Stephen F. Austin State University

Tornado (March 2014)

By John Oglesbee

It was March 5, 1943. Ominous clouds began to gather over the sleepy little town of San Augustine, Texas. At 4:30 in the afternoon, the sky was turning darker by the moment. I had gone over to Market Street to play with my good friends Bob and Bill Jones. At eleven years old, I wasn't paying much attention to the weather. Their mom, Mrs. Mason Jones, had just come outside. Seeing me there with her sons she said, "Bob and Bill, you boys come inside. And John, you probably need to run on home. Your mother will be worried about you." One look at the sky told me she was right, and I broke into one of my long-legged runs toward home. I reached the back door of the rock house on Main Street where we lived, and it was with great difficulty that I was able to pry it open.

The tornado struck with all its fury at 4:45 p.m. Trees were ripped up by the roots all up and down our driveway. Fortunately, our home was fairly substantial, and sustained no major damage. Such was not the case for the home of my future wife Betty Wood and her family.

When the wind started to blow, and the sky darkened, Betty was called by her mother to hurry home from a nearby neighbor's house. When she came inside their home, she joined her mother Anna Fay and baby sister, 10-month old Leslie. Visiting relatives Aunt Frances, and her son, five-year old Preston, were there as well. Anna Fay and Frances had been sewing all day in the large back bedroom of their home, becoming alarmed with the sudden change in the weather. The five family members watched through the north windows of the bedroom as rain turned to large hail, while the wind blew furiously. The little playhouse Betty's parents built for her beside their home began to lose its roof as they watched, its shingles peeling back as if they were paper. Noises of walls falling outward, then huge sounds of the house coming apart, and the roof blowing away, filled their ears. Aunt Frances looked up and screamed, "Get down on the floor! Crawl! The roof is caving in on us!" With Leslie in Anna Fay's arms, and everyone else crawling on the floor, they were able to reach the hallway just outside the bedroom. The two double beds, and the sewing machine, had caught the roof as it crashed into the room, the ceiling fan hitting the floor with a deafening thud. All five family members made it safely to the hallway, where the roof there, and throughout the rest of the house, was completely gone. Betty, Leslie, Anna Fay, Frances, and Preston stood in the open hallway, hail pelting on them for what seemed an eternity. Baby Leslie's face was white as a sheet, but she never cried, or made a sound.

Suddenly Betty remembered Scarlett O'Hara, her favorite doll based on the leading role in Gone With the Wind.

"Mama, I need Scarlett!"

"Where is she, Betty?"

"She's in the middle bedroom."

Without a word, Anna Fay dashed through the rain and hail, coming back with a very water-soaked Scarlett in her hands.

The tornado had passed on, replaced by total silence. Soon the noise of an approaching car could be heard outside, then the welcome voices of Betty's Daddy Jack, and Uncle Kelly, Frances' husband, reached their ears. Jack and Kelly were frantically calling their names, "Anna Fay, Frances, Betty, Preston, Leslie!" They answered, "We're in here, and we're all OK!" Jack and Kelly managed to crawl into the now totally destroyed home, helping the family pick their way gingerly through the rubble. The two men had driven from the family's department store, A.J. Wood and Bros., in downtown San Augustine, as soon as they could.

Betty noticed, as the family exited the home, a large vacant space where her playhouse had been. It was completely gone. For days and weeks after the tornado, she wanted to drive the country roads around San Augustine, and look for the playhouse, hoping to find it intact. Of course, this was impossible. It had been blown to splinters, and would never be found, not even a small part of it. All of her dolls, with the exception of Scarlett, were truly "gone with the wind."

Betty's family lived in the front section of Aunt Frances' and Uncle Kelly's home for several months while their home on Milam Street was being rebuilt. Only the floor, built on pier and beam, was salvageable. Most all of their furniture had been ruined in the tornado, but there was one interesting piece that made it safely through the disaster. It was Anna Fay's Fostoria punch bowl, completely filled to the brim with hail and rain, but totally intact. Betty inherited that punch bowl in later years. Today, it sits in our dining room, still without a flaw or crack, and has often been used for a variety of parties and events over the past seventy years.

Word began to come in about the seriousness of San Augustine's situation after the tornado. It turned out that this ill wind was a mile wide, and claimed two lives. News sources reported that seventy-five percent of the homes within the community were severely damaged. The business district was hit equally hard. Our power plant that generated electricity for the entire town was down for more than six hours. The San Augustine Wholesale Grocery Building, with an inventory of $500,000, was almost totally destroyed. Loss of life in that building would have been devastating, except for the fact that all the employees had retreated into the "safe," a fortified room where important documents and money were securely kept.

A communique by Robert M. Hayes, East Texas Bureau of the News, pretty well summed up the situation. "San Augustine, Texas. March 6, 1943. With scores of its homes demolished or damaged, and its business area strewn with rubble, storm-battered San Augustine on Sunday will offer prayers of thanksgiving to God for the relatively light death toll in Friday's tornado."

The historic, colorful old city, already more than 110 years old in 1943, had been spared one more time, on this occasion by a natural disaster. Continuing to this day is San Augustine's will to survive, no matter what. Our people's shared values of faith, tenacity, and perseverance will see us through for years to come. She was built to last, and she will!