Category Archives: Missouri History and Legend

Entertainers Followed Rivers West and South Through America

Twelfth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Monday, October 16, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Twenty-year-old Noah Ludlow figured he could sneak away from loved ones without informing them of his adventurous plan, or foolhardiness.

It was July of 1815 in Albany, N.Y., and Ludlow’s widowed mother fretted enough already. Her youngest son had left a business apprenticeship upon his father’s death, only to land at the local theater, of all places, where he pursued “a passion for histrionic fame,” as Ludlow later recalled in memoirs. “My mother was a very religious woman, of the strictest sect, and my father a man who found no particular pleasure in the so-called amusements of the day; therefore my very early youth had been kept free of such ‘delusions’ as theatres.”

Now Ludlow was leaving home to be an actor in the “far, far West,” having joined a theater troupe bound for Kentucky. Eastern actors with paying jobs had rejected the “wild scheme,” so troupe organizer Samuel Drake, Sr., solicited novices like Ludlow. “He told me very candidly that he was going on a voyage of adventure, which possibly might result disastrously,” Ludlow recounted. “I was too glad of an opportunity to embark in what had become now my entire ambition, to hesitate an hour in giving him an answer.”

Ludlow accepted enthusiastically but rued the thought of leaving his mother and young sister, and he told them nothing. Ludlow forwarded baggage to the Albany coach office then, at daybreak of his departure, crept through the family home. “I quietly walked from my bedroom, and as I passed that of my mother, the door standing ajar, I beheld her on her knees in prayer, and heard her utter these words: ‘Oh, Father! Be with him in his journey through life, and keep his soul from sin.’ My heart nearly failed me… I rushed out of the house and saw her no more for 10 years.”

“This was the first regretful act of my life,” Ludlow later confessed. “Reflection soon brought to my mind the anguish of that mother who almost doted on the son that had left her without a parting word, and the thought haunted me like a ghost.” An older brother disavowed Ludlow, calling him a “genteel vagabond” unworthy of family name.

Nonetheless, Ludlow and the rest of Drake’s humble troupers were following a destiny—“pioneer actors of the West,” by a later pronouncement—for a country yet unfolding. Modern historian Louis Gerteis, specializing in entertainment lineage of St. Louis, observed: “In  a  period  of  American  history  that  textbooks  traditionally  associate  with  the ‘politics of the common man,’ an outburst of theatrical entertainment brought an abrupt end  to  a  long-standing  American  bias  against  theatrical  entertainment. The period between 1820 and 1850 marked an unprecedented era of  theatricality.”

In summer 1815, the humble Drake company of 11 actors and actresses were harbingers of a movement, “a stream of theatrical migration westward,” observed Gerteis. The troupe traveled rural New York, working little theaters, presenting productions of tragedy and comedy interspersed with song. Ludlow took the stage at Cooperstown, overdoing his villainous character in “damned bad” fashion, Drake criticized, but novelist James Fenimore Cooper enjoyed the show and encouraged “our pioneer efforts in the cause of the drama,” Ludlow recalled.

At Canandaigua the group outfitted with a pack wagon, small carriage and three horses for the 150-mile trek southwest, to headwaters of the Allegheny River. Able troupers walked the distance, like Ludlow. The wagons and horses were sold at Olean, N.Y., a river access point of few cabins where Drake purchased a flatboat for transport south to Pittsburgh. The American frontier confronted young Ludlow, born and reared in New York City. “The men, especially the young ones, were expected to ‘rough it,’ and rough it we did,” he wrote.

Another traveler joined the Drake party at Olean to complete a dozen for boarding the boat, of adults and teenagers. They were Samuel Drake, Sr., troupe manager, age 46, and his children Samuel, Jr., Alexander, James, Martha, and the youngest, Julia, at 15; Noah M. Ludlow; Frances Ann Denny; Joe Tracy, a stage hand; Mr. and Mrs. J.O. Lewis, with he a carpenter; and the young newcomer, Hull, an army lieutenant during the recent war with England, returning home to the Mississippi Valley.

Drake’s flatboat was a small barge of Kentucky “broadhorn” style, about 25-feet long by 15-feet wide, with sideboards and two compartments for sleeping. A long-stem paddle served as guidance system, mounted at rear, with hardwood poles for emergency maneuvering. The boatload besides people included food provisions, cookware, personal baggage, tools, and stage accessories: a drop curtain, green carpeting, and scenery backdrops, six painted on drapery such as a kitchen setting and a garden.

The party launched for Pittsburgh, 260 miles down the Allegheny, about 10 days by flatboat, and stopped the first night on an island—“for fear of wild beasts, less likely to visit us there than on the mainland,” Ludlow wrote. Coffee and food were prepared over campfire. “I must say, I never enjoyed a meal more in my entire life than that rural supper. After our evening meal, the men smoked, and the ladies sang, and the time passed delightfully.”

But daytime in July on the boat deck proved unbearable. The sun was searing amid drought for mountainous western Pennsylvania; the Allegheny stood at low stage with current at a crawl. Heat was miserable on the flatboat, and females suffered for their dense garments. A small canopy and umbrellas didn’t shield well enough so a scenery panel was unfurled for cover. Rest was finally possible but the rudderless barge drifted into a mill channel, dammed ahead. Men leapt overboard to halt the heavy flatboat, and they towed it back to the river by rope,  walking the bank and tugging against current.

At nightfall wolves yipped and howled along the Allegheny, having frightened the theater group since the overland trails of New York. Wolf packs prowled the river valley, seemingly the only beings after dark for boat travelers of remote Pennsylvania. “The country then was very wild, the buildings small log cabins, and the accommodations very limited,” Ludlow wrote later in memoirs, utilizing a personal diary of the 1815 trip.

On most nights the Drake party landed, mooring at a settlement if possible, where beds and food might be procured. The boat compartments slept the married couple in one, teen girls in the other, while everyone else sought a comfortable way to lie down. A barn with hay or straw suited the men, if available. One night the river-weary troupe landed late at a darkened homestead “indicating cleanliness and plenty,” Ludlow wrote. “It was a substantial Pennsylvania farmhouse, large and well built.”

The owner came out in greeting, an affluent doctor and farmer who rousted his family to meet the “comedians.” A 10 o’clock supper went on in the kitchen while peach brandy was served in the music parlor. Sam Drake, Jr., classically trained in violin, was impressive in “scraping off” a Scottish ballad and English opera melody, accompanied on piano by the doctor’s wife. The army veteran Hull “astonished us all…,” Ludlow attested, “by sitting down to the piano and playing one or two marches and some other pieces in a very creditable manner.” Merriment continued past midnight, and everyone who needed a bed was accommodated on the estate. The gracious hosts also sent a ham, live chickens and vegetables downriver with the travelers.

A few nights later the Drake troupe reached headwaters of the Alleghany River, “Three Rivers,” where the former met the Monongahela to form the Ohio. “About nine o’clock… to our great delight, the glimmerings of a city broke into our view,” Ludlow recalled of arriving at Pittsburgh. The flatboat docked and the young males went downtown in search of lodging and excitement. Even in darkness, the city’s trademark of coal industry was apparent in soot-covered buildings and streets.

The local theater was sooty too, as the thespians discovered. “It was situated on the eastern outskirts of the city [and] had been built, I think, by some amateur in theatricals,” Ludlow wrote. “It contained a pit and one tier of boxes, as they were called… The decorations, if such they might be termed, were of the plainest kind, and every portion bore the Pittsburgh stamp upon it—coal smut.”

Drake’s troupe cleaned the theater to open a Pittsburgh season of productions, which quickly drew 400 spectators nightly, including miners, boatmen, foundry workers, mechanics and livery drivers. Ludlow would remember “beautiful ladies” and a formative period of his career. “The success I met with in my first two weeks in a regular theatre, and in a city of no small consequence even at that early day, gave me great hopes that I might ultimately become an actor of some notoriety. In thought, I saw a realization of my youthful daydreams. [Drake] was obliged, owing to the limited number of his company, to give me characters of importance to play, quite beyond my inexperience to do justice… But my ambition was great, and I labored hard to gratify its cravings.”

The triumphant actors launched from Pittsburgh in a bigger, better flatboat, to float the Ohio southwesterly for 400 miles. Several of the northerners experienced the South for first time, touching down in Virginia then Kentucky, slave-holding states along the great river. At Limestone, Ky., the group unloaded and Drake sold the barge, obtaining more wagons and horses for an overland tour to Lexington, Frankfort and Louisville.

The Limestone port led into Kentucky where Daniel Boone and frontiersmen had battled Shawnee Indians until the 1790s. Now U.S. territory stretched to the Rocky Mountains, Boone and followers were resettled outside St. Louis, and native tribes were removed or contained. The new West and South were open for entertainment of actors and musicians.

The Drakes went on to establish the Louisville City Theatre, an American showcase for drama and music in the Ohio Valley. Historians anointed the Drakes as a first family of popular entertainment in America.

Noah M. Ludlow opened the first showboat in 1817, a hundred-foot barge without steam power at Natchez on the Mississippi River. Later he co-founded theaters in New Orleans, Mobile and St. Louis. Ludlow partnered with Sol Smith, another New York native thespian, as they “dominated the theatrical world in the South and West for nearly two decades and became noted for their fair dealings with performers,” according to a modern analysis.

Arthur Hornblow, author of a 1919 history on American theater, saluted Ludlow and the humble Drake troupe of lore: “The pampered stage favorite of today who gazes idly out of the [train] window, as his private car speeds smoothly across the continent… can have little idea of the hardships and perils the pioneer actors of the West had to face when they set out a hundred years ago to carry the message of Thespis through the American backwoods.”

Select References

Bakeless, J. (1939). Daniel Boone: Master of The Wilderness. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln NE.

C.L. (1881, June 5). An Old Actor’s Memories. New York Times, p. 10.

Dietz, M.M. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville [MA thesis]. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

Gerteis, L. (1995, Spring). St. Louis in the Age of the Original Jim Crow. Gateway Heritage, 15 (4), pp. 1-9. Missouri Historical Society: Columbia MO.

Graham, P. (1951). Showboats: The History of an American Institution. University of Texas Press: Austin TX.

Hornblow, A. (1919). A History of the Theatre In America: From Its Beginnings to the Present Time. J.B. Lippincott Company: Philadelphia PA and London, England.

Inge, M.T., & Piacentino, E. [Eds.] (2010). Southern Frontier Humor: An Anthology. University of Missouri Press: Columbia MO.

Ludlow, N.M. (1880). Dramatic Life as I Found It. G.I. Jones and Company: St. Louis MO.

Smith, S. (1868). Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years. Harper & Brothers: New York NY.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Steamboats Impacted The South Despite Quaky Start

Eleventh in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, September 30, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

America’s early steamboats shocked witnesses along the major rivers, conjuring fear in many, doom in the very naive.

Thurlow Weed was a boy at Catskill, N.Y., in 1807, when he joined chums on an island to watch Robert Fulton’s maiden steam voyage up the Hudson. “We had heard for several days that some sort of vessel was coming up the river against wind and without sails. Such a thing was regarded as utterly impossible,” Weed later recalled, as a prominent newspaperman.

“Finally we saw the monster coming, vomiting fire and smoke and throwing up sparks. The paddlewheels were not covered. We were frightened almost out of our senses, and at first ran out of sight, but presently took courage and cheered the pioneer steamboat with the people that lined the bank of the river.”

A Fulton-backed steamboat launched on the Ohio River from Pittsburgh in late 1811, christened the “New Orleans.” The $38,000 steamer was built “for the navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, to carry goods and passengers between New Orleans and the different towns of those rivers,” eastern newspapers reported.

“We are told she is an excellent well-constructed vessel;  about 140 feet long, will carry 400 tons of goods, has elegant accommodations for passengers, and is every way fitted in great style. It is supposed that she will go 35 miles  a day against the stream… considerably faster with the current.”

The news moved slower downriver from Pittsburgh than the boat, however. The Ohio and Mississippi valleys—encompassing most western states and incorporated U.S. territories—stood hardly informed that a “steam boat” was en route. And epic earthquakes would raise tension as the foreign machine appeared on western waters.

The New Orleans steamed into Louisville, Ky., by moonlight, alarming inhabitants of both shores, Indiana Territory as well. “The novel appearance of the vessel, and the fearful rapidity with which it made its passage over the broad reaches of the river, excited a mixture of terror and surprise among many of the settlers on the banks, whom the rumor of such an invention had never reached,” The Louisville Courier later recounted.

Farther downstream on the Indiana shore, the steamer attracted settlers who expressed “great alarm,” but not because of the boat. Locals attested of hearing “strange noises on the river and in the woods.” They claimed the shoreline shook earlier that day, “insisting that they had repeatedly felt the earth tremble.” Indeed, the earthquakes of 1811-12 had begun from an epicenter in Missouri Territory at New Madrid, along the Mississippi River, some 170 miles southwest of the steamboat’s location.

Small tremors had been undetectable aboard the steamboat on the Ohio, with the loud engine’s rattling everything, but deck occupants felt jarring that night at anchor. The next day, as a crewman would recall, “we heard a rushing sound, violent splash, and finally saw large portions of the shore tearing away from the land and lapsing into the watery abyss. It was a startling scene… the crew spoke but little.”

The steamboat reached the mouth of the Ohio a week before Christmas, at confluence with the Mississippi River, and crewmen moored on the southern tip of Illinois Territory, future site of Cairo settlement. Directly across the Mississippi sprawled a vast alluvial plain—Missouri Territory of swamp and virgin timber, sparsely populated. A few folks met the steamer on the Illinois side, woodcutters drawn to the landing by talk of “a great monster walking upon the water.”

But earthquakes had become everyone’s concern. Massive shocks erupted as the steamboat headed southward on the Mississippi around Dec. 19, 1811. “Trees along the shores of the river were seen waving and nodding… and all this violence seemed only to increase,” the Louisville paper recounted. “The steamer New Orleans had no choice but to pursue its course down the river… a fearful stream, now unusually swollen, turbid and full of trees.”

The boat docked for a time at New Madrid village, seismic ground zero where the “greatest distress and consternation” gripped residents. “Part of the population had fled in terror to the higher grounds; others prayed… as the earth was opening in fissures on every side, and their houses hourly falling around them.” Superstitious types blamed the steamboat, declaring its manifestation in concert with a current comet at night triggered catastrophic earthquakes and likely end of time.

Thirty miles downstream, at Little Prairie village in future Pemiscot County, Missouri, the steamer was “brought to by the cries of some of the people who thought the earth was gradually sinking,” stated a Natchez dispatch. “Some distance below the Little Prairie the bank of the river had caved in to a considerable extent, and two islands had almost disappeared.”

The steamboat chugged on, passing the Chickasaw Bluffs where Memphis would soon rise, to reach Natchez on Dec. 30 and load cotton bales, the ship’s first cargo. The steamer finally docked at namesake city New Orleans on Jan. 10, 1812; Louisiana statehood was pending, three months away.

“The New Orleans entered the American bloodstream at a propitious moment,” observed modern author Robert H. Gudmestad in his Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. “The Louisiana Purchase had recently doubled the country’s size and Americans were eagerly moving over the Appalachian Mountains.”

By 1860, states of the great Mississippi drainage basin boasted almost half the American population. “The interior South—those slave states west of the Appalachian Mountains—figured prominently in these changes,” Gudmestad noted. “Its population shot from 806,000 to nearly 7 million people… When the New Orleans completed its first voyage, over 17,000 people lived in New Orleans. Fifty years later, 168,675 people dwelled there. Memphis, a city that did not exist in 1812 and owed its existence to riverboats, was the country’s thirty-eighth largest city in 1860.”

“A decade after the first riverboat touched the New Orleans levee, over seventy steamers prowled the western waters. By the time Abraham Lincoln took up residence in the White House, the number surpassed eight hundred.”

Select References

A Talk With Thurlow Weed. (1878, July 1). New York Tribune, p. 2.

Bagnall, N.H. (1996). On Shaky Ground: The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812.  University of Missouri Press: Columbia.

Gudmestad, Robert H. (2011). Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge.

La Pariere. (1884, Jan. 6). Opening The Ohio: Initial Trip of the New Orleans, Made During the Convulsive Earthquake of 1811. Louisville Courier Journal KY, p. 9.

Latrobe, C. (1856, Feb. 15). First Steamboat in the West. Louisville Courier Journal KY, p. 1.

Natchez, Jan. 2. (1812, Feb. 22). Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, St. Louis, p. 2.

Steam Boat. (1811, Oct. 18). Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, p.2.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Pioneer American Pop Star: Nelson Kneass

Tenth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

With the 19th century concluding in America, as the first musical notes of jazz and “ragtime” rose along the Mississippi River, a pioneer pop artist was remembered again for his great old song.

Nelson Kneass was famous before the Civil War, playing his hit Ben Bolt on piano and banjo, when the sheet music sold thousands in America and abroad. The legend revived during the 1890s, long after Kneass died in rural Missouri. A popular novel and stage drama featured Ben Bolt, the “plaintive melody” sung by comely heroine Trilby O’Ferrall—under hypnosis of the evil Svengali, no less—and suddenly fans worshipped a dead pop star in Kneass.

Kneass was a Pennsylvania native who sang Ben Bolt as early as May 1847, according to advertisements of the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, although initially he might’ve used music of other composers. Various musicians were adapting the song from a poem, in forgettable versions, until Kneass arranged his smash hit. “Kneass was not only an excellent singer but also a very capable pianist, a versatile banjoist, and a talented composer [presenting] first-class entertainment,” observed historian Ernest C. Krohn.

Vocalist Joseph H. McCann said Kneass produced his golden take of Ben Bolt during a riverboat trip they shared from Memphis around 1847, steaming up the Mississippi then eastward on the Ohio. Kneass finished his composition on a landing at Grahamton, Ky., and summoned McCann, according to Will S. Hays of The Louisville Courier-Journal. “If we are not mistaken, Mr. McCann was the first person who ever sang [Ben Bolt by Kneass]… He did so from the manuscript,” reported Hays, a noted lyricist and columnist. McCann toured with the famed Kneass Operatic Troupe and other companies, but ceased in the early 1850s to open a music store in Louisville, among his successful business ventures.

Kneass continued in entertainment but his name faded in the war period. Struggling financially, Kneass complained of receiving paltry royalties for Ben Bolt, a tune beloved in America like Home Sweet Home and the classic Oh Susanna—which Kneass had introduced, incidentally, on stage. A wife died in a riverboat accident while his drinking and declining health caused problems. One story had Kneass arriving at his own funeral, after missing for days, to stun family members and friends gathered round a corpse they’d mistaken for him, fished from a river.

The performer felt illness creeping by September 1869, stomach malaise, while a Kneass troupe toured northern Missouri. His condition worsened on a train ride and he succumbed that night, Sept. 8, at a boarding house in a railroad town named Chillicothe. Nelson Kneass died virtually penniless at about age 46, leaving a young wife and children. His widow could afford $6 for the burial but no gravestone, and the family relied on charity for money to travel home in the East. Surviving troupe players made do from Missouri, largely on their own.

Publicity, praise revived for the showman in his wake. “Nelson Kneass… is dead,” announced a theater critic, unidentified, in The Memphis Appeal. “He was one of those men that worked hard, lived poor and died miserably. He was a genius.”

“He was a fine musician and composed much…,” saluted a newspaper commentary, widely printed. “Ben Bolt was sung in the lordly mansions and in the lowly cottages all over the land. There was a sadness and sweetness that touched all hearts alike.”

“He was the author and originator of very many popular songs,” said Sam S. Sanford, American stage legend, in remembering Kneass. “He and Stephen Foster are the two bards of the minstrels… Kneass belonged to Philadelphia, and as a boy was dressed in petticoats [impersonating girls] on the stage. He was with the Wood’s [minstrels] at Park Theatre in New York, when English opera was first produced. He died poor and unattended by friends… The publishers of Ben Bolt made $50,000 from that one song alone, and its author often needed bread.”

Eventually a modest granite marker was placed on the Kneass grave in Missouri, and the site stood undisturbed a few decades. Then came the “Trilby” sensation, 1890s, the sexy storyline made fashionable through a magazine serial, a best-selling book, and a stage production.

Neo-fandom for Kneass was vogue and visitors to the Chillicothe cemetery cracked into his tombstone, carrying away pieces. “Kneass’s grave was marked until within the last year or so, when curiosity and relic hunters have chipped souvenirs from the slab,” reported The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1899, adding that “scarcely enough of it remains to show that a headstone had ever been there.”

Select References

A Monument To Be Built at Chillicothe, Mo., in Honor of Nelson Kneass, Composer of “Ben Bolt.” (1899, May 21). St. Louis Post-Dispatch MO, p. 34.

Amusements. (1869, Sept. 19). Memphis Daily Appeal TN, p. 4.

Andrews’ Eagle Ice Cream Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, Aug. 12). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

Ben Bolt. (1869, Oct. 1). Fort Wayne Daily Gazette IN, p. 1.

Ben Bolt. (1894, Oct. 21). Washington Post DC, p. 4.

“Ben Bolt” Author in Missouri Grave. (1913, March 9). St. Louis Star and Times MO, p. 24.

Chillicothe Cullings. (1883, Dec. 11). St. Joseph Gazette-Herald MO, p. 3.

Chillicothe’s 1897 Yesterdays. (1928, June 8). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 2.

Death of The Author of “Ben Bolt.” (1869, Sept. 25). Clarksville Chronicle TN, p. 1.

Free Concerts Every Evening This Week At The Eagle Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, May 27). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

From Thursday’s Daily, Sept. 16. (1869, Sept. 18). Weekly Atchison Champion KS, p. 3.

Grise, G.C. (1947, August). Will S. Hays: His Life and Works [master’s thesis]. Department of English, Western Kentucky State Teachers College: Bowling Green KY.

Hays, W.S. (1883, May 26). The Late Joseph McCann. Memphis Public Ledger TN, p. 1.

Krohn, E.C. (1971). Nelson Kneass: Minstrel Singer and Composer. Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical, 7, pp. 17-41. University of Texas Press: Austin.

Missouri Points. (1897, Feb. 18). Kansas City Journal MO, p. 4.

Most Melancholy Accident—Death of Mrs. Kneass, Late Mrs. Sharpe. (1848, Feb. 26). Poughkeepsie Journal NY, p. 2.

Naming Theatre “Ben Bolt” Revives Famous Old Song. (1949, Aug. 16). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 11.

Nelson Kneass’ Double. (1896, April 12). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 34.

Personal. (1868, July 4). Nashville Tennessean, p. 2.

Songs We Used To Sing. (1890, Sept. 20). Sterling Daily Gazette IL, p. 3.

The Kneass Opera Troupe [advertisement]. (1847, Oct. 16). Cincinnati Enquirer, p. 3.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

The Delta Factor In Great American Music

Ninth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

During the 1960s, U.S. Highway 61 was reduced to a byway in southeast Missouri—and throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley—supplanted by Interstate 55 of the new federal road system. And traveling southbound from Cape Girardeau and Scott City, where I-55 blazed over knobby foothills, motorists met a stunning vista: the great delta flatland, stretching out of sight. The interstate’s twin tracks bore straight south, seemingly melding together in the distance, with the horizon a flat line.

Southeast Missouri had been ocean coastline in eons past, an ancient embayment subsequently altered through ice ages and meltdowns, according to geologists. The modern Mississippi River stood relatively young at around 10,000 years of age, scientists calculated in the 20th century, with the delta basin composed of sediments washed from across the continental interior. Core drilling indicated more than one thousand cubic miles of sediment filled an entrenched rock valley from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. Geologists concluded that the New Madrid Fault, notorious seismic rift of the valley, would never resolve for the encroachment of boulders far underground.

Pristine delta swamps and spillways were drained in the early 1900s, giving way to farms and communities from Missouri to Louisiana. Population influx was led by planters and sharecroppers from the Old South, escaping regions beset by soil depletion and the boll weevil. In the “reclaimed” delta, basic scenery amounted to level crop rows, on and on—gigantic expanses of cotton, corn, beans and alfalfa, framed only by fence and tree lines.

On appearances the delta seemed no place for artistic greatness to influence a civilization, yet it became the talent wellspring of American music. Multiple musical genres were impacted: gospel, jazz, blues, country, folk, and, ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll. And the primary delta factor, said music authorities and others, was the struggle of class and race for people who tried to forge a living from a harsh frontier.

“All the music culture that’s come into Memphis has come in here from poor whites and poor blacks,” said Sam Phillips, record producer, in 1979. “I think we need to take into consideration that poor whites and poor blacks came in here looking for jobs… and they were singing their hearts out. It’s not there in Chicago, or New York, or on the West Coast. It came from right here in the melting pot of human suffering.”

The delta musicians “created a sound out of the way they lived and their backgrounds and their roots,” said Al Bennett, a records magnate reared on a farm in northeast Arkansas. “I don’t think it was designed.”

“There are two choices in Arkansas…,” said singer Ronnie Hawkins, founding member of The Hawks, in 1970. “You either pick cotton for three or four dollars a day, or you can play music and get out. So there’s an awful lot of people trying to pick guitars in that area.”

As a boy Johnny Cash helped family clear tangled swampland for their meager farm at Dyess, Ark., where floodwater was a constant threat. Cash believed the experience translated later for his music, attracting wide audience. “When you work close to the earth on some poor dirt farm… you learn to understand the basic things about love and hate and what people want from life,” Cash observed.

“I think the Mississippi delta was just as fertile to American culture as the delta was in ancient Egypt,” said author Nick Tousches, biographer of Jerry Lee Lewis, in 1994. “It was where black people heard the white man’s music and made something new out of it. It was where the white man heard the black man’s music. And people say the blues came from Africa; well, I think they really came from the Deep South.”

Author Rose Marie Kinder heard lyricism in everyday delta expressions. The language of her native southeast Missouri “differs from anywhere else in the state or country,” Kinder said in 2006. “It’s subtle, perhaps, but you’ll know the true southeast Missouri vernacular when you hear it. It’s not Southern inflection, not just metaphor and certainly not just colloquialisms. It’s wit and pacing and sharp, apt observation.”

“An added pronoun or two can make music if they’re in the right place.”

Select References

Brown, T. [Prod.], & Perry, H. [Dir.] (1994). Rhythm, Country and Blues [VHS]. MCA Records: Universal City CA.

Chipmunks to Millions. (1977, Aug. 24). Manhattan Mercury KS, p. 15.

Drew, R. (1967, Aug. 19). Listen Hear. Pasadena Independent Star-News CA, p.7.

Eberhart, J.M. (2006, May 14). ‘The Land Is Rich’: Missouri Author Brings a Sense of Place to Her Writing. Kansas City Star, p. H6.

Elvis ‘Got Black Music Into White Homes.’ (1979, Aug. 17). Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, p. 15.

Fisk, H.N. (1944, Dec. 1). Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River. U.S. Mississippi River Commission, War Department Corps of Engineers: Vicksburg MS.

Gormley, M. (1970, Feb. 13). Canadian Music Legend: The Story of an Arkansas Rock Singer and His Band. Ottawa Journal, Ontario, Canada.

Hilburn, R. (1969, July 14). Clearwater Revives Its Delta Heritage. Los Angeles Times, p. B18.

Holbrook, J.M. (1994, June 6). Interview with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Holbrook, J.M. (2017, Sept. 14). Email correspondence with author.

Holbrook, J.M., Snowden, J.O., & Aide, M.T. (1996, Feb. 5). Interviews with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Interstate 55 Portion South Opened Today. (1965, Sept. 1). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Landforms of Southeast Missouri [map]. (1987). USDA-SCS-National Cartographic Center: Ft. Worth TX.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

1956: Girls Mob Elvis from Missouri to New York

Eighth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, August 24, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Screaming girls confronted Elvis Presley in the South by early 1955, signaling his popularity. In southwest Texas his name wasn’t yet electric, “but his star was already destined to rise heavenward,” reporter Sam Kindrick later recalled. “He had that indefinable charisma which turns female innards to mush, female knees to rubber, and sends them into a hysterical state of screeching woozels. When he finished his performance in the Alpine High School auditorium, girls were hoisting their dresses so that Presley could autograph their petticoats.”

The “first Presley riot” concluded a show in Jacksonville, Fla., on May 13.  Elvis kidded about meeting every girl backstage so a mob chased him there, scaring his mother in the audience. That summer females tore away his shirts, including at the B&B Club in Bootheel Missouri. Soon Presley signed a recording contract with RCA Victor and sold a million copies of his Heartbreak Hotel.

Elvis starred on national television, easily passed a Hollywood screen test, and fan madness escalated. “Wherever he appears, screaming crowds of teen-age girls make his entrances and exits a test of strength…,” The United Press reported from New York City in spring 1956, “and the young rock-n-roll hillbilly, or ‘rockabilly,’ invariably ends up minus a jacket, shirt and tie.”

Presley said, “It’s all happening so fast that some nights I just can’t fall asleep. It scares me, you know. It just scares me.”

Weeks later, he showed up shirtless for a press conference in Kansas City, Mo. “Elvis wore a thin sport jacket, gray with black flecks in it,” reported The Kansas City Star Times, “and otherwise was entirely buff bare above the waist.”

Rabid fans necessitated the style, claimed Presley. “These people, teenagers mostly, kept tearing my shirt off—just had to quit wearing ’em,” said the 21-year-old heartthrob. “Never wear a necktie, of course. It can be dangerous—some girl grabbing at my neck could choke me. Never wear a belt. Seems like that’s what they go for next to neckties.” Presley said fans removed watches and rings from him. “They strip anything off me if they get a chance.”

The paper described Presley as “rather handsome. He has big, solemn eyes [of] gray-green, long brown hair cut ducktail and long sideburns.” Presley declined to smile for a photographer, “brooding” instead for the shot.

A newsman posed: “Now you’re in the big time and in the big money. How does it feel to be mobbed by teen-agers everywhere you go?”

“First of all, I wouldn’t say I get mobbed,” Presley continued at the airport presser. “I wouldn’t call a bunch of teenagers a mob. I’d just say they get very excited. They’re excitable… like down in Tulsa a few weeks ago they threw rocks to break out the windows so they could get at me. But when they get inside they only want to shake hands with me, get an autograph or maybe tear off some of my clothes for souvenirs.”

“Now, about being in the big time. It’s really great but I’m more nervous than I used to be… After a show I go up the alley to my hotel and in through a back door… so people can’t contact me. I got to get a little rest.”

A reporter noted that girls chased Presley far more than pop icons Frank Sinatra and Johnny Ray, previously.

“I don’t just know how big they went for Sinatra or Johnny Ray,” Elvis responded. “I hate to say how big they go for me. It would sound like bragging. I guess it’s because I sing rock ’n’ roll, and rock ’n’ roll is so hot right now.”

Shrieking females greeted Elvis at Kansas City Municipal Auditorium on May 24, 1956, when he took the stage with guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana. The music started and Presley went into action. “Between gyrations, Elvis jigs across the stage dragging the microphone after him and leaning at almost horizontal angles,” Bill Moore reported for The Star Times. “He whangs the daylights out of a guitar. He shouts and moans.”

The few policemen on hand sensed a bad situation. “Police gathered on the stage,” Moore recounted. “Others strode at a sort of a dog trot around the sides, attempting to herd the girls back—gently but just sort of firmly… Elvis got through four or five songs before the roof finally fell in. A girl got past the police, bounced up on the stage, and hugged and kissed her panting [idol]. A policeman got her off again, but the signal for the avalanche was on… [kids] poured over the front and over the sides of the stage.”

The United Press reported: “Rock and roll singer Elvis Presley and his band just gave up and quit in the middle of their show… hundreds of teenagers rushed up onto the stage, threw his drummer into the orchestra pit, tore a bright red coat off Presley, and damaged band equipment. Lights were quickly turned out and Presley and his crew escaped further danger from the crowd of mostly girls who reduced [Black’s] upper clothing to a collar of shred-like tassels.”

Moore watched Presley flee, with or without his side men. “Elvis fought his way clear of the hysterical swarm of teen-age girls that broke through the police lines, then he jumped into a motor car parked in the corridor backstage, and was off like a frightened gazelle.”

The Elvis escapade, only the latest to make headlines, amused entertainment columnist Dorothy Kilgallen in New York. “Elvis Presley’s brain trust is having a harder time keeping his name out of the papers than getting it in these days—the crown prince of rock ’n’ roll leads such a colorful life and has such impetuous admirers,” Kilgallen declared.

Presley had rare places to hide by Thanksgiving 1956. Not even in delta southeast Missouri, around relatives, could the pop superstar enjoy privacy. Holiday dinner for the Presley family was foiled, at least for Elvis to attend. Relatives were notified he couldn’t leave Memphis for the get-together at Sikeston, where the negative development dampened “considerable excitement,” according to a local newspaper.

“Sorry, girls, maybe another time,” the reporter cracked.

Not likely. Now Presley starred in movies, banking his first million dollars. People pursued him everywhere, media and all sorts, including sanctimonious preachers who condemned rock music. Fan mail brought 10,000 letters a week. Girls at Springfield, Mo., were irate to learn Presley had stopped in town on a train without public notice; a reporter who’d kept the secret in exchange for an interview received 300 nasty letters.

Elvis stalkers reached family members, who learned silence regarding the reclusive celebrity. Personal information about Elvis, like his coming and going, was becoming family confidential from Mississippi to Missouri.

If the public Elvis were gone along Highway 61, his effect carried on in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Presley’s former local presence and his exploding publicity—national spotlight, global fame in ’56—left lasting impact in the upper delta. More young males passed over activities like ball sports to concentrate on music.

A New York marketer joked he might move to Memphis and “open a used guitar lot.”

Series continues soon at ChaneysBlog.com

Select References

706 Union Avenue Sessions. (Accessed 2017, Aug. 24). www.706UnionAvenue.com.

Bass, M.R. (1956, Sept. 18). The Lively Arts. Berkshire Eagle MA, p. 16.

Belser, E. (1956, March 30). Elvis Presley and His Guitar Locate Success. Corsicana Daily Sun TX, p. 3.

Eisenberg, D.D. (1974, July 4). Elvis Presley: Star and Country Boy Still. Burlington Daily Times-News NC, p. 41.

Elvis Will Not Be Here. (1956, Nov. 21). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 4.

Fans Mourn Elvis. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

Gardner, H. (1956, Nov. 6). Coast To Coast. New York Herald Tribune, p. 13.

Jennings, C.R. (1968, Feb. 18). Elvis Lives! Los Angeles Times, p. M28.

Johns, P. (2016, May 26). Elvis Comes to The Ozarks. Bolivar Herald-Free Press MO [online].

Kilgallen, D. (1956, June 4). Elvis Keeps Brain Trust Rocking. Washington Post, p. 32.

Kindrick, S. (1972, March 16). Offbeat: It’ll Be a Madhouse When Presley Appears. San Antonio Express TX, p. 22.

Lloyd, J. (1977, June 5). Elvis Presley: The Once and Past King. Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram CA, p. 40.

May 13, 1955—Jax Fans Chase Elvis After Show, Tear Off His Clothes. (Access 2017, Aug. 24). www.FloridaHistoryNetwork.com.

Million Sellers Launch Legend of a Heartbreaker. (1977, Aug. 20). San Antonio Express TX, p. 4.

Moore, B. (1956, May 22). Cool, Man, Especially Minus Shirt: To Keep Teen-Agers From Ripping Them Off, Singer Elvis Presley Just goes Without. Kansas City Times MO, pp. 1, 2.

Moore, B. (1956, May 25). Rolls When They Rock: Elvis Presley Flees to Car After 20 Minutes On Stage. Kansas City Times MO, pp. 1A, 2A.

Presley Says He’s Scared. (1956, May 14). Monroe County News IA, p. 8.

Robertson, H. (1957, Oct. 23). Presley Families Shudder When Telephone Rings. Harrisburg Daily Register IL, p. 7.

Ross, D. (1956, Nov. 11). Long-Haired Idol of Bobby-Soxers. New York Herald Tribune, p. D1.

Teenagers Mob, Break Up Show of Elvis Presley. (1956, May 25). Monroe News-Star LA, p. 10.

Wilson, E. (1958, Jan. 14). It Happened Last Night. Newsday, p. 4C.

Wood, D. (1956, April 19). Presley Leaves’Em Limp—8,000 Squeal at 1st Show. Tulsa World, pp. B1, B7.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

1955: The Local Elvis in Missouri, Cut 2

Seventh in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, August 12, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

A version of this passage posted previously in my article ‘The Local Elvis: From Good Kid to Garbo in Rock Legend.’ This richer draft is for my book on 1950s rockers in the Missouri delta, set for release next year. Chaney

Memphis wasn’t so big a city in the mid-1950s; many locals knew or encountered Elvis Presley on everyday terms. The kid was a regular figure downtown and on the riverfront since relocating to Memphis with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, in 1948. The family had left behind a hardscrabble existence at Tupelo, Miss., when Elvis was 13. He was the surviving child, after a twin brother was stillborn, and the little family stayed tight-knit while hovering above poverty. As Elvis completed high school, the Presleys dwelled in “The Courts” of north Memphis, an urban complex of subsidized, segregated housing.

Music stardom beckoned Presley at outset of 1955, when he turned 20, already a singing sensation on the Louisiana Hayride circuit. Around Memphis he remained known as a mannered youth enamored with song. As a schoolboy he’d been shy and often solitary, but a good kid, a church-goer, always working a part-time job. Many people called Elvis a mama’s boy, too attached to Gladys, but he was no pushover at physical maturity, standing six-foot tall and solidly built.

Presley hadn’t yet blown apart American pop culture, refitted the model, and for a final period he would live and work in relatively common fashion. The local Elvis character remained personable on the street, liked by others, even if flashy and a bit nervous, according to his profile drawn from numerous accounts.

Presley was fond of extended family like cousins, aunts and uncles, and he surely felt at ease in driving across the bridge from Memphis and keeping north on Highway 61. The river road carried Presley through Arkansas and Missouri, delta countryside and communities familiar to him since a boy on visits to relatives.

During 1955 Presley would travel federal 61 north for gaining work and building audience, popularity. At least nine Elvis shows were scheduled in the delta corridor from West Memphis to Cape Girardeau, a 170-mile belt of flatland through Arkansas and Missouri. His trio, now promoted as the “Blue Moon Boys”—Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black—would appear at roadhouses, dance halls, schools, armories and fairgrounds.

Smaller venues largely booked the act that year, among some 280 shows in 14 states. The Blue Moon Boys opened January on a tour of Texas, playing schools and halls for enthusiastic audiences. A local deejay declared excitedly, in mispronunciation, that “a kid named Parsley played to 800 folks at Boston, Texas, and they went plumb crazy.”

In mid-January, northeast Arkansas, school kids from Leachville High burst into a newspaper office. The giddy teens promoted their fundraiser with Elvis Presley on stage, the fabulous rockabilly heard afternoons and nights on radio from Blytheville and Memphis. “He’s great! He’s going to be a star!” the students gushed to editors. The paper published a show notice complete with publicity photo of Presley’s trio: Elvis smiled radiantly at center, darkly handsome in sporty tie and jacket, draping his arms around Moore and Black, who beamed in cowboy shirts. The three had become good friends since summer, however long they’d last under mounting pressure.

Soon America’s hottest new band reached Sikeston, Mo., a bustling agricultural center of 17,000 at intersection of U.S. Highways 61 and 60. For the history of Presley appearances in small-town Missouri, the Sikeston event on Friday, Jan. 21, 1955, left a cache of documented fact and credible recollection. The evidence portrayed a friendly Elvis in Sikeston, mixing freely, endearing locals. Presley charmed and impressed people, winning fans during a night he apparently enjoyed.

The Sikeston area felt homey to the young entertainer, for ancestral ties and a cluster of his relatives. Calhoun Presley, a great uncle and family patriarch, was a local fixture in farming, and cousins of Elvis were becoming established in business. Jesse Presley, Elvis’s grandfather and a brother of Calhoun, once farmed in southeast Missouri as a sharecropper. Additionally in Sikeston, Elvis appreciated meeting recording artist Onie Wheeler, area resident and Nashville performer with Grand Ole Opry. Presley admired the classy Wheeler, a soft-spoken music talent and war veteran who offered positive encouragement and advice. Elvis returned his best compliment, remarking that Wheeler reminded him of mother Gladys.

Newspaper and radio coverage preceded the band in Sikeston yet most folks were clueless about the act, publicized as cowboy guitarists and yodelers. Then the Blue Moon Boys came out on the armory stage and broke into song. Presley, billed as a “country music star,” strutted in his pink suit bought on Beale Street. He’d bust loose in a circle, strumming guitar, swinging hips and knees, dancing on toes in white shoes. At the microphone he wailed familiar lyrics but to beats faster, louder. Moore banged out rock riffs on electric guitar while Black hit bass notes and slapped wood. And now the sidemen dressed snazzy themselves, in black shirts and pants with pink vests, white ties.

Mouths had to hang open in the audience. This wasn’t country music. Armory guardsman Barney Cardwell hardly knew what to think. Later at home, his wife asked about the show. “Well, he was a man named Elvis Presley and I’ve never heard of him, but I’ll say one thing, he’s different,” Cardwell said. “We’re transitioning into something different.”

But others applauded Presley led by Wheeler, who had interviewed the budding showman on radio. After the Sikeston show the Opry performer raved over Presley, Wheeler later recalled, as “absolutely the most talented and different entertainer I had ever seen. And I think I was one of the first to tell him so.” The performance was a qualified success and Elvis stuck around afterward, following people to Wheeler’s show at Lakeview Inn in Sikeston. Presley joined his new friend on stage at the nightspot, even playing drums as Wheeler sang.

The rocker’s departure from town was emblematic of the local Elvis among everyday folk, a persona on short time. Presley had a new car at home but still drove beaters on road trips, logging thousands of miles. He was prone to leave a broken-down heap where it sat—a souvenir Sikeston almost inherited. “He was here in an older car that didn’t run good and he parked it behind the armory,” Caldwell later told The Daily Standard. “When he left, some of the fellows had to push him to get him started, and I remember him turning back and waving to us as he drove out of town.”

Select References

Appear at Leachville. (1955, Jan. 19). Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 14.

Blackwell, B. (2008, Sept. 11). Memories of Elvis’ show in Cape remain strong as Tribute to the King takes grandstand at SEMO District Fair. Southeast Missourian, Cape Girardeau MO [online].

Cp. Onie D. Wheeler. (1944, Oct. 12). Sikeston Herald MO, p. 6.

Elvis Presley Gang Of Western Entertainers To Perform at Armory. (1955, Jan. 20). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, see www.elvisconcerts.com.

Editor’s Note. (1977, Aug. 18). Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 6.

Fans Mourn Elvis. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 20). Lonely days in high school left their mark on the man who changed history of rock. Ottawa JournalCanada, p.34.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 28). A prisoner of rock & roll. Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.2.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 30). ‘Rocker’ launched skyrocket career. Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.7.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Sept. 1). Saga ends with ‘perfect deline.’ Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.39.

Guralnick, P. (1994). Last train to Memphis: The rise of Elvis Presley. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

Heuring, L. (2005, Jan. 21). Elvis visited Sikeston in 1955. Sikeston Daily Standard MO [online].

Jennings, C.R. (1968, Feb. 18). Elvis Lives! Los Angeles Times, p. M28.

Morrison, C.R. (1984, June). Rockabilly Music and Musicians [MA thesis]. York University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Onie Wheeler to appear on Grand Ole Opry. (1954, Jan. 11). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 6.

Payne, S.E. (1977, Oct. 5). Country Music Star Remembers King of Rock as ‘Greatest.’ Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Presley’s Record Sales Jump Here. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

“Run ’Em Off” Wheeler Attends Convention. (1954, Nov. 29). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 3.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Excerpts IV: 1925 Tri-State Tornado, 1949 Baseball Dream of A Patriot

Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

Excerpt 4: The Tri-State Tornado, deadliest land storm in American history, continues its path on the afternoon of March 18, 1925

Would this storm ever die? It was 80-minutes old on a run exceeding 70 miles from its start in the Ozarks to Perry County, Mo., and now approaching the Mississippi River. The amorphous cloud mass crossed what would become roadbed of Interstate 55, carrying its obscene baggage. Chunks of houses and outbuildings rolled along like milk cartons. Roofing sheets swirled about like tissue paper, draping over tree lots to resemble surreal laundry lines for decades to come. Horses, cattle and hogs were spun aloft then blown through woods, severing them to pieces.

Eight lives had been lost in Missouri, with another to succumb of wounds, and hundreds more had injuries ranging from minor to serious. People in the tornado’s path ahead were imperiled, regardless of their shelters. No one was safe unless completely underground, like the miners of Annapolis-Leadanna in the previous hour.

Apple Creek was a hillside community facing west. At 2:20 p.m., a priest at St. Joseph’s School gazed out a second-story window that creaked against the winds. The day had grown menacingly dark under the approach of puffed-up, jittery clouds resembling blackberries. The priest turned back to his religion class comprised of grade-schoolers, concern etching his face. “We better say a prayer,” he said. “It looks like a real bad storm is coming.”

The children obeyed, and the clouds continued northeast, missing Apple Creek and striking the other side of the ridge to cross Route 25 [present-day U.S. Highway 61]. At the farm of Theodore Unterreiner, the top story of a log house was blown off, leaving a single timber balancing unsecured over a lower wall. A little girl was rolled up in floor linoleum but unhurt. The barn was demolished and 200 chickens were killed, with some stripped clean of feathers.

The twister tore through more hardwoods and farms and along ridges and creeks, including five consecutive properties “battered down as if a giant roller had passed over them,” a newspaper reported. People were injured but none killed. A well-known physician in the area, Dr. Theodore Estel, was enroute to a house call when he was caught exposed on a road. Leaping from his car an instant before winds smashed it, Estel was knocked to the ground under a barrage of debris. He was struck in the head, impaled in the back, and absorbed a blow that fractured a hip. But he held onto the ground and was not blown away. He would survive.

Racing in excess of 60 mph with upwards of 300-mph winds, the tornado was six miles from the Mississippi. More would die in Missouri. On a farm near Brazeau village, 63-year-old Crittenden Bull and his sister, Annie Bull, sought cover in their house. But it crashed down and trapped them, and fire spread quickly from the broken stove. Neighbors saved them from burning to death, but Mr. Bull never regained consciousness and died four days later. At an estate north of Frohna, the tornado surprised Judge Claus Stueve and others. The big house literally exploded before anyone could react. The judge’s widowed sister-in-law, Martha Kaempfe, was in her upstairs room when the walls disintegrated; snatched and launched almost 100 yards, she was found dead.

The hilltops were tighter together as the storm closed upon the final village before the river, Ridge. Sitting atop the tallest point was Ridge School, a two-story brick building that once had been a church. Twenty-two students and a teacher were inside on the bottom floor when flying objects began rat-tatting against the walls and breaking windows. The back door flew open and a pupil rushed to close it. Then the building slid forward 10 feet and the brick walls crumbled. The wooden interior went high up, flew across the road and over trees, and crashed roof-first down a ravine, strewing human bodies the entire way. Bricks and boards rained down on the victims, but the intact floor fluttered down on air currents, dropping gently enough that those it covered were not crushed.

No one from Ridge School died, and only a few debilitating injuries would last among the students from that terrifying afternoon. This extraordinary case of schoolhouse survivors would long be cited in studies on tornadoes.

***

Leaving Missouri, the strange cloud appeared to break up in the Mississippi River bottoms. The black fog began dissipating, but that only unveiled twin funnels moving side-by-side. Plowing across the water, the storm shrouded itself in fog again, and 500 people in Gorham, Ill., had no idea what was coming.

Gorham was two miles off river in the eastern floodplain. A resident, Judith Cox, would later describe seeing a mammoth front approach “that seemed to be black smoke,” driving a white wall of water before it. Cox was standing in front of Cox’s Restaurant: “My God!” she cried. “It’s a cyclone! And it’s here!”

“The air was full of everything…,” Cox recalled for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “boards, branches of trees, garments, pans, stoves, all churning around together. I saw whole sides of houses rolling along near the ground.”

The wind struck like a giant fist, punching Cox backward through the front door of the restaurant, followed by an airborne brown-and-white cow. As the building collapsed, the cow’s body saved Cox from being crushed by beams that fell.

Clocks stopped at 2:35 across Gorham. A house lost its roof as a young mother, Wanda Mattingly, clung desperately to her small children while grasping a staircase banister. But the walls blew away. Mattingly’s infant daughter was sucked from her arms, and her 3-year-old boy was stabbed in the head by a darting piece of wood.

In the darkened 8th grade classroom at Gorham School, an upward rush of air through the floor’s heating vent sent straw, feathers and leaf bits swirling, amusing the students. But giggles turned to shrieks of panic when they looked outside and saw tall trees bend over, come back up, then go flat to the ground, uprooted. Fourteen-year-old Clara Mattingly—Wanda’s sister-in-law—rushed for the door. Reaching the hallway, Clara heard screams ringing through the school then the whole building collapsed into rubble, burying her and 200 other students.

On the east side of town, railroad tracks were ripped out of the ground and wadded like chicken wire. Grass was removed from ground by the roots. A frame house was lifted 30 feet high and tossed into a great elm tree, its branches crashing through windows to hold the full structure in brief suspension. The house began cracking and splintering, a wall blew out, and the elderly couple inside, Paul and Alice Tomure, were drawn into the air. They landed in a cornfield behind the tree, side-by-side. Alice looked over to see a railroad spike driven through her husband’s lip.

“I’m dying, Alice dear,” he said, and the couple prayed together a final time.

A Patriot

Excerpt 4: Barnstorming major-league players on tour, led by Robin Roberts, future Hall of Famer, struggle to score against local pitcher Lloyd “Lefty” Fisher in an exhibition game at Sikeston, Mo., October 1949

When Lloyd Fisher returned to St. Louis after his release from the Dodgers organization, 1947, he was a little downcast but realistic. He still believed he could play pro baseball, but until a team called he had a family to care for. He took jobs pitching batting practice for the Cardinals and driving a cab.

Then the rural life beckoned, especially the farm owned by his wife Louise’s family in southeast Missouri, on Crowley’s Ridge near Puxico. The couple moved there and never left, raising their children and retiring in same spot. Lloyd and Louise were married 47 years when he died of lung cancer in 1989.

Two months after Lloyd’s passing, this author went to the farm to meet Louise, who was joined by her son, Larry, for an afternoon interview. The Fishers were cheerful, warm hosts, and although still grieving, they discussed Lloyd’s life with smiles and laughter, as though remembering a grand friend as much as a husband and father.

Louise recalled how she and Lloyd left the city for the farm in the fall of ’47. The country setting was peaceful, idyllic, but hardly free of pressures. “We started in down here trying to make a livin’, you know,” Louise said, smiling. “We bought land and everything. And we made it—barely.” She laughed heartily.

Aside from farming, Lloyd took jobs as a rural mail carrier and a truck driver. Soft-spoken about himself, hardly anyone knew his baseball past, and he initially stayed away from the game. Finally one Sunday afternoon—as the local legend goes—Lefty Fisher showed up at a semipro doubleheader in Asherville, a tiny community near his farm.

Eyeing the pitcher’s mound and watching the home team get beat in the opener, Fisher used the help of Louise’s brother, Bud Madden, to convince the manager to let him pitch the second game. Stepping to the mound in work boots and winding up to throw in overalls, Lefty was untouchable.

Opposing batters were shut down. Asherville won big and the word began spreading, although apparently not too far too soon. There was gambling on baseball in southeast Missouri, and a talent like Lefty could help tip the scales awhile. Asherville gamblers keyed on the fact he was virtually unknown in the region, and they made a plan. “They’d tell him to show up for games wearing overalls and walking barefooted,” said Larry, chuckling. “And those boys [betting the other team] would really lay the money down.”

Asherville sought to keep Lefty as long as possible, but the Puxico Vets soon lured him away with better pay. In due time, the Holcomb team visited the Vets in Puxico. Holcomb expected to win with a roster boasting many of the region’s best hitters, but Lefty shut them out over nine innings. Holcomb did push home a run in the 11th to win, 1-0, but the team’s wealthy organizers found they did not have the region’s best pitcher on the payroll.

They did the next season, 1949, when Lefty Fisher joined Holcomb. With heavy bets riding on games, Lefty’s pitching pay was as high as $100 and more for victories. Odds are, however, that no one bet on Holcomb when Lefty faced Robin Roberts that October in Sikeston.

***

The game moved past the middle innings, still scoreless despite vicious hitting displays by the big-league players. Muscular Hank Sauer ripped a line drive rising toward left field, and Holcomb shortstop Clyde Martin leaped high to stop it. The shot tore away Martin’s glove, and the ball popped out, but Sauer was held to a single. Fisher got out of the inning.

Backed by tight defense, Lefty pitched around repeated scoring threats by Harry Walker’s All-Stars. Fisher showed no emotion, whether retiring a batter or giving up a hit. Occasionally he would step off the rubber to squeeze a resin bag, or remove his cap to rub fingers through sandy blond hair. The pros began to wonder how close Fisher was to a record for the number of “scattered” hits, those he allowed without a run.

Fisher had success in the batter’s box, too, rapping a single off Roberts, but he was stranded on base when no one else reached safely for Holcomb. At this point Roberts had pitched nine innings of shutout ball that day, including three in Arkansas. But he kept mowing through batters, and the fans cheered for any ball that Holcomb managed to put into play.

Walker still did not mention a pitching change, which Roberts would have nixed; this was his game to win or lose now, and he focused on Holcomb as though facing the Dodgers. The pitching duel moved into late innings, but neither pitcher would relent, and the score remained 0-0 after nine. Fisher had matched Roberts in the shutout!

The game went into extra innings. Fans, bouncing in their seats, were rowdy with the game’s excitement on a chilly autumn night. Men got up to crowd around the infield screen, cheering for Holcomb and shaking the wire.

The big leaguers led off the 10th and Walker strode to the plate. A classy left-handed hitter, Walker already owned two hits off Fisher, a double and a single, among the nine safeties for his team. Fisher wound and pitched; Walker swung, pulling a long high fly into the darkness over right field. Holcomb outfielder Charley Hart followed the flight to the fence, until he was out of room, but he had the ball in sight as it fell almost straight downward. Hart reached over the fence, stretching out, but the ball landed just beyond his glove.

Hart turned around dejectedly and the crowd was quiet. The only sounds were the whoops from the Stars as Walker circled the bases for a home run. The big leaguers were finally ahead, 1-0.

Fisher retired the side, and Roberts took the mound, determined to finish Holcomb. Clyde Martin led off, batting right-handed, and slapped an outside fastball down the right-field line. The ball landed fair and rolled to the corner before Terry Moore chased it down and fired it back in. Martin stood atop second base with his second double, and the grandstand roared back to life.

But Roberts was oblivious to the racket. He could tune out the crowd at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and he easily ignored the fans at VFW Memorial ballpark in Sikeston. He was pitching in his 13th inning of the day, and he would not be denied victory now. Rearing back on the mound and stepping hard to the plate, Roberts whipped his arm around and grunted on pitches, sending screaming fastballs and curves to catcher Clyde McCullough. Holcomb batters were missing and the catcher’s mitt was popping; McCullough was basically playing catch now with his pitcher.

Roberts claimed one strikeout, then a second, and a final third in a row, stranding Martin on base. The game was over, the big leaguers were grateful to win. They lined up to shake the hands of Fisher, Martin, and the other Holcomb players.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Excerpts III: 1925 Tri-State Tornado, 1949 Baseball Dream of A Patriot

Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

Excerpt 3: The Tri-State Tornado continues its Missouri path on the afternoon of March 18, 1925

A few minutes before 2 o’clock, residents of Patton, Mo., gaped at sky to their north. Gigantic black and blue clouds rushed eastward, seemingly stacked to heaven itself. The tornado was passing a few miles above Patton. Farther north at the Bollinger County line, the view southward was even more spectacular. A man and his daughter watched curiously, wondering whether this was a tornado—then they saw a large tree swirl through the clouds like a wisp of straw. But no one reported a funnel vortex extending down from the mass.

The tornado crossed Whitewater River and bore down on Conrad School, which sat less than 100 feet up the east slope of the valley. Before teacher Oma Mayfield and the pupils could react, the little frame building was splintered, and everyone was blown and scattered into the hillside. Mayfield and at least 17 children lay injured, some seriously.

The storm topped the ridge and rode a mile through dense timber, cutting trees like blades of grass. At a farm directly ahead, Christina “Grandma” Fellows was tending to baby chicks when she saw the blackness coming. She went back into the house, where her husband, a son and daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren were enjoying each other’s company.

“It’s a storm a comin’ up,” said Grandma, which did not alarm anyone. Everyone continued talking, for whether a rain shower or worse was on the way, Grandma always said, It’s a storm a comin’ up.

There came a sudden roar outside and the two-story farmhouse lurched sideways, jolting against an incline to the east. Then if lifted back up, whirled around, and blew apart. Seven people, from infant to elderly, spiraled through the air with debris smacking against them.

When teenager Ann Fellows came to, she was sitting upright near the crown of the hill. The woodstove had landed nearby, and she felt the heat of smoldering blocks. Above her the barn lay flattened, and a trapped horse nickered in distress. A trail of debris led back to where the house had been. A pair of Model T touring cars had their canopies torn off but were otherwise undisturbed—the only objects around that had not moved or disappeared.

Ann could not stand up; one of her ankles felt like it was broken. Grandpa and Grandma were on their feet, and Uncle Ernest and Aunt Rosie rushed to pick up their baby son: but the 18-month-old, Harley Fellows, was dead from a deep gash through his skull. Ann’s brother, 14-year-old Perry Fellows, also perished in the wreckage.

After the storm passed the Fellows farm, it ripped through Henry Bangert’s property, destroying two barns and a house, and firing dozens of tin roofing sheets into a stand of 75 oaks. The metal wrapped into those trees like aluminum foil, and it would not be removed for 70 years.

Lixville village was hit next as people dove for shelter, including one man who found himself in a pipe under a road. The Lutheran Church slid off its foundation, Loberg’s store was lifted and twisted, and two barns and a blacksmith shop were destroyed. More than a half mile away, the northern span of the giant tornado severely damaged the new concrete home of Judge Louis Lix, leaving strands of straw impaled in the mortar sides.

The funnel remained hidden, covered in the cloudy black fog that continued to roll over the land at speeds approaching 60 mph. Elevation of the terrain had dropped more than 200 feet in the last 10 miles.

At Garner Schoolhouse east of the Lix home, about 20 pupils and a teacher were preparing for a music program when someone screamed to get in middle of the room, away from the windows. In seconds the roof flew upward followed by the woodstove, and then everyone was airborne, spraying across a field outside. Several bodies lay unconscious with head wounds, including the teacher, Sidonia Bangert, and 10-year-old Trula Henry,  who would die a week later.

Less than a mile beyond the school, young farmer Will Statler was running and not looking back, fleeing from the roar he instinctively knew could kill him. Reaching his father’s house, he dove past one of the four stacked-rock supports holding the structure. The din was deafening; dirt, leaves and sticks pelted Statler in the crawl space, but he did not hear or feel the house come apart. Quickly the winds quieted and he was optimistic in emerging from underneath the house. But all he found was the bottom floor stripped clean of walls, furniture, rugs—everything but the kitchen table, which stood in place with plates still set for supper. He shuddered, realizing the house could have easily fallen on him.

The tornado smashed every building on Louis Clements’ farm, where his baby daughter, Irene, was killed while clasped in her mother’s arms. At Schumer Springs, 24-year-old Grant Miller died in a barn that was leveled, marking the fourth death within four miles, including three children, along with Trula Henry, her injuries to prove fatal.

***

In 1925, Biehle was a busy village of 100 in heart of the band of small, picturesque German-American communities stretching from Bollinger County east to the Mississippi River. A key railroad stop, Biehle was in Perry County less than five miles northeast of Lixville, perched on hills overlooking Apple Creek Valley.

At 2:10 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18, several men conversed in front of the Biehle general store. Local mechanic A.H. Kirn took notice of the unusual cloud formations in the southwestern sky, and remarked, “I believe we are in for a storm.”

The Southeast Missourian newspaper reported:

As [Kirn] spoke an observable change took place in the nature of these clouds. Originally dark, but loose-flung and scattered, they seemed to gather in their garments, growing denser, lower and more black. This process of assimilation continued as the clouds drew nearer to Biehle. Then as they cleared the horizon… the clouds had become one lowering nimbus.

Kirn, realizing tornado, shouted the warning and dashed across the street to scoop up his daughter in front of his garage. The Kirns made it to cover, but down in Apple Creek Valley, farmer Joe Blechle was out in the open.

Blechle had seen the mass rolling over the 100-foot-ridge from Schumer Springs, where it had ravaged the Miller farm. And now the 35-year-old was in a death race, sprinting for his house on a knob hill beside the creek. There came a bright flash of blue lightning, a thunderclap, and tremendous roar. Blechle had less than 30 seconds before the tornado reached him.

The Southeast Missourian continued:

First the twister, with its deadly stride, cleaved a path several hundred years in width over the wooded hilltop. Uprooting beeches, elms and maples, and snapping like twigs the trunks of 14- and 20-inch oaks. True to its course, as though steered by a mariner’s compass, it next descended upon the valley and the prosperous farming estate of August Lappe. A mule, caught in the open, was lifted high into the air only to be hurled with a sickening thud, a lifeless mass, to the earth some hundred yards ahead. Three horses, two pigs, and dozens of chickens met a similar fate. Two of the horses were found literally wrapped around the trunk and limbs of a fallen oak, while the other was hurled amid a denser portion of the wood to where its cumbersome body never could have penetrated in life.

The neat, two-story home of Lappe was cut in half diagonally, the severed portion scattered in bits far from its original site. The barn merely vanished, while a gang-disc plow was twisted almost beyond recognition. Long lines of lathe and split-rail fences were shattered and thrown, in tangled heaps, as the tornado, gathering impetus, advanced to its next attack.

Blechle reached his house and got inside, only to have it picked up and thrown 75 feet into the creek. The farmer lay dead across a tree trunk in the creek; his wife landed hundreds of feet away, in the bottoms across the water, injured seriously but alive.

The tornado swept from the valley into Biehle, strafing the town with flying livestock and timber. Shaving through a short stand of woods, it came upon the Catholic church and school, where priests and children huddled in terror, praying. Debris crashed through the rear wall and roof of the church, and falling rock demolished the altar. The steeple was ripped from atop the front and thrown down beside the school, its tip spearing seven feet into the ground. Incredibly, the school was spared as the storm flew over and past. Up on the roof of the damaged church, just behind where the steeple stood, a thin wooden cross swayed but remained fixed in place.

More properties were destroyed around Biehle, including a Gieringer farm where a woman had to be dragged from the burning wreckage of her home. The tornado rushed forward on its line of travel, staying 21 degrees north of east, a bearing in which the Mississippi River was less than 20 miles away. Every farmstead and community in between would become devastated similarly.

A Patriot

Excerpt 3: Barnstorming big-league players on tour, led by Robin Roberts, future Hall of Famer, are startled by crafty local pitcher Lefty Fisher in an exhibition game at Sikeston, Mo., October 1949

Lloyd B. Fisher was born in 1920 in St. Louis, the first son and second child of Iva Lee and Benjamin Franklin Fisher. Ben Fisher was a railroad foreman, and Iva Lee was the homemaker in charge of a brood of children to grow to five, three girls and two boys.

The Fisher children were active and talented, with a range of interests that included music, art and fashion. And the entire family, including the parents, shared a passion: baseball, particularly the St. Louis Cardinals. When the Fishers moved north from the city’s south side in 1933, it was no coincidence they took a flat within shouting distance of Sportsman’s Park on Grand Avenue. During the 1934 World Series the family saw every game in St. Louis, with the kids watching from “knothole gang” areas outside the ballpark.

Ben’s hobby was updating Cardinal statistics every inning, and he was prone to get angry with radio broadcasters who did not concern themselves with correct records, like announcer Dizzy Dean in the 1940s. Iva Lee also kept a personal scorebook on the Cardinals, but she loved to attend games such as the Ladies Day events that offered her free admission. During World War II, many games had special admission for scrap metal donations, and Ben complained the house was running out of pots and pans; Iva Lee and her sister were using up inventory to see the Cardinals.

Lloyd Fisher grew up with a dream to play for the Cardinals, not unusual. His family’s love for the team aside, most any boy in St. Louis kept the same fantasy. But Lloyd was different as an especially gifted child; baseball was definitely in his future.

By his teen years Lloyd was a legitimate baseball prospect, one of few in a city teeming with amateur players. He could hit, catch, throw and run, and he became a dominant player in the urban area’s competitive youth leagues. The boy had nicknames, including “Slats” and “Skinny,” but “Lefty” stuck. Lloyd’s real identity was baseball, as an elite talent among players.

At 16, Lloyd was selected for the prestigious All-Star Game of the Junior Municipal League. The event was held at Sportsman’s Park, where Lloyd took the field for the first time in front of his beaming family in the stands. It was 1936 and the Cardinals were The Gashouse Gang with Medwick, Martin, the Dean Brothers, and more stars. St. Louis could not get enough of baseball and young Lefty Fisher thrived in the atmosphere.

His goal began to materialize after he graduated from Beaumont High School in 1938. Pro scouts were in constant contact, led by those representing the Cardinals, and Lloyd competed during the summer in the top local circuit for amateurs, the Municipal League. Lefty Fisher was an all-around success: On the pitching mound he compiled an 11-3 record, but he also starred as an outfielder who hit extremely well. The Cardinals offered a contract, and he signed it at age 18.

The following spring Lloyd Fisher was a touted prospect for Union City, Tenn., in the Kitty League. His won-loss record was 8-12, but he pitched strong over 28 games with 121 strikeouts and a 2.96 earned-run-average. In 1940 Fisher returned to Union City with the eye of Cardinals management upon him; general manager Branch Rickey visited the team at the start of the season, taking special interest in the lefthander from St. Louis. There were expectations surfacing elsewhere too, like a newspaper article in Louisville previewing the Kitty League, declaring “Fisher should be one of the league’s outstanding southpaws.”

And he was. He won the opening game for Union City, pitched the league’s first shutout the next week at Paducah, and kept on winning.

Fisher moved up to Class D ball in 1941, going to Fremont in the Ohio State League, and he had his best baseball season ever. He scarcely lost on the pitcher’s mound and excelled as a hitter. “Southpaw pitcher Lloyd Fisher has been playing in the outfield for the Fremont Green Sox since the sale of Bill Ramsey, and he’s clouting well over .300,” noted one report. “In three consecutive games last week, he was 8 for 12 at the plate.” As a pitcher, Fisher won 18 games and established himself as bona fide prospect for the major leagues.

Fisher was a young man of 21, close to reaching his athletic goal, yet conflict churned within him. His priority was shifting away from playing baseball to serving his country. He decided to volunteer for the war effort before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“Lloyd Fisher, St. Louisan, who pitches minor league ball in the Ohio State League, has joined the Army,” noted The Post-Dispatch. “Fisher reported yesterday at Jefferson Barracks. The lefthander pitched for the Fremont club last season and won 18 games while dropping 3 contests.”

At the Fisher apartment on the north side, the scrapbook on Lloyd had a new section, switching from promise in baseball to one on preparation for war: “Starting a New Chapter in Lloyd’s Life,” his mother wrote bravely in the headline. At Bethany Lutheran Church, the printed program made the announcement with prayer: “Next Tuesday, another of our boys is answering the call of the country, Lloyd Fisher. Our prayers follow him and all our boys. Oh, Heavenly Father, protect them, wherever they are.”

***

Lloyd Fisher survived World War II’s European theater, but not unscathed. He took part took in some of the war’s most intense ground-fighting, serving with valor as the Allies pushed the Nazis out of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, then back into Germany, where they surrendered. For almost a year, Fisher’s division fought and drove the Germans 1,400 miles, and he was wounded twice.

He came home to a wife and two small children, an older man with body banged up a bit. Once, under heavy fire, he had caught shrapnel in a leg. Then a bomb explosion in a log bunker wrenched his back, severely. Fisher was a decorated soldier but he quietly stashed away the medals. The 26-year-old’s patriotic duty was behind him, and he wanted to return to baseball, the dream that remained.

But so did a multitude of others like him. The war’s end released a torrent of American workers, and pro baseball was overrun with athletes. Jobs were at a premium, but Browns executive Bill DeWitt signed Fisher to a minor league contract.

He pitched and played outfield at Springfield, Ill., but presumably had health problems. He did not get many at-bats and he pitched in only 15 games. His hitting average was a poor .208, and while he logged a 4-1 mark on the mound, his ERA was high, 4.83.

Branch Rickey was impressed enough, however, and signed Fisher to a 1947 contract for Montreal. Lloyd went to spring training with the Dodgers in Florida and witnessed the furor surrounding Jackie Robinson, who would break the color barrier in baseball. But problems arose in Montreal; the war wounds must have affected Fisher, and he was released.

Over 40 years later, his widow, Louise, knew few details. “I’m not a very good one to talk about what happened,” she confessed. “I can’t tell you the straight of it. He went to Montreal, but he didn’t stay there long.”

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Excerpts II: 1925 Tri-State Tornado, 1949 Baseball Dream of A Patriot

Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

Excerpt 2: The Tri-State Tornado continues its path on the afternoon of March 18, 1925

Averaging about 55 mph, the tornado flew on a beeline into Iron County, Missouri, showing no deference for the rugged Ozarks topography, whether peak or plain. Its width hugging the ground was a quarter- to a half-mile and destined to expand. Any tree or wooden structure in the storm’s path was subject to destruction; any living being was in mortal danger.

In the twin mining towns of Annapolis and Leadanna, 700 citizens did not know the largest breed of tornado was on its approach.

Lunchtime had just ended. At the school, more than 200 students were back at their desks; downtown, people were back at work. Darkening skies had thundered and rained during lunch, so a storm was expected. But when huge hailstones hit a few minutes past 1 o’clock, people took real notice. Adults gazed anxiously to the southwest, up the valley heading out of town. Schoolchildren fretted when light outside dimmed rapidly, turning their classrooms dark.

Still, there was no funnel cloud visible from town, just a thick, dark fog rolling over the hills—“like a huge column of very black coal smoke,” described one witness—covering everything before it. Many people began dashing for cover, while some lingered a moment or two longer before the spectacle. Then a roar like multiple freight trains burst through the valley, and winds 200 to 300 mph blasted Annapolis.

In a rare benevolent act, the tornado damaged but did not destroy the two-story brick schoolhouse, sparing the children inside. At a house nearby, a terrified housewife clutched her small son, unable to move because plunging air pressure had sucked the front door shut on her dress. That house was left standing too. But save for a handful of other structures, Annapolis was leveled in seconds. All three churches and most of the business district were destroyed. Loaded railroad cars were thrown off tracks and dumped; automobiles were lifted and hurled.

On street after street, houses blew apart around cowering victims. Adults were swept up by wind and launched, landing with injurious thuds, while the small bodies of babies offered no resistance whatsoever against the force. One infant was carried hundreds of yards before being laid down unharmed, but another was seriously injured in a long flight.

The air was full of debris: glass, splinters, metal, bricks, timbers, even chunks of buildings. A young teamster, Raymond Stewart, was struck and killed instantly. Nearby, an airborne wooden beam stabbed through two brick walls.

Annapolis, sitting on a hillside sloping south and west, had been swallowed in the storm’s path. On the ridge top above town, tombstones in the cemetery scraped a pile of trees and wreckage from the tornado’s gut.

The next valley beyond—also in line for a direct hit—was site of the lead mine and Leadanna, a community of mining families in about 30 houses and tents.

The home of Osro and Nell Kelley sat on a west slope in the Leadanna valley. Osro had been predicting “a twister was coming,” and he and his wife each held one of their two small daughters. A hailstone crashed through the dining room window, and when Nell looked out she saw the garage flattened atop their new Chevrolet car. Instantly the house itself was picked up and thrown, launching the family backward. Osro flew against a tree stump near a creek, striking his head and killing him; Nell landed unconscious, covered in debris and nearly dead from injuries through her shattered body. The winds had yanked the little girls from their parents’ arms, 4-year-old Lucille and 2-year-old Wilma. But they landed clasped together in the creek, bruised and cut but not injured seriously. Lucille held her baby sister’s head out of the water until help arrived.

Every other house in Leadanna was blown down, and the mine was wrecked at surface level, ruining the crusher mill and other heavy works. The tipple tower above the shaft was mangled, ruining the cage hoist and cutting off electrical power. Seventy-five miners stranded 450 feet underground would have to climb up a ladder to reach the surface.

The terror had lasted barely a minute before the storm screamed off at great speed on a virtual straight line northeast—21 degrees north of east, the same general bearing it had flown from the start.

Within minutes, the sun was shining over the sudden chaos of Annapolis and Leadanna. This storm left its devastating signature with two communities flattened in a straight track. The ground was strewn with wreckage: boards, bricks, broken glass, twisted automobiles, bolts of store cloth, clothes and household goods. One home stood oddly intact amidst the ruins, but fire broke out nearby and flames spread unchecked to engulf the house and force out the elderly occupants.

Bleeding, dazed survivors roamed the town, some cradling maimed children. Screams shot from under piles of rubble, where rescuers dug urgently to reach the trapped victims. Two lives were lost, Stewart and Osro Kelley, and more than 100 were injured. Seven hundred people were left homeless, virtually the entire local population.

About 10 miles northeast of Annapolis-Leadanna, the storm crossed into Madison County to demolish rural homes, farms, orchards and timber. It plunged into the deep St. Francis River Valley then mowed back out with no change in course. Two country schools were destroyed near Fredericktown, but both were unoccupied. Missing Fredericktown, the tornado struck near Cornwall community, hurling three men. They landed without serious injuries, however, which reflected the miraculous outcome for the area. Properties lay wrecked along a 25-mile path through Madison County, but no one was hurt beyond scrapes and bruises.

The storm had traveled 50 miles in under 60 minutes of life and expanded to three-quarters of a mile wide, dwarfing specifications of the average tornado. Already a ferocious freak of its kind, the storm was only growing in intensity. Shooting past a 1,300-foot mount above Marquand, it swooped down off the eastern Ozarks Plateau toward the Mississippi River Valley. With all telephone and telegraph communications destroyed in affected areas, no warnings could be forwarded ahead.

Next in line was Bollinger County, where the tornado began its penchant for killing children.

A Patriot

Excerpt 2: A local baseball pitcher shocks big-league stars on their exhibition tour, October 1949

The bus with barnstorming major-league baseball players rolled into Sikeston, a bustling agriculture center of 11,600 in “Swampeast” Missouri. People on the streets looked up and some waved, those expecting the famed athletes.

At VFW Memorial Stadium on the east side of town, grids of lights burned against the evening dusk, visible for some distance across the flat farmlands. Baseball fans were still on their way, but a crowd of 1,000 already packed grandstands as the bus for Harry Walker’s All-Stars wheeled onto the gravel parking lot. Spectators craned their necks to see the door swing open and the big leaguers step out wearing uniforms emblazoned Phillies, Reds, Cardinals, Cubs and Giants.

The fans cheered loudly. Big Ted Kluszewski marched with his biceps bared, and Hank Sauer wrapped one huge hand around three bat handles. Harry “The Hat” Walker grinned and waved, as did his former St. Louis teammate Terry Moore, both local favorites.  The 6-1, 195-pound Robin Roberts had a look of intensity. These visitors were national heroes of newspapers, newsreels, radio, and the new broadcast medium, television, preparing for live baseball. Folks were delighted.

The Stars’ opponent, the Holcomb Cardinals, were the Missouri semipro champions. The Holcomb players stole glances at the big leaguers on parade, and some turned completely to watch. A few were not awestruck, especially pitcher Lloyd “Lefty” Fisher and Clyde Martin, both former minor leaguers who relished the chance to compete with players recognized among the best in the game.

Holcomb was a tiny Bootheel town in the delta south of Sikeston. The baseball team was bankrolled by wealthy cotton planters who enticed standout players all over the region, from Cape Girardeau south to Arkansas. The exhibition with Walker’s Stars was played at Sikeston because of the accommodations for a large paying crowd.

The confident big leaguers warmed up quickly and Walker signaled their readiness to play. An umpire in his dark bulk of protective gear strode stiffly to home plate, stooping over like Frankenstein to brush it clean. The infield had been dragged and raked, smoothing dirt from clods to flake, and white chalk lines gleamed under the lights.

In the shadows along the leftfield line, Roberts began loosening his arm to pitch, pausing just a moment to watch the opposing hurler for Holcomb, Lefty Fisher, trot in from rightfield. Some of the major-league hitters watched too, from the visitors dugout, but others paid no attention.

Fisher was a handsome athlete, 6-1 and 185 pounds. He reached the pitcher’s mound in smooth gait, then began toe-digging the rubber with a cleated shoe. Satisfied with the foothold, he looked in at the catcher, wound up and fired a warm-up pitch. The fluid delivery sent the ball as a dart over home plate, popping the airy catcher’s mitt.

The stands held many fans who followed Fisher, and they clapped and yelled encouragement. Fisher was among the top semipros in Missouri, and he used to pitch for AAA-level Montreal in the Dodgers organization; if any local pitcher could compete with the major leaguers, he was the one.

The game began and Fisher did not disappoint the locals. He gave up hits to the Stars but remained composed, pitching around threats to keep them scoreless, which made the game interesting. Otherwise it was unfolding as expected with Holcomb batters flailing hopelessly at Roberts’ pitches; the sensational young Phillies hurler felt good, despite appearing in his 20th exhibition game over 10 days across multiple states.

Holcomb’s Charley Hart had batted .580 during the semipro season and starred at the state tournament in Jefferson City. But Roberts overwhelmed him, sending 90 mph fastballs with “action” that Hart struggled to merely foul off. Unleashing one pitch wild, Roberts yelled “Watch out!” barely in time for Hart to duck it. With two strikes, Hart whiffed at a hard slider. Back in the dugout, he placed his bat in the rack as teammates asked about facing the Philadelphia ace. “It’s like trying to hit a rifle bullet,” Hart replied.

The major leaguers, meanwhile, continued having problems with Fisher. The top of their batting order came back up in the third inning, but Lefty was now compiling his mental “book” on every hitter, finding weaknesses to exploit. His fastball was topping 80 mph with lots of movement, and he mixed-in off-speed pitches and curves. Walker’s Stars could not get a base-runner home, and the score remained 0-0 at a time when they usually were building a comfortable lead.

With two outs in the Holcomb third, leadoff man Martin stroked a liner to the fence in left center, a double. Roberts bore down to retire the next batter on strikes, stranding Martin, but the pitcher felt peeved returning to the dugout. He strode up and snatched a towel, wiping dirty sweat from his face, then gazed down the bench at his teammates. No one looked back, including player-manager Walker, who would not consider inserting himself on the mound yet. Roberts would not have allowed that, anyway; ever the competitor, he wanted to put away this upstart opponent himself, backwoods team or not.

The fans sensed something special occurring. Semipros in southeast Missouri had a long tradition of hosting barnstorming big leaguers, including great pitchers like Dizzy Dean. But no one in the stands could recall a local team ever winning such an exhibition. They watched Fisher stymie the Stars—including Kluszewski, the cleanup hitter who struck out to start the fourth—and became more vocal in supporting Holcomb.

The crowd roared and hooted as Big Klu trudged back to the dugout, muttering and kicking dust. Roberts, both impressed and confounded by Fisher, motioned to a local through the dugout screen. Nodding toward Lefty, he asked, “Who the heck is this guy?”

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Excerpts: 1925 Tri-State Tornado, 1949 Baseball Dream of A Patriot

Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

“I could just see a big black cloud and it was rollin’. It was really rollin’. And it seemed to be right on the ground.”

Cecil Hackworth

Sam Flowers could not have known the peril that lay ahead when he left Ellington, Missouri, during the noon hour on March 18, 1925, and began the familiar walk to his farm five miles northeast of town.

Flowers did know he was probably walking into a storm. Heavy, dark clouds swept across the Reynolds County sky from the southwest, fast as any train could travel. At Ellington, a remote town in the Ozark Highlands, the clouds appeared to fly low enough to touch trees on the ridge tops.

But Flowers was a hearty middle-aged man who worked a hard-scrabble homestead. He had made this trip hundreds of times before, in wagons, automobiles, and on foot. And he had made it day and night, year-round, through every kind of weather the volatile skies of southern Missouri could bring.

Or so he must have thought. But the gathering storm was no ordinary weather event. It would become catastrophic.

Flowers walked the gravel highway, Route 21, through woods toward the tiny county seat of Centerville. Black clouds rushed overhead, massive and just above the treetops, it seemed. Winds snapped tree limbs back and forth, and rain began to pelt the road. He moved over to the rim of the west ditch, where the woods broke the big drops somewhat, but footing was tricky with the red clay turning wet and slippery around the stones.

A Model T rattled by, headed south, with top down and the driver soaking wet. Flowers might have considered turning back but he pressed on, still not overly concerned about a rainstorm. He stayed alert for old, heavy timbers that might crash down, and he watched for rocky banks to shield him if the storm worsened. He figured he would be all right in getting home to his wife and children.

In these minutes, a massive storm boiling 50,000 feet in the sky topped a 1,500-foot peak near the Current River and, on the downslope, hit ground along Logan Creek west of Ellington, heading northeast.

Three miles north of Ellington, Flowers came down a hill into Dry Valley. The rain was a torrent, blue lightning bolts exploded all around, and winds came in powerful gusts that almost swept him from his feet. The road crooked northeast, and hundreds of yards ahead lay the path up and over a short ridge into Spring Valley, leading to Flowers’ place near the village of Redford. But Spring Valley seemed a million miles away. Flowers could hardly see. The rain was blinding, and the valley had been enshrouded in a huge shadow, dark as night. Flowers had to look down with lightning flashes to see he was still on the road.

Suddenly, hailstones the size of small potatoes beat from above, and Flowers panicked. Too late, no shelter could save him. An ungodly rumble, like some flying earthquake, rushed up from behind as incredible winds sheared through the valley, tossing large trees. Flowers felt uttermost terror—then he was struck in back of the head.

What would become the deadliest land storm in American history, The Tri-State Tornado, had claimed its first human life: Sam Flowers.

***

A Patriot

“Lefty wasn’t your regular cornfield pitcher.”

Melvin Williams

The research on a local legend began with a death of note in southeast Missouri—Lloyd B. Fisher of the Stoddard County community of Puxico. Folks were remembering Mr. Fisher in the multiple roles he lived: as a loving family patriarch, a war veteran, teacher, farmer, mail-carrier and athlete. Many people had known Lloyd “Lefty” Fisher, the baseball pitcher of exceptional talent, and the effect his service as an infantryman had on that.

It was the summer of 1989, baseball season, proper time to imagine Lefty Fisher on the pitching mound. And, invariably, a storyteller would recall a special exhibition game from decades ago: the night Lefty matched the great Robin Roberts, his mound opponent, in hurling a shutout.

***

On a clear October evening in 1949, a silver bus cruised north through the sprawling flatlands of the Missouri Bootheel. The charter’s roomy interior was quiet. Most of the riders, major league baseball players on a barnstorming tour, were napping, their heavy uniforms soiled from an afternoon exhibition in Arkansas.

One strapping young athlete, Robin Roberts, sat gazing out a window. The 23-year-old enjoyed the scenes of harvest in the great delta. Mechanical cotton-pickers were just starting to chew through the wide fields of white bolls clinging to brown stalks. But the cornfields really commanded his attention, the rows of stiff yellow stalks falling to the cumbersome combines. That reminded Roberts of home in central Illinois, Springfield, where the capital city limits ended as the cornfields and hog farms began.

Roberts only recently had completed his first full major league season in Philadelphia. Then he and a dozen other players met in Illinois to board the bus for the barnstorming tour, which would conclude that night in southeast Missouri. The young man was ready to go home.

Sikeston was the final stop in 20 games for “Harry Walker’s All-Stars.” Their travel accommodations were much improved over the early days of exhibition tours, when players often slept in barns, or “barn-stormed,” but the grind of play was just as grueling. Now in their 10th day across three states, Walker’s Stars had played two games daily in different communities. The big leaguers dominated their rural opponents, of course, but 18 innings a day for the entire trip had worn them down, and injured some.

They did it for money: $1,000 apiece motivated these pros to barnstorm. Each man received $50 a game on the tour, an excellent supplement for a major league salary in 1949. Roberts, for example, had been paid $9,000 while winning 15 games that year for the Phillies. The barnstorming tour made it an even $10,000 for Roberts from baseball that year, and he had a winter job lined up selling menswear.

Walker’s Stars had no idea what team they would face in Sikeston. They did not know the pitcher they would face, and they did not care.

Roberts would be on the mound, and the team’s player-manager and organizer was Harry “The Hat” Walker, who led the National League in hitting two years before with a .363 average. Walker was gaining experience for his future as a major league manager and coach.

The Stars lineup would intimidate some pro pitchers, much less one from the backwoods. The names included Cincinnati power hitter Ted Kluszewski, large, agile athlete at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. The former football player for Indiana University played first base for the Reds, and “Big Klu” was already known for biceps bulging from his trademark sleeveless jersey. Kluszewski was bound for stardom in the big leagues, like his buddy on the barnstorming trip, Hank Sauer, who had hit 31 home runs for the Cubs. Sauer was a big outfielder who in a few years would be named the National League MVP.

Besides Roberts, there were two other pitchers on the trip, veteran Kirby Higbe of the Giants and young Herm Wehmeier of the Reds. The pitchers normally split the games equally, or three innings, apiece, and Walker helped out by taking the mound to finish easy victories. But as the bus approached Sikeston, Walker sat down next to Roberts.

“Higbe and Wehmeier both say their arms are shot,” Walker told Roberts. “You pitch the first three innings or so tonight, then after we get way ahead, I’ll relieve you. We’ll win and then we’ll go home.”

“Sure thing, Skip,” Roberts replied.

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Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.comEmail: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.