The Liberty Tornado

The Liberty Tornado
March 18, 1925

By John F. Creasy

Reprinted with permission

On March 18, 1925, there occurred an event which the Sumner County News called in its March 19, 1925 edition the, "...most appalling disaster in the history of Sumner County...." For many of our older citizens, it is a date whose horrors remain permanently etched on their memories. On that date so many years ago the fury of nature left a path of death and destruction across the northern part of Sumner County. Nature's vengeance appeared in the form of what many have come to call simply the "Liberty Tornado."

Unfortunately for the residents of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee River Valleys, Mother Nature had whipped up just the right ingredients for development of a powerful one-two weather punch that was destined to reach its zenith over the area. A deep low pressure system had developed over Arkansas on the morning of March 18th with a warm front extending east from it and a cold front trailing behind it to the southwest. As the storm moved to the northeast, the warm front brought abnormally warm temperatures along with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. A few hours later, when the trailing cold front collided with the warm, moist air, violent storms were born and a few of them gave birth to tornadoes. One such storm would roar across parts of Sumner County by days end. Sadly, the events in Sumner County were to be overshadowed by an even greater storm that was spawned by the same weather system that day. Spreading terror across the states of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana was the "Tri State Tornado," leaving over 600 people dead along its path.

Wednesday, March 18, 1925 had at first a peaceful day. The temperature was warmer than usual. That morning, the sun had been shining but the day grew increasingly cloudy as afternoon approached. Westmoreland resident Virgil Huntsman remembers working with his father, Robert "Bob" Huntsman in the Rock House Hollow area. The two had spent most of the day fencing when in the late afternoon they noticed a dark cloud forming in the western sky. Soon thereafter, it began to rain and the two hurried back up the ridge toward Westmoreland and their home. Before they arrived, the rain began to fall in torrents and the winds were blowing very hard. According to the Sumner County News, the storm clouds first appeared in western Sumner County at about 4:00 pm. At 5:30, the tornado made its first strike by touching down at the Keytown community near Buck Lodge. Almost immediately, the storm began its claim of victims. In Keytown the homes of Martin and Luke Key were the first to be hit. After the storm had passed, the rubble of Martin Key's house was destroyed by a fire that started when overturned lanterns ignited. A short distance away, Maltida Key, the 75 year old mother of Luke Key, lay on her sick bed. When the storm struck, she had no opportunity to escape and was killed along with her daughter-in-law, Maude. Luke Key and his four children all survived, however the children were injured so severely that they were sent to Vanderbilt Hospital.

The tornado soon demonstrated a certain trickiness to its behavior for which such storms are infamous. The family of Jim Brizendine lay huddled in their little home, hearing nothing but the the storm as it quickly approached. It was quickly apparant the tiny house would be no match for the storm as it appeared that any second it would be lifted from its foundation and smashed across the countryside. Instead, the storm hurled onto the house a four-foot round tree whose weight secured the structure and the family inside from an almost certain destruction.

The tornado continued its north-westerly path to the communties of Graball and Sulphura. On a hill between these communties sat the home of the Allison family and nearby, the homes of Henry Hughes and his son and daughter-in-law, Cleveland and Ellia Hughes.

Ella Hughes was home alone that fateful evening. From the southwest, she could hear the roar of the storm as it quickly approached. Not wanting to remain alone at her house, she struck out across the fields in the driving rain to reach the Allison home a half-mile distant. Through the terrible lightening and thunder, she stumbled toward her destination.

The family of Jim and Mary Nola Allison were eagerly awaiting the evening's meal. Tragically, it would be left uneaten, because the storm quickly unleashed its terrible fury upon them. Within a few horrifying seconds the father, mother and all six children, ranging in age from 6 to 19, lay dead, their bodies scattered in the debris of what just moments before had been their home.

Ella Hughes, who had so frantically sought safety at the home of her neighbors, the Allisons, also lay dead nearby. In a tragic twist of fate, her own home remained standing, virtually untouched by the tornado. The nearby home of her father-in-law, Henry Hughes, was completely swept away and he, too, was killed.

Next, the storm struck Angleatown, just south of Oak Grove. It was here that the tornado attained what the Sumner County News termed, "...the roar of a jungle monster ...gaining terrific speed as it caught its stride." Here, among others, the homes of Charles Durham, Joe Durham and Charles Holmes were destroyed. Charles Durham and his wife were killed along with their two-year old daughter, Lorena. Nearby, the wife of Joe Durham and his two children, Opal, age 16, and James Joseph, barely a year old, were killed. Joe Durham was away from home when the storm hit, surviving to bury his family.

Just down the road at the Charles Holmes house, the storm struck, killing his wife immediately. Charles Holmes would die the following Saturday as a result of his injuries. Their two daughters suffered frightfully, having had tree limbs and pieces of timber pierce their legs. Amazingly, both girls survived the storm.

From Angleatown, the storm continued toward the northeast through the Mt. Vernon community, then up the hollow that is today called Ernest Cates Road. Here the destruction was so great that the road was rendered impassable due to downed trees and scattered debris. Just beyond the hollow sat the Liberty Presbyterian Church, square in the path of the approaching tornado. At the very moment of impact with the church, Will O'Mera and his son stood atop the hill on which Westmoreland's present-day Sumner Drive runs. The younger O'Mera, who had served in World War I, had brought back from the war a powerful pair of military binoculars. Through these binoculars, the two were watching the progress of the storm some five miles to the west. Will O'Mera afterward said that he clearly saw the silhouette of the tornado as it struck the Liberty Church. The building, he said, was lifted intact high into the air only to suddenly explode, falling back to the ground, " a bunch of matchsticks..."

The storm soon reached the area around the present-day Clark's Market just off Highway 52, three miles west of Westmoreland Here, the family of Paul Harris left their house and quickly ran to a small outbuilding behind their home. Opening a trap door in the floor of the building, the family dropped down into a milk well for protection. Just before the storm hit, the small son of Harris heard the cries of a pet lamb outside. The boy called for the lamb and it, too, was soon down in the make-shift cellar. After the storm had passed, the family emerged safe but discovered their house was completely gone. Across the rood, a large field of wheat also bore the scars of the storm's passage: a path of 60 or more yards in width had been laid bare to such an extent that only dirt remained. The family's chickens could be seen running through the yard having been plucked of most of their feathers by the storm.

Down the road a short distance, the wife of Bledsoe Harris lay seriously injured. She was soon taken to the home of Jeff Meadors where she suffered in great pain. She finally died on April 22, 1925 of her storm-related injuries.

Hayden Graves, who was a small boy living with his family on Rabe Coates Road west of Westmoreland at the time of the storm, remembered the day well. Near his father's house stood a large log barn that was in the path of the storm. The winds were so violent the logs were hurled through the air, stricking the hosue. Though the house withstood the onslaught, Graves was able to vividly recall the incrediable sound that was made when the barn's massive logs struck the side of their house.

Just down the road, a home belonging to the Mandrell family was completely destroyed. The family had left the house before the storm hit and escaped uninjured.

At the corner of Rabe Coates Road and Bishop Troutt Road lived Albert Harris. After the storm had passed, Harris emerged from his house to find that the structure had been pushed several yards closer to the road and to his amazement, his Model T Ford had been lifted by the winds and hurled into the top of a large sugar tree standing nearby, where it remained hanging from the branches.

The storm crossed Old 31-E between Turner's Station and Westmoreland near the Troutt Cemetery. Here, the Henry Troutt house was blown across the road and destroyed. Among other items, bedding was blown onto the highway, completely blocking traffic. Passing over the hills to the northeast, the tornado rapidly approached the house of Tom Beasley, located on the present day, Tom Beasley Road.

Beasley was two miles away in Westmoreland working at a sawmill. Though the storm did not directly hit Westmoreland, many residents were frightened at the nearness of it. There was a large cellar located in the hillside behind the present day feed mill site. From his vantage point at the sawmill, Beasley observed several families running into the cellar and remarked that they looked like a bunch of groundhogs running into their hole. Beasley had no way of knowing that within in minutes of making this statement, his own family would become the storm' s latest victims.

Upon hearing the approaching storm, Ada Beasley, Tom's wife, gathered her large family in the downstairs hallway of their home. She told the children to lock arms with each other in an effort to protect them. At the height of the storm, the smallest child began to be pulled skyward by the winds. Seeing this, the mother reached up and grabbed the child's foot, pulling him back to the ground. One of the children, remembered seeing the back door explode from its hinges and come hurtling toward the huddled family. His next remembrance was waking up and finding himself laying in the field across the road from the house, covered in mud, and wondering just how he got there.

Much of the Tom Beasley house had been destroyed but, miraculously, none of the family had been killed. The next day, observers found a two by four plank that had once been a part of the house. The force of the wind had been so great that a butter knife was found to be protruding from the board, the knife having stabbed the wood almost completely through. Some three years later, while plowing a field, Tom Beasley was approached by a stranger rearing an envelope. Inside it was the deed to Beasley's property. The stranger claimed to have found the deed somewhere in the Rocky Mound community of Macon County, apparently deposited there by the storm.

Still full of life, the tornado roared across the valley of Garrett's Creek, blowing through the old Mandy Keen graveyard where it scattered large cedar trees and toppled numerous headstones. Passing over the hill beyond, the storm was soon at Pleasant Grove about a half-mile north of its churches and cemetery.

A few hundred yards south of the churches, Jarvis Burnley was attempting to milk the family's cows. His job was all but routine that evening because the winds were blowing so violently through the barn that he became fearful the cow might actually blow over on him. He soon finished and hurriedly made his way back to the family home unharmed. However, one of his sisters would not be so fortunate.

Mary Burnley Gilliam and her husband, Norman, lived about a mile and a half north of the churches. The family was at the dinner table having supper as the storm approached. When the winds began to blow too fiercely, Mary rose from the table to close the back door but was unable to do so due to the strength of the winds. As Norman came to help her, leaving their two sons, A.J. and Leon, sitting at the table, the storm struck. Much of the ceiling came crashing down, nearly breaking Mary's back and burying the two boys in a pile of rubble. At first, it was thought the boys were dead but neighbors who had come to render aid to the family dug through the rubble and found that the boys had been sheltered, mostly unharmed, by a large pile of quilts.

At this point, the storm began to rapidly lose steam so that by the time it reached the Trammel Creek area in Macon County, evidence of its passing was found only in the debris which fell from the sky. Articles of clothing, housing material, personal effects, and so forth hung from the highest branches of the trees in this area. By the time the storm had reached the state line, it began to regain strength where it eventually struck Holland, Kentucky killing another four people. The storm may also have been responsible for the deaths of eight more people in the Beaumont community of Barren County before finally coming to an end.

Almost immediately, relief efforts began to take place. Representatives from Sumner County's chapter of the Red Cross along with most of the area's doctors and nurses went to the region. An emergency hospital was set up in Gallatin at the home of Cy Love on Railroad Avenue. The national Red Cross, already severely strained by the effects of tornadoes further north including the Tri State Tornado, sent three representatives from Washington, D.C. to oversee these efforts. These officials were joined by hundreds of local citizens who donated both time and money to help their neighbors. School children who reported to their classes in Westmoreland the day after the storm were greeted with the message, "Gone to help cyclone sufferers." This was written on the chalkboard by Professor Odell Davis. The ladies of Bethpage sewed and delivered numerous articles of clothing over the next few days to those in need.

Among the relief efforts instituted by the Red Cross was the rebuilding of some of the destroyed structures. One such house to be built by the Red Cross is the present-day home of Wayne Akins on Highway 52 near the Liberty Church.

All disasters draw onlookers and this one was no exception. The Sumner County News reported that over the next several days following the storm, over 30,000 people had passed through the area causing extensive traffic jams in the Mt. Vernon and Angleatown areas. A young woman at the time, Turner ' s Station resident Eva Davis, full of adventure, wanted to see the storm ' s effects in the central part of the county. For the price of 10 cents, she hitched a ride on board a truck loaded with people passing by her house and traveled to the scene of greatest devastation. However, upon her arrival there, her spirit of adventure was quickly tempered with the realities of the very real human suffering she witnessed. She returned home later that day with a deep sympathy for her neighbors who had lost so much.

The sense of devastation was made all the more real two days after the storm on Friday, March 20th. Mourners gathered at the Mt. Vernon Methodist Church were ministers J. T. Brown, J. T. Parsons, S.D. Presnell and Rev. Neal conducted services. Seven coffins lay at the front of the church that day bearing the bodies of seven victims of the Liberty Tornado including the little one year old boy of Joe and Ida Durham. All seven victims were buried in the adjoining Mt. Vernon Cemetery.

In the end, 34 families were left homeless with 29 homes totally destroyed and another five homes partially damaged in the 18 mile long storm path. Property damage was estimated to have been greater than $100,000, an astounding figure for the time. A total of 27 Sumner Countians lost their lives to the tornado.

Though much of the physical evidence of the tornado has long since disappeared, there are still visible signs of the fear it struck in the hearts of those who survived it and viewed its aftermath. All one has to do is simply walk in the yards of most any home built in this area in the 1920's or 30's. With few exceptions, most of these older homes sport an underground storm cellar that could be quickly reached if ever the terrible horror were to drop from Sumner County's skies again.

John F. Creasy
PO Box 938 Westmoreland, TN 37186

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