Survivors of Dowelltown Tornado 50 years ago Today (Wednesday) Remember their Night of Terror (Listen here as they tell their stories)

April 3, 2024
By: Dwayne Page

Wednesday April 3, 1974

Exactly 50 years ago today (Wednesday) the lives of the people in Dowelltown in DeKalb County and the Sycamore community of Cannon County were uprooted by a killer F3 tornado that touched down not long before dark. (6:30 p.m. according to the National Weather Service although witness accounts vary from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.).

The storm, according to the NWS was up to 100 yards wide and was on the ground for 15 miles resulting in one death and 23 injuries. At least 18 homes were severely damaged or destroyed along with the Dowelltown Post Office, a new community center under construction at the time, the Dowelltown Elementary School and gymnasium and businesses in operation then including the Dowelltown Manufacturing Company (shirt factory) and the Dowelltown Branch of DeKalb County Bank & Trust Company. The total estimated damage at the time was $3 million.

(Click link below)

In Alexandria, heavy rains caused flooding that night adding to the weather drama.

The storm was part of what has become known as the tornado “super outbreak” of 1974 which remains as the second largest ever and still holds the record for the most F5 tornadoes on a single day. At least 148 tornadoes developed during the super outbreak, touching down in 13 states in a corridor from Mississippi stretching as far north as Ontario, Canada, killing around 335 people, and causing approximately $600 million in damages. The first tornado was reported around 9:30 am CDT on April 3 in Indiana, and the final tornado occurred around 8 am CDT on April 4 in North Carolina, with the peak occurring between 2 pm and 10 pm on April 3.

In an exclusive interview with WJLE, three people who witnessed or survived the storm in Dowelltown and Sycamore recently recalled their horrifying experiences. (Click audio links below to hear them tell their stories from that night)

James (Jimmy) Ramsey, who lives on Blair Branch Road in the Sycamore community of Cannon County near the DeKalb County line where the tornado first touched down that day described the eerie stillness in the air moments before the twister struck.

(Click link below to hear Jimmy Ramsey tell his story)

“I hadn’t been home from work long and had gone outside and everything was real still. There wasn’t a leaf blowing on a tree or anything. It was just still. I went back in the house and told my wife that I had never seen the weather like this. I said something is fixing to happen. Within the next five to ten minutes, I looked out my kitchen window and I saw a tornado coming down the hollow toward us on Blair Branch Road. Up in the head of the hollow where it narrows, the tornado got right down in the bottom of the hollow,” said Ramsey.

As the storm approached, Ramsey said he saw it rip apart the trailer home of his neighbors Buster and Mary Sue Chapman. Mr. Chapman was nearby but not home at the time although Chapman saw what happened and rushed back. Mrs. Chapman and three of her children were in the trailer. She was killed instantly and the kids were injured.

“It was touching down up there where it killed that lady. When we saw it, me and my wife and our child hunkered down in the center of our house in a bedroom and although our home didn’t get a direct hit, the wind was so strong it took all the porch posts out from under my porch, pulled the electricity loose from the house, and swung open our bedroom closet doors. It also blew part of the roof off my barn and blew out some gable ends. I have heard people say a tornado sounds like a train but what I remember was just a lot of racket from the wind. Luckily, the tornado turned and went three or four hundred yards away from our house on the north side of the hill and then it dropped off the hill and missed the church house (Sycamore Baptist Church) but it hit Jack Pugh’s home and silos (near the intersection of Sycamore Creek Road and Highway 53 at the Cannon-DeKalb County line). They (Pugh family) were in a shelter out front of their home and that’s all that saved them. When he (Pugh) came out he found his house was gone down to the foundation. It took his silos. The only thing left was his milk barn. That was concrete,” said Ramsey.

“After the storm was over, I went up there to see if I could help the Chapman’s and he (Mr. Chapman) had already found his two little girls who were injured but he had not located his wife so I went up a couple of hundred feet on the hill from where their trailer was and found her body (Mrs. Chapman) and their little boy who had a badly injured foot. There wasn’t anything left of that trailer. You could see where tin and stuff from the trailer was hanging in the trees through the woods. It took it all out. It was a terrible sight,” said Ramsey.

Other neighbors on Blair Branch Road were also affected by the storm but apparently none of them, including the Ramsey family, sustained injuries.

Meanwhile as the tornado churned its way northeast toward Dowelltown, Peggy Scott was at home with her five-year-old son Joe Fuson unaware of the nightmare that was about to unfold. Their mobile home was located at the time behind the Dowelltown Elementary School and Gym.

(Click link below to hear Peggy Scott tell her story)

“After dinner my husband at the time (Lewis Fuson) left the house and went out to the store. We had a grocery store in Liberty,” said Scott. “I was washing dishes and putting everything away. I then decided to take a shower. Joe was in the living room listening to music. When I was in the shower I heard a noise. A roar. I hadn’t really looked at the news or anything because it had not been storming but I decided to get out of the shower. I put on a house coat, walked into the living room and told Joe that we needed to go outside. He had his little fireman hat on and he was coloring, playing. Our car was parked to the back of the trailer. When we walked outside on the back porch and looked up toward Highway 70 I saw a car and a truck going down the road and then all of a sudden this terrible black wall (tornado) was coming across the highway. It picked up the truck, carried it along, and then set it down. I knew then we were in trouble. I never saw the funnel. I was so close (to the tornado) it was just a black wall coming at me and as high as I could see it was just that wall,” Scott explained.

“There was no going back (in the mobile home). Although I had on this robe, I was wearing no shoes, had no purse with me, and took no car keys. The car doors were not locked so I put Joe in the car on the passenger side in the floorboard. If the car had been locked we would have just been left standing there. When I went to get in the car and looked back, I saw the tornado had picked up our trailer and tilted it back toward the trunk of the car and the air conditioner fell out of the window. I got in the car, laid down across Joe and told him to hold on. The storm picked up the car, flipped it around, and then set it down. When it would pick the car up, I was grabbing for anything I could trying to stay in the car because it was trying to suck me out. And then it would drop the car forcing me down as I tried to lift myself up to keep from crushing Joe. It was a terrible noise and although I thought we were going to die I really wasn’t afraid. I was just really calm. I just prayed. I didn’t want it to hurt and I didn’t want to be carried away. I just wanted to be found in the back yard. Even when the storm had passed you could still hear it going in the other direction tearing things apart just like when it was approaching,” Scott continued.

“When it quit blowing and moving the car I kicked the car doors open and was able to get out with Joe. The top of the car had been smashed down just about level with the back of the seat. The tornado had blown the mobile home across the car and it was totaled. There was not a window left in it. The car was totally smashed. What was left of the mobile home wound up probably 50-75 feet beyond where the car stopped and the only thing recognizable of the trailer was the frame. There was nothing left. The siding was gone. Everything was gone except the basic I-frame. If we had been in the mobile home, we would have probably been killed,” said Scott.

Except for some cuts to her back, Scott, who was five months pregnant at the time, said she suffered no serious injuries and Joe was not hurt.

“A lot of the glass from the car was embedded in my back and the back of my head. My mom picked glass out of my hair for several days after that but Joe didn’t have a scratch on him,” said Scott.

Lewis, who had returned from the store looking for his family after the storm, suffered a serious cut to his arm trying to enter his mother’s home in Dowelltown which had also been hit by the tornado. Without transportation and with traffic backed up on the highway, Scott said she and her husband and son had to walk from Dowelltown to Dry Creek Road before they could get a ride to the hospital.

‘When my husband came back from the store, word was out that no one could find me and Joe, and he (Lewis) learned that the back of his mother’s house had collapsed,” Scott explained. “He went to his mom’s house and tried to get in but couldn’t so he smashed the top part of the glass and where his arm went through it cut his arm really bad. When we all finally got reconnected, we had to get him to the hospital but traffic was blocked on the highway so we had to walk from Dowelltown to Dry Creek Road before we could find somebody who could turn around and drive us to the hospital. All three of us were taken to the hospital in Smithville,” she said.

According to Scott, upon their arrival at the hospital for treatment, doctors and nurses had not yet learned that a tornado had struck Dowelltown but they soon sent help to the storm victims after being told what had happened.

In the days that followed, Scott said adding to the pain of losing practically everything they owned from the trailer because of the storm, was the looters that descended on Dowelltown looking to steal whatever valuables they could find amid the rubble.

“Everything in the trailer was pretty much gone because of the storm but after they put it on the news in Nashville people came and stole things. They looted everything. We were not the only people who were victims of the looting. Things that couldn’t have blown far like a refrigerator or a washer or dryer were just gone (stolen). The next morning when it was daylight and we went back down there to see if there was anything we could salvage we found that looters had taken everything from our car, the spark plug wires from the engine and even the ashtray. They couldn’t get the wheels off. The car had chrome wheels that required a special wrench so that and the car seats were the only things that were still intact. They had taken just about everything else,” said Scott.

In the days or weeks after the storm, Scott said she was surprised to learn that a birthday party photo of her son was found at Temperance Hall and that a personalized cancelled check of hers turned up in Kentucky.

“A Mr. Lamberson returned to me a photograph he had found around Temperance Hall of Joe at his third or fourth birthday blowing out candles. Another gentleman from just across the state line in Kentucky returned to me a personalized cancelled check that had the address on it that he had found there,” said Scott.

As terrorizing as the night was for Scott and her family and neighbors, she still counts her blessings because of what could have been.

“It was scary but it could have been so much worse. If it had happened a few hours earlier, there would have been people at the factory and the school including children. Although there were people injured and had to go to the hospital, I am so thankful that nobody in Dowelltown lost their lives,” said Scott.

Just a stone’s throw away from Scott, lived Mary Susan Walden George and her parents Gilbert and Ela Mitchell Walden.

In recalling her memories of that day 50 years ago, George, who was a teacher’s aide at the Dowelltown Elementary School at the time, said things just didn’t seem right, even hours before the storm struck.

(Click link below to hear Mary Susan Walden George tell her story)

“Everybody at school was talking about how the sky looked funny,” said George. I remember talking to Mr. Rex Hayes (principal) and I said if a tornado was to hit I would be going in that big gym. He said I don’t know about that. Of course, that night that gym was flattened,” she said.

George’s home would also take a direct hit from the twister that night. According to George, it was like a scene from her favorite film “The Wizard of Oz” only in real life.

“About 20 minutes before it hit I was on the phone with my cousin and we were talking about all these tornado watches. I told her the Wizard of Oz was my favorite movie growing up and I said I always wondered how Dorothy felt in her house getting blown around. Twenty minutes later I found out,” said George.

“I was with my parents and my little dog Snoopy. The sky started looking funny all that afternoon and they were giving out tornado watches. I was sitting out on the porch at one time but then went back in the house. My mother was in the kitchen and my dad went to his room to take a nap. We had the TV on. It started getting real dark out. The sky was a pinkish looking color. I remember everything got so quiet but then we began to hear a roar and the electricity went off. My dad, who had experienced a tornado years before in Greenbrier recognized that sound. It sounded like a big freight train coming through. He came flying out of his room and yelled for us to get in the bathroom closet and cover our eyes so I picked up my little dog and got in the closet with my mom. There was a big vanity in front of the closet door with a mirror on it and by the time my dad got to the closet that mirror had hit him in the head and he had blood coming down. I looked out of the closet and saw the toilet come flying up. I remember you couldn’t hollar or scream. All you could do was pray that nobody was going to be killed. It seemed like it lasted forever but it was only a matter of minutes. A man who lived on Church Street later told us that he saw the tornado coming and watched our house get picked up. We were actually picked up in the funnel, carried 200 feet, and then dropped. It felt like riding a scrambler at the fair,” said George.

After the storm, George said she and her parents found themselves in the driveway of a neighbor.

“I was buried in the rubble but covered in big throw rugs we had that covered almost the whole floor. They were folded over my head. I didn’t know where my mother or my dad were but I heard him hollering for his dog. Dad found my mom. She had passed out. He then found me and lifted the rugs off of me. I asked where are we and he said in Ava Nell Fuson’s driveway. I also remember they had recently put tar on the roof of the bank which was close to our house and all that black tar was all over us. It was a nightmare. The storm took our whole house and left nothing but the foundation and I had a new Dodge Darts car it was torn all to pieces,” George said.

Although they were not seriously injured, George said she and her parents were taken to the hospital.

“A couple picked us up and took us to the hospital. Mom needed seven stitches in her toe. We were all scratched and bleeding,” said George.

As with Scott, George said once word got out about the tornado, looters invaded the storm ravaged community.

“The next day was terrible. All these vultures came out from everywhere going through everything trying to see what they could get (steal). A man in a Cadillac came and stole a lot of my daddy’s fishing stuff. I told him to put it down but he took it and drove away,” said George.

“Another guy and his wife had picked up a vase they had found. It was like an antique vase mom had. I asked them what they were doing there and they said we found this pretty vase. I swore and told them to put that down and get out of here and they gave the vase back to me,” added George.

Late that afternoon before the storm hit, George’s sister and brother-in-law Helen and Wayne Cripps, who lived in Alexandria, stopped in to see the family before going to church that night in Dowelltown for a business meeting. But, Ms. Cripps said the threat of storms forced them to change their plans.

“We had gone to Nashville that day but had come home. I was the church clerk at Dowelltown Church and we were supposed to have had a business meeting that night. We first went to my parents’ house (Gilbert and Mitchell Walden) until time to go to church but after hearing them tell on TV about storms, we decided it was too scary to go to church so we drove about a mile away to the home of my husband’s parents (Hobert and Mattie Cripps) to visit with them. We were there for about 15 minutes when we heard this terrible sound but I never had any idea what it was or what had happened in Dowelltown. I said to my husband let’s just go back home. As we were going back into Dowelltown right after you cross the bridge toward town there were trailer trucks lined up on the highway and we couldn’t even drive our car through Dowelltown. We had to stop and get out of the car and leave it parked in the middle of the street. By that time, it was pitch black dark and we had to climb over light poles and wires and you could hear the sounds of natural gas spewing. Still, it had not registered with me what had happened. But when we got up to the corner of the street where my parents house was, lightning lit up the sky and we could see that their house was totally gone. I was afraid that my mom, dad, and sister were probably dead. We began walking through Dowelltown and other people were going everywhere too checking on each other and I would ask people, have you seen my parents but everybody said no. Finally we went around to Ms. Tincy Cripps’ house. I was expecting a baby any day so they told me to stay there. Later I found out that my parents were picked up and taken to my husband’s parents’ house because they thought we were there and might have gotten blown away. After going to check on us they were brought back and that’s how we got reunited with them. I remember my daddy’s face was just splattered with mud. They were wet and my mother had cut her foot. Someone ended up taking them to the hospital,” said Ms. Cripps.

After returning home in Alexandria, Ms. Cripps said they had to deal with flooding from the storm.

“We lived in Alexandria in those old apartments down in town. I had a small Chevy car and when we got back I found it surrounded by water. It had flooded down there and everybody in the apartments had to be evacuated,” said Ms. Cripps.

According to news reports at the time, flash flooding occurred in Alexandria later the night of the Dowelltown tornado causing more than $250,000 in damage to the Alexandria Garment Company. The plant manager then said that six inches of water covered the floor and damaged everything. He estimated another $5,000 in damage to the building and parking area. The DeKalb County fairgrounds also reportedly received about $30,000 in damage and water ruined carpet in the Alexandria office of Liberty State Bank which was a new building at the time.

Students attending the Dowelltown Elementary School had to finish out the 1973-74 school year in the gymnasium of Liberty Elementary School where makeshift classrooms were set up.

DeKalb West School, which was under construction at that time, was later completed and opened in the fall of 1974 consolidating the Alexandria, Dowelltown, and the Liberty Elementary Schools. DeKalb West School marks its 50th year of existence in 2024-25.

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