TWISTER! A History of Tornados in Laurens County

A History of Tornados in Laurens County

Folks in these parts rarely worry about hurricanes. Only occasionally do their dying remnants ever cause any concern - perhaps a heavy rainfall, high winds and several fallen limbs. Until recently, most of us were not concerned with tornados either. Though tornados are not unheard of in our area, only twenty five twisters have been documented in the last two hundred years, the last two years have
reminded us of the devastating damage which these spring cyclones can reek upon us. When we lost two of our citizens and more than a million dollars in damages this past Mother's Day weekend, the fascinating fury of the tornado can't be erased from our memories. The recent throng of powerful storms may be attributed by some as the result of global warming. Others may explain that these storms have always been with us and come in groups and cycles. This is the story of the documented tornados in the two-hundred-year history of Laurens County. 

The first documented case of a tornado in Laurens County came on March 28, 1810. A traveler reported " The citizens of Laurens County were awakened a little before sunrise with an incessant flood of rain, a violent wind and a frequent fall of trees." After twenty minutes every object around seemed to be threatened by one of the most violent tornados ever witnessed in Georgia. "So great has been its ravages, that whole forests have been laid prostrate, and some of the finest land in the state
rendered in a heap of ruins. Many of the best plantations have become unfit for immediate cultivation. Houses, fences and stock have been swept away or destroyed," the reporter continued. Many settlers of the county were left without a horse to plough with or a cow to milk. The tornado, considered to have been six miles in width, approached Laurens County from the northwest. 
On the 8th of April, 1831, a tornado of a few moments duration did  considerable damage to the buildings fences and shade trees of Dublin. No tornados were reported for forty four years until a cyclone traveled southeasterly along the Laurens-Wilkinson county line on March 15, 1875 doing minor damage here, but in Johnson County it was said that "Trees, houses, fencing of every description, wagons, carts, indeed everything within its two-hundred yard wide sweep, was torn into atoms. A number of gin houses were totally destroyed."
A series of strong tornados struck Georgia on February 7, 1878. The tornado did substantial damage sweeping everything before it. A subscriber to the Macon Telegraph reported, "Almost every house in its course was blown down. It is frightful to behold." The storms which traveled the entire width of the state resulted in several serious injuries to people.
A small twister passed over the southern edge of Laurens and Montgomery  counties on the evening of March 27, 1882 obliterating buildings, fences and trees along its one mile trek. S.H. Clark had every house on his place destroyed. H.B. Donaldson's fences and timber was shattered. The two-hundred yard wide tornado wrecked a two-hundred-yard-wide swath through Washington County. 
The most heralded tornado of the 19th Century appeared on April 22, 1883. Dozens of Georgia cities and cities around the Southeast were inundated with tornados. Just before dark and just before leaving Dodge county homes and farms in ruins, the mile-wide cyclone crossed the Dublin-Eastman Road where it destroyed the entire plantation of Lemuel T. Harrell. Every house on the Harrell place,
including his two-story home, kitchen, barns and stables, were swept away. Mr. Harrell and his wife were seriously injured. Mr. Harrell was beaten all over his body. His wife was thrown from the house and slammed against the ground. At the first news of the storm, there was little hope of her recovery. It wasn't until after the maelstrom subsided that one of the Harrell children discovered that one of his toes had been torn from his foot. All of the family's clothes, furniture and bedding was ruined. In Dodge County, a daughter of John S. Register and a widow Rogers were killed during the tempest. Mr. Adkinson was badly battered, but survived his injuries. 

In Laurens County, a witness reported, "Trees were torn from the ground and hurled hither and thither as mere straws." Another witness reported seeing "a vaporish cloud which seemed to descend within forty to fifty feet of the ground as the first indication of the storm. As the clouds became unusually black, lightning flashed and the thunder rolled. When the low rumbling noise similar to the sound of a freight train was heard, everyone knew a cyclone was coming. After all, there wasn't a train track anywhere in the county. 
Bob Coleman's tenant house was blown down as was the home of his landlord J.W. Noles. Thankfully the Noles family, who were inside their home when the storm struck, managed to extricate themselves with only minor injuries. Shuf Browning's house was gone. His kinsman "Dod" Browning's house was "blown to atoms." Most of Mr. Wiley Browning's fences were smashed and many of his cattle were killed. W.T. Coleman's houses were not spared the wrath of the storm. Every building on the place of Harlow Clark were missing their roofs. Nearly all of his hogs and cows were killed. His furniture and clothes were in shambles. George Towns' house was spared, but everything else was blown to smithereens. The worst damage reported came at the home of Isham Branch. When the funnel cloud dipped down, it destroyed every structure on the place and threw the entire Branch family out into the yard, except one child who was being held by a Negro servant and safely remained inside the collapsed home. Branch was struck in the head by a log and a nail driven into his foot by the force of the wind. Mrs. Branch was bruised from the top of her right shoulder down to her right foot. Dr. Stapleton and his family managed to escape with only minor injuries. William Clark's house was the last house reported to be demolished by the storm. J.I.D. Miller, who observed the damage first hand reported, "We can not undertake to describe the destruction of timber, cattle and property for a mile wide. We have seen it, and can not tell you anything more than where it went it has utterly destroyed all property." 
I.J. Fillis outlined other details of the storm.  He reported that N.C. Gillis's fences were torn down and that a Mr. Miller lost everything on his farm, except his home. Both of Arter Davis Sr. and Arter Davis, Jr.'s properties were severely damaged. Only one of five dozen head of their cattle was found alive. Mr. Curry's gin was blown down. Wylie Davis was struck in the side by falling timbers as his house fell upon him. Henry Town's ox cart reported to be "blown away and has not been heard from since." Seaborn Bracewell, who lived seven miles from the path of the storm, found a leather chair bottom from some unknown residence. Following the storm, neighbors, friends and those willing to help gathered at the home of Jack Clark to organize a movement to render assistance and help to the victims. After the calm, area residents began digging tornado pits where they planned to take shelter should another tornado ever pass their way. 

The old Governor Troup plantation was the target of a February 26, 1891 tornado near the community of Tweed. Considerable damage was done to outhouses and barns, along with several hundred trees, which were uprooted. On April 14, 1901, the Reedy Springs and Pinetucky communities were pounded by a five hundred-yard wide cyclone, which uprooted trees, leveled fences and blew houses down, thankfully, with no loss of life.
          Dexter was right in the path of cyclone of "unusual severity" on the afternoon of January 22, 1906. Those on the ground reported, " The Sun was blotted out and the darkness was so intense that no one could see for more than a few feet." The earliest known tornado in the last two centuries came without warning and blew over the school at Nameless, capturing the children and teachers inside. Logare Akin broke his leg and Lena Akin suffered injuries about her shoulders and head. Miss Benford, the teacher, tended to the many wounded until doctors J.E. New and W.B.  Taylor arrived. Dr. Taylor had been on his lot in Dexter when the storm hit. He grabbed a post and hung on for his life as the three-hundred-yard wide tornado passed over him. Nearly every chimney top and most of the trees in Dexter were downed. For the second time in several years, the Methodist church was blown from its block foundation and badly wrecked.

           Dudley was the target of a small tornado on the afternoon of June 22, 1925. Mrs. Dick Hodges was injured when a mile and a half wide storm passed along the Macon-Dublin Highway. Shade trees were uprooted and small buildings were damaged. 

On April 25, 1929, one of the worst tornados in the county's history struck the Dexter area,  killing two people and injuring two dozen more.  At the end of the day, the murdering storm had killed sixty persons and injured several hundred more in six Georgia towns.

In 1929, there was no Doppler radar. The only warning came when the southwestern sky turned as black as a moonless night.  The storm began near Cochran,  where five persons were killed and at least fifty were wounded.   It steam-rolled along a northeasterly course -  the way they usually go when they are up to no good - headed for a collision with the town of Chester.  Tall pines, which fifty years before had covered the sandy soil like grass on a football field,  were skinned like bananas.  The Chester School, a substantial building and the pride of the town, was lifted off its foundation and dumped flat on the ground a few feet away. C.A. Mullis never had a chance.  He was killed instantly when the funnel sucked him up and slammed him into a tree.

The storm turned a little more to the north, and headed straight for the Mt. Carmel community.  Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, one of the most modern and best equipped church buildings in the county, was totally destroyed.   The Mt. Carmel School and the teacherage, located across the road from the church, were amazingly untouched.  Several homes in the community were destroyed.  The J.D. McClelland home and that of Mrs. W.A. Witherington were destroyed. No one in the McLelland
family was harmed, but Mrs. Witherington, her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Milton Witherington, and an infant grandchild  were seriously injured.   Jim Dawkins lost his house and most of its contents. Thankfully and most mercifully, his wife and five children only suffered minor injuries.  Calvin Patisaul's house was destroyed. Almost  all of his large family suffered some type of injury, though none too serious.  Lee Floyd's wife was badly injured when her house was destroyed.  One vacant
tenant house and the vacant old Dave Fountain home were torn to pieces. Tornados never distinguish between occupied and unoccupied houses.

The storm picked up  in strength and rushed toward the Donaldson community two or three miles from Mt. Carmel.   The destruction of homes, worse than at previous points along the storm's path, suddenly became deadly.   A nine-year old daughter of W.J. Southerland was killed when her house was demolished.  Mrs. Dan Knighton and her baby, living in the Southerland home, were injured and taken to the hospital.    M. J.  Crumpton noticed the blackening southwestern sky near Dexter, jumped out of his Chevrolet, and ran to pick up the seven members of his family.  Crumpton then drove "like a bat out of Hades" for a few hundred yards to the home of his son-in-law.  After rescuing four more family members,  Mr. Crumpton drove as fast as could, but not as fast as he wanted to,  for two miles before coming to a settlement road.  He dashed through fields, branches,
and ditches,  barely reaching safety, just to the very edge of the storm's deadly reach. The family returned to their home, only to find that  it had been completely destroyed.   Parts of the house, useless now and  only a painful memory of more pleasant times,  were found on a hilltop a quarter of a mile away.  Many chickens were slaughtered in the maelstrom - a fate which was only hastened by the swirling winds.   The cows fared better, coming out of the storm virtually unscathed, oblivious to what had just passed them by.   Two tenant houses on the Joe Donaldson place were destroyed.

Just before the funnel lifted off the ground,  it reeked a cataclysm on the home of John Knight.  Mr. and Mrs. Knight were seriously injured, each blown some distance from the home and landing in different places.   Mr. Knight's scull was fractured, and his heart and that of his wife were broken forever.  Their baby was found dead, lying forty yards from the house  in a mud puddle, that had rapidly formed in the freshet accompanying the storm.  The brick pillars and the chimney of their house  were picked up and thrown around as if they were small stones.    Mrs. J.W. Thomas lost every building on her farm,  including her house.   J.Q. Pittman also lost his home and just about every thing he had.

Before leaving the county, the storm struck the Greystone Farms about a mile from Garretta.  One farmer was hurt.  A tenant house was destroyed.  The roof of the overseer's house was snatched completely off,  like the lid on a can of soup.   At that point,  the storm lifted off the ground -  headed toward Emanuel County,  where two were killed and several injured in Norristown.  Two others were killed further over in Emanuel County.   When the twister touched down for a third time, it became even more deadly than ever before.  Eighteen  persons were killed and many more were injured in Metter.  Thirty one  people lost their lives in Statesboro and over a hundred were injured.  Before it was finally over, four more persons were killed in South Carolina.  Tornadic activity continued in subsequent days across the Southeast.

B.H. Lord, President of the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad, the artery which had carried the life blood for the Dexter community for thirty or so years,  arranged for a special  train, which he sent to Dexter on the evening following the storm.  The seriously wounded were returned to Dublin for treatment.   Dublin doctors H.L. Montford, E.B. Claxton, Sidney Walker, and J.W. Edmondson rode the train to treat the  wounded in homes around the devastated community.   Dr. O.H. Cheek, County Health Director, worked all night with members of the local National Guard unit,  supplying the homeless with blankets, bedding, and cots.  Army trucks were converted into ambulances.   Countless women, with no formal training, became nurses - it  seemed the only natural thing to do.  When the comforters, healers, and those who just wanted to help out arrived back home in Dublin, they were greeted by over three hundred grateful and applauding citizens.
On Friday morning, when the sky showed no evidence of the previous day's unrelenting  fury,  property owners and local officials assessed the damages.   B.H. Lord, chairman of the disaster relief committee, witnessed the mass destruction first hand, along with Red Cross chairman H.R. Moffett, Red Cross secretary Mrs. Frank Lawson, and treasurer W.H. White.   Two little children were dead. Twenty five people were seriously injured.  The seven most seriously injured persons were carried to the Claxton-Montford hospital in Dublin.  Many more suffered minor scrapes, cuts, and bruises.   Crop and property damages , originally estimated at one hundred and twenty thousand dollars, were  revised to over three hundred thousand dollars. 

The local chapter of the Red Cross sprung into action.   A national officer of the Red Cross arrived in Cochran in the late afternoon.  The disaster became the first test of the disaster relief committee -  one they passed with flying colors.  Calls from the Dexter City Council and Laurens County officials went out for any type of help.  Senator Walter F. George introduced a bill to bring Federal relief to the devastated areas of Georgia.   A local fund raising effort was initiated by Laurens County, which donated one thousand dollars along with five hundred dollars by Dexter's neighbor city of Dublin.  Those amounts were nearly matched by local citizens with contributions from ten cents to the thirty five dollars and fifty cents given by Cochran Brothers Grocery.   The national Red Cross donated two thousand dollars for replanting the cotton fields.   Women from all parts  of the county  gathered together at the Chamber of Commerce to coordinate fund raising efforts and make plans for distributing supplies and necessities.  Mrs. Frank Daniel served as chairwoman of the Dexter ladies. 

A second deadly storm struck Laurens County on the morning of February 6, 1942. Farm demonstration agent Effie Lampkin was giving a program in a Montrose Church when a tornado smashed the building, killing Mrs. Lampkin, "Uncle" Sandy Owens, and Sam Gibson.  Fifteen others were injured.   Two churches were destroyed in Montrose.  Another church in the Bethsaida community was razed to the ground.  Dr. William C. Thompson and two of his hospital staff rushed to the scene to set up a field hospital.   The barns of J.W. Whitaker were destroyed.  Wade Dominy, H.W. Wade and a host of Montrose residents lost their homes.

      The tempest maintained its intensity and  continued barreling toward the southeast as it first touched down in Dublin in Stubbs Park, uprooting or twisting off the tops off at least seventeen trees. The walls of the recently burned Ritz Theater collapsed and plummeted into the roof of the adjoining Claxton Drug Company.  Miss Jeanelle Chivers, who was working in her father's Grain Company, suffered minor injuries when timbers fell upon her.  Mrs. Gresham Bracewell was severely injured when part of the third story of the old Four Seasons Building, then occupied by the McLellan's store  at the northwest corner of South Jefferson Street and West Madison Street, collapsed on top of her.    Power was off for more than two hours and phone service was out as well.  Members of the State Guard patrolled the downtown area to prevent looting and to warn pedestrians and drivers of hazardous conditions along the streets of the city.  

     The cyclone, the deadliest in the county's history and the only tornado ever to strike the downtown area, killed three people, injured more than three dozen people and seriously damaged more than forty homes.    Within a few days, the Dublin Minister's Association, led by the Rev. Grover Tyner of the First Baptist Church, established a fund to help repair the demolished churches in Montrose and

     Laurens Countians were indirectly affected by two other tornados in the 1950s.  A powerful storm struck Warner Robins on April 30, 1953.  The F4 cyclone, one of the first ever documented on film,   killed twenty people.  A child was killed in Dry Branch and another child victim died later in a Dublin hospital.    Airman Bobby Tennyson Robinson was killed by a tornado at Lawson Air Force Base, Columbus,Georgia on March 13, 1954.  Airman Robinson remained at his sentry post despite
the threats to his own safety and died a victim of the Cold War. 

     For the last fifty two years, the National Climatic Data Center has kept detailed records of all major weather events across the nation.  Through the use of more efficient equipment, more storms have been reported than in the previous century and a half. 

     On August 31, 1956, the first of two twisters struck the farm of B.F. Knowles three miles southwest of Dexter at about 4:00 p.m, sweeping the Knowles home from its foundation and carrying it for several feet, set it down softly, and breaking every dish inside.  A second smaller tornado struck the home of Mr. and Mrs. J.N. Skipper four hours later.  The Skippers and their three children survived the onslaught, but their porch and their roof was stripped from their home and their washing machine was blown 30 feet into the yard.  

     An F1, one hundred foot wide tornado tore up trees and houses for a mile in the Garretta community on March 31, 1961.  Obie Mackey, his wife and three children were sitting in the front room of their house, when the twister tore off the roof.  Their truck was thrown for a hundred feet and turned around when it took off the roof of their pump house.    Strips of their tin roof were found well away from the home wrapped around power lines and trees.    The windows of Turkey Creek Baptist
Church were sucked out by the cyclonic winds.    The homes of R.C. Williams,  J.W. Brinson and Felton Mimbs were also seriously damaged. Mrs. Marguerite Faulk, County Director of Civil Defense, spearheaded the effort to extend aid to the victims with the assistance of Red Cross chairman of Disaster Relief, H. Dale Thompson, and executive secretary, Louise Howard.   

          A smaller tornado struck along the highway northeast of Rentz on June 3, 1965.

A powerful F2 cyclone damaged property in the amount of a quarter of a million dollars in the early afternoon of  January 13, 1972.  The 200-yard wide storm began southeast of Dudley along Interstate Highway 16 and cut a path of destruction for eleven miles through the Moore's Station community and along Highway 441 North and Country Club Road.  No one sustained any severe injuries.  Thousands were left without power.    The second story of Tom Scott's home at Moore's Station was picked up and scattered.  Irene Coleman's home on Walke Dairy Road was flattened.  Dan Childer's home down the road was nearly split into two pieces.   Grady Wright's Christmas Barn on Hwy. 441 North sustained major damage.   Trees and power lines, as they usually do, fell victim to the winds which were measured in excess of 113 miles per hour. 

     Around 4:00 o'clock p.m. on the afternoon of July 13, 1977, an F1 tornado did $25,000 in damages along a mile path a few miles southeast of Dublin.

     After a respite of 18 years, a tornado returned to its familiar location near Dexter on the afternoon of May 15, 1995, doing minor damage along a one mile path along Hwy. 257 into the edge of Dexter. Marilyn Davidson was attending a prayer service at the Dexter Assembly of God Church when she heard a loud noise, looked out the window and saw a funnel cloud.  Everyone took cover and prayed harder.  All were safe, although Mrs. Davidson's car was struck by a huge limb.  An unconfirmed tornado was reported at Cedar Grove.  The massive flag on the flag pole at Farmer's Furniture's corporate offices was blown away, landing on a power line.  More than 7000 people in the Dublin-McRae-Eastman triangle were left in the dark.  
         A very minor twister struck 3 miles southwest of Dublin just before noon on March 6,  1996.   Just eight months later, and for the first time in history that two tornados struck the county in the same year, an F1 fifty-yard wide tornado began four miles west of Dexter and ended two miles north of town, doing an estimated $50,000.00 in damages.

Things were relatively calm for almost a decade until three days after Christmas in 2005, an F1 tornado touched down in the Ben Hall Lake area and cut a swath 300 yards wide ending a mile northeast of Lovett, doing an estimated $450,000.00 in damages.  Thirty minutes later, a smaller twister dipped to the ground five miles southeast of Cadwell and damaged only trees.

The early morning hours of April 15, 2007 saw the second documented multi-tornado weather event of the decade.  A small F0 tornado touched down about four miles north-northeast of Cedar Grove.  The 50-yard-wide storm stayed on the ground for nearly six miles.  Damage was estimated at $50,000.00.  Twenty minutes later a stronger F1 tornado touched down five miles southeast of Dublin and traveled for thirteen miles in a northeasterly direction, damaging seventy five thousand dollars in property before lifting from the ground eight miles East South East of Brewton.

Johnny and Mary Hightower were seriously injured when their home was demolished.   The Hightowers were bruised and battered and trapped in the ruins of their home.   Christopher Salinos and his family were much luckier.  The Salinos and their two small children miraculously survived the obliteration of their single-wide mobile home which flipped over several times during the gale.   At least twenty homes were damaged along with an equal or greater number of barns and storage houses.  Most of the damage was centered along Robertson Church Road.  

As is the case in the aftermath of every tornado and severe thunderstorm, the public servants of the Laurens County Sheriff's office, the Laurens County EMS, the Laurens County 911 Center, the Laurens County Fire Department, the Laurens County Emergency Management Authority, the American Red Cross, as well as a host of neighbors, friends and sincere volunteers, swarmed over the afflicted areas lending a hand, hope and a hug. 

The Mother's Day tornados of 2008 will forever be ingrained in the minds of Laurens Countians who are alive today.  A derecho of rotating supercell thunderstorms struck western Georgia just before 4:30 o'clock on the morning of May 11, 2008.  After destroying hundreds of homes and businesses in the western and southern regions of Macon, a line of strong thunderstorms and tornados beared down on Laurens County, merely two hours after they entered the state.    At the last count, the National Weather Service determined that at least ten and as many as an even dozen tornados struck the Middle Georgia area.

At 6:36, an EF0 tornado with winds below seventy two miles  per hour touched down near the intersection of Old Macon Road and Oscar Wynn Road.  Continuing on an easterly track along Evergreen Road, the twister damaged houses, buildings and a near forest of trees as it grew into an intense F2 storm with winds between 113 and 157 miles per hour as it crossed Highway 441 North and struck the home of James Tracy Clements and his wife  Lisa.  The Clements were inside their home as it was smashed against a wall of trees, killing the couple and running the  reported death total from all tornados to seven people.  Miraculously, their two grandchildren survived and sustained only minor injuries.   

At its maximum intensity, the tornado was measured at 250 yards in width. Over it's nine-mile long swath, the storm damaged two mobile homes, severely damaged six others  and reeked a cataclysm on thousands of trees before weakening as it crossed the Oconee River.  After reaching the Buckeye Community, the storm re-intensified to an F2 storm along the Buckeye Road.

Another storm, measuring winds of 73-122 miles per hour, touched down about a mile west of Tucker's Crossroads in northeastern Laurens County.  Several homes were destroyed.  One truck was reported to have been blown thirty feet by the strong winds.  The storm, calculated to be as wide as a third of a mile at times, sprinted on through Johnson County for a total of ten miles.   

Paling by comparison, a smaller F1 tornado touched down around 7:00 o'clock a.m. about a mile north of Lowery in the southern part of the county.  The half mile long, 200-yard wide gale, damaged one home and uprooted or twisted off numerous trees. 

After the maelstrom subsided, it was once again time for the public servants to spring into action.  Power and utility companies worked desperately to restore power and service to thousands of residents.  As curious onlookers paraded along the route of the storm, a battalion of good deed doers instantly appeared and began doing what good deed doers do.

Though all of us have a better chance of being killed in a car wreck or even by lightning, tornados and severe thunderstorms bearing tornadic velocity straight line winds are extremely dangerous.  Stay tuned to television and radio during the peak of tornado season, but remember tornados can strike our area any time during the year, though most of them occur between December and May.   But remember, tornados have hit Laurens County in every month except September, October and November when the air is traditionally not as moist.   All of us should be especially wary of the menacing tornado, especially in light of the fact that seven of the twenty-five documented tornados in our county's two-hundred year history  have struck our county in the last three years.