Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney
Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.