The recent spate of bad weather in DeSoto County caused the Time Traveler to take a trip back in time to the days when tornadoes suddenly appeared out of a clear blue sky and left death and destruction in their wake.
There were no warnings and no weather forecasts or radar to warn residents to take cover more than a century ago. These storms, like the ones we recently experienced, often caused great damage and even loss of life.
DeSoto County has experienced several major tornadoes down through the nearly two centuries of its existence.
The DeSoto Times newspaper gave an account of a particularly destructive tornado in DeSoto County back on April 12 of 1881. The newspaper story came out in the Thursday, April 14 edition.
“On Tuesday evening about four o’clock, a terrible, black, murky-looking cloud made its appearance in the west and northwest. As it approached this place, it gathered volume, but turning east one mile north of here, went on its flying course of destruction. The first damage reported is that of the unroofing of Oliver’s Chapel, about a mile and a half west of here. The next damage related is that of the blowing off of the gin house and several outhouses, fences and trees on the premises of J.C. Riley, one mile north of here.
The cyclone jumped about one mile east to Mr. Newsom’s place where it blew down cabins, fences and timber, and severely wounding three Negro (African-American) women. The storm grew intense as it proceeded, utterly demolishing the cabins, fences and timber and killing a Negro child on Mr. Bank’s place.”
The newspaper story goes on to name the families affected by the spring tornado. The Danners’, Merritts’, Smiths’, Glenns’ and Johnstons’ places, “all were more or less damaged. At Mr. Glenn’s place, the wind swept away his dwelling and blew his buggy away, mushing it to atoms.”
“The next place we hear of the cyclone was at Dr. Lauderdale’s, about five miles east, where it demolished all of the buildings, fatally wounding Dr. Lauderdale and breaking the leg of Mrs. Lauderdale, and slightly wounding Mr. George Sanders.”
The account of that terrible 1881 tornado would make the front page of the New York Times, including listing the death of Dr. Lauderdale, an esteemed citizen of the county.
Another tornado wreaked havoc on November 22 of 1900 when a total of 28 lives were lost across the Mid-South.
“The tornado’s devastation was so great that it will take weeks to calculate and repair it. At Hernando, a white man was killed and a Negro man fatally injured by flying debris,” the newspaper of the time reported. It seems that tornado, nearly 120 years ago, took the same path as the most recent tornado.
“Skirting Arkabutla, the wind swept through the hills and struck Hernando, where four stores once stood and one four-story brick structure, were crushed. Fire broke out in the wreckage and destroyed what remained of the buildings. One of the timbers of the wrecked buildings was carried a half-mile through the air and smashed through the roof of the county courthouse.”
The newspaper carried vivid descriptions of the carnage and devastation caused by the tornado.
“Numerous sawmills, several residences and hundreds of Negro cabins were blown away. At Love Station, J.S. Doney, was crushed by flying debris.”
The last line of that newspaper story hits close to home. At modern-day Love community, residents experienced sweeping damage caused by the tornado, then as now.
Tornadoes continued to make their mark throughout the century. In November of 1973, one person died and more than 50 were injured in a tornado that struck Horn Lake and Southaven. On Feb. 5 of 2008, a tornado touched down on the campus of Southaven High School. Roughly 30 windows were blown out of the high school. Warehouses along Stateline Road and Airways Boulevard were damaged, with the Cooper Lighting Plant being destroyed. Homes in Carriage Hill subdivision reported structural damage.
On Nov. 24, 2001, more than 119 homes were damaged and 19 were destroyed in the Lewisburg community.
Now as then, residents banded together to help one another recover from the after-effects of the storm.
Throughout nearly two centuries, the winds of change have buffeted, rattled and shook the nerves of DeSoto Countians, but these “storms of life” have never destroyed the goodwill nor the resolve of the people to pick up the shattered pieces and rebuild their lives.
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.