Downing Tornado April 28, 1958
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A tornado swept through the Downing area heading toward what is now Lake Proctor on April 28, 1958. Just twenty four days shy of two decades earlier on May 22, 1938, a tornado had originated on the same farm and cut a path north past New Hope. This is part of an article written for The Messenger in 1997. It has been split into two web pages and revised to separately reflect the story of each storm. To see photos and read about the 1938 storm click here.
As we stood in our back yard watching clouds boiling to the south of De Leon, it was obvious even to me, then just an 11 year old, that the green color of the clouds meant that this could be a serious storm. Our family and our neighbors to the east, Jay and Lucille Wright, hovered near their storm cellar. Our other neighbors to the west, Doc, Clara and Stanley Ware and their renter Ruby Bumpus stood in their yard watching the clouds, also prepared to head for their cellar if necessary. It was probably just a few minutes after 7 p.m. but the heavy clouds made it seem much later than that. It wasn’t exactly dark but it was an eerie darkness, black enough to add to everyone’s apprehension.
My dad was never one to drag us to the cellar when a cloud came up. Having served in the Coast Guard during World War II and having experienced many Atlantic storms, I was 8 or 9 before I even set foot in a cellar during a storm. And, that probably only occurred because by uncle came to the house and got us and my grandmother out of bed in the middle of the night. We lived in the house immediately south of the present F&M Motor Bank and my grandmother’s home was where the bank itself is now located. We drove all the way to a house at Allen and Ayes to go the cellar. It was jammed with people but luckily rain and some wind were the only impact of that storm.
That first cellar experience was in 1955 which turned out to be a spring marked by severe storms. One wrapped our television antenna over the roof of the house. Yet another shattered Lex Shelby’s antenna, scattering the many sections in different directions as we watched from our front door. At the time the Shelby’s lived to the west of the Travelers Hotel on the northeast corner of Austin and Labadie. All the trees in the back yard of the house next door then occupied by the Jack Strickland family were uprooted and blown over. The Stricklands, who published the Free Press lived in the old Streety house which stood at the F&M Motor Bank site. For the next couple of weeks, the trees made great tunnels and forts for me, Wesley Mathis and Robert Strickland and his sister Mary Ann. It occupied the time since we had no television until the antennas could be replaced.
Three years later as we watched the cloud moving to our south from our home across from the present fire station, my dad’s attitude was somehow different. Jay Wright, who worked at the Magnolia Tank Farm was also very concerned. He and his wife had already been through one tornado. They had hovered in a closet while a tornado ripped the roof off their house when they lived in Clyde, Texas. As we watched the clouds heave and roll, my dad commented “it looks like the people to the south of town are really catching it.” Within seconds, the fire whistle began to blow. I was told in no uncertain terms to get to the cellar. Even so, I managed to keep watch at the top of the steps. Clara Ware headed for the telephone to find out what was going on. Moments later she ran out onto her front porch and half shouted, “Downing just blew away.”
I was old enough to know that there was a Downing although I really had no idea where it was. I also did not realize the concern that Mrs. Ware would have as a result of a tornado hitting that community. Her concern was for her daughter and son-in-law Hazel and Gayle McGinnis and their three sons, who lived immediately west of Downing. Our family and the Wrights jumped into one car, the Wares into another and both headed for the stricken community. Most of De Leon’s able bodied citizens, the fire trucks as well as both Higginbotham’s and Sharp and Nabor’s ambulances were well ahead of the string of vehicles rollling south. Everyone feared what they might find upon their arrival. Most expected to spend the night trying to locate and help the victims.
Upon reaching Downing, we found cars parked for almost a mile on either side of Highway 16 from the old rock garage and service station northward. Treva Callison said that a similar traffic snarl was created to the south as the emergency vehicles and people from Comanche tried to reach Downing.
It had been a bad April in north central Texas. Wichita Fallas had been hit by a tornado on April 2. Midlothian was devastated on April 21. Flooding was prevalent throughout the Fort Worth-Dallas area and more rain was expected on Sunday and Monday. On Monday afternoon, April 28, 1958, the weather bureau issued a tornado warning for virtually every county in Texas north of a line from Hamilton to Lufkin and stretching from Abilene all the way to Texarkana. Bridgeport was the first to be hit when a tornado tore through that town at 5:10 p.m.
Just before 7:00 p.m., a tornado descended from the green clouds moving from southwest of Downing and tore a half-mile wide path all the way to what is now Lake Proctor. It first touched down on the land of J. Vasco Lee, about two and a half miles southwest of Downing. Here it destroyed an unoccupied house and barn and then started to move eastward along Rush Creek, taking out huge pecan and oak trees along the bottom land. One of the first houses hit was one belonging to Mrs. Elby Scott. That was one of the oldest homes in the area, a log cabin which had been enlarged years later.
As it neared Highway 16, it veered northeast right toward the two stores, three churches, the old school building and the few homes that made up “downtown” Downing. But, then it twisted back toward the east, destroying the home of Houston Beaty and Roy Loudermilk’s car shed and out buildings just before it crossed the highway. (At that time, the highway had not been shifted to its present route. It ran south along the east side of the Downing Cemetery more or less parallel to the present route.) The tornado then pointed right toward the home of Jim and Treva Callison. Jim, a trucker, was heading back to Downing from San Angelo while Treva and the children were at the home of her father, Jack Vineyard, just east of Hwy 16 along what is now FM 2318 but what was then just a typical sandy Comanche County road.
Jack, Treva and the children Galyna (Holland) and Lannis had been planting onions at the Vineyard home as the storm approached. Jack told Treva and the kids to get to the cellar but Lannis and Galyna laughed about it (they were second and sixth graders at the time). He then let the kids know that he was serious. They promptly headed for the cellar. Treva went into the house to pull down the windows and get a flashlight. The last thing she saw as she entered the cellar was the Loudermildk home being hit. Treva described the tornado as “looking like an ice cream cone” and said it had multiple vortexes.
During the storm, just being in the cellar was almost not enough. The tornado ripped the door off the Vineyard cellar and began to suck jars of canned vegetables from the cellar shelves throwing them in all directions. As the four huddled at the back of the “L” shaped cellar, Treva’s brand new Oldsmobile landed where moments before the cellar door had been and it appeared they would be trapped and unable to get out. Just as suddenly, the tornado picked up the Olds and slammed it down in Houston Loudermilk’s field. Ultimately, the only way they eventually identified the car was by the vehicle ID number.
At the northern edge of the tornado was the home of Jim and Altha Wilkerson. A passing blow took the roof off the corner of their home and destroyed their chicken house.
As the tornado moved eastward, it left the home of Van McGinnis unlivable although it was not totally destroyed. Van, his daughter Sarah and his mother-in-law Mattie Loudermilk apparently made it to the cellar and were not harmed. Walter Earl Beleyu’s vacant home and chicken house were the next structures destroyed.
Now directly in the tornado’s path was the home of C.A. and Avis Brinson. Here one of those strange leaps that seem so common with tornadoes occurred. It destroyed the chicken house to the west, jumped the home, then got the barn on the east side of the home. The Brinson family was down the road in the cellar of their neighbor Clifton (Sam) Hanson who lived in the next house to the east.
Eight people huddled in the Hanson cellar as the twister passed nearby or overhead but spared the Hanson home. Hanson was holding the cellar door and felt the pull of the wind on the door as the tornado passed. The twister missed the Hanson home but headed into what was then bottom land (now covered by Lake Proctor) and destroyed the home of his parents, John and Mamie Dell Hanson. Although their possession were destroyed and scattered over the countryside, perhaps the most memorable loss was dimes that for years Aunt Mamie had saved in Mason jars. They were scattered everywhere. A large number were returned when county residents turned out a week or so later to help clean up and search for surviving personal items.
About at this point, the tornado apparently went back up into the clouds and dissipated. Gone were six houses, three more sustained damage, innumerable old growth trees and every chicken house and many barns all the way from Copperas Creek to the Sabano River. Several small funnel sightings were reported in the area but the main tornado left a path of destruction over five miles long and as much as half mile wide.
When the Hansons and Brinsons emerged from the cellar, the Hanson home was standing and they could see the Brinson house still standing to the west. Sam, C.A. Brinson Sr. and C.A. Jr., then jumped into the car and headed to the home of Sam’s parents. They removed the debris from atop the cellar and assisted John and Mamie Dell Hanson out of the cellar. C.A. Jr. recalled that even though the Hansons had not been injured, they looked “god-awful” when they emerged from that cellar.
After taking John and Mamie to Sam’s house, Sam and the two Brinsons then headed back toward Downing. They skipped the Beleyu house since they knew it was vacant and went immediately for the home of Van McGinnis which was totally destroyed. Fear gripped them when they could not find Van nor his family and could get no response to their shouts. Compounding the fear was the fact they were wading near downed power lines in ankle deep water still puddling the ground from the torrential rain and melting hail. Van it truned out, had walked to the R.V. Leslie home following the storm. The Leslie home had also sustained heavy damage.
It wasn’t long after Jack Vineyard and the Callisons emerged from the cellar that Gayle McGinnis and Bob Hodges arrived. They carried Galyna and Lannis into Downing, getting them away from the downed power lines. Soon Noble Lesley arrived and he and others jacked up the floor of the bedroom of the Vineyard home. It was the only part of either the Callison or Vineyard homes that remained. Trapped underneath the floor was Lannis’ collie dog which had been hiding under the house. Ever after, the dog had a fear of thunderstorms.
Jim Callison had just made it back to Comanche from San Angelo when he learned of the tornado. County Sheriff Bean brought him to Downing rather than trying to make the trip in an eighteen wheeler. They picked up the family members and took them to Treva’s aunt’s house in Comanche.
Most of the De Leon people who had rushed to Downing learned that everyone had been accounted for and there was little else that could be done until morning. By that next morning, the tornado was being reported on NBC’s Today show. That was considered quite a feat in an era in whch there were no satellites to instantly transmit information around the world.
When we returned home that evening, my dad told of an episode involving a pocket knife that had been stored in a trunk when an earlier tornado moved through the Downing area. The tornado had emptied the trunk, opened the blade of the knife and stuck it in the trunk of a tree. At the time I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or just telling a tall tornado tale. You can find out by going here.
Like its two predecessors, the 1958 tornado did not result in any deaths or serious injuries. But also like the predecessors, many chickens were killed and stripped of their feathers. Small animals were also victims. A squirrel was found near the Hanon home stripped its fur. A rocker blade from a rocking chair was impaled in the chest of Lannis Callison’s shetland pony. According to Treva Callison, it took a lot of tender loving care and some significant vet bills but the horse survived.
A week or so after the 1958 storm a cleanup day was declared. Stores in De Leon, Comanche and throughout the county shut down and hundreds of people descended on Downing to help pick up the debris. Boards and timber were gathered and burned. Tin was collected from the fields. Destroyed fencing was rolled up and new fences constructed. Much of the storm’s ravages were erased from the fields if not from the peoples’ memories.
Some of the workers were able to retrieve many of Mamie Dell Hanson’s dimes as they worked through the fields. They also found the Bulova watch that had belonged to Treva Callison’s mother underneath a rock. That watch was still running at the time the aritcle was written in 1997. A photograph of Lannis Callison in a cowboy getup, still in the frame was found on the Gray Dairy on the other side of what is now Lake Proctor and some nine miles from the Callison home and debris was reported to have come down as far east as Whitney.
The damages included: the house (partly a log house) of Mrs. Elby Scott destroyed; old growth trees uprooted along Rush Creek to the Downing cemetery; damage to the house of Mr. and Mrs. Houston Beaty; Roy Loudermilk lost his car shed and out building; Rex McGinnis’ pecan orchard 100% loss; Floyd Bush house and barn with 300 bales of hay destroyed; John Dean Scott and George H. Loudermilk pecan orchard badly damaged; Jim and Treva Callion house completely destroyed; Jack Vineyard home destoyed; Ollie Loudermilk House and barn destroyeed; Roy Loudermilk house destroyed; R.V. Leslie home badly damaged; Van Mc Ginnis house destroyed; vacant house belonging to Ealter Earl Blue destroyed; Mattie Loudermilk home destroyed, W. E. Blue home destroyed; Sam Houston home destroyed. John Hanson home on the Leon destroyed; Casey Brinson lost a chicken house; Jim and Althea Wilkerson house damaged; Painter chicken coops destroyed.