TORNADO of 1956
Lexington, Henderson County TN

Terror In The Afternoon

By Paul Williams --- Photos by William Arnold
From the Lexington Progress April 3, 1996

When I got home from work on the afternoon of April 3, 1956, there was no way I could ever imagine what was going to happen in about two hours. People's lives were changed forever. It was a horrible time, but even with teh tragedy some humorous things happened to me. Many people showed a lot of courage, but that's just the way Lexington people are.

I came home frmo work feeling very feverish - I thought I was taking the flue. I put my car in the garage and locked the front door so no one would know I was home. I went to bed, and I had to feel bad to do that, but I didn't want to be disturbed. Later, when Mary Sue came home from work, the storm was beginning to look bad. I was inside asleep as she was trying to get inside. Since th edoor was locked, she thought I wasn't home so she ran next door to Dutch and Esta Lee Thomas' home to get in their storm house. She thought that was where I was. When I heard the door shake, I went to open it and that is when I saw the street lined with cars. Nearly everyone on Brown Street (except me) was in Dutch and Esta Lee's storm house. I ran to the back door to look out toward town. What I saw nearly scared me to death. All I could see was shingles, sheets oftin, and all kinds of debris swirling through the air. I literally flew out the front door barefoot with only my pajama bottoms on. Believe me there wasn't enough time to put my clothes on. It could have easily been just my Fruit-of-the Looms. Lucily I had my pajamas on.

As I ran out the front door, the TV antenna slammed to the ground right behind me. When I jumped the hedge and hit the Thomas' concrete drive, the wind of the tornado hit. It slid me down the wet driveway just like I was in swift water. I got back on my feet, dodging debris and ran to the storm house. No track star could have run faster -- I was only 29 then. By this time the tornado was in full force. Herman Holmes was standing in the storm house door looking out. He was giving everyone a blow by blow description of what was happening. I remember as I ran up to him, he said, "It is going to take everything on this street." Thankfully, I recognized my wife in the very back of the packed storm house. She was crying because she didn't know where I was.

By this time, the tornado had moved on. The first thing I saw as I walked back up the street was the old high school gym. The front tird of it was gone and the twisted iron and steel girders were showing. That's when I realized we had just witnessed a ful blown tornado. Thankfully, our street was spared except for broken windows, trees uprooted, roof damage and TV antennas blown down. Mary Sue was sent for to come back to work. She worked for Dr. Warren Ramer, Sr. at that time. It was a very hectic time in Dr. Ramer's office. That part of town that was hit hard had a very eerie look because the power was off. You had no idea what you would run up on or find. Everyone was in shock, but thanking God they were alive. Dr. Ramer and Mary Sue worked all night treating the injured. They had no electricity and worked by candle light. Husbands and wives and children were separated all over the section that was hit. Dr. Ramer sent me out to try to locate family members of the injured. While I was out searching, I ran into my own mother who livedin Jackson at that time. She was crying, not knowing whether we were dead oralive. Shad had walked all the way from where Memorial Gardens is now to where Piggly Wiggly is located. I felt really bad about not lettingher know we were okay, but during the excitement I didn't think.

The law enforcement people were stopping traffic at the edge of town because of looters an sightseers. At that time I really didn't know the extent of the damage or how many peolpe were dead and injured. I was out all night searching for people and strangely enough I forgot about having the flu. The next morning I went to work as usual. I remember the day was bright and clear, nothin like the day before. My milk route was all intact. Nothing on my route was damaged, not even one stop had lost electric power. My route covered everything on the east side of Broad Street. As soon as I finished my work. I rushed home and grabbed my movie camera. I only had two rolls of film. I walked across the damaged part oftown making movies. As I was filming on Huntingdon Street, a National Guardsman stopped me and said, "You are not allowed in the damaged area. Take your camera and go home before you get hurt." I knew he was just following orders, but nothing was going to stop me from filming the damage. (After all, these were my friends and neighbors.) I knew the area well enough to dodge them and kept filming until one roll of film was used up.

The men must have reported me, because just as I walked into my yard, a National Guard Staff car drove into my driveway. There was a full general sitting in the back seat. His aide stopped me in my yard. He said, very business like, "Were you the man who was taking pictures"? I thought I was going to be arrested. He said, "The General wants to talk to you". I went out to his car not knowing what to expect. Since I had disobeyed their orders, I thought they would try to confiscate my camera and film. Believe me, the fight wouldhave been on. The General introduced himself very politely and asked me if I had any more film. I had him I had one more 50 ft. roll but I didn't want to part with it. He said if I would please get in the back seat of the car and make movies for him, he would pay me for my film and my time. I was so relieved to not get arrested I would have agreed to nearly anything.

The funny part is, as the General and hisaide were driving me through the damage area, the very same guardsman who had told me to take my camera and go home saw me in the staff car. There I was being chauffered around with the General. Iguess the guardsman thought I was being arrested. I'll never forget the puzzled look on his face. ( I didn't bother to tell the General that I had already been ordered out ofthat same area). Thisis just one account of the tragedy that hit Lexington forty years ago. I knew personally some of the dead and injured. I hope I never see another tornado or its effects. People who say they are not afraid of a tornado are either fools or they have never experienced one. I realize there are many stories about the Tornado of 1956. Many people showed courage. It was a terrible time. Lexington recovered and is a more beautiful town now than then. It has always been my home, and I love it and its people.

On the left - The Wright residence on "West", now known as North Main Street as the twister passed Barnhill and Main then across West Church Street.
On the right - The Clifton and Bobbitt residences on Huntingdon Street

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From the Lexington Progress - Countian Remembers

Compiled by Brenda Kirk Fiddler April 1, 1998

Death Count Climbs To Three:
Grateful populace offers thanks toll is no greater; damage to real estate alone is estimated far above a million dollars. Killed were: Mrs. Rebecca Wilkerson Odle, 45, wife of Preston Odle, of Hinson Springs road; and William Kizer, 5 year old son of J.W.Kizer, Barnhill Street. Mrs. Odle was killed when their house seemed to "explode" and bodies were hurled 100 yards. Her children were seriously injured. The Kizer child was killed when his home was smashed against a bank across the street on the east side of Barnhill. (Frank Boswell was the third person killed in his homoe on Boswell Street).

Still dazed, people grubbed through ruins of homes and businesses as relief machinery swung into action. The Red Cross disaster committee placed damage to real estate alone at more than $1,210,000.

The killer devil danced into town from the west and followed much the same course as another tornado March 13, 1913. The ugly black funnel, seen by many, entered Lexington across Barnhill Street, followed a small depression to cross West Main between James Lee Wright's and Carse Moody's homes and swept across West Church at Hunter Furnace and Electric Co., slammed into homes on Essary St., going on to Boswell and White Streets, and crossing North Broad near the high school. The fact that tornado alerts had been sent out and the hour were credited with the low death count. Most of those in severely damaged homes and they lay flat on the floor.

Lexington Electric Dept. said it hoped to have power restored by Thursday night. Working with local crewmen were workers from Pickwick, Tennessee Valley, Savannah; Jackson Electric and the Paris utility. Sapt. J.C. Fronabarger said National Guard troops from Huntingdon, Henderson and Jackson assisted the local company in guarding wrecked homes and business. A Navy unit at Memphis helped clear debris.

Seventy Five Highway patrolmen poured into Lexington, setting up traffic routes and keeping sightseers away from working areas. Insp. J.J. Jackson and Adj. Gen. Joe Henry were also on the scene as state facilities were rushed to Lexington. A fleet of highway trucks removed debris from the streets Wednesday. The Paris Rescue Squad was in the Lexington disaster area shortly after news of the tornado reached out to neighboring areas. Gov. Clement made an inspection tour of the devastated area Wednesday, ordering patrolmen to seal off the LHS gym to prevent injury.

The dead: Mrs. Rebecca Odle, 45; William Kizer, 5; Richard Kizer, 9 months. The injured (partial list); Stella Odle, Carol Odle, Bobby Odle, Reba Odle, Rebecca Odle, J.W. Kizer, Rex Kizer, Howard Kizer, Mrs. James Holcomb, Mrs. Ester Derryberry, Frank Boswell, Mrs. Ray Gardner, Thomas Ray Davis, John Western, Jim Jowers, Mrs. Jim Jowers, Jimmy Jowers Jr., Mrs. E.D. Deere, Ray Gardner, L.O. Derryberry, Randy Holcomb, Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Azbill, Thomas Lee Davis, Herschel Thompson, baby Thompson, Mrs. Oscar Hemby, baby Hemby, Gail Reed, Della Barnhill, Andy Rhodes, Mrs. Andy Rhodes, Eugene Turner, Donald Thompson, Cecil Burnine.

Major damage: EddieHolmes, Eugene Brooks, J.O. Ferguson, Elmer Stewart, James Pop Thomas, Mrs. Virginia Butler, Mrs. Helen Ross, S.H. Pearson Sr., Mrs.JessieHay, John A. Hancock, Howard Meadows, Luray; J.P. Holmes, Earl Martin, Rt. 1, Jake Parker, Ed Kizer, Clyde Young, Ellen Douglass, Addie McHaney, Clint Harmon, E.W. Essary Sr., W.L. Bobbitt, N.A.Turner, E.E. Deusner, John W. Dodd, L.E. Dickson, J.E. Segerson, Mrs. J.A. Bobbitt; J.T. Stewart, J.W. Stewart, Granville Bartholomew, Mrs. M.C. Rosser, the old Barry home, Leo Pearson, Bill Dudley, Henry Patton,Howard Adcox, Lessie Smith, Oscar Hemby. Business damaged: Lexington Auto Parts, Wallace Motors, The Progress, Hunter Furnace and Electric Co; WDXL, Motor Parts and Bearing Co.; Threadgill Lumber, Clyde Scott Garage, Cogdell Garage and Service Station.

Many people saw the ugly funnel of Tuesday's savage killer. Clyde Williams said he saw the clouds go together and then the tail appeared. Elton Clifford, in Motor Parts and Bearing;s new building saw both front and back ends blow out. I saw as it came around Clyde's (Scott) garage. James Roberts was at WallaceMotor Co. Having his truck repaired when the killer struck. I saw how hard hit things were up on Essary Street so I went there. People were crying and screaming and some pinned under. I helped pick up Mrs. James Holcomb. Floyd Azbill and Mrs. Azbill had abut as narrow an escape as anyone. Only a thin board propping the ceiling of their living room prevented them being crushed as their house was completely demolished. Roy Goodwin was literally caught up in the storm. He said he walked around the corner of his house just as the twister struck. When it was over I was about 50 yards away in a ditch where it had tumbled me.

Milton Huntr said he saw the wind lift his station wagon off the ground three times as the tornado struck. He was amazed that more than 100 light fixtures on the ceiling of his business escaped damage, although his business houses were heavily hit. Mrs. Frankie Mays first decidd to seek safety i the cellar. A few minutes later she fled to an open ditch, holding the children down. After the storm, the cellar was filled with brick and debris. Miss Lola JOnes, beautifian at Modern Beauty Shop, had a harrowing experience. She had driven a customer home, then hit the fringe of the the twister. She said it was filled with trash and leaves. DavidLawler, newspaper carrier, was on his route on Boswell Street. Instinctively he lay in a ditch near the L.N. Lindsey home until the danger passed. James lee Wright used quick judgement to shield his mother, Mrs. J.W. Wright. He said timbers started shooting through his home andhe and his mother lay on the floor.