Downing Tornado May 22,1938
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At least three times over the years tornadoes have struck the Downing area.
The first recorded tornado occurred between Downing and Ebenezer damaging the home of Whit Sides at around 10:30 a.m. on Friday, April 25, 1924. It un-roofed his porch, stripped most of the shingles off his house and demolished his new cow shed, chicken house, and seed house. It left a 50 to 60 yard wide path of destruction through his orchard and into the orchard of Mrs. T.H. Strube. Luckily, it went back into the clouds without doing any additional damage and no one was injured.
On Sunday, May 22, 1938, a tornado left a two hundred and fifty yard wide path of destruction over a distance of more than five miles beginning roughly just north of the confluence of Copperas Creek with Sweetwater Creek where they form Rush Creek, and ended just north of New Hope.
This tornado came out of a small cloud that moved northeast from Round Mountain just south of Sidney. It quickly evolved into what today is called a super cell. The W.H. Dean family first began to watch the slow moving cloud as it came toward them from the hill nine miles away. Mr. Dean noticed the wall cloud first form a wedge, then more of a cone and finally develop into the familiar funnel shape of a tornado. He indicated that it first attracted his attention because of its “uncanny roar”.
Just like the 1958 cyclone, the 1938 version formed and first touched down on property belonging to Vasco Lee, in the Copperas Creek bottom land near today’s County Road 419. It tore through his fields and pecan orchard before it slowly meandered between the homes of Fate Mull and Bill Cotrell. It did not touch either home but tore up their fields and timber before emerging near the road at the Dean farm. In between the Lee farm and the Dean’s, the tornado had appeared to Mr. Dean to have lifted into the air.
The tornado then dipped down moving along the ground and was plainly visible to the Deans when it reached the base of a rise near the southwest corner of their land. It headed straight for their home taking out the watermelon patch along the way. The Dean’s neighbors, Rex and Lillie Belle McGinnis and their young daughter Juanita were visiting the Deans. Both families immediately headed for the cellar. Mr. Dean’s seventy-seven year old mother Ida, was also living at the house and it took some time to help her into the cellar. Dean and McGinnis watched the funnel approach from the top step, closing the door of the cellar as the tornado was 200 to 300 feet away.
In what Mr. Dean described as taking less than three minutes, they opened the cellar door only to find the house completely gone. Their household goods were torn to shreads and scattered for miles. The barn was no more than a pile of wood with the feed and seed scattered about. ”The trees which a few moments before had been covered with leaves, were stripped of their foliage and twisted and broken, articles or shreds of household goods hanging on the stark bare branches.”
Both the McGinnis’ car and the Dean family pickup were lifted into the air and deposited more than a thousand feet away. The impact of the vehicles hitting the ground left craters in the field. The vehicles which had been parked an estimated eight feet apart before the storm hit, ended up only a few feet from each other when they came down.
Mr. Dean’s heavy riding planter and cultivator which was setting in his yard very near the vehicles, was found a quarter of a mile away in the McCrary pasture. This team pulled, single row planter had a wooden tongue and press choke while the rest of the unit was steel. The tornado apparently did not lift the planter high into the air as it did the vehicles. Every 15 to 20 feet, its steel wheels would carve a circular pattern in the ground as it was spun through the fields. It would then lift momentarily only to repeat the pattern time and again on its windy journey.
Ida Dean had a trunk in her bedroom where she kept many of her valuables including a purse containing $50 and her deceased husband Reubin’s pocket knife. The keepsake knife was laying on the bottom of the trunk with its blades closed. The knife was found with the blade open, stuck in a tree about forty yards from where the home had stood. The knife was left in the tree for some time for the curious to see.
The opened pocket knife was one of several freakish occurrences along the tornado’s path. The storm alao blew a foot long piece of plank, probably from the Dean home, through a green limb of an oak tree.
Roughly 100 to 150 yards from the W.H. Dean Home was the almost new home of his son and daughter-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Hezzie Dean. Hezzie built the three room house about 1935 as a temporary home but he did not mean it to be quite that temporary. The storm picked up the house, tore it to bits and scattered its remains and furnishings across the countryside. It left part of the flooring of the house with a butane refrigerator standing upright untouched. A beautiful pecan tree that stood right in the path of the storm between the two Dean homes, remained virtually untouched while only a few feet away large oak trees were stripped of leaves and limbs and even the bark on the trunks of the trees was loosened.
Hezzie and his wife had gone to Hamilton that Sunday morning to visit her family. It wasn’t until he reached Downing and was repairing a flat tire that he was told of the tornado.
Some time well after the tornado, Hezzie and his brother-in-law from Graham decided to see if the old refrigerator could be made to work. After some minor tinkering, it quickly returned to making ice. That cooler continued to be used by the Deans until he returned from the service in 1947. They even moved it with them to Oklahoma.
The next target of the tornado was the George Daniell farm two miles north of the Dean place. As the cloud drew closer the sky grew so dark that Mr. and Mrs. Daniell could not see to go to the cellar. They were lucky, for the slow moving storm missed the house by eight to ten feet, initially leaving them to think there had only been a very strong wind. In fact the twister had destroyed their barn, fences, trees and half their garage as well as damaging their crops.
Three or four hundred yards away stood the rock veneer home of John Lightfoot. The Lightfoot family saw the approaching tornado and made it to the cellar. When it reached their house, it tore the roof off the house and threw rock and bricks from the flues and facade into the interior of the house thereby destroying most of the furniture and fixtures. The walls were left standing.
The family of Walter E. Shupp was renting a new house on the John Terry homestead. The previous house had burned only a few months before and had just been replaced. Shupp, his wife and seven children watched the approaching storm and headed for the cellar. Mr. Shupp stood in the door of the cellar and watched the tornado as it rolled up the hill from the Sabano bottom. He closed the door only moments before the storm hit. Within a minute the family was trapped in the cellar as debris and logs crashed down on the cellar door and pushing the side inward. Neighbors eventually reached the family and got them out, but like the others, their home was gone. The tornado completely cleared the home-site. Not a piece of timber remained, yet it left the large trees in the yard virtually untouched.
In the front yard of the Shupp residence was a 3,800 pound Fordson tractor and about ten feet away was a Ford truck. The tractor was lifted into the air and deposited more than 500 feet to the north while the truck was blown more an 100 feet in the other direction. The tornado then moved north along what is now County Road 445.
The William Keith home located about a mile west of New Hope was the last to be hit. The Keith family occupied the former Sinclair home. Like the Deans and Shupps, when they emerged from the cellar the home and surroundings had been totally destroyed.
At the Keith home the path of the storm was pointing directly toward the southwestern edge of De Leon two miles away, but after it passed the intersection of what is now east bound County Road 447, it crossed 445 and moved east just across from the New Hope school and church. After traveling a short a short distance it lifted into the clouds and dissipatted. Both the 1938 and 1958 tornadoes began their trail of terror on the farm of Vasco Lee but each took a different path its conclusion.
Perhaps the fact that the tornado was on a Sunday when families were together and near their homes and cellars may been the saving grace in that no one died or was seriously injured. The same can’t be said for the wildlife, farm animals and in particular, the chickens. The poultry industry had become a big business in the county in the Depression and hundreds of chickens were killed, many being picked clean and strewn along the path of the tornado. The John Lightfoot family had to destroy their horse following the storm. It had been so crippled and maimed that there was no way to save it.
Perhaps the most intriguing tale of the two storms occured around 1995. Hezzie Dean had attended the Suez school for eight years, Downing for two and spent two years in De Leon where he graduated in 1928. In honor of his graduation, his parents bought him a gold Walton closed face pocket watch, engraved with his name and graduation date. That watch had been left in his house when he and his wife went to Hamilton. It was lost in the storm.
About 1996, Jerry McGinnis was working a field northeast of where Hezzie’s house had stood. His cultivator turned up an old pocket watch. Dropped by the the tornado of 1938 in that field and probably plowed under and over many, many times, Hezzie’s watch had finally resurfaced. Most of the numbers on the dial were faded but the engraving was still clear enough that Jerry was able to determine to whom it belonged. A high school graduation gift from almost seven decades earlier and lost for almost sixty years made it back to the DHS graduate. Jerry is the son of Rex and Lillie McGinnis, the couple who shared the cellar with Hezzie’s parent. Hezzie was 86 years old when the watch was returned.