By Lavelle McAlpin
For the WPT
“What’s past is prologue.” ~ William Shakespeare
The following story is not new to us: a series of storms interspersed with tornadic activity ripped through the Mississippi night and rained destruction upon Webster County.
The powerful storms destroyed numerous homes, damaged property for miles around, altered the physical landscape of at least one community, made the regional and national news, forced the temporary housing of the school onto property associated with the Methodist Church and served as the catalyst for the creation of a new state-of-the-art school facility.
If this brings to mind the events of April 27, 2011, and the destruction of East Webster High School, you are not alone. Would you be surprised to learn, however, that this all happened once before? An eerily similar disaster took place more than 100 years earlier on Saturday, Nov. 17, 1906, in Mathiston.
A Banner Year
1906 had been a banner year in the small town of Mathiston; progress was made seemingly in all directions. The sound of the saw and the hammer could literally be heard on every street.
A community of only four stores in 1890, the town consisted of more than 20 stores in 1906, including two drugstores, two sawmills, two blacksmiths, millinery, a brick factory, and numerous grocers and general stores.
1905 saw the completion of the Mobile, Jackson & Kansas City Railroad. This rail line gave the town a critical railroad junction point and greatly increased both traffic and shipping.
For a Sign
Farmers, too, had reason to be optimistic. The summer crops had been bountiful and the cotton crop was waiting in the field to be harvested. While the life of a rural farmer was never easy, the standing fields of snowy white brought the promise of an easier winter. Bales of cotton were as good as cash in hand and meant store bought staples: coffee, sugar and flour. The only problem was a plague of wet weather that delayed harvest.
However, all progress comes with some cost, and some citizens were worried about immorality and riotous living. Just that same year, a “blind tiger” (an illegal saloon) had been discovered in back of one of the stores in town and put out of business.
Against this backdrop, the Methodist Church held a November revival with particular emphasis on community morals. The meetings culminated with a service on Saturday, Nov. 17th, 1906. According to Mary Starnes, former resident, teacher and historian, a prayer was offered in the meeting that the town see the need for repentance, and that the Lord provide a sign, if necessary, to make this repentance a reality.
‘Old Town’ Hit
The townsfolk were unaware, without the aid of modern technology, that a series of “super cell” storms, similar to those we witnessed in 2011, were making their way across the state; sailing above some towns and dipping down to create havoc in others. Just as the penitent worshippers made their way home by wagon, surrey or on foot, the storm hit Mathiston.
The Mathiston Review, a short-lived newspaper from that era, described that night’s events in dramatic detail: The opening salvo was a shower of heavy rain and lightning, followed by a storm of large hail, but little damage was done. This was followed by additional heavy rains and then an unsettling calm.
At approximately 10 p.m., the storm came roaring from the southwest into the area of town south of the Southern Railroad (later known as the Columbus and Greenville), now known as “Old Town.” At least seven stores and approximately 25 homes inside the city limits were virtually destroyed beyond recognition in a matter of minutes.
Mathiston native Hugh Clegg, who went on to be assistant director of the FBI in Washington, was a young boy in 1906. He recalled the events of that night this way: “While I was still preschool age, a tornado struck Mathiston very seriously. It also hit Winona in part, bounced over to Mathiston, and destroyed a large number of residences and stores, and completely obliterated the old wooden schoolhouse.
“I remember I was sleeping in a room where they still had a fire burning. As the neighbors would come in, their homes having been blown away, or destroyed, or otherwise was uninhabitable during the terrific downpour, I would hear them talking. I remember very vividly how frightened I was. Many were left homeless and numerous people gathered at our home, which was moved slightly away from the chimney on the west side, probably as much as an inch or an inch and a half, but it was still waterproof and still standing.
“The noise in the room and the reciting of the experiences frightened me very much. As I say, the schoolhouse was destroyed. It was a two-room schoolhouse, lower grades in one room and the higher grades in the other. It was a frame building but to me, at the time, it was quite a large building. That’s where I started to school and had numerous classes in the same room.
“The Methodist Church, which was just across the little grove from our home, offered its sanctuary to be the schoolhouse until they could build another school. That was just one room, no educational annexes. I was in that schoolroom and could hear the teachings of higher grades. They had some lower grades, too, but I don’t expect much lower, because I was quite young.”
In addition to the loss of the schoolhouse and the destruction of stores and homes, there was one fatality. An African-American woman was killed in her home by falling debris. The cotton crop that had been waiting in the fields to be harvested was completely blown away. One can imagine how the farmers stared across the barren rows that had so recently held the ripened bolls of cotton and wondered how prosperity could so quickly be torn from their grasp.
They would survive, but the winter of ease would now most likely be, to borrow another phrase from Shakespeare, “a winter of discontent.” The story of death, tragic loss and destruction struck a chord with the public. The story of the Mathiston tornado ran in The New York Times, the Salt Lake City Herald and other major metropolitan newspapers.
However, just as in 2011, the community did not sit still and dwell on their losses. Immediately, a $12,000 bond was passed for the purpose of building a new brick school building. This two-story building had plaster walls, a bell tower, eight schoolrooms, a large auditorium, and a heating system complete with ductwork to each classroom and a coal-burning furnace. “Old Town” in Mathiston would be relegated now to a residential area, as the businesses rebuilt along the brick storefronts of Scott Avenue.
Just as in 2011, the community rallied together to overcome a tragedy. As East Webster prepares to enter the new school facility, may we remember that our schools and communities function best when we unite behind a common cause.
Note: this article was compiled from information obtained from the Mathiston Review, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and from an oral history interview with Hugh Clegg. For a detailed list of specific homes and businesses damaged, contact Lavelle McAlpin at firstname.lastname@example.org
McAlpin is a member of the Mathiston Board of Aldermen and teaches U.S. History at East Webster High School.