1928 Tornado Devastated Countless Lives as It Roared Through North Cherokee
Family historians do some of the finest local-level historical research these days, and it is to a local family historian, Jennifer Dunn, that I am indebted for unearthing this sad tale from the 1920s. Her website is very well done, and it contains a trove of information on local history, family history searching tips and the like. Check it out at https://genealogytechnology.com.
On March 26, 1928, one of the worst natural disasters to strike Cherokee County arrived unannounced and took lives as it passed through the area between Macedonia and Freehome. The March 28 issue of the local paper, The Cherokee Advance, included coverage of the disaster, and it read as follows:
“The tornado which struck Cherokee County last Monday night about ten o’clock near Lathemtown and Orange was probably the most appalling disaster that has visited our county. Five persons were hurled to their death and a score of others injured, houses and barns blown away, cattle, hogs and chickens disappeared and vehicles demolished. … Coming on this little community while they slept and striking with viciousness and without warning, the windstorm carved a path a quarter of a mile wide and four miles long on the countryside, leaving uprooted trees, demolished homes, and death and destruction in its wake. The tornado struck first at the home of William J. Millwood in the Orange community. And after killing four members of this family and injuring five others, and scattering the Millwood home over a lot of land, traveled east to Lathemtown and destroyed four more houses.”
The carnage is hard to read, even today. Osie Heath (age 25) of Lathemtown was crushed beneath his fallen home. Visiting him in the home were Mr. and Mrs. Grady Fowler. At the time of the article, Grady had a broken arm, eight ribs fractured near his spine and was not expected to survive. His wife narrowly escaped injury and told them there was no time to escape the house before it was demolished around them. Howard McCuen of Lathemtown also was badly injured.
But the saddest fate was that of the Millwood family, where the mother and father (William and Ida), their son Allen, 17, and daughter Estelle, 13, all died. The surviving Millwood children were seriously injured: Alfred Millwood, 20, with a head wound, Leo Millwood, 11, with a broken left forearm, Edith Millwood, 9, with both arms broken and William Jr., 7, with a serious head laceration.
Alfred related what happened from his hospital bed, saying that everyone was in bed when they heard a terrible rushing noise coming toward them. He ran to the door to see what was going on, only to be struck on the head by a window frame. He traveled some 25 yards in the air before landing in the road, facedown in mud. Steadying himself for a time, he could hear some of his siblings crying. And, while dizzy, he managed to locate three of them.
An abandoned house nearby was still standing; he brought them there and started a fire to keep them warm. At dawn, he went to a neighbor’s house for help. The neighbors, the Edwards family, had lost their barn entirely and suffered serious damage to their home, but were uninjured. Upon learning of the tragedy to the Millwood family, they called for help, and the Millwood children were all brought to Canton for medical attention.
The two deceased children were found near the ruins of the home. Their mother’s body was found a quarter of a mile away, and their father was found a full half mile away, along with a section of the house’s floor.
Nine days later, on April 6, a follow-up article in the paper updated the condition of the Millwood survivors and the community’s outpouring of support. The three younger children were still under the care of Dr. Coker, who refused any compensation for their treatment. It mentions that they were surrounded by dolls, picture books and toys, and had tasted ice cream for the first time. The oldest boy, Alfred, was out of the hospital.
It was noted that the Millwoods had a “storm pit” (what in my day we called a root cellar or a storm cellar) only 100 feet away from the home. But there had been no warning, and no time to make for it. The Millwoods were of humble means, and generous contributions to the Red Cross came in from locals, but also from out of state and even out of the country. These funds went to burial expenses for the dead and food, clothing and medicine for the survivors.
It would be interesting to dig through the census and local records in hopes of learning what became of the four young Millwoods, whose lives were changed forever on that night in 1928. Perhaps another dauntless family historian like Dunn will pick up the challenge and do so.
We live in an age where forecasters routinely provide us with several days’ warning of an impending hurricane, and real-time information via internet and television on tornado formation and location, or on the possibility of flash flooding in a given area. It’s easy to take all this for granted when major advances in meteorological technology during the past 95 years have made this possible.
We all can find ourselves romanticizing the past, but events like this are poignant reminders of Billy Joel’s observation in his song, “Keeping the Faith”:
“’Cause the good ole days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems …”
– The Wanderer has been a resident of Cherokee County for nearly 20 years, and constantly is learning about his community on daily walks, which totaled a little more than 2,000 miles in 2022. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.