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1936 tornado victim fought for life after storm struck

POSTED: April 5, 2014 5:20 p.m.

There are so many stories that have been told and retold about the 1936 tornado that caused more than 200 deaths in the heart of Gainesville.

One from a survivor that largely was untold except to his family provides a vivid description of the horrors of being in a tornado.

Iverson D. Hudgins, a horticulturist, saw the storm coming toward his house near downtown Gainesville while looking out his window.

“Suddenly the plaster commenced crumbling and the floor rose,” he wrote in an account for his relatives. “The linoleum wrapped around my feet, and then I went up, up over the building. It was dark as night, and apparently an electric flash came, and even the air seemed to shake. Then I felt myself going down, down and then another current picked me up before I hit the ground, and then I was drafted a considerable distance.”

Finally, he crashed to the ground covered with plaster and wood, some of which might have come from the nearby St. Paul Methodist Church, then at the end of West Spring Street on what then was Grove Street, now West Academy. Hudgins could see people rushing past in the heavy rain that followed. He could see the smoke of downtown buildings burning.

He called for help and saw victims who had most of their clothing ripped off.

“I had one nail in my jaw and one in my eye,” he wrote. So much debris was imbedded in his flesh, rescuers had to cut away all his clothes before they could pull him from the rubble.

They carried him to a porch of a nearby home until he was eventually taken to Grady Hospital in Atlanta. Doctors told his sister he wouldn’t live past midnight. He overheard conversations of doctors and nurses that indicated he was dying.

Seventeen bones were fractured, and his loss of blood was so great doctors thought it best to save transfusions for injured who had a better chance to live. Hudgins, however, believed he would recover.

Hospital personnel hesitated when he asked for food, but after feeding him, his condition improved.

“The food began making new blood,” Hudgins wrote. “It was an indomitable fight for life. I felt that I would live and get well. I am giving all credit to the Deity and also to the fact there was no alcohol, tobacco, dope or coffee in my system.”

Still, doctors told him he wouldn’t walk again with hips broken on both sides. They were astonished and called it a miracle when Hudgins rose from his bed and began to take steps.

He remained in the hospital until Aug. 12. All that time, Hudgins didn’t know his daughter, Mary Hudgins Evans, died in the tornado. She had told her husband she had a premonition about her fate, that the spirit of her deceased mother had visited on the night of April 5, saying she had come for her.

Mrs. Evans told her husband he would have to take care of their 3-year-old child, and 10 minutes before the storm struck, she called her husband again to bid him goodbye. She died in the office of Wright’s Ice Cream Parlor near the downtown square.

Iverson Hudgins, who had suffered severe burns in childhood and was now a near invalid, eventually went back to work at his Blue Ridge Park Nurseries. The injuries took a further toll on him, and his health declined. A daughter, Ruth Sheffield, who lived in Ohio, came to check on him and determined he could no longer live alone. She sent her 10-year-old son, Will Sheffield, to Gainesville to help care for him and close out his business.

Will arrived during Christmas 1939, enrolled in the fifth grade in Gainesville and stayed until summer when his mother came to get him. Iverson Hudgins shortly moved to Ohio with his daughter and their children.

Agnes Sheffield, who married one of Iverson’s grandsons, Walter Ray Sheffield, put Hudgins’ story in a booklet along with accounts of the other grandsons, Will and Richard, of their experience living with their grandfather the last few years of his life.

Iverson Hudgins died Oct. 25, 1942, and is buried in Oak Grove Baptist Church cemetery on U.S. 129 south of Gainesville.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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