'36 storm didn't cripple Tupelo

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A convincing argument could be made that every second Harvey Gray has lived after 9 p.m. April 5, 1936, has been a blessing.
“I lived in Fulton then,” the 93-year-old Gray said. “I was over there in Tupelo courting that night. We were at Harrisburg Church.”
When it was time to go home, the plan was to park at Kilgore Service Station to wait out the storm. That would’ve been a mistake.
“There was nothing left of it, not even the bricks. It was just a concrete slab. We would have probably been blown away if not for Mrs. Ben Bowen,” said Gray, who was 16 that night. “She caught us by the shirttails and told us we weren’t going anywhere.”
A tornado – THE TORNADO – hit soon after, ripping the kitchen off the back of the Bowens’ home, blowing it over the house and into the front yard, where it knocked over Gray’s truck.
“Often, often, I think about how lucky we were that night,” said Gray, who now lives in Golden.
In the hours following the storm, Gray was one of many who went straight to work. There was no choice, he said.
“We just started doing what needed to be done,” he said. “There were just too many people crying and going on, you know. We had to go by their voices to find them. We didn’t have any lights.”
At least 216 people were killed and another 340 or so were injured, and 48 city blocks were destroyed, all in the span of minutes.
Kids lost classmates. Parents lost children. Whole families were buried together. Terrible sights and sounds were burned into the memories of the survivors.
“It was so deadly quiet afterward, and the rain came,” said Jack Reed Sr., 86. “We thought everyone in the world had been killed by that tornado.”
It was a startling blow to the town and its people, but it wasn’t a paralyzing blow.
After the storm, after the horror, something simple and profound happened.
Glenn McCullough Sr., 82, summed it up: “People looked after people, pretty much.”
The first duty was to the survivors, said 82-year-old Mem Leake of Tupelo.
“People like my daddy just left home and stayed gone all night, pulling people out of the rubble, pulling them out dead and alive.”
George Burnett, 84, of Tishomingo County recalled being one of those who needed help. The twister tore the fireplace from the family’s duplex and the mantle fell on his feet. Burnett also was separated from his family.
“They were carried to this house that was a few houses away,” he said. “A man in white overalls came and carried me to the house, where I reunited with them. I don’t know if he knew my parents were there, or if it was by accident.”
Chaos was everywhere, so was the willingness to assist others, according to Nathaniel Stone, 81, of Tupelo. His mother was injured on Broadway Street that night.
“She got hit. She got hurt,” said Stone, who lived on Cherry Street in 1936. “A fellow brought her and made sure she got home.”
One of Stone’s next door neighbors was walking home after the storm, when he saw someone who’d been blown into Gum Pond.
“He got the fellow out and brought him home to his house,” Stone said. “He cleaned him up and gave him some clothes.”
Betty Wilbanks, 84, lived in a clapboard house across the street from the Presbyterian Church. Her dad thought about taking the family to the church for safety.
“We stayed home. Daddy had the front door and back door open and all the windows open,” Wilbanks said. “The church was completely destroyed. Our house was still standing.”
Her home became a refuge for others.
“They brought people to our house – people who had been hurt and their houses blown away,” she recalled.
Like other families, the Leakes opened their home to people in need. Jane Stuart Kincannon was a teacher who lost her house, and she became a short-term guest.
“She homeschooled me while she was there,” Leake said.
Food, water and more
The American Legion was among the first responders. The Red Cross came, as well as the National Guard. The Salvation Army helped feed people.
Those organizations didn’t negate the need for neighbors to help neighbors.
Carl Mabry, 92, lived in Flowerdale at the time. His family relied on an electric water pump, but there was no power after the storm.
“One of the neighbors had a generator that pumped their water,” he said. “They brought us some.”
The dogtrot house where Frances Anglin, 94, lived was severely damaged. She and her family sought refuge with neighbors, who already had a crowded house.
“If you could find a bed or go prop up against a corner, you could sleep,” she said.
Neighbors also helped those who’d seen their food stores scattered by the wind.
“Those with houses that weren’t bothered at all, they divided with you,” Anglin said. “That’s how we did it.”
People helped however they could, said Annie Dilworth Richardson, an 82-year-old Tupelo resident.
“That’s what you always did,” Richardson said. “We took spare clothes to a central location. I don’t remember where it was, but you could see who else could use them. There was a distribution center.”
Furniture and family keepsakes were dispersed, but not all of them stayed lost. The Lee County Courthouse became a repository for out-of-place items.
McCullough has a 160-year-old clock that was blown away during the storm. It was recovered down the street, but the pendulum was missing.
“If they found furniture or something that had value, they left it at the courthouse, so families could come and look for their belongings,” he said. “Somebody brought the pendulum to the courthouse. They thought it could be important, I guess. That clock is still ticking.”
Progress
For several months after the tornado, Gray made trips from Fulton to Tupelo to check on the town’s progress. One month later, the mess remained. At the six-month mark, though, the change was remarkable.
“People worked together, getting it done,” he said. “At the Tucker house, I don’t know how, but they were making coffee for the ones who were working.”
Leake is named after his grandfather, who co-founded Leake amp& Goodlett Lumber Co. His grandfather told him that for a year after the tornado, Leake amp& Goodlett averaged building 11/2 houses per day.
“I don’t know if I believed him,” Leake said, “but there was a lot of work going on at that time.”
Tupelo construction companies were augmented by firms from as far away as New York City. Some came to make a buck; others came to give their time.
“My brother-in-law was a builder,” Anglin said. “They would build a three- or four-room house in a week. You couldn’t believe how fast they were built.”
Norris “Piggie” Caldwell, 80, and his folks got rebuilding help from family members, and the work didn’t take long.
“I know they added a complete back section that was destroyed, and replaced all the wallpaper in the house that was ruined with water when much of the roof was damaged,” he said. “The front bedroom was crushed by a fallen tree and had to be replaced. I think a bathroom was added.”
Today, you’ll find plenty of homes in Tupelo built from materials that were scattered across town.
“They were pulling nails out of the old boards, stripping them out and using them,” Anglin said. “They used the old lumber, too. Just got it and used it.”
After the devastation of Aug. 5, 1936, Tupelo was a community that refused to sit still.
“There was no telling how many people gave up their time and came to help,” Leake said. “There’s no telling how many people worked to build this town back. But they did. They built it back.”
No one would ask for such a tragedy to happen again, but Reed said there was a sparkling silver lining in those black, twisting clouds.
“It was such a terrible thing, but we worked together. I think, in the long run, that tornado created the Tupelo Spirit,” he said. “I think we came back stronger than before as a community, all of us, because of what we’d been through together.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@journalinc.com.