Weather demands attention almost everywhere, but especially in Alabama where if you don’t like the current weather, it will likely change in a few hours. An old Baptist preacher liked to say, “Whether the weather is cold, or whether the weather is hot, we weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.” We don’t weather it alone, however.
Our Birmingham TV meteorologists are well known to even the youngest school children in central Alabama because they are constantly teaching and informing us about weather, weather alerts, and warnings. They often make presentations not only to civic clubs but also to kindergartens. From James Spann to Mark Prater, to Wes Wyatt and all their competent staff, we get good information promptly. Children know about Spann’s suspenders and Wes Wyatt’s weather every six minutes. Apps and cell phones have made it possible to access information quickly, anytime, anywhere!
Recently our state’s largest news conglomerate did a series of articles on hurricane season because the first hurricane this year popped up before June 1, normally considered the beginning of the hurricane season. Since Talladega County is in central Alabama, we sometimes get wind, but more often rain, from these hurricanes. Our number one weather event is usually a tornado, but we know that tornadoes often spin off hurricanes so we inlanders watch the weather along our beloved Gulf Coast.
The Sylacauga News issue of May 3, 1917, reported on a tornado that came through Sylacauga on Sunday night destroying a cotton mill on Third Street and a laundry. It also destroyed the Smith Warehouse which was being used as a site for revival services for a big union revival, and another warehouse, Brown Mercantile Warehouse. Dr. Munhall, the visiting preacher, preached a sermon entitled “The Devil” on Sunday night saying that he would not be surprised if the devil brought down the roof with a tornado on the non-repentant revival attenders. Prophetically, that very roof was lifted off about 12:30 p.m. long after services concluded, so one was hurt. A Monday night service was pretty packed with people giving thanks for God’s protection.
Better known to most of us is the 1932 tornado which took the roof off the second story building that was then Sylacauga Elementary School (later became Main Avenue School) on Walnut Street and Main Avenue. The school faced Walnut Street at that time. As often is the case, this tornado struck in darkness; and what could have been a worse tragedy was avoided because school was not in session. Sylacauga High Math Teacher, Mrs. Naomi Parker Looney and her husband, Charlie, rode out that storm at their house on Church Street near the school, and Mrs. Looney yearly passed her personal experience story down to her students about their brush with death that dark March 21, 1932.
Twenty-three other people were not as fortunate, and about 368 homes were damaged or destroyed as the tornado came through about 7:10 p.m. It was the southeastern part of Sylacauga that was hardest hit, and many of these homes in the Gantts Quarry area and on Park Street were occupied by black people. A list of the homes and occupants was published in the Sylacauga News, March 25. The injured were treated at Memorial Hospital on Norton Avenue (formerly the Oaklawn Inn), Sylacauga Infirmary on Calhoun Avenue, and Mignon Hospital (Drummond Fraser).
Churches were damaged including the belfry of First Methodist Church causing the bell to fall all the way to the basement. What a blessing that choir practice for the Easter Cantata had been canceled! Rising Star Baptist Church’s metal roof and boards from the building on Park Street were carried to the Atkinson property on South Norton Avenue. First Baptist Church suffered damage to two of its beautiful stained glass windows which had to be boarded up for many weeks until they could be repaired. Any readers who had Mrs. Looney for geometry may remember that she made a great semester test problem out of finding the measurement for ordering the replacement for the small circular window using a shard of glass left by the storm. What I remember most about this problem is that I missed it!
First Presbyterian Church and First Baptist Church turned their basement floors into rescue havens for those whose homes were destroyed or who had minor injuries. It was a great coming together of people in the area. First Baptist had 27 church members spend the night in the pastorium, which was only slightly damaged. First Baptist and First Presbyterian Churches offered their buildings to Main Avenue School and school was held in both these churches, in the Fraternal Hall, the Sylacauga Bottling Plant, and Sylacauga High School until other arrangements could be made. The medical community was overwhelmed and doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to take care of the injured. The American Red Cross provided food, medical supplies, and housing. Soup kitchens were set up. People donated supplies and money to help their neighbors.
The State supplied Sylacauga with a number of tents (now it would be trailers or mobile homes) which were set up on the fair grounds. This is the area on Fairground Avenue off the Old Birmingham Highway where circuses and carnivals often set up their shows in the late forties and fifties. Some of these tents were set up instead at the sites of the damaged homes according to an April 1, l932, article in the Sylacauga News.
Yes, the weather often grabs our attention and forces us to be nice and work together. It is a great equalizer. This storm hit during the heart of the depression when building supplies were cheap and builders needed work. Builders came to Sylacauga from outlying areas to bid on projects, and by salvaging what they could, they were able to offer the many uninsured homeowners good service at reasonable prices, leaving some with greatly improved housing after the storm.
Like so many other things in our lives, we have little control over the weather. We have “to weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.” Ironically as I write this today, June 8, 2022, we had a terrific flash flood and lightning storm in our area making transportation hazardous and in some cases impossible. Next week we will look at some other unusual weather stories. We can always learn from remembering a city’s response to disaster in a kinder, gentler time, not so long ago at that.