First hand memories from Clay County Alabama of the historical 1932 Killer Tornado

It’s been over eighty years since the 1932 “cyclone” as it was called back then, cut a path of destruction throughout Clay County, Alabama leaving behind a trail of debris, numerous injuries, and even several deaths within the county alone.. hundreds statewide. Those who survived this monstrous storm may be numbered in years, but they will never forget…   tornado 2Sunday March 20, 1932 marked the arrival of the first day of Spring in Clay County, and what a memorable entrance it would make. The country was in the midst of an economic depression, and the outlook was grim for any turnaround soon. The big news making the headlines during this time was the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, whose body had still not been found. Easter was just around the corner, and the sweet smell of spring flowers were in the air. Everyone attended their regular church services, and made their rounds to neighbors and friends houses to do a little visiting. It was a way of life back then. Just another lazy Sunday in the South. Little did anyone know the very next day would change their lives forever… The very next day, Monday, March 21, 1932, Alabamians awoke to a sticky, very humid and windy day, with the temperatures reaching an unseasonable high of 80 degrees. Eyewitnesses who can still recall this day can tell you they will never forget the humidity of this day and how you can sense an almost impending weather situation approaching. Without any of the latest weather technology we are accustomed to these days, they had nothing more to go on but their fears…and those fears were about to come true…   tornado 9A massive storm system was wreaking havoc on southern states including Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and Kentucky, but in the end it would be Alabama who would bear the brunt of it. This significant weather day would go down in history as the greatest weather catastrophe to hit the state of Alabama, even worse than the red letter weather day of April 27, 2011. In mid-afternoon of this day, fifteen tornados struck within the state of Alabama, eight of which were later estimated to have F4 intensity, meaning winds likely exceeding 250 miles per hour. The official count from the U.S. Weather Bureau reported that 268 persons were killed in the state of Alabama with 1874 injured, a total of 315 deaths were reported in Alabama, Texas, and South Carolina. In Clay County alone, there were 12 deaths reported and over 200 injuries, but this number is believed to have been even higher. Just after darkness fell on this fateful day in Clay County, a tornado touched down below Ashland, cutting a path through the following communities: Bowden Grove, Bellview, and Barfield. It is probable the same tornado remained on the ground for 30 miles or more as it made its way throughout Clay County, darting in and out, with little areas in its path unscathed due to extremely brief periods where the twister would recoil to the sky only to regain its ground with increased intensity. This path that only affected Clay County was a small part of the overall devastation however, because the overall path  stretched some 400 miles between Alabama and Georgia. tornado 8The twister was thought to have F4 or greater intensity, judging from the path of devastation it left behind. Eyewitnesses reported hearing a tremendous roaring, as the night sky lit up as though it were daylight with continuous lightning that left as quickly as it came. Widespread damage was reported within the county. Within minutes after the deadly tornado has passed over, eyewitnesses reported the sky became miraculously clear again, with the moon visible and beautiful twinkling stars carpeting the night sky. On this night, after many shaken residents had gathered their wits about them, they grabbed lanterns and set out on foot to assess the extent of the damage and to also to check on their friends, relatives and neighbors. The storm’s path was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Homes were completely swept away as if they had never existed. Pine needles and sage grass were infused into tree trunks from the massive winds. Eyewitnesses accounts also recalled chickens were even stripped of their feathers. And surprisingly there were things that were untouched in these same areas. For example, in one home there was a bowl of freshly gathered eggs that had the centerpiece of a table were found approximately 200 yards outside and not one single egg was broken. As always, in the midst of a tragedy, our citizens came together after this deadly storm, thus proving how Clay County gained its name as the “Volunteer County”. Everyone who was able immediately went to work. Search parties were formed and many would spend the remainder of the night sifting through the wreckage of many destroyed homes searching for survivors, and in some cases, digging out dead bodies. Every one of the doctors in the county made numerous house calls, treating the wounded as best they could, even though it was difficult to make their way through the rubble and devastation. And after it was all over, people joined together to help those rebuild the homes that had been ravaged by the wrath of the cyclone. tornado 5One of the hardest hit areas was the Bellview community in Barfield, where the largest death toll of the county occurred, wiping almost an entire family. The Birchfield family would lose five of their family members: Willard, Buell, Larry Dell, and Lucille. Other fatalities in this area included Leslie McKay and Pauline Garrett. After the storm, Clay County Courthouse opened its doors as a refugee center, where those who were left homeless and injured parties would seek shelter. Sadly, it was also used as a morgue. Other surrounding counties also suffered tremendous damage. The city of Sylacauga was literally blown away, as the mammoth twister cut right through the heart of the storm’s path, where many antebellum homes were leveled. The city of Talladega would also sustained heavy damage. This historical day is carved into the memory of those who survived this monstrous storm. And even though these victims are past their golden years, many can still recall  this day’s events and how it all unfolded just as though it was yesterday. But I’ll just let them speak for themselves as told in their words…

  Thomas J. Whatley

It appeared as any other cloudy day, but the air was stiff and still. I was a 14 year old 8th grader and had not been home from school long before the storm hit. That afternoon, we had went about our usual farm routine; feeding the livestock, milking cows, etc. We did not the animals seemed more excited than usual. Darkness has just appeared when we heard a slight roar, which continued to grow louder. I remember the roar sounded like a dozen freight trains. During this time, our house became as light as day and was shaking like it was going to pieces. All of these events lasted for maybe a total of two minutes, but it seemed like much longer. After the storm had passed, my dad and I went to survey the damage. The livestock were all unharmed and there were some loose planks on the barn. We decided to check on our neighbors, Miss Lula and Effie Perry. Their home was heavily damaged and unlivable, but none of them were injured. While we were talking to the Perrys, one of their neighbors ran up and said that an injured Harold Birchfield, my first cousin, had crawled about one-fourth mile to report their house had been destroyed. Harold also reported that he had been able to locate his mother and his youngest sister, but he did not know the whereabouts of his brother, Buell, or his two sisters, Mary Dell or Lucille. My father left immediately for the Birchfield place to join in the search efforts, while I went to my Grandfather Watts house. I also recall our nearest neighbors, the Bud Knight family had also lost their house. Thunderstorms soon rolled in again and continued throughout the night, as did the search party. They were able to locate Aunt Celia ( Birchfield) and youngest sister, Myrtie and took them to Grandfather Watts’ house, along with Harold (Birchfield). As I recall, Aunt Celia had suffered a broken hip, dislocated shoulder, and several other serious injuries. Myrtie, was five years old, had suffered no broken bones, but had sand and dirt driven through her skin. Harold had a broken leg, glass driven in his skin, and major bruising. tornado 1 Harold gave me his recant of the moments leading up to the tragedy. He said his Uncle Willard ( Birchfield) heard the roar, opened the door, and saw the tornado approaching. Willard yelled to the rest of the family to get out of the bed and take cover when it hit the house. Harold said the next thing he remembered was being in the air and looking down in the fireplace. He thought he must have been knocked out for a few minutes, because he awoke to his mother’s ( Celia) and sister Myrtie’s cries and was able to locate them because of those cries. Seven of the Birchfield  family members were blown in a counterclock wise direction approximately 100-150 yards from the house. The search party was finally able to locate Uncle Willard and Buell, both under and large, uprooted tree about 50 yards west of their house. Buell had appeared to killed instantly, but Willard was unconscious when found. He died the next day from severe head injuries. The two girls, Mary Dell, age 14,  and Lucille, age 11, were blown across the road, about 50 feet from their father. It was evident they had died instantly. The tornado passed one-fourth of a mile from our home. And even though I am a World War II veteran, I still remember it as being the most frightening experience of my life.

Morine Horn Stringfellow

I was a young woman living in my family home about three miles west of Ashland with my father and three siblings, ranging in age from 13, to late twenties. On the night of the tornado, threatening weather had sent the entire family to the storm pit where we spent a good deal of time. When the lightning seemed to decrease, my father declared it safe for us to return to the house. This must have been the proverbial calm before the storm because just as we were closing the front door, the tornado struck without warning. My brother tried to hold the front door closed, but was blown across the room. I grabbed my younger sister about the time the chimney came down into the bedroom, and knocked a large dresser over onto us. I remember hearing my father saying “ Kids, we are gone!” The house was knocked off its foundation and badly damaged but none of my family was seriously injured- just a broken finger, skin lacerations and lots of bruises. We exited the house through the bedroom window and walked barefoot to an Uncle’s house about a mile and a half away. tornado 6 When we returned, some unusual effects were found, one being a crock of eggs that had been on the kitchen sideboard was now sitting in the front yard. Neither the crock or the eggs were broken, and the crock still remains in the family today. We lived in the storm pit and in a tent in the front yard, and ate our meals in the smokehouse while neighbors helped rebuild our home, which continued to be occupied for many years. It was recently torn down.

 Don Keith Ingram ( reporting what he was told by his father, Gifford ingram, now deceased)

The storm came on March 21, 1932. Gifford and Clanda Garrett were at the Barfield Baptist Church for a youth function. Only a few had shown up due to the threatening weather. They decided to cancel and go home. It hit around 7 pm, while they were still at the church. They went to the Garrett ( George & Hattie, Clanda’s parents) home on Hwy 9 and learned of the storm. Little by little, they checked on neighbors and discovered the home of Artis ( Clanda’s brother) & Eunice Garrett had been blown away. Their baby, Arlon was missing. He was discovered in a field quite a distance away from the house. Howard Schultz picked glass from Arlon’s face as he carried him back to the gathered neighbors. The Garretts were found to be alive, although injured, and were reunited with Arlon.

tornado 4 Checking on his own home, Gifford discovered that the Ingram house had been destroyed, but Robert & Swilly Ingram and Dad’s brothers were all right. The nearby homes on (what is now) Barfield Fire Department Rd were all destroyed of severely damaged. It was later that they learned of the Birchfield’s families deaths west of there where Barfield Fire Dpt rd intersects State Lake Rd. The next day, the extent of the damage was more evident in the daylight and in a word, devastating. It was discovered that high tension powerline towers had been toppled near Hwy 9 and Foster’s Bridge Rd. A neighbor’s barn was leveled…its roof missing. About two weeks later, a hookup of tandem wagons pulled by four mules pulled up in the Ingram neighborhood with the barn roof…INTACT, sitting on the wagons! The roof was found in a field in Georgia owned by the man who built the barn ORIGINALLY! Witnesses reported damage a mile wide swath across the Barfield community ( north and west). No damage occurred from the Garrett house south through “downtown” Barfield. The George and Hattie Garrett home was on the southern edge of the storm and suffered warping, creating an uneven floor. The house had additions later, but the original part remained warped until it burned a few years ago. I, myself, was a witness to the uneven floors. Hundreds of people died that day, across four states from Arkansas to Georgia. It was one of the F4/F5 tornadoes that swept across the state that day. Witnesses called it a cyclone, because of its size. The particular tornado’s path was 45 miles long, from Talladega to Randolph counties. Gifford and Clanda were married on June 9, 1932 and lived in a tent in the front yard of the Ingram place while the Ingram home was rebuilt. Their firstborn son, William Maxwell, was born on March 18, 1934, only 3 days before the second anniversary of the storm.

Doris Proctor Fetner

We lived in the Olive Branch community which was located one-fourth of a mile from the tornado’s deadly path. I remember the day to be noticeably warm and very windy. Mama looked out the window and saw lightning flashing. That’s the only way we knew a storm was coming. She told Daddy we needed to go to the Holman house which was a sturdier built house. Daddy refused to go at first, but after us begging relentlessly, he finally gave in and went with us to the Holman house. We had never heard of a tornado, so we didn’t know what was about to happen. tornado 11 When the storm hit, I remember the noise was deafening and the lightning was tremendous. There were 20 people in the Holman house with us at the time of the storm. We all had to crawl out where the chimney was once located. We walked right by the well that had the cover blown off and it’s a wonder that no one fell in it. When we got back to where our house once was standing, there was nothing. It was as if you had taken a broom and swept it clean, and hardly any boards around. There were seven of us and if we would have stayed there, we would have surely been killed. We had only been living at the house for one day when it was destroyed by the tornado. We lost everything we had.

Leon Fetner

I remember the day very well. Papa tried to plow, but was unable to because the sun would come out, go back in, then it would cloud up and rain off and on all day and the wind blew really hard. Papa saw the lightning and we went to the storm pit . I remember seeing chickens running around without feathers and pine needles driven all the way through pine trees that you were unable to pull out. After the storm had passed, we came out of the storm pit and got the word that several people had been killed near Lineville. Papa got the wagon and went to try to help.

Sue Rogers Proctor

I remember the lightning from the storm was so vivid and coming so fast you could have read a newspaper by it and it was dark out. My daddy got the entire family in the living room and we joined arm to arm and held onto each other as the house rocked. It blew the windows out and filled our hair with dirt and mud. Daddy stood up and prayed the whole time. tornado 7 It moved the house off the rock foundation but it didn’t destroy anything. We lived a half a mile from the actual storm in the Olive Branch community. When it was all over, went outside and one of the houses within seeing distance was blown away and the people who lived there were blown out in a field. They were not dead, but they were seriously injured. I remember you could see the fire still burning from their chimney, but their house was no longer there.

Jess Curlee

We lived in the Bowden Grove area near Hassell’s Gap approximately one fourth mile from the storm’s direct path. I remember the day being unusually blustery. Some of our relatives had come by earlier that day and had mentioned the weather. It was cloudy and the wind blew hard. When the storm started coming, Daddy got us all in one room. Some of us got under the bed and some of us got in it. Daddy was not a guy who wore religion on his collar, but he had enough sense to know how bad it was, so he began praying. tornado 12 The house shook and the roaring was unbelievable. The wind blew the rain in so hard that it blew rain in through the walls and across the room we were in. The windows were never blown out, but the rain almost blew the lanterns out. It moved the house off the foundation some but did not blow it away. Daddy and I had worked to seal the house and reinforce it some time before the storm. The next day, Daddy and I went out and built a storm pit. We dug a hole in a bank and covered it with logs and whatever we could find. From then on, if the weather looked the least bit threatening, we were in the storm pit.

Linda Dewberry McDonald (as told by her mother, Wilma Young Dewberry, who is now deceased

My grandfather, Morgan Hurley Young was employed by N.G. Blair, who owned the Blair Furniture Store in Lineville and also did mortician and funeral preparations in the back of his store across from the First United Methodist Church in Lineville. My mother’s family lived a block north near the concrete water tower at this time. My Grandmother Irene also related this fact to me when I was a little girl, that my Grandfather Morgan worked seven days, 24 hours a day following the storm. He only came home to eat his meals and he never pulled his shoes off for the entire seven days. tornado 3 Editor’s footnote: So, there you have it straight from the horse’s mouth as told by people who survived this historical weather catastrophe. It’s amazing that with the amount of years that have passed they can still remember it clearly. Just seeing the look on their faces as they recanted their vivid memories was enough to see the impact the memory had on them. It was one they would clearly never forget and  would take to their grave. With all the latest modern technology at our hands, all we have to do is tune in to the television, internet, or just look at a weather app on our phone to get the latest breaking weather information. Most of the time we know days ahead of time. I cannot imagine what it must have been like not to have any warning whatsoever. This firsthand recollection of the memories above just goes to show you that no matter how old you get, you will always remember the horror of a tremendous weather situation.


2 thoughts on “First hand memories from Clay County Alabama of the historical 1932 Killer Tornado”

  1. James Tilton Carroll, Sr. (Pioneer Family)
    Linzey Mabry Burney married Mary A. Thompson. They were the first settlers near Oak Grove.
    Their daughter, Mary Jane Burney, married Sidney Lee Carroll. They had one child, James Tilton Carroll. They went to Okla¬homa. Mary Jane was afraid of the Indians, and she wanted to come back. Sidney would not come back, so she and James Tilton (Jim) left her husband and came back to Alabama. After James married, she lived with them until she died.
    James (Jim) married Evie Jane Clark August 2, 1899. She was the daughter of Samuel and Caroline Mitchell.
    Jim and Evie had the following children: Beulah married John William Parker; Henry (Pete) married Thelma: Sidney Lee (September, 1, 1904-September 1905); Alma Francis married Dick Ramey; Mamie Jane married Henry Lett; William Howard mar-ried Mittie; Florence married Garland Reynolds; John Wilson (Rabbit) married Ruby Ballard: Ernest Clav married Lucille Bal¬lard; Velma marred Dudley Waldrop; Mvrtle Clyde: Dorothy Thelma: Hugo Russell: James Tilton. Jr. (June): Edna Louise married Olin Drake.
    The older children started to school at Oak Grove, and later went to Bellview.
    The oldest son, rode a bicycle to Lineville, later he drove a school bus.
    At one time, all of the boys worked for the Alabama Power Company. All six of the boys played football for Lineville High School.
    The Carroll’s had the first man-made pond. It is said that there are a lot of sins in the bottom of it, for it was used to baptize many people.
    In the summertime, after working in the fields, the family would take their soap and towels and go to the pond for their nightly baths.
    Farmers would have “workings” to help their neighbors. Jim had one when he was cutting grain. At the end of the day, the men went to the pond for a swim and a bath.
    Willard Birchfield could not swim, and he got in too deep and drowned. They worked with him, but could not revive him. The doctor pronounced him dead—but the men kept working on him-Finally, a chew of tobacco came up, and he lived.
    When the tornado of 1932 came through, it blew the family away, and killed four of them. Willard was still alive. He was brought to Jim Carroll’s house by a small car with bed springs tied onto it to carry him. He died the next morning. It is said that he died there twice.
    The Carrolls attended church at Oak Grove. At one time, they had to walk a foot log, or ford Fox Creek to get to church.
    Almost everyone around Oak Grove was related, for most of them were descendants of Linzey Mabry Burney who owned a township in Lineville. and gave all five of his children a section of land. He also donated the land for the Methodist and Baptist Churches in Lineville. Submitted by: Louise Carroll Drake (deceased). 140 Kelly Hill Road. Harpersville. AL 35078 Sources: Census Records, family oral and written history.
    One story was that the family was working the fields when the tornado hit and were caught in the open.
    One of the Carroll sons later purchased the land from his widow.
    Oak Grove Cemetery:
    Birchfield, Willard H. Sep 20, 1882 Mar 22, 1932 [Died from injuries from the 1932 tornado]
    Birchfeild, Celia W. Feb 15, 1895 May 14, 1984 [D/o Henry & Delia Watts]
    Birchfield, Buel Sep 24, 1914 Mar 21, 1932 [Killed during the 1932 tornado]
    Birchfield, Infant S/o Harold & Inez Mar 24, 1939-OD
    Birchfield, Lucille F. Feb 18, 1920 Mar 21, 1932 [Killed during the 1932 tornado]
    Birchfield, Mary Dell Mar 22, 1918 Mar 21, 1932 [Killed during the 1932 tornado]

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