The Tornado That Destroyed a Town

The Tornado That Destroyed a Town

 

Each year I re-print the story of the Peggs tornado that I wrote for The Tahlequah Daily Press in 1985. This story is important because it is a part of our history. It is a sad story, but it is also full of human compassion and courage. We should not forget the many whose lives were cut short. They were important and their lives mattered. History matters. It may not be pleasant and we may wish it had never happened, but it did. And, we should remember.

It was a night that would be long remembered. The day had been suffocatingly hot and sunset brought no relief. A massive black cloud which had crouched in the northwest all evening began to move. Lightning flared constantly. Those in the path of the storm that Sunday, May 2, 1920, had a date with destiny. As the tornado cloud turned and moved east, it churned directly into the little town of Peggs, demolishing everything in its path.

An article in the Henryetta, Oklahoma’s Daily Freelance dated May 3, 1920, stated, “More than 50 persons were killed and more than 150 injured in a storm that wiped out the little town of Peggs, Cherokee County, Oklahoma at 9:30 last night.”

As it turned out, more than 100 died–some outright and some later, of injuries. The little cotton town whose population had been 500 was devastated, leaving only a hotel, two homes, and the jail standing. Gone were the grocery stores, a barber shop, two cotton gins, pool hall and two drug stores. Families and friends were severed, leaving survivors with lasting memories of the tornado’s destruction.

The grandmother of Bill Hinds, Tahlequah merchant, lost her life in the storm. “My mother and dad, Helen and H. I. Hinds, lived in Hulbert,” said Mr. Hinds. “They visited my grandmother, Mary Ellen Riddlen Hinds and Aunt Dennis Hinds who lived at Peggs, frequently on Sunday afternoons. This particular Sunday, my folks started to visit in Peggs when they saw this storm cloud and turned back to their home in Hulbert. My grandmother and aunt saw the storm approaching. My grandmother told my aunt to get under the bed. The last glimpse my aunt had of Grandmother was her attempting to follow.”

Miss Ruth Allison, former Tahlequah resident who now lives in Muskogee, remembers the night of the tornado. She and her sister and parents could hear the roar of the storm across the 16 miles separating Tahlequah from Peggs. She remembers the phone call that summoned her father, Dr. John Starr Allison, to the aid of the stricken town:

“The phone lines in Peggs were down,” said Miss Allison. “As soon as someone could get through to a phone, they called my father. Daddy went to a drug store and got all the medicine he could. An early Tahlequah resident, John B. Stapler, drove my father’s Ford, taking him and Miss Edna Holland to Peggs. Miss Holland was a registered nurse who had been head of nurses at an Oklahoma City hospital. She served as Dean of Women at Northeastern Teachers’ College for a short time after coming to Tahlequah. My father encouraged her to go back into nursing, after seeing how efficiently she aided the tornado victims. They had a hard time getting to Peggs…There were trees and things all over the road. They had to get out often and clear the way.  My father was the only doctor there that night. He operated on storm victims using the headlights of his car for light. Some doctors from Muskogee were able to get through about daylight. I remember how exhausted Daddy was when he got back home.”

Some of the injured were brought to the Tahlequah hospital which was then the Morgan House at 525 Seminary.

Renus Warren, minister of the Peggs Community Church, was a small child at the time of the tornado. “Rocks hit all around our house,” said Warren. “And lightning–why, you could have seen anything by that lighting. I remember my dad holding me and telling me not to be scared. About midnight, a neighbor came and hollered my dad out of bed. He said that Peggs was blown away and they needed all the help they could get up there. My dad went up by horseback that night. My sister, mother, and Uncle Frank Warren and I went by wagon the next day. We had to leave the wagon a mile south of Peggs and walk the rest of the way. I’ll never forget what I saw. There were chickens walking around without a single feather, dead cows in the road, houses and trees all over.”

Renus saw his first airplane that same Monday. According to the Henryetta newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune sent a newspaper man to Peggs on the morning of May 3.

“The news reporter got to Peggs about 1 Monday afternoon,” said Renus. “He surveyed the storm damage by air then landed in Bud Thornton’s hay meadow. He walked about a mile on into Peggs.”

  (To Be Concluded Tomorrow)        

Comments

  1. Eva Shipp says

    My Dad, Bill Wheeler, was 12 or 13 years old at the time, and was one of those who helped clean up afterwards. He was never the same again. He rarely talked about what he saw, but if someone brought it up, he would sort of shudder, shake his head, and would walk off. However, we kids literally grew up (as we used to say) in a cellar, and we ALWAYS had a cellar! Daddy would walk into our bedroom with the message, “Kids, get your clothes on! Gotta go to the cellar!” The last house we lived in didn’t have a cellar, but the neighbor across the street had one, and let us know we were welcome!

    • It was a terrible thing and left its imprint on the minds of those who saw or went to help. I can understand your dad’s fear of storms. Tornadoes are fearsome things.

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