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Home Features Flashback to Huntsville's Great Depression tornado

Flashback to Huntsville’s Great Depression tornado

Judge Joe D. Duncan (center) is pictured with his son, Phil Duncan, and his nephew, Duane Limburg, in his West Knoxville home in 2019. Judge Duncan was born and raised in Huntsville, and the family home was destroyed by a tornado in March 1933 | IH File Photo

On Thursday, April 8, 2021, a tornado touched down in Norma and Straight Fork, damaging numerous homes and leaving hundreds without power. The tornado has not yet been classified by the National Weather Service, which will survey the damage on Friday. There were no injuries reported.

The Norma-Straight Fork storm impacted a very similar area to Scott County’s last tornado, which occurred on May 8, 2009, and it will become the ninth tornado officially recorded in Scott County’s history. This is a look back at Scott County’s first-ever recorded tornado, which occurred on March 14, 1933 in the middle of Huntsville. This story is written by Judge Joe D. Duncan, and first appeared in the Independent Herald’s Forgotten Times feature on Nov. 26, 2015.

A list of Scott County’s tornadoes

By Joe D. Duncan

On a Monday night in March 1933, a terrible storm struck Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and several other Southern states, doing much damage to property and, according to some news reports, killing more than 100 people.

One of the tornadoes, spun off from that storm, paid an unwelcome visit to Scott County, Tennessee, and completely destroyed several homes, including the home of F.B. and Cassie Duncan, my parents. Our home, located off Highway No. 63 between Helenwood and Huntsville, was in the direct path of the storm. The storm hit our house a few minutes before nine o’clock on that fateful night. I was nine years old at the time.

The tornado did extensive damage to the property of several of our immediate neighbors. The Oliver Miller home and out-buildings were completely blown away. The Coker residence was twisted on its foundation; the front porch was demolished and the roof blown off. Mitchell Phillips’ barn was blown away but their residence nearby sustained very little damage. The residence of the Sextons was badly damaged. And other houses in the Huntsville area were destroyed.

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Large hail stones and ferocious winds accompanied the storm and within minutes, after the storm passed, the sky cleared and a full moon appeared in the sky. Over the ensuing days, pieces of the Duncan house, quilts, wearing apparel, and other household possessions were found in the woods several miles away.

The Duncan barn was also blown away, but fortunately our old faithful milk cow managed to escape from the barn. After the storm subsided, our cow was discovered across the road in a pasture, calmly eating grass just as if nothing had happened. It has always been a mystery as to how the cow got across the road because the fence around the barn was intact after the storm, and the gate was still closed. There was speculation that she was carried through the air by the wind and deposited across the road in the pasture. Some of our chickens that were in the chicken house were not so fortunate as our cow. The next day, we discovered that some of our chickens had met an untimely death by having been blown against the barbed wire fence.

My sister, Elizabeth, remembers that a portrait of Papa (F.B.) Duncan was blown out of the house and landed on a stump a good distance away, and Papa’s portrait was completely shredded. To this day, Elizabeth agonizes over the loss of the portrait. A recent comment by her in remembering this loss was that “Papa was such a handsome man, and the portrait showed it.”

The storm took a heavy toll on the trees in the forest around our acreage. For a long time after the storm, you could walk for a long distance in the adjacent woodlands by stepping on the logs from one uprooted tree to another, without ever touching the ground.

In the Duncan house that night, in addition to my parents, were seven of the Duncan children, namely, Frank, Fannye Helen, John, Elizabeth, Joe, Martha and Robert. Also, my brother-in-law, Everette Williams, and his daughter, my niece Vera Jo, were present in our home that night.

The storm had apparently caused some of the walls of the house to collapse inwardly, with the roof settling down on the other debris. The collapsed house looked like it had been blown up by sticks of dynamite. Some of the bricks from the chimney fell on Mama Duncan, causing some injuries to her. Other members of the family sustained cuts and bruises. Brother Robert received a cut on his face and, astonishingly, in the month of March for several succeeding years, that spot on his face would noticeably become reddened.

Given the total destruction of the house, it was miraculous that of the 11 occupants of the Duncan household on that night, no one was fatally injured. On the night of the storm, my brother Frank, then about 18 years old and the oldest one of the children then at home, had been to a program of some kind at Huntsville. Our parents and all the rest of the children were in bed, most of them asleep.

When Frank arrived, Papa Duncan got up to unlock the door to let him in the house. Frank told Papa that the sky was real black and a strong wind was blowing. According to Papa Duncan, in a few minutes after Frank’s weather report, he could hear a loud roar that sounded like a freight train. He opened the front door and looked outside. He said the wind was terrific, and he looked up in the sky and could see whole trees and other large objects flying through the air.

The roaring noise was getting closer and closer, and Papa said he immediately closed the door, and about that time, the house began to collapse. He jumped under a table next to the door and the table sheltered him from the falling timbers. Papa and Frank then began to move the timbers and debris in various bedrooms in an effort to locate the other family members.

Papa always said that when the storm hit, it was like “a freight train plowing into the house.” It should be pointed out that when the tornado hit in 1933, our house was not yet wired for electricity. Electric power lines had been constructed in Scott County only recently before the storm. After the storm that night, all of us were barefooted and clothed only in skimpy sleeping garments.

Papa Duncan lined us up in a row and took inventory to see that all were present. Mama Duncan announced that we would go to Nannie Shoopman’s house, as she knew she could count on Nannie to take care of us. The Shoopman house was located about a fourth-mile away, and for sure, the Shoopman family fulfilled the biblical admonition, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

As we were on our way to our neighbor’s house, the road was wet and full of puddles. The electric power lines had been blown down, and sparks were flying from the live wires. Papa Duncan cautioned us to stay in one straight line and for us to walk in his footsteps, so as not to step on a live wire.

Almost immediately after the storm, the Red Cross was on the scene, lending aid to all of the people who had been damaged. The help and concern this organization showed to our family in their time of need may have been the motivation that prompted my mother to serve for several years as president of the local chapter of the Red Cross. I can only assume that perhaps this was her way of showing her gratitude to this fine organization.

Brother John used to tell the story that for several days after the storm, other residents of Scott County would drive by our demolished house and would put money in our mail box, without leaving any name or other identification. Additionally, I would comment that within a few days after the storm, Papa Duncan began to clear out the debris and to commence construction of a new house on the same site. Neighbors pitched in and helped. Barney Robinson, like Papa, was a carpenter, and he helped with the work. Mitchell Phillips (who, in later years, was to become my father-inlaw) did the electrical wiring of the new house.

I remember on one occasion, I was pecking with a hand ax on one of the foundation boards and, unbeknownst to me, brother John was down underneath on the ground. He reached up to the board to pull himself up just as the blade of the ax came down on the board, cutting one of his fingers, resulting in a permanent scar even though the cut was very slight. Nevertheless, as I write this, it gives me the shivers to think how close I came to cutting off entirely one of his fingers.

During the construction, Papa saw to it that a storm cellar was dug for future protection from storms. Over the cellar, he constructed a smoke house that sat on a heavy foundation that would be impregnable to the strongest winds.

For a long time after the storm, the slightest indication that a storm was brewing was sufficient cause for Papa to take the entire family to the cellar. This could be during the daytime or nighttime. It made no difference if it was three or four o’clock in the morning. If a storm, however mild, threatened, it was off to the cellar for the family. For years, when one of us would be out late at night, it was a favorite pastime to come in the house and go to the bed of a sleeping brother or sister, and shake him or her awake, at the same time yelling, “Come on, come on, a storm is coming, a storm is coming, we are going to the cellar!”

More: ‘It sounded like a dozen freight trains coming through Coopertown’ – Remembering the 1974 tornado outbreak

Footnote: Joe Duncan went on to serve as a criminal court judge in Knox County and eventually served as a judge on the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. He and his wife, Louetta Phillips Duncan, live in Knoxville. John Duncan, referenced in this story, served as mayor of Knoxville from 1954 to 1964 before being elected to U.S. Congress from Tennessee’s 3rd District, where he served until his death in 1988. John’s son, Jimmy Duncan, continues to serve in Congress today. Becky Duncan Massey, John Duncan’s daughter, represents Knoxville in the Tennessee General Assembly. The last direct descendant of the Duncan family living in Scott County is Duane Limburg, the grandson of F.B. and Cassie Duncan, and the son of Fannye Helen Duncan Limburg Frazier.

Editor’s Note: Tornado databases list a March 21, 1932 tornado as injuring 13 people in Scott County. There was a significant tornado outbreak across the Southeast, including Tennessee, on March 21, 1932. However, based on Judge Duncan’s records, it is believed that the Huntsville tornado was mistakenly classified, and actually occurred on March 14, 1933. There was also a major tornado outbreak in the Southeast on that date.

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