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Ruin & Rebirth: Remembering the tornado of '36

POSTED: April 4, 2011 1:41 p.m.

They were just babes, but the tornado became their first memory, shocked into the soul at tender ages when recollections are meant to be blurred and gold and light.

The air closed in on Gainesville. And as the townspeople arose on April 6, 1936, they shared an unsettling bond, an awareness that time was too still, the skies were too dark, the heart was too restless.

I can't place it, survivors say today. It just didn't feel right.

They could sense but not prepare for the biblical devastation that would barrel through the small town of Gainesville at 8:27 a.m.

When it was over, the city lay shattered, a bustling town turned to a war-torn nightmare by three twisters that were here and then gone in a moment. More than 200 lay dead or dying amid the rubble. Survivors wandered the streets in a lifeless daze, cried out for their children, pulled glass from their hair and arms as buildings caught fire.

One story from that hell is still today spoken of with hushed tones and red eyes.

A young boy was trapped beneath a fallen beam in one of the downtown hardware stores. Oils and paint cans ignited. As the flames licked his back, he begged his father for death.

The man couldn't pull the pistol from his side. He watched as his son perished, pleading for the end as it came upon him with agonizing delay.

Lives were spared that day. By luck, fate, no one knows. One says it was a fortunately placed table, another, the kind words of an old man, "The Lord will take care of us," that pulled him through.

Before the dead had been counted, the living pulled on an inborn strength and started to rebuild.

Just hours after the tornado struck, Christine Moss delivered a baby boy in her father's Gainesville home as the wounded lay on bloody mattresses in the hospital's hallways.

Life continued.

And a year later, a traveler would barely know a tornado, still the fifth deadliest in United States history, had rolled through and reduced the town to rubble.

But the path the twister took - up Washington Street, stalling over the square, erasing lives with merciless force before heading east to its next casualty - forever left its scars on the city of Gainesville.

•••

Bolts of lightning touched down across the western horizon so quickly they seemed connected.

It was just after midnight on the morning of April 6 when a man entered the Gainesville Midland yards and told Howard Dionysus Berry to come outside. The air was thick and heavy, he later told his son, Henry Dan Berry, now 79.

There was no way for Howard to know, but that storm had hit Tupelo, Miss., just hours before. Twisters touched down there at 8:30 p.m., taking 223 lives and making it the fourth deadliest tornado in U.S. history.

There were no warning systems at the time. And Gainesville had no idea what was rolling toward it.

A bit before 7 a.m., 21-year-old Willie Hulsey Glover left home for work at the Owen-Osborne hosiery mill. A country girl from Clermont, she had recently moved into an apartment in New Holland. That morning, she and her roommate remarked at how strange the weather was, still and uneasy.

"We didn't know what was happening but we knew something would," said Glover, now 96.

She went on to work, set up at her machine and pulled off her rings so they wouldn't tear the stockings.

Gainesville was a town of 10,000, small by today's measures but the big city to all around it. The center of commerce, Gainesville's square saw visitors daily from Cleveland and Dahlonega who gathered there to buy livestock or shop.

The skies that Monday morning were ominous, and a town like Gainesville had a healthy respect for clouds of that kind. The tornado of 1903 killed 98, and many with memories of that destruction still headed for the storm cellars at the sign of a dark and still sky.

As children readied for school, a black veil with a twisting yellow haze around the corners sat low above the town.

"Ruby, you better go pull the windows down. We're going to have a rainstorm," Ed Parks, now 79, remembers his father yelling to his mother as the boy curled up in his parents' bed.

The air was a void, one's own breath the only sense of life. No wind rustled through the crops. The birds fell hushed.
As 8 a.m. passed, night's darkness returned to Gainesville and the chickens went back to roost.

Fifteen miles away, the room of Helen Thompson's class in Gillsville Grammar School grew so dim Margaret Chandler had to stop teaching because her students couldn't see the blackboard. She started to read them a story.

It wasn't until the next day that she told the children she had seen a funnel cloud from the cloakroom window.

It came down like evil.

"I had heard of the end of time. And when I saw those planks and things flying in the air I thought, ‘Well this must be it,'" said Aline Chandler McMillan, who was 20 at the time.

One funnel cloud touched down near Brenau University and two others joined and fed off each other on the square. The storm moved through Gainesville with such ferocity that full buildings were picked up on their frames, pulled in the air and exploded, leaving nothing more than an empty foundation as if the structures had never been. Full neighborhoods were reduced to concrete steps leading to nowhere, to piles of broken beams and furniture and picture albums and all the things that make up a home.

As Parks' mother struggled to close the shutters, his father picked him up and rushed toward the back of the house.

"We didn't get there," Parks, just 4 at the time, remembers. "The tornado hit the house and there was a pedal sewing machine in our hallway, so he threw me down under this machine and he fell on top of me. And about that time the house exploded."

Glover had barely settled in for work at the hosiery mill when the room went black.

"The whole wall of windows ... the panes started coming towards us," she said. "... The girls in my department had climbed in cabinets. I didn't think of climbing into a cabinet. I just stood there and took it. So I was drenched, with glass all in my hair."

Berry had never seen fear like the kind that overtook his mother when the storm hit. She was crazed, consumed and screaming words the 4-year-old couldn't understand. It wasn't until 50 years later that Howard told his son what his mother had said.

"The air is full of houses and trees."

The twisters crashed against the earth, pulling to the sky all they could pry free. Roofs, bricks, cars, furniture, a 1-ton bell from the courthouse steeple, clothing, the ground itself, people.

And then it was gone. Lives broken in less than three minutes.

In the moments after, chaos filled the streets of Gainesville, the hum of hammering rain now deafening where eerie silence had just been. Fathers ran through the devastation to see if their children had made it to school. Wives frantically asked every passer-by if they had seen their husbands. The town was bloody and wet.

Some found their family members, embraced them in the streets and schoolyards.

Others weren't as fortunate. Their loved ones were some of the 203 dead.

Kathleen Gaines perished in her home on East Broad Street. She had been born 33 years before, just as the 1903 tornado struck Gainesville.

Walking out of the barbershop after his regular Monday morning cut, Herbert Bell, now 94, looked across the square.

"I thought ‘Well is everybody dead but me?' But it wasn't. It was just swept clear," Bell said. "Usually that time on Monday morning, the square was just full of people. They were swept clean."

Jim DeLong, too, survived downtown, weathering the storm while clinging to the radiator in a corner pharmacy. As he stepped out, he became aware of the people in the buildings, the people who should have been walking out of the stores like him but were trapped inside.

Fires ignited.

"We had nothing to work with and no hoses, no water," DeLong, 15 at the time, said. "All the water was on the ground. It was just pitiful. There was nothing you could do. The fire was hot. You could hear people screaming."

James Owen had an uncle who worked in the Pruitt-Barrett Hardware store. As the building burned, his other uncle ran to a side window that was blocked by bars.

"He just bent those bars all the way up, main strength, just ripped the bars out of the bricks and lifted them up," said Owen, who was 16 at the time. "But the fire was so hot he couldn't get in there to do any good. ... My uncle was in there, a bookkeeper, and he burned up in there. They never found anything but just a piece of a leg bone."

Just off the square, more than 70 burned to death in the Cooper Pants factory, by some counts the highest tornado-caused death toll in a single building in U.S. history. The firehouse sat on the same block but the engines were trapped by falling bricks. The living were pulled out by Tuesday, but then began the solemn task of removing what remained of the dead.

Mary Ann Sexton, the last woman to be taken out alive, gave a chilling account in the book "A City Laid Waste."

"I heard women screaming, crying, confessing, praying, pleading as the flames reached up and licked them down and burned them to death - then it was quiet, except for the crackle of the flames."

Today, the lot where the Cooper Pants factory once sat at the corner of Broad and Maple streets is just cracked concrete and a small abandoned building.

After the storm, the shell of darkened brick and beams sat untouched for some time and became a playground for neighborhood boys. As they jumped over the remaining walls, either unaware of or unbothered by the space's haunting past, Berry could never join in.

"It was like being around somebody dead," he said. "I don't know why. I know it was my imagination but it always smelled burnt to me."

In the moments after the storm passed, survivors climbed from holes in the wreckage and several had the composure to go immediately for help, running to the closest operational radio line or to neighboring towns.

W.M. Brice, author of "A City Laid Waste," wrote of his own attempts to reach The Atlanta Journal through the town's southern railway station.

"Almost immediately after I took the receiver I got the Atlanta operator, and it seemed not over a minute until I was talking to Ed Bradley at The Journal office. I tried as best I could to describe to him what had occurred, as I sat there looking toward the business section where blocks were being consumed by the flames, making a funeral pyre for some of the best friends of my life," he wrote.

Reporters descended on the town before noon, according to Brice.

"TORNADO RAVAGES GAINESVILLE; FIRES BREAK OUT; MANY DEAD," read the headline atop Monday's evening edition of The Atlanta Journal. For days afterward, the papers ran lists of the dead, the missing and the saved, long columns stretching down the front pages.

Before the first aid workers arrived, the townspeople began tending to the wounded. Downey Hospital filled quickly but the building caught fire and had to be evacuated.

Moving the injured became a challenge as water washed over the curb, mixing with fallen trees, power lines and glass.

"They carried people everywhere, everyone that was hurt" said Curtis Parks, who was 6 at the time. "They carried them to other towns, to hospitals, churches, schools."

His cousin, Ed, whose father had sheltered him under a sewing machine as the storm demolished their home, suffered a deep cut across his foot. A neighbor carried him to Downey Hospital just before it caught fire.

"They took me to New Holland. They had heard they had set up a hospital out there," he said. "Well, when I got out there they had already closed it down. They told my dad that at Riverside Military they had set up another little emergency hospital, for us to go up there. We went out there and we got there and they had shut that one down so we asked, ‘Where can we go to get this boy taken care of?'"

Another makeshift hospital was set up in the sanctuary of the First Methodist Church, the bodies laid out in the pews and aisles like matchsticks.

"It was scary for a young kid. Doctors were running all over the place and of course we didn't have many doctors in town at those days, half a dozen maybe," said Sidney O. Smith, a 12-year-old Boy Scout at the time. He and others put on their uniforms and logged thousands of man hours delivering telegrams and trying to find the lost.

While the living were tended to in the church's sanctuary, a downstairs Sunday school room became the morgue. The funeral homes had filled. On that hallowed ground, the dead were counted and the toll began to rise.

Conrad Romberg, owner of the City Ice Co., offered his cooling room, too. They laid bodies on the ice platforms.

"My father was very, very emotionally touched by that," said George Romberg, who was just an infant at the time. "And he never told us much about it. That's all I could get out of him."

On the square, the cadets of Riverside Military Academy arrived to maintain order and the state guard followed close behind. The fires in the hardware stores burned hot for days, so warm no workers could go near them.

As embers smoldered far beneath where the pounding rain could reach, they started to clear the debris. Cars were thrown like toys, lying on their sides among piles of twisted metal and tattered beams. The beautiful oak trees that shaded the square on warm summer days looked now like winter had taken them, the thick black trunks stretching up to a few wretched limbs.

The first funerals began Tuesday afternoon, families laying arms on one or two or three caskets as another group waited just outside the door for their unwanted turn. Each group was given 30 minutes to say their final goodbyes.

"Other bodies, charred into but a pitiful mass of flesh, were buried in caskets as though they had come to a normal end," described one writer in a Thursday newspaper.

While many lost relatives and friends, no family was more affected than the Griggs. Seven - mother, father, four children and a grandfather - perished. The funeral director said later it was the only time in his life he saw seven hearses in a row.

Some 2,000 attended a joint memorial service at the First Methodist Church on May 5, speakers broadcasting the sermon to a large crowd gathered outside. Two caskets - an unidentified man and an unidentified woman - sat at the front of the church to signify all who had been lost. Their bodies were buried in Alta Vista Cemetery.

Marie Winchester Allen's cousin, Tommy Cagle, was one of the few who were never found. Maybe he ran into one of the buildings that burned, his family thought. Or maybe he was blown away.

"We just worried about him all the time because he was missing," said Allen, who was 13 at the time. "We just never found him."

Three days after the storm, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made an unscheduled stop in Gainesville on his way to Warm Springs, meeting with officials from the Red Cross, Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. Townspeople had gathered around his train and the president leaned off the back of the platform, praising the them for their perseverance and promising help.

"My friends, it is a sad occasion that brings this stop of mine to Gainesville. I have been in touch very closely with this great disaster that has come to your city, ever since the tornado. We in the Federal Government have done everything in our power to make things more easy for you," he said, according to "A City Laid Waste."

Federal funds came. And the city rebuilt swiftly and stronger.

The headline atop Wednesday's edition of The Gainesville News read not that rebuilding had started, but that the "REBUILDING OF GAINESVILLE GOES FORWARD." On Tuesday, reconstruction contracts totaling into the hundreds of thousands of dollars were awarded and workers began chipping away at what was estimated at the time as nearly $15 million in damage.

Within a few weeks, the city commissioners adopted a new building code that aimed to increase the durability of structures and the fire separation between downtown storefronts.

"The undaunted spirit of Gainesville, whose citizens were so ably helped by their neighbors from throughout the nation, again has manifested itself in this, the greatest task we have ever been called upon to face," one newspaper wrote.

Many businesses swept the glass from their showrooms and reopened behind boarded windows just days after the storm, signs hung outside reading, "We're Open"

"We Are Now Open For Business In Our Same Location; A New Stock of Flour and Groceries Arriving on Every Train," read one advertisement in the newspaper.

Another from the Postal Telegraph company informed customers the business was "now located temporarily at 153 South Main St."

Smith, whose father was in the insurance business, told him later of the difficulties he had filing claims during the rebuilding period.

"They had a number of lawsuits because most insurance policies did not cover tornado. They covered fire, windstorm, but not tornado," he said. "And so the question became, ‘When did this piece of property get damaged? Was it from the fire, afterward, or some other cause?'"

As Glover recovered back home in Clermont, Leslie Quinlan, the owner of the hosiery mill, called her back to work. It was just one day after the storm, but Glover was a manager and he wanted her to call the other girls.

"I came right back to work and started," she said. "We tried to get the girls together that could come back and get going."

Hundreds were homeless and countless other aid workers descending on the city also lacked a place to stay. Those with standing houses opened their doors and made beds of couches, hallways and rugs.

Smith's family took in a young boy who had been in the hospital recovering from surgery when the storm hit. A Red Cross nurse also lived in their home for more than a year.

Another young nurse, Katherine Rogers, was sent to Gainesville with the Red Cross after the storm. There, she met Robert Williams, a worker with the Works Progress Administration who had also been stationed in Gainesville to help in the relief effort. The two set up offices in the same building and amid the rubble and rebuilding, they fell in love.

They married in 1939 and after moving away for a short time, returned to Gainesville where they have lived since. Katherine is now 99. Their daughter, Anne Chenault, is a docent at the Northeast Georgia History Center and she always includes her parents' love story in her tours.

"In the midst of so much tragedy, and I know for many people it was indeed sad and tragic ... it had a happy ending in that my parents really met and became acquainted and later married," she said.

As a town, Gainesville moved forward with resolve. Be it an inborn need to push tragedy into the corners of the city's mind or a practical need to put their livelihoods back together, Gainesville moved on.

A month later, there was little mention of the storm in the newspapers except for an occasional story citing another store that had reopened, according to local historian Steve Gurr.

On the one- and five-year anniversaries, there was no mention in the papers.

The town didn't dwell in sadness, said DeLong, who survived the storm in a downtown pharmacy. Nearly every member of the community knew someone who had been killed and the memories were strong enough without speaking them aloud.

"People would rather just not talk about it," DeLong said.

They remembered the tornado of '36 and all that was lost with every bad storm cloud, with every April's still skies.
Those clouds consumed Cleburn Patterson's father, scared him to the core.

"There's a bad cloud coming. Let's go in the storm shelter," he would say, flying into the house and scooping up his family, holding them tight until the fear had passed.

Patterson, who was 8 when the tornado hit, still today gets anxious at the sign of a still sky. When it rains, he said, he'll settle down.

On this 75th anniversary, the few who remember the tornado firsthand do so with a vivid clarity where other memories from their lives have faded. The stories they've told time and time again are now part of Gainesville's collective narrative.

There aren't that many of us still alive, survivors say today. And surely, with each anniversary that passes there will be less, until the stories of the great tornado of '36 are told simply in secondhand, in "what I was told" and "what I read" and "what it must have felt like on that grave morning."

Even then, though, this town will always remember the tornado.

This town will always respect a storm.



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