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