By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – They were grand.
Maybe not as grand as the mansions of Columbus, Aberdeen and Corinth, but the homes in downtown Tupelo before the 1936 tornado certainly made statements with their sweeping porches, ornamental turrets and gingerbread trim.
Today, only a handful of them survive.
“We had big, two-story houses in Tupelo, but not all of them were necessarily pretty houses,” said David Baker, 89, who was a freshman in high school when the tornado struck Tupelo 75 years ago today. “The storm took many, many houses, but I don’t think they were that gorgeous and they certainly weren’t antebellum.”
The tornado that began in the Black Zion community near the Pontotoc County line would travel along state Highway 6 through Willis Heights before making its way through Tupelo, passing north of Crosstown and heading toward Gum Pond.
According to documented Red Cross estimates, at least 216 people were killed and 330 hospitalized. Forty-eight city blocks were leveled and 1,113 homes were destroyed with another 339 badly damaged. Ten churches and four schools were destroyed or badly damaged.
“I think it was more capriciousness than anything else,” said Mem Leake, 82. “You can’t explain why one house is here and the one next to it is not.”
The home of Leake’s grandparents, M.E. and Emma Hunter Leake, was built in 1910 and located at the northwest corner of Franklin and Broadway streets. M.E. Leake operated Leake & Goodlett Lumber Co. along with R.F. Goodlett.
“It was severely damaged, but it was good enough to use as a hospital,” Leake said. “The roof was severely damaged and what used to be a little sunroom on the side of the house was gone. The columns on the front of the house were blown off and broken into many pieces.
“Leake and Goodlett went and picked up big pieces of concrete from the columns and took them out to the county to use as foundations for new houses. It cost $16,000 to repair the house. The columns were rebuilt. Everything was rebuilt except that sunroom.”
The Spanish-style residence is now home to abused, abandoned and neglected boys, and is known as the Alpha House.
Leake, his parents and his brother were unhurt in the tornado. At the time, they lived at 645 Highland Circle, in what is now the home of Bill and Doyce Deas. Highland Circle, which was about half-developed, was spared major damage from the tornado.
Rebuilding begins quickly
David Baker lived with his parents in a two-story home built in the 1920s on the northeast corner of Allen and Gloster streets. Today, the lot where the home was is enclosed by a black wrought-iron fence near Milam School.
“The tornado’s main path was about two blocks in width extending to what is now Crosstown,” Baker said. “Our house was just north of the Tupelo High and Elementary schools. Many pictures appeared in the Memphis papers of the devastation of our house since it was the first glimpse a reporter had of the storm’s path when they came into town on the old Bankhead Highway.”
When the storm struck, the Baker family had already gone to bed because they had to get up early the next morning to drive to Columbia, Tenn., for a horse show.
“The noise was deafening,” Baker said. “Everybody says it sounded like a train, but I don’t remember that. I ran down the stairs as the roof was blowing off and got to Mother and Daddy’s room. Then, there was dead silence. I mean, you can’t believe how quiet it was.”
The Bakers were left with two livable rooms: the parents’ bedroom, where the three had huddled together, and the kitchen.
“My father went out to help others, and I didn’t see him for three days,” Baker recalled. “And my parents didn’t let me out of the house for three days. They finally let me out to go check on the horses we kept at the Fairgrounds.”
After the storm, people began to rebuild, Baker said.
“Those who could rebuild, did,” he said. “Those that couldn’t had their homes torn down and something else built in their place. You can’t imagine the hammering that went on. That’s all you heard for months.”
Leake said his grandfather told him that in the year after the tornado struck, Leake & Goodlett averaged building or remodeling 11⁄2 houses per day.
“At the same time, Gravlee was rebuilding, too, and Tupelo Lumber was rebuilding, and people were coming in with their own contractors,” Leake said. “Economically, it was good for Tupelo.”
Many lives and homes were lost in the tornado’s path in both white and black neighborhoods. But it’s the downtown area – Gloster, Jefferson, Church, Madison, Magazine, Green, Robins, Main and Franklin streets – that most people associate with the big, older homes that were lost.
The truth is, many of the downtown homes were not destroyed in the tornado of 1936 but demolished afterward to make way for such things as apartments, businesses, churches and parking lots.
The J.M. Allen residence, a stately two-story home on the southwest corner of Madison and Jefferson streets, was damaged in the tornado but repaired. In 1969, it was demolished to make way for the new Lee County Library.
The two-story home of Dr. T.F. Elkin on the corner of Church and Jefferson streets, complete with a turret and a large porch extending across the front of the house, survived the tornado, but was torn down to build the old Mississippi Valley Gas building, which is now part of First Presbyterian Church.
A two-story Colonial with white columns, the home of J.S. Yates on the northwest corner of Main Street and Clark Place, survived the storm but was razed to build the Dillard Apartments.
And sadly, what has been called one of the the grandest homes in all of Tupelo, the sprawling three-story residence of D.W. Robins on the southwest corner of South Church and Carnation streets, was torn down to make way for the Lee County Health Department.
“A lot of older, beautiful homes in Tupelo actually survived the tornado, but they were torn down later to make way for new things,” Baker said. “People blame the storm for the loss of these homes, but I don’t think that’s so.”
Contact Ginna Parsons at (662) 678-1581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.