Oconee, Gardner GA Tornado Damage, Feb 1921




Oconee, Ga., February 10. -- (Special) -- Swooping down upon the small town of Oconee and the Gardner settlement, near the southwestern border of Washington county, a tornado, shortly after noon Thursday, took a toll of at least thirty-two lives and seriously injured mjore than forty persons.
A stretch of land extending from Oconee almost to Toomsboro, in Washington county, nearly five miles long and about a half mile wide, is as barren as a prairie tonight, not a building or a tree being left standing.
The news spread rapidly, and hundreds of automobiles were rushed to the scene. Blankets, medicines and other first aids were soon on hand, and where chaos reigned a short while before, order was being restored, homeless people cared for and plans discussed for rebuilding many of the homes.

School Wrecked, Children Escape.
One carload of bodies was shipped to Tennille tonight, while on the same train were a number of injured, who will be taken to hospitals at Tennille and Sandersville.
Identification of the bodies has been slow. In many instances whole families have been wiped out. Among those known to have been killed are BENJAMIN FRANKLIN ORR, a 14-year-old boy, and the 3 year-old daughter of E. L. MINOR, manager of Shepherd's commissary, at the plant of the Cleveland-Oconee Lumber company. As far as can be learned, all others killed were negroes. White persons injured included L. L. THOMPKINS, C. O. THOMPKINS, EDGAR THOMPKINS, GEORGE LORD and EMERY SHEPHERD.
BENJAMIN ORR was decapitated. His head had not been found at a late hour last night.
Eighty two children and three teachers were in a school building on the edge of the Gardner settlement when the tornado struck. The building was literally twisted to pieces, and the fragments scattered for miles around. Children were picked up by the wind and carried for some distance, but it is officially announced tonight that only one child was seriously bruised.

Forty Homes Blown Down.
Approximately forty houses were blown down in the Gardner settlement. The SHEPHERD brothers' commissary, at the big lumber plant, was reduced to kindling wood, Young ORR and four negroes meeting death there. Ten feet away from the commissary was the general office of the Cleveland Oconee Lumber company, which was untouched by the storm.
The fifteen-acre plant of the lumber company, which practically owns the settlement site of Gardner, was not seriously damaged by the wind, although millions of feet of lumber piled in the yards was scattered.
The tornado spent its force locally immediately beyond the plant of the lumber company, in the settlement of forty houses and four stores. Most of the people residing in this section were negroes, the white people of the town living on higher ground, a short distance away.
These negro houses and stores faced the tracks of the Savannah division of the Central of Georgia railroad. In the rear of the houses was an open field, extending for nearly a mile from the Oconee station to the lumber mill. It was into this field that men, women and children were carried to their death from their seats at dinner tables.
Ten minutes after the tornado wiped out the Gardner settlement a Central of Georgia local freight train running from Savannah to Macon, arrived at the scene. W. O. KING, of Wadley, conductor in charge, viewed the bodies scattered about the ground.

Aid Is Sent From Tennille.
The conductor ordered his locomotive detached from the train and with his crew hastened to Tennille, eleven miles away, for aid. Coaches were commandeered from the Wrightsville and Tennille railroad and four doctors and forty-six persons were secured for the relief party. The train returned to Oconee as speedily as possible.
Doctors found one negro boy with a board driven into his forehead. They removed the board and gave temporary aid. The youth was alive tonight and it is believed he will live.
The body of a 3-year-old negro infant was found at the roots of a tree, the top of which had been twisted off. The child's head had been crushed in, having been carried headforemost against the tree. One negro's body was cut in two.
A negro man and his wife were found more than a hundred yards from their home, lying side by side in the road, both dead. The bodies of several small negroes were found in trees, out of the path of the tornado, being suspended on the limbs by their clothing.
The bodies of grown negroes were thrown into the field in a semi-circle and in the center of the group was a goat, who stood like a statue, too frightened to move for hours after the storm passed.

Freaks Due To Storm.
Six fine oak trees along the road at Gardner were snapped off at different heights. On top of one of the trees was a pillow from the bed of one of the wrecked homes.
According to residents of the community the clouds lowered just as the employees of the lumber plant left their work for dinner. The atmosphere became extremely hot and because of the darkness; in many homes lamps had been lighted, when the tornado broke.
One persons on the outer edge of the storm swept path, who escaped injury, declared he saw a string of box cars moving toward him. Then as suddenly, he declared, the box cars were reversed, and when he looked a second time, he said they were again coming toward him. These cars were found to have been blown from the rails.
Chickens that escaped death in the path of the storm were in many instances plucked of their feathers. There was many animals killed.

Many Victims Still Missing.
At six o'clock this afternoon twenty-three bodies of negroes had been found, but more than a dozen were still missing. One white lad of seventeen was killed inside the commissary of the company when it was destroyed. Practically every negro that was killed was at home eating dinner. Seven negro women and fifteen negro men were laid out in an improvised morgue near the railroad tracks. Many bodies being broken and twisted beyond recognition.
One negro was found in the top of a tree, a half mile from his home, dead. Another lost a leg sailing through the air, when his limb came in contact with a pine sapling, killing him instantly, the foot being amputated as if done by a surgeon.
The Fairbanks Lumber company, which has just erected a new lumber mill near the scene, was undamaged through the roofs of several houses were blown away; all section houses of the railroad company were moved from their foundations, and their chimneys blown a half mile away. The section masters home was demolished, fortunately and miraculously injuring no one.
The Oconee school house a new wooden structure which had just been completed and which replaced a building burned down a few months ago was a total wreck, nothing being left but the floor. The roof was carried away and the side blown in on seventy-five children and strange to relate only one child suffered even bruises. Thousands of people who rushed to the scene marveled at this freak of the storm when it hit the school building. Several pigs under the building were killed instantly.

All Wires Blown Down.
All wires were blown down and information was brought to Tennille by a freight train crew who happened to be at Oconee when the storm occurred. Immediately a relief train was made up at Tennille and rushed to the scene with every available doctor. More than forty people were injured among whom was MARLON HODGES, clerk in C. A. HODGES store at Oconee. The store collapsed as if crushed by a giant, pinning HODGES under the debris, breaking his arm and otherwise injuring him but not seriously.
DOL and SAM TRAWICK, two negroes were found a half mile from the scene with their heads driven into the ground side by side as if placed there by human hands. A gasoline filling station pump imbedded in cement was uprooted and broken off. Household goods could be seen in the tops of trees for a mile around the scene.
The commissary that was operated by SHEPPARD Brothers was one of the first buildings to go down and was at the apex of the storm. Two negro houses in the rear of this were the next to go, one by one, first the roofs came off, then porches sides and last the floor. One house was lifted bodily off its foundation and sailed through the air as if it was a toy, tearing to pieces as it sailed along.
A most grim spectacle was the sight of human bodies being hurled through the air at unestimated speed, negroes crying out in terror as the storm swept them away.
The old, SNELL home, opposite the depot, formerly a hotel now occupied by RANS ENNIS, was badly damaged, the roof and porches being swept away. Dead cows, horses, hogs and other animals were scattered throughout the district of the storm.
Two empty box cars at the lumber will have been commandeered by the people in which to store away the merchandise that was left from the commissary. The dead bodies were arranged in a row where identification has been going on all the afternoon. In many instances entire families were wiped out, leaving no relatives to claim the bodies and it was suggested tonight that the mill company bury the entire lot in one big grave.
From all directions roads to the Oconee were blocked by falling trees and telephone lines and it became necessary to rush the county convicts to the scene in order to clear passage to the scene of disaster. When the storm broke over the school house the teachers in charge told all children to remain seated and in a twinkling the roof was blown away and then the sides of the building began to cave in. The children ducked under their desks with the result no one was killed. It is stated that more than half would have been killed outright had it not been for the pressence of mind of the two lady teachers and they are being congratulated for their heroism.
Farmers, who lived in the neighborhood of the scene, suspended work and joined in the hunt for bodies. A negro boy was found a short distance from his home with his skull crushed, but still breathing and the doctors gave him first aid, but stated that he would die. A negro woman was blown over a stump practically severing her body. She died a short time later. Others expected to die tonight will bring the sum total of fatalities up to thirty.
J. M. HARRISON, a farmer living two miles from the lumber mill lost his home and his mother was badly hurt, but houses on each side were unscathed by the storm.
The cyclone seemed to take dips and spurts, taking first one building and then another as if picking them by an unseen hand. Here and there for five miles around were to be seen unroofed houses, but the greatest damage seemed to have been confined in one spot about a half mile square and which happened to be the homes of the negroes that were so closely built.

The Atlanta Constitution Georgia 1921-02-11