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A number of tornadoes raked our state recently. As I sat on the edge of my chair and watched young TV weather forecasters work magic with their fancy radars and colorful graphics, my mind wandered back to a childhood where the storm cellar was an integral part of life.

As a child in rural Arkansas during the late 1950s, I frequently found myself being hustled off to the cellar as the afternoon skies darkened and huge drops of rain splattered against my face. My mother was terrified of storms, and each dark cloud was seen as a possible threat.

For children of a certain age, going to the storm cellar could be a memorable affair. First, there was the issue of when to leave the house for the cellar. This was usually initiated by the women of the household, as men often feigned indifference -- at least until the winds began rattling the windows.

Our cellar was made of concrete and situated partly underground. A tiny window allowed for fresh air. Like the cellars at the homes of my friends, ours had shelves for storing canned fruits and vegetables. Most of the space was taken up by a bed, which also served as a couch, and a few chairs. A small table held a kerosene lamp and a box of wooden matches.

Having grown up in an electrified house, I was fascinated by the sight of a match being struck and the lamp lit. An experienced hand would slowly adjust the wick, and the lamp would light up the faces of people happy to know the safety of a storm cellar. For children, it was a good place to tell ghost stories or knock-knock jokes. Within a few minutes, the winds and thunder would die down, and everyone would file out of the cellar, with the last to leave blowing out the lamp.

No one died in the recent tornadoes, but they can be deadly. The historical record reminds us that our ancestors faced devastating tornadoes. And, in the days before storm forecasting, weather hit without warning.

Brinkley, in Lee County, was devastated by tornadoes on March 8, 1909. Thirty-five people died and 250 were injured. The downtown was wiped out, with numerous churches blown apart. Both railroad depots, the post office, the light and water plant, the local theater and Globe's Grocery, along with most other commercial buildings, were flattened -- even Forner's Pool Hall was lost.

Ray Hanley has written about the destruction of the Brinkley tornado: "The city lost all of its hotels -- the Arlington, the Brinkley and the Southern -- and almost all the private homes. Newspaper accounts the day after the storm said that only some 15 homes of almost 1,000 in the area escaped destruction or heavy damage." The only remaining church was converted into a temporary morgue.

Christina Williams, who was 9 years old at the time, recalled years later that her parents and younger sister huddled in their living room when the storm struck: "We heard the roar and realized that the wind had started. I walked across the room to blow out the oil lamp on the 'center table.' It picked me up, and I shall never forget the sensation of flying through the air, around and around the room. I dropped back to the floor, and we drew rugs over our heads to keep from being slashed by the glass and flying timbers."

The most deadly tornado in Arkansas history occurred in the White County town of Judsonia on March 21, 1952. That same outbreak of tornadoes also struck Bald Knob in White County and Cotton Plant in Woodruff County.

While not particularly prosperous, Judsonia was a busy little village with a box factory, a bank, a school, post office, a hotel, three good sized churches and two movie theaters.

March 21 was a Friday, and the Judsonia sixth-grade boys' softball team was playing a visiting team. Older students were preparing for the annual junior-senior banquet that was to be held that night. But the skies darkened late in the afternoon as people rushed home. At precisely 5:33 p.m., a tornado hit the town, and Judsonia was essentially obliterated.

We know it was 5:33 because that is when the electric clock on the front of Kinney Funeral Service stopped operating. Survivors told of the incredibly loud noise of the tornado, almost everyone agreeing it sounded like a "freight train." Moving quickly and as capriciously as a flash flood, the tornado quickly tore through the small community and rose back into the skies -- though the same storms brought more damage farther east.

The mangled town was silent for a moment after the winds died down, then cries for help emerged from the rubble. With no electricity and night quickly descending, survivors were helpless. An Arkansas Gazette reporter wrote that survivors "trudged through mud away from smashed homes looking for shelter and help ...[and] word was passed along from refugee to refugee that the Methodist church was still standing."

Fires broke out right after the storm, with an Arkansas Democrat correspondent reporting "I could see three fires in the city in spite of the pouring rain. I could hear the hissing of broken gas pipes, and stench filled the air."

Gov. Sid McMath was in nearby Searcy for a political event when the tornado struck, and he hurried to Judsonia, where he led an all-night vigil. The town no longer existed, with the Methodist church being the only major building to survive. More than 50 people died in Judsonia, and many more perished in nearby areas.

People who survived tornadoes, especially children, suffered for years from the after-effects. Lucille Tucker of the small community of Pleasant Valley in Jackson County never forgot the 1929 tornadoes which destroyed her home. "Our lives centered around the weather," she recalled as an elderly woman. "We were terrified of clouds. We missed many a show, picnic, party and other activities and even school if the weather was threatening."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column was published May 29, 2011.

NAN Profiles on 01/26/2020

Print Headline: Ill wind blows no good in Arkansas history

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