1957 Walker County Tornado

| December 6, 2009 @ 8:00 am | 15 Replies

Matt Graves is from Oneonta. He is a friend of the blog and loyal WeatherBrains listener. He told me about a tornado that hit Walker County in 1957. His grandmother handed stories down about the tornado. Those stories had a big influence on Matt. I asked him to share his recollection of those stories with us.

From Grazulis’ Significant Tornadoes:
November 17, 1957
An F4 tornado moved northeast from Cross Roads, 6 miles northwest of Jasper, to 1 mile north of Manchester. A new ranch house was picked up, blown apart and scattered. Three people were killed in that home. The fourth death occurred in another home.

Matt’s story

Ever since I was a kid, I used to hear my great-grandmother talk (every time we went to the storm cellar) about two big tornado days. One was of course April 3rd, 1974. The other was a day in November 1957 – “the tornado that killed the Bradfords”. It came through Redmill/Saragossa, the town I grew up in. It happened just a few miles up the road. The Bradford family had just had that new house built, she said. Mr. Bradford saw the tornado at the last minute and told everyone to get on the floor. But this tornado was a monster. I learned later it was rated an F4 (retroactively – the Fujita Scale wasn’t invented until the 1970’s I don’t think). My great-grandmother had an old newspaper where someone took a picture of this thing – it looked SCARY. Wish I knew where that newspaper was. I believe it was in Jasper’s Daily Mountain Eagle the day after.

Granny’s cousin Trent had come up to her house and said, “You know we’re under a tornado warning, don’t you?” He was a pretty sharp guy, from what I gather. In those days, there was very little broadcast meteorology. According to all the old folks, you never heard about it on television (severe weather), and you were lucky if you heard it on the radio. Anyway, Granny had no idea there was a tornado warning and went to a friend’s storm cellar. She saw the ambulances carrying the injured/dead after it was over. She said this and the 1974 outbreak were what convinced her to have a storm cellar built by her house. (I spent many long nights in there – great memories actually.)

Anyway, there was an eyewitness that I talked to later – a lady named Carol Ann who taught Sunday school where my Mom took me to church at the time. Her and her father were in their storm pit as the tornado passed, and unless I’m terribly mistaken, they saw the tornado pick up the Bradford house and “explode” it over Highway 5. Everyone but a girl who was visiting the family was killed instantly. The visitor girl lasted maybe a week in the hospital, long enough to tell about it, and then she died. That’s how they knew the Dad had seen the tornado and told everyone to get down on the floor.

That story always gave me chills . . . Carol Ann (and this was also in the Mountain Eagle article) said that they stood with the cellar door open and watched the tornado up to a certain point (I’m pretty sure – no joke – they described some cows being blown around – haha so I was familiar with that concept way before the movie Twister) and then ducked for cover in there. They said they were scared. They said it felt like the ground was shaking, and the walls of the cellar seemed to be moving in and out.

My mother later took me to an embankment where there was an old dugout/storm cellar built into it. A trailer sat up on the hill. But my Mom said, “My mother used to live there – your Grandma Karen. And when that tornado hit . . . that was the storm cellar she got in.” She told the story pretty well, but since I later got to hear it straight from Grandma I’ll hold off on the details. I expressed surprise that this cellar wasn’t completely underground, and my Mom said that the dirt had really worn away from it over the years. (If you go see it now, it’s VERY eroded. I’ve seen it lately. I doubt anyone is actually using it?)

That story festered in my mind for so many years, and then finally earlier this year I ended up living with my Grandma Karen for a short time. And every time we would go under a severe weather watch and she’d see me tracking stuff and/or calling in a storm report, she would bring up that story. She never got tired of telling it, and I never got tired of listening. I can’t really hope to do it justice . . . there is nothing like a firsthand account. But basically the story she told was . . .

Her stepdad, Elmer Burton, had heard from someone that a tornado was coming. And it was looking very, very stormy. It had been really muggy all day. And he either heard or saw a bad storm approaching. He decided it must be a tornado. At that time, they lived in a good frame house . . . (it’s not there now) . . . but he wanted to get everyone underground. Grandma was just a little girl, and she didn’t know what a tornado was. She said it was just a lot of wind. Elmer grabbed her and all her siblings and ran them down to the cellar. Before, Grandma said, they had only used the cellar as a sort of playhouse. As they were running to the cellar, the wind got so strong that it was hard for her stepdad to walk through it, carrying them. All sorts of debris was flying through the air, and several people had rushed to their house to also get into the storm cellar. Grandma says she remembers debris swirling around her . . . I’m not sure what to make of that . . . that’s pretty scary. I wonder if she was actually in the outer edges of the tornado . . . maybe it was one with multiple vortices . . . ? I don’t know. But she described all kinds of trash and sticks and leaves and stuff swirling around them as they made their way to the cellar. She also described an old man that had his wallet sucked out of his pocket as he was getting in the cellar. He was actually reaching for it trying to get it back!

Once they finally got in the cellar, though, the tornado was right on top of them. Elmer tried to open the door so he could go back for “Mama Annie” (wish I could remember exactly how she was related – either grandmother’s mother or grandmother’s grandmother – sorry just can’t remember), who thought it was beneath her dignity to go even to the storm cellar without her best Sunday Coat and was still in the house getting dressed. (I find this hilarious . . . you can’t make this stuff up . . . I have an interesting family line . . . haha!)

But the door was kept shut by the force of the wind. And they were all crying, because they thought she was in the house and had been blown away.

So after it’s all over . . . they are able to open the door . . . and they get out, but they’re all upset, because Mama Annie must be dead. They went into the house crying . . . and . . .

There sat Mama Annie fussing about how the storm had ruined her best Sunday Coat! They all ran up to her just glad she was alive, but she was pretty aggravated. (They say she was a tough old woman . . . I’d believe it.) She had been on her way to the storm cellar when the wind had picked her up and thrown her down into the mud. So she had simply stormed back into the house – no pun intended.

Apparently the house did not take a direct hit. I believe Grandma said it knocked the window out of her room and damaged that side of the house, and I’m pretty sure it was their garage that took a direct hit and was completely destroyed.

But I just thought that was an awesome story . . . and of course I only thought to send it to you and the WeatherBrains crew after she told it so many times and I remembered J.B. Elliott saying that was his FIRST DAY at the National Weather Service, or I think they called it the U.S. Weather Bureau back then. What a first day! No wonder he was so good . . . interestingly, my Dad was just down to visit and listened to you guys’ recreation of 1974’s outbreak not long ago . . . and when he heard J.B. – he said, “Whoa! That brings back some memories! I heard that guy on the radio that night! And I used to hear him a lot when I was a kid . . .”

But I thought Mr. Elliott might really get a kick out of Mama Annie’s reaction because he said he never encountered an angry storm victim . . . they were all just grateful to be alive. And I would always laugh thinking about her . . . ironically my brother Seth who is about six foot two or so and weighs 250+ pounds and is just not afraid of much, especially not storms . . . also had a close shave with an (E)F4 tornado this year – he’s going to school in Murfreesboro. I remember trying to tell him it was gonna’ be a bad day, and he said, “I looked on the internet – they’re just saying rain.” And his teacher got everyone into this underground tunnel on the campus (MTSU) . . . even so, he raved to me about it later and said, “Oh my God Matt, that was the most intense storm I’ve ever seen!” He didn’t see the funnel, but just the winds/hail/lightning were enough to really shake him up. So now I have two close family members who lived through an (E)F4! WOW. Although my brother had a fairly close call (found out the tornado track was just a few blocks from the building he was in) . . . Grandma’s was even closer. It was really a matter of seconds. Although Mama Annie made it out okay (haha) there are no guarantees in a situation like that, and Elmer’s quick thinking and actions may very well have saved a generation of lives there.

Odd thing is . . . she is not afraid of tornadoes much now, even with such a vivid experience at such an early age. She does, however, have a healthy respect for them . . . and most of my kinfolks up that way DON’T. They would sit in a trailer and play Monopoly during a tornado warning. But . . . she was in it . . . she got about as close as you can get and live to tell about it . . . never even meaning to. (I’m . . . almost jealous.)

Thanks Matt! Great account. An editor’s note: That actually isn’t J.B. first day at the U.S. Weather Bureau. He went back and looked at the records. There actually was a tornado in Walker County on J.B.’s first day, but this wasn’t the same one. – Bill Murray

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Bill Murray is the President of The Weather Factory. He is the site’s official weather historian and a weekend forecaster. He also anchors the site’s severe weather coverage. Bill Murray is the proud holder of National Weather Association Digital Seal #0001 @wxhistorian

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  1. Vic at Black Creek/Scrougeout says:

    Great story, Matt!

  2. Paul Sullivan says:

    I very well remember that storm. I was nine years old. We observed it from a distance. Some of the folks that was right next to the storm path (close to the Bradfords) later became part of our family. I have also heard lots of tales of the storm.

  3. That was a really interesting story Matt and thanks to Bill Murray also, weather history is one of my favorite parts of the blog.

  4. Kim Mann says:

    My mother told this story also. Apparently it made a very large impact on the people of Walker County. It was always very interesting to me but also very scary. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  5. db says:

    I’m not from this area originally, but have heard my great-aunts share accounts of bad storms. I grinned when you said about one relative who wanted to be dressed for the occasion! That was a sentiment from that generation, i think. Thanks for the good story.

  6. db says:

    My grandma was visiting relatives in West Virginia when my mom was young (3-4) and there was such a bad storm that the cabin blew apart and they had to walk many miles to the main road. It left a lasting impression. Every time there was a thunderstorm she ran to the basement and took a flashlight with her. Probably why i am interested in weather now.

  7. Matt G. says:

    So . . . it wasn’t the same tornado after all . . . oh well. Thanks for posting it anyway. Apologies to J.B. Elliott on that one. Still fascinating to me though how people reacted differently to storms then . . . they had very little warning but Grandma’s storm pit was sort of open to the community. Nowadays we have awesome warnings but people usually think about getting to their hallway or bathroom during a tornado . . . you’re lucky if you have a friend with one of those old storm pits. Just interesting . . . glad some other people thought so too.

  8. Dewy Bradford says:

    My father Homer Bradford was not home that day, had gone fishing with some friends.

    He was very touched by this story, thank you very much for remembering and sharing.

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