On a still, hot and sultry afternoon in late Summer, dark clouds started gathering.
Both our cotton-bale wagons were full of cotton. Dad told the negro cotton-pickers to go home, that he would pay them for a full day’s work. There was no place to put the cotton they picked except to pile it on the ground, and if it rained it would be ruined.
Dad and Jake Mackey started to Trenton, two miles West of where we lived, with the two wagons of cotton. He told us kids—Ralph, Harry, and myself—to stay close to home as it looked like we were going to get rain.
So we each filled a large pan with the black soil, took a pail of water, and went out to the big oak tree in our front yard. The black soil was gummy when wet, but dried very hard. It was excellent for modeling. We never made mud pies as most children do, but modeled animals, birds, etc. Baked in the hot sun, then painted with the casin paint Dad made for us, they made quite nice toys. We kept our collections stashed under the house to keep them dry. I must admit some of the animals we modeled—the likes of which was never seen by man!
Just above where the branches of the oak tree branched out was a hollow. Here lived “Screechy, Our Friend” – a little gray screech owl. It wasn’t a pet, but was used to us and wasn’t the least frightened of us. Often just before dusk it perched in the entrance of it’s hollow and watched us playing under the tree. We loved to hear it’s trembluous call at night.
Jack, our Bulldog, whose duty it was to ride herd on us kids, and for which he was specially trained, was always with us. When we were playing he either sat patiently by, or lay dozing– often opening his eyes to be sure we were all there. But on this afternoon Jack was acting strangely. He acted uneasy, walking around us nervously—he even sat on our freshly modeled animals—placing himself between us and our “works of art.” Ralph thought he might be thirsty, so went and got him a pan of water—he just took one “lap” of it—as if he was just doing so to please Ralph. He took my sleeve in his teeth and tugged on it—causing me to ruin the “cow” I was modeling. I scolded him, but he wouldn’t let go—just tugged harder.
It suddenly began to get dark—we all looked up at the same time—and saw the funnel descending over the field in front of our house—it faced South. That funnel descending out of those low, swirling, boiling, black clouds was an awesome and frightening sight. Ralph shouted “Tornado!” He and Harry each grabbed one of my hands and more or less dragged me—Jack had grabbed the front of my dress and was pulling me—I couldn’t run for stumbling over him.
Mother had been making jam and canning fruit in the kitchen, which was on the North of the house. When it suddenly grew dark she started to the front door to call us—as she passed through the living room she saw the tornado funnel through the front door. Dutch was asleep in the big cradle in front of the living room window—she grabbed a quilty and threw it over her. By this time we had reached the house, and headed for the back door on our way to the storm cellar—knowing we couldn’t make it in time—and that we couldn’t lift the heavy storm cellar door—she called to us not to go outside—then everything went black—the sound of the tornado was like a thousand trains rushing by at high speed whin it hit the house. We kids and Jack crouched back of the big cast iron range—it sat out about two or three feet from the wall. Something flying through the air—everything, it seemed was flying through the air—had hit me in the face, stunning me and starting a profuse nosebleed. I still have a slight scar along the right side of my nose.
Mother was caught in the door between the kitchen and dining room as it slammed shut, and badly bruised. Although she lived many years afterward, she never completely recovered and eventually died of peritonitis on June 2nd, 1916. After we had moved to Uvalde on Dec. 14th, 1914.
It was probably only minutes—but it seemed much longer—it was over. I opened my eyes—it’s impossible to keep ones eyes open during a tornado—and we had always been cautioned to protect our eyes with our arms should we ever be caught in a tornado—and saw such destruction. I couldn’t bear to look at it. The roof of the house and back porch was gone—the back door was hanging by only the lower hinge. Everything looked strangely unreal.
After making sure I only had a smashed nose and wasn’t badly hurt, Ralph and Harry went to check on Mother and Dutch. They helped Mother up off the floor and to a bed—then checked on Dutch. She was still sound asleep! She says she is kidded to this day about sleeping through the tornado.
In the front bedroom Ralph found “Old Red” our big Rhode Island Red rooster half lying on his side with his eyes closed—Ralph thought he was dead and started to pick him up. Old Red opened his eyes, then stood up shakily, turned round and round, then flapped his wings and crowed. He was comical looking—all his feathers were gone except a ruff around his neck, a few feathers on his wings and a few scraggly tail feathers. Ralph picked him up off the dresser top and carried him back to the kitchen where I was still crouched back of the range. My nose was still bleeding. I had been holding my nose trying to stop the flow of blood and it had run between my fingers, down my arms, and all down the front of my dress. Ralph told me cheerfully that I looked like an awful mess.
Just then we heard men’s voices in the yard and one of them came up on the back porch and called “Hello! Anyone hurt?” I looked up, and I guess seeing all the blood on me he thought I was badly hurt. He said “Ok! My gosh!” Jack charged him, snarling furiously. He retreated to the back yard, and Jack returned to stand guard over me.
Just then it started hailing hard—and since there was no roof, the hail fell on the still hot stove, bouncing off onto the floor—then it started raining hard—a cold rain—clouds of steam rose from the hot stove, but I was shivering with cold.
More men were arriving by that time, but every time one of them came near the back porch Jack chased him back to the yard. They all knew Jack and feared him. Of course Jack had no way of knowing the men had come to help us.
The tornado had picked up the bee hives in the orchard—and bees were all over everything in the house—the rain has plastered their wings against everything, but they were still very much alive and capable of stinging—and in a very bad temper.
After it seemed like hours, Dad and some men from town, and others that had joined him on the way arrived. He said he and Jake had just reached the cotton gin when they saw the tornado and knew it was just about where our house was. He asked the men at the Gin to take care of the cotton, and take the teams of mules to Grandpa Saunders’ place which was near by. He ran to Grandpa’s and tried to call home, but of course the lines were down. Then he and Jake and some of the men from the Gin started home.
He said they ran until they were exhausted. By the time they reached the Johnson farm—about half way home—they could see the tornado damage at our house. Mrs. Johnson ran out to the road and told him the men from their place had already gone to see about us. He said he could hear the farm bells ringing on the adjoining farms—and the deeper tones of the larger, heavier bell at the John Marshall farm just East of ours—but no sound coming from our place. These bells were never rung except to call the field hands in at noon and in case of trouble—a call for help that all people on nearby farms answered. They were ringing for help for us, as they had seen the tornado hit our house. He said when he saw the group of men standing in our back yard, he thought we had all been killed.
Jack was still standing guard over me, and even with Dad home, he was unwilling to leave me or allow any of the men to enter the house. So Dad had to tie him up. He watched the men with distrust, a low growl rumbling in his chest, sometimes baring his teeth when one of them came close. Once when one of them walked over and asked me how I felt, Jack lunged at him and would have bit him if he hadn’t’ quickly stepped back out of reach.
Some of the men went to round up a team—allthe live-stock had been so frightened they were scattered over the fields North of the house—there was a smaller wagon in the wagon yard, though overturned, it was undamaged. It was getting late—almost dusk.
Dad scooped up some hail, put it in a washcloth and told me to hold it against my bleeding nose.
Everything in the house—including us—was soaking wet from the heavy rain—which by this time had stopped—except the quilts in the big quilt chest. Dad got them out and wrapped us in them. The men had hitched the team to the wagon and brought it as near as they could to the back porch. Dad was going to take us all to Grandma Burns’ house to stay until our house could be repaired and made liveable again.
As we came out on the back porch– it was on the west side of the house—the sun had just gone down—the rays reflected against the dark storm clouds still in the sky. It was weird and unreal—destruction everywhere. The smoke-house near the back porch was smashed—lying on it’s side. The big mulberry tree beside it was broken off about two feet above the ground—the tree nowhere in sight. (In one of the colored photos I sent you with Dutch and Polly sitting on the roots of this tree on their visit back there, you can see the stump of the original tree that was broken off by the tornado—another tree grew from a sprout at the side.)
The tall shade trees were stripped of most of their branches, the bark on them ripped off. They were killed—these you can see in the larger picture of Dad and some of our hired hands in the Bee Apiary in the orchard. Many of the fruit trees were also broken off.
The roof of the big barn had been lifted off and dropped in the barnyard. Most of the planking of the walls ripped off.
The wheat strawstack next to the barn was gone, but straws from it had been driven like nails into the sold oak hand-hewn corner post of the barn. These were about a foot square, hewn from a single tree. Some straws protruded seven or eight inches, but when Dad tried to pull them out they broke off.
Later that Fall a block was cut out of one of the corner posts and taken ot the Texas State Fair at Dallas where it was exhibited.
It may still be there.
Just before the tornado struck Ralph had been using a dime to make imprints on something he was modeling, he dropped the dime as we started to the house—he went out to the front yard before we left for Grandma Burns’ house—and found the dime where he had dropped it.
But the big oak tree was a sad sight. It had been literally twisted off just above the hollow where “Screechy, Our Friend” lived, long twisted splinters pointed skyward. The whole top of the tree had been slammed against the front of our house, caving in the roof of the front porch.
I was so worried about the little screech owl that Jake Mackey climbed up to check on it. It was alive, warm and safe.
The tree was later cut down—I’ll tell you next how it could have caused the death of all of us had it not been for Jack.
The field in front of our house where the tornado funnel descended, and across which the little brook flowed, had been white with cotton—it was as bare as if it had been swept by a giant broom. And the field next to it where the tall stalks of corn had stood—was just as bare.
It was after dark when we reached Grandma Burns’ house. She was greatly relieved, and Aunt Em thanked the “Good Lawd” for “sparing” us. Since the telephone lines at our house were down, there had been no way to let them know we were alright. Dad called Grandma Saunders and told her we were all safe.
Dad returned to our house, leaving Jack with us.
Mother was put to bed, and Grandma Burns and Aunt Em set about bathing us kids and washing our hair, then we, too, after supper, were bundled into bed. Aunt Em washed all our clothes that night so we could wear them again next day—they were the only clothes we had with us—she also did this every night during the week we stayed there.
My nose-bleed had finally stopped, but my face was swollen from the blow of the object that had hit me. But during the night my nose started bleeding again. Aunt Em said she knew a sure cure for nose-bleeds. She set great “store” by the old home remedies and often said she could teach any doctor “a thing or two” about “doctoring.” Remembering her “cure” for sub-burn with sour milk—I had no reason to doubt her. She rolled up a piece of paper into a little wad and told me to place it between my upper lip and gums and press it with my finger—and it worked—in a few minutes my nose did stop bleeding—and bled no more.
(Note to Maura—remember we did this and stopped your nose bleed during the night on your last visit to me? It’s an old family remedy.)
The next morning the owners of the adjoining farms came over to our place, bringing their hired hands, and set to work cleaning away the destruction left by the tornado, and helping to rebuild the barn, reroof the house, etc. They even used their own wagons and teams to haul lumber and shingles from town. Their wives took turns bringing food to them at noon. And not one of them would accept any pay from Dad for all the work they did.
In about a week we came back home, but it wasn’t the same. There was no shade trees for us to play under. Dad had to start all over with the bees. Our garden and the fruit trees were bare, the crops in the path of the tornado gone.
The tornado had disappeared up into the clouds before it reached the farm house North of us, so our house was the only one hit.
It could have been much worse.
The funnel of the tornado descended near our house, and it did not fully develop into a major tornado. It didn’t travel far enough to “wind” itself up. As a tornado travels along, it “winds” itself up tighter, the wind velocity becoming greater. And all the doors and windows of our house were open, so preventing the vacuum that causes buildings to literally explode. Most of the windows were broken—the one in front of which Dutch was asleep—was blown out—the quilt covering her was covered with glass—even this didn’t waken her! The fact that Mother didn’t have her in her arms probably saved her life, as the door slamming shut might have killed her.
Afterward we told Dad about Jack acting strangely just before the tornado. He said animals feel the atmospheric pressure before a storm. And we always took Jack with us to the storm cellar when it was stormy, so he knew that’s where we should have gone. And the next time he acted that way, for us to pay attention to him, that he was doing all he could to protect us, not being able to talk.
That part of North Texas is part of what is know as “Tornado Alley”. Often tornados had come near our house, and many, many time at night wehad to take shelter in the storm cellar, sometimes spending the night there.
We always felt that we were safe there—until the night the lightning came down the stovepipe and exploded the stove! After that we were not so sure!
Tornados can do so much damage in a matter of seconds. No wonder they are the most feared of all storms. And they do some strange and unbelievable things. The very sight of one is fear-inspiring.