same depth, and everything looks favorable for a paying mine."

The newspaper does not mention mining at Melva again until March 1911, when it quotes a geological report which described the district as "not active at present." However, some mining continued off and on for a few more years.

Melva was a flag stop for the railroad, and several of its workers lived there. Some of them lived in cars on the siding, and others rented houses in the community. Usually there were two or three crews of men working near Melva, and sometimes as many as six or eight crews. The railroad company had built a section house in which the section foremen lived. The depot was a converted boxcar, containing a ticket office, and storage for freight and baggage. Close by the track was a mail crane and when there were no passengers to stop the train for, the mail sack would be placed on the crane, and snagged from it as the train passed through. While the Sweet family lived at Melva, it was Maud Sweet's job to attach the mail sack to the crane.

The railroad and mines were not the only interests in the Melva area. A number of nearby farms shipped fruit and vegetables to market. Mrs. G. F. Huckstep owned a large farm called "Mount Alcana" and in her orchard were about a thousand peach trees of the Elberta variety. In the Spring of 1907, she was looking forward to a large crop of peaches which had been unhurt by the late freeze. In August she made one shipment of fifty crates, and planned to ship several hundred more. The next year, G. F. Huckstep and Son began canning operations, and were shipping peaches and tomatoes to market. In 1911, N. L. Tharp began planting his apple orchard, and others began large plantings of strawberries.

The heavily wooded hills around Melva proved another source of income for some of the citizens. In 1907, carloads of lumber, ties, cedar and oak posts were shipped out. J. J. Easton and Otis E. Burel were among those shipping lumber and posts. One of the sawmills was operated by Charles Sherer on the Tharp farm.

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Real estate sales were slower than some people might have wished. In May 1907, the Branson Echo carried a large ad:

DO YOU WANT A HOME!
ATTEND THE AUCTION SALE OF LOTS,
MELVA, MO.

Tuesday, May 14, 1907

"Melva is a beautiful Townsite on the White River railroad just 5 miles south of Branson. There will be offered for sale at auction at Melva, May 14th, Choice Business and Resident Lots. Now is the chance of your life to procure a lot in this beautiful place. Sale will begin at 1 o'clock P.M. Terms of Sale, Cash. W. N. Anderson, auctioneer."

Only a small crowd attended the sale that day, and very few of those attending invested in lots. After the sale, the promoters of the townsite decided that the lots needed cleaning up and they began having the small trees and brush cleared away, resulting in an improvement in the looks of the town.

In June 1907, there was another auction of Melva lots. The Echo advertisement read:

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BIG AUCTION SALE OF RESIDENT AND
BUSINESS LOTS AT MELVA, MO.

Wednesday. June 19, 1907

"Melva is situated in Taney County on the White River Railroad. This is the chance to secure a good Resident or Business Lot on the New Townsite owned by O. E. Burel at Melva, formerly of Carthage, surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery and good timber. The best of mines within a mile and a half east of town, and buildings are needed for miners' homes and business.

"Mr. O. E. Burel will give everyone a good chance to secure a lot for a home or business. Lumber will cost but $12 to $15 per thousand, and have 15 or 20 sawmills throughout the surrounding country. We have a half mile of side track, stock yards, section house, including the premium section of 5 miles.

"Melva is located on the 10 O'Clock Government Mineral Survey, formerly called Fissure Vein, and promises to be a quick growth for mines. A short cut to Forsyth, Mo., our County Seat, Mincy, Oasis, Cedar Valley, Pine Top and several other points that have no railroads closer than Melva. Terms, $5 down, balance twelve months time at 8 per cent interest from date, party to give good bankable note, or 2 per cent discount for cash. B. F. Boland, Auctioneer. Free Lunch will be given on the ground."

Among the early businessmen at Melva was G. N. Whorton who had a store which at one time housed Otis E. Burel's barber shop. Mr. Whorton was in the merchandise business with W. H. Logan for a time, and then sold the store to A. J. Sweet. Mr. Sweet became the postmaster at Melva in December 1907.

When the Buell family first came to Melva, they lived in a very large tent, and rented sleeping space to some of the miners. Later they built a hotel, building it over the tent and then using the canvas to line the inside. At times, eight or ten miners lived at the hotel.

Ben Schullen at one time had a blacksmith shop. Mr. N. Tharp built some houses to rent to the miners or railroad workers.

The first teacher at Melva was the young lady who is now Mrs. Vernon James. She taught there in 1914, living at Hollister and walking to Melva each morning. The school was located on the hill above the railroad. It was a one-room building, and the first year there were about twenty-two students in the eight grades.

There was no well at the school, and water had to be carried from the section house.

Another early merchant at Melva was a Mr. Pueterbaugh whose feed and grocery store A. J. Pruitt later bought. The store building was about 30x40 feet, and was vacant by 1920. Mrs. McIntyre at one time had a store up the hill from the depot, and she also served as the town's doctor.

Mr. Sweet sold his store to Richard B. Mannon, and he in turn sold it to C. P. Mahnkey who moved to Melva in January 1920. In that year Pleas Beasley was carrying the Melva-Mincy mail.

After the March 1920 storm, very few buildings were left at Melva. The schoolhouse had not been damaged; the Mahnkey home was still there, as was the railroad's section house.

The Box families returned to Melva for a time, but Alva Howard and his children remained at Branson. The Davis family bought the Buell building and fixed it up to live in. Mr. Davis, soon after buying the property, noticed in one of the trees a limb which had a .22 rifle driven through it. He sawed off the limb, salvaged the rifle which was still in good enough condition to be repaired and used.

Soon after the storm, the Mahnkeys sold their property to Mr. Bennett who used one room of the house as a store. The Mahnkey family then moved to Mincy.

Mrs. Buell moved to Branson, and Miss Lucy Woods returned to St. Louis.

The school was continued for a few years, but as others left, Melva, which had never flourished in an economic sense, disappeared. A 1947 map of Taney County still showed the name of Melva, and indicated two farmhouses in the vicinty, and the unoccupied school house.

Forty-three years after the savage storm struck Melva, there is still graphic evidence of the horrible destruction. One of the most prominent landmarks is the high stone foundation and fireplace of the Woods house standing on the hill above the railroad tracks. Higher on the hill is a stone chimney with a concrete conduit leading to it. There are traces of the foundation of what appears to have been a large building. To the rear of it is a fill with the rusting remains of a slip dump shovel almost buried in the earth. Many rusting cans and buckets are strewn nearby among the rocks and young cedars.

Across the railroad tracks and down the hill which rises from Turkey Creek's small valley were a few homes. Some of the foundations are still there, as are concrete walls and steps. One or two foundations appear to have been only railroad ties laid in a square on the ground. Rotting boards which once were the walls of houses, and piles of bricks which once were flues litter the hillside.

Reminders of the people who lived there can be found everywhere: stiff, curled leather tops of a woman's high-button shoes and the sole of a child's shoe; a piece of a china plate with yellow flowers painted on it; rusty parts of a wood heating stove; a metal doorlock; broken glass jars once filled with homecanned fruits and vegetables.

Stone steps lead to a dimple in the earth which once mounded over a cellar, now caved-in. The mouth of another cellar is blocked by the small trunks of the trees growing from it. Here and

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there clumps of iris and yucca mark a spot last tended by a gardener over forty years ago.

Three survivors of the Melva storm now live at Branson and we thank them for their help with the Melva story: Mrs. Anna Box, who lives near her daughter, Lynna (Mrs. Ernie White); Ruby Howard (Mrs. Fred Persinger), who works at the office of Dr. Roy Gillispie; and Bertie Mahnkey (Mrs. Ro Jones), wife of a Branson businessman. Other acknowledgments: Mr. Ira Rittenhouse, Hollister; Mr. I. M. Thompson, Branson; the Taney County Republican; Mr. Luke Standlee, Hollister; Mrs. Vernon James, Branson; and Mr. Robert C. Kerr. U.S. Weather Bureau, Springfield, Missouri.

Home of Presbyterian missionary, Lucy Woods. Miss Woods and her neighbor, Mrs. Buell, sought safety in the large stone fireplace.
Home of Presbyterian missionary, Lucy Woods. Miss Woods and her neighbor, Mrs. Buell, sought safety in the large stone fireplace.

William Box at site of their house at Melva, 37 years after the storm. (Photo by Leon Atkinson). Traces of Melva homes still remain after 43 years.
William Box at site of their house at Melva, 37 years after the storm. (Photo by Leon Atkinson). Traces of Melva homes still remain after 43 years.

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