Eighty-five years ago in the midst of the Great Depression, a life-changing tragedy swept through Gainesville, leaving an estimated 203 dead, 1,600 injured and causing what would be $1.3 billion in damage by today’s standards.
Even over eight decades after the tornado of April 6, 1936, people still talk of the destruction and how it shaped the future of Gainesville.
Glen Kyle, executive director of the Northeast Georgia History Center, said it’s easy to sit back now and see how everything turned out OK after the disaster. However, it’s a completely different experience to have lived in the moment, not knowing how the city could recover from the horrific event. He noted that a lot of the historical records of the storm tend to revolve around the Gainesville square, but he wants to remind people that many residential areas were leveled, and people were displaced for an extended period of time.
“When it comes to the short-term, there’s a lot of loss, there's lots of death and lots of fear of not knowing what the future is,” he said. “When a community goes through something like this, it can really be a crisis. And Gainesville, fortunately, came through it. We had help from outside communities, lots of aid in terms of financial help, food and clothing.”
The Daily Times, now The Gainesville Times, shared a written account from Margaret Powell, a 1936 tornado survivor, in an article from April 6, 1965.
Powell was a fourth grader at Candler Street School when the storm destroyed the city. On the morning of April 6, 1936, she said she was getting ready for school and her dad commented on how dark the sky looked.
“I had never been afraid of storms, but looking at the heavy dark clouds that morning gave me a creepy feeling,” she wrote. “As I started to get my raincoast, Dad called me to the porch. By this time it was dark as night. An ominous stillness fell. Not a leaf stirred. I thought it must be the end of the world.”
Watching from her home on Forest Avenue in Gainesville, Powell said that she heard the roar of a tornado, which sounded like a “heavy freight train,” and saw the funnel sweep down.
“The town became engulfed in a whirling curtain of ghostly shimmering debris,” she wrote. “Dad and our next door neighbor George Finger walked up on a bank to see better. They saw St. Paul church rise and stand suspended in the air for an instant, then explode into the debris. It had been a white wooden building.”
Remembering Cooper Pants Factory victims
Nearly 75 of the estimated 203 deaths from the tornado resulted from a fire that broke out at the Cooper Pants Factory.
Garland Reynolds Jr., president of Reynolds Architects, told The Times this week that he was an infant when the storm struck the city, but he’ll never forget his father’s accounts of the day. Reynolds shared that his dad, who was 37 at the time, heard what sounded like a train coming down Main Street and dove under a meat block (a heavy duty structure of wood). His father was a butcher at the time and worked next to what is now the Collegiate Grill.
“Later on, he was headed to see my mother to make sure he was OK,” Reynolds said. “He passed by the Cooper Pants Factory, and he could hear the women’s screams. He always talked about that. That remained with him.”
There is a grave marker in the Alta Vista Cemetery where the unknown victims of the tornado were buried. In 2014, Reynolds spearheaded the efforts to erect a historic marker of the Cooper Pants Factory at the corner of Maple and Broad streets, its former site. Unfortunately, he added that the memorial was taken down several years ago for unknown reasons.
From what his dad told him, Reynolds said he heard that the main door was locked at the factory, and many of the women working there died trapped inside the building.
“The city has always been ashamed of this occurrence,” he said. “So many women died in one place. It was a terrible thing that happened. They all crammed into one stairwell and couldn’t get out on the street. There really hasn’t been an explanation as to why they couldn’t go out.”
Chad White, retired captain of the Gainesville Police Department, said his grandparents Fred and Rae Smith were living in the city when the tornado of 1936 struck.
White told The Times that his grandfather would tell him about the screams of the women and children trapped in the Cooper Pants Factory, too. However, he never went into detail about it.
White shared a statement from David Jack Hopkins, who was the Gainesville Police chief during the time of the tornado. The quote was published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1936, regarding the tragedy at the factory.
“There was no chance for anyone to get to those inside and no chance for the girls to get out,” Hopkins stated. “We could hear them crying but there was nothing we could do. We had no water to fight the fire and we knew that to go near the blazing structure meant certain death.”
White said that his grandfather, Fred Smith, was working for A.D. Wright’s Ice Cream in 1936, which was located on Main Street.
“Grandpa said that during the storm, he, along with other employees, got into the freezer that held the ice cream,” White recounted. “He said that once the storm was over, he ran straight to the city square and saw all of the damage the tornado had done.”
White said his grandfather then dashed down Main Street to the train depot to check on his wife, Rae Smith. Luckily, she was OK after crawling under a house for protection.
“Once the storm passed, so much water came in under the house that she remembers a boy standing next to her who decided to sit down,” White said. “And when he did, the water was over his head. Neither of my grandparents were injured from the storm.”
Fred Smith’s sister, Tobie Smith Pass, went into labor the day of the tornado and was transported by ambulance to Grady Hospital in Atlanta. White said she gave birth to a daughter the next day, and the story was even included in the local paper, dubbing the child a “storm baby.”
Rebuilding a stronger, more unified Gainesville
On April 9, 1936, the rail lines were clear enough for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pay an impromptu visit to Gainesville.
Kyle, local historian, said Roosevelt gave a speech from the back of a train car, promising to help rebuild the city. And he held true to that promise.
Kyle said Roosevelt summoned New Deal programs, including the Works Progress Administration, to repair the damages and provide aid.
He explained that the president promised to return to Gainesville for a visit in 1937, but had to postpone the stop to March 23, 1938. Roosevelt attended the dedication of the new square that bore his name and honored the rebuilding work aided by federal funds.
Kyle said Roosevelt gave what is known as the “My Brother’s Keeper” speech, in which he spoke of fixing the effects of the Great Depression through significant government influence and interaction in the private sphere.
“The locals hear it, and they're just pleased to have FDR here, but the effects of that speech start to ripple out from Gainesville, nationally and internationally,” Kyle said.
Despite the tragedy that the tornado caused, Kyle said the result of Gainesville rebuilding its infrastructure positioned the city in the forefront of Northeast Georgia, economically, politically and socially. He said the years of restoring the area forged a sense of community, giving the tornado survivors “confidence, strength and faith in their neighbors.”
Powell wrote in the 1965 article in The Daily Times of how Gainesville residents came together after the storm. She said cadets from Riverside Military Academy were the first to arrive to guard the town against looting and help in rescue operations. She noted that the local Boy Scouts offered assistance, working “like grown men.”
Powell said that every church and school, including Riverside and Brenau, were used as a hospital and shelter for those who became homeless.
“We served coffee and sandwiches, comforted the victims as best we could, held babies so their mothers could rest, etc.,” Powell wrote. “Ann Gordon Wellborn and I worked until late at night, and her father, a doctor, would pick us up and drive us home. Those were the gloomiest days.”
Kyle said this community spirit combined with the new physical infrastructure set Gainesville up to continue being a leader in Northeast Georgia.
“It totally transformed the community in so many different ways,” he said. “Some you could see with your eyes, some you had to feel with your heart too.”
The Northeast Georgia History Center has a permanent exhibit of the 1936 tornado at its location at 322 Academy St. NE in Gainesville. The display includes both artifacts and firsthand accounts of the tragic event. The history center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. For more information about its exhibits and programs, visit negahc.org.