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Anniversary of a different deadly 1936 tornado
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Today is the 79th anniversary of the fourth deadliest tornado in United States history.

No, not the Gainesville tornado, whose 79th anniversary is Monday. It is the fifth deadliest tornado in the country’s history.

The day before more than 200 people died in the Gainesville tornado, more than 200 had died in Tupelo, Miss., April 5, 1936, when a tornado from the same storm system swept through the northeastern Mississippi town. Among the survivors of the Tupelo tornado: a 1-year-old Elvis Presley and his mother Gladys.

Numbers of dead vary in both tornadoes because some bodies were never recovered. In the Tupelo storm, for instance, many of the dead were blown into a pond in a residential area.

The “official” toll in the Gainesville tornado is generally considered as 203. The same number in Tupelo was listed as 216, but an unofficial total ran as high as 233.

A major difference between the two storms: Tupelo’s tornado blew through blocks of residential area. The business district was largely untouched. Gainesville’s twin tornadoes — or triple, as some believe — hit some residential areas, but the majority of the dead were in the downtown business district. More than 70 of the fatalities were in the Cooper Pants Factory, which collapsed and burned, trapping many of the workers inside.

A similarity between the two storms was that both struck in the early morning, shortly before or right at 8:30 a.m.

Sometimes lost in what is called the “Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak” is that tornadoes struck elsewhere during early April 1936. One struck Coffeyville, Ark., just before it blew through Tupelo. Twelve tornadoes are counted in the outbreak, striking communities in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

Those storms and the Gainesville and Tupelo tornadoes killed at least 454 people. One of the dead was in Carnesville, apparently from the same twister that hit Gainesville. Twenty-three died in a tornado early morning April 2 in Cordele.

Tornadoes sometimes are born when warm air masses collide with cold ones. That was the case with the April 1936 storms. Just days before April 6, Northeast Georgia experienced below-freezing temperatures. Warm air from the Gulf of Mexico pushed temperatures into the 70s in the Gainesville area just before the storm struck April 6.

Because it’s been 79 years since the infamous tornado struck Gainesville, fewer and fewer witnesses of the storm remain. Many have been interviewed over the years about their experiences. Those who survived the storm should have their stories told if they haven’t already been recorded.

While the 1936 tornado gets plenty of attention when its anniversary comes around, the 1903 tornado sometimes is forgotten. Perhaps it is because there was less loss of life or because nobody living remembers it.

Oddly, newspapers of the day, while covering it, didn’t seem to cover it as intensely as newspapers did the 1936 tornado.

The 1903 death toll was smaller, just more than 100 dead. But, tragically, many of those were children working in the Gainesville Cotton Mill, which had opened just a year before. On the other side of town, the newly opened Pacolet mill at New Holland also was affected, but most of the dead were in the village itself, where mill owners had just built houses for their workers.

Vic Wilson, author of books about the New Holland village where he grew up, marvels that the Montgomerys and the Millikens and other principals in building the textile industry in Hall County, didn’t just give up after suffering so much loss of life among their employees, not to mention the heavy damage to their mills. Had they not rebuilt after the 1903 and 1936 tornadoes, Hall County might be a different place.

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Another story from Harold Westbrook about Gainesville Mill: His great uncle, Clayborn Westbrook, ran a sawmill across the Chestatee River in Forsyth County. When the mill was enlarged around 1927, its steam engine was replaced by a more powerful one. Westbrook bought the old steam engine from the mill, loading it on a flatbed wagon with a team of oxen.

On the way back to his sawmill, the Forsyth County road commissioner prevented him from crossing the Chestatee River bridge because he was afraid the weight of the loaded wagon would collapse it. Westbrook found the shallowest place in the river, forded it and was on his way.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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