The Cyclone

by Francis Moore Milburn


It was Sunday afternoon, April 3, 1892, still and sultry, with a black cloud lying ominously back in the west and southwest and an occasional heavy rumble of thunder or a keen streak of lightning. Papa had mentioned to several that he believed there was going to be a cyclone. Having no storm cellar, he took us to Mr. Moy’s, our neighbor to the west and told him he believed there was going to be a cyclone and that we would like to use his cellar. Mr. Moy replied, “You’re welcome to it. We never use it.” I remember very well how we all watched the cloud through the window, and our excitement when it suddenly became active, the funnel shooting to the ground, and Papa exclaiming: “There’s the cyclone!”

Mr. Moy was the first one to the cellar, diving in headfirst, leaving women and children to take care of themselves. Papa got them all into the cellar, and then discovered there was no door for it. He called to Mr. Moy, telling him our plight, whereupon he came out. The cyclone was coming right at us dangerously near, and something had to be done quick. The nearby smokehouse door was hung on wooden hinges which they knocked off with a rock and placed over the cellar entrance. Moy then scuttled inside immediately while my father, like a prairie dog beside his hole, stood on the outside to watch the cyclone. When it got within about 100 yards, he also scuttled into “his hole.” He told us the sight was beyond words to describe. The atmosphere was greenish-like as a monster-like funnel, in its hellish fury, came roaring across the open field toward us sucking everything in its path into it. He said the heavens were full of debris, including lumber, wagons, bedclothes, fence rails, farm tools, etc.

The main part of the storm barely missed us, blowing down four houses in succession to the northwest, the nearest one being the Jim Barber home near the cemetery about 150 yards away.

Though the storm missed us, my Papa’s fingers were pelted severely by the hail as he held the door in place with his fingers through the cracks. When we came out of the cellar, there wasn’t a fence to be seen, and as we looked toward where the Barber home had stood, we could see sheets, quilts, and clothing hanging in the trees beyond, and to our surprise, there came Barber and his wife, one on each side of her father who had sustained a broken neck vertebra, unconscious, with one of them carrying their six-month-old baby. The injured man was taken to our home, crowded as we were, and I can never forget his groaning and apparent misery. He finally recovered, but his neck was as stiff as ever after. The only evidence of the storm where we were was an open front door of the Moy house and the east gable blown out, and at our house, the dining table was upside down on the floor of the unstrapped side room with about everything else in the room piled on it.

There were many cyclone-related experiences during the following days, unbelievable but true: incidents that demolished homes, all occupied at the same time, the miracle being that there was only one fatality. The clerk of Pickens County abandoned his buggy and team as they were being swept into the air on the prairie southwest of Madill, Indian Territory, and ran to a farm house. He preferred to stand near it rather than enter, and a strand of barbed wire (supposedly) flying through the air, cut one arm to the bone at the shoulder, clear around, from which he bled to death. While still conscious, he told someone he believed he would not be exaggerating to say that the last time he saw his buggy and team they were at least a hundred feet in the air. His coat and one buggy hub were found in the Washita River bottom some 15 miles away.

Then there was the incident of “Goofy” Gus Orr sitting on the back porch of his farmhouse playing the fiddle and he suddenly exclaimed, “Look at the g– d— fence coming to the house!” The house was not blown away as two large oak trees.

And there was the story of Jess Shearer and his wife visiting a northen that Sunday p.m., only a short distance from the Gus Orr place. Nobody had storm cellars (there was one started at every home in the area the next day, as was evidence by a pile of fresh red clay in every yard) but at this place, a water well was being dug, and was down some 10 or 12 feet, being about five feet in diameter, and that was used by means of a ladder for protection. The resident family was the first ones in, having left Shearer pleading with his wife to go. She stubbornly refused to do so as she sat in a rocking chair singing an old religious hymn; finally Jess told her good-bye as he made a run for the well, diving in headfirst. The log house was blown down, the logs being piled in every conceivable manner on the floor and about the yard, the floor being intact, and what a horrible sight to behold when they emerged from the well! They began their nervous search for Mrs. Shearer, finally discovering the rocker, in which Jess had left her, upside down on the floor under the logs and other debris. After the frantic efforts at lifting and rolling logs about, they reached the rocker under which Mrs. Shearer was found without a scratch, but of course terribly frightened.

Jude Askew was out riddin’ with his girl that afternoon about a mile northwest of Lebanon when the storm overtook them. Seeing it coming and dangerously near, he had been urging his team onward with all possible speed, meanwhile trying to persuade his girl to jump out, which she refused to do. Finally, as the buggy and ream started leaving the earth, he jumped out. She followed moments later, falling some 10 or 12 feet and suffered a dislocated shoulder. An uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Burnett, lived in a double log house about 100 yards away to which she crawled on all fours. On arrival, the roof was setting in the yard, pretty much intact, with the old folks under it, and one can easily imagine their confusion and excitement at the presence of their niece. Jude kept himself on the ground by holding to bushes, rushing from one to another as trees would fall nearby. He took Papa the next day and showed him a small tree, about 40 feet high, the top of which, he said his buggy and team touched as they went over it, and the position of the buggy, when found, with about a third of the tongue sticking in the ground, indicating the truth of the story.

And that’s enough of the cyclone story.

Excerpted from Milburn: The Birth of a Pioneer Town and the Love Story that Began There by Lynn Milburn Lansford.