The Most Horrible Storm: A Firsthand Account of the 1953 Waco Tornado

If you have lived in Texas for any amount of time, you’ve experienced a tornado watch, and maybe even a tornado warning. The TV program you were watching is interrupted with dire weather maps, the radio DJ advises folks out in their cars to take shelter, the whole family huddles up in the bathtub—it’s all a little scary, especially when the sirens start to go off. And if you think your town is immune to tornados—as Huaco Native American legend said about Waco—well, an actual F5 storm striking your town is downright terrifying.

"Evidence of the might of a tornado"
Some structures were flattened, some remained standing. Their fates were determined both by structural supports and the tornado's whim.

Harry Gillett’s letter to his mother, started on May 11, 1953, and continued the next day, brings to life that experience of waiting for the Waco tornado and then witnessing its aftermath. Sent home early from the school where he taught, Gillett put pen to paper to describe the storm as it escalated. First he writes of a driving rain, and then of hailstones the size of half dollars. “It has gotten so dark outside that it is practically night and it is only about 4:25.”

Then the hailstones increase to the size of baseballs, and one breaks a shingle of his roof. His father calls and tells him the hail downtown is the size of his fist. The phone lines go down shortly after their conversation. “I have never seen anything like this before. No telling how much damage will be done. There go the lights.”

How much damage will be done, indeed.  In the next paragraph, Gillett writes, “I am continuing this letter at 5:00 the morning after I started writing it. Waco had the most horrible storm you can imagine.” The tornado entered the Waco city limits at 4:32 pm, and the funnel cloud was downtown by 4:36. Gillett’s North Waco home is unscathed, apart from the broken shingle. He’s lucky. His letter describes the damage done to the homes of relatives and friends—from a flooded home to a house blown off its foundation, moved a few feet, and “simply ruined.”

Harry Gillett letter describing the 1953 Waco tornado, page 4
Harry Gillett's letter to his mother gives us insight into the before and after of the 1953 Waco tornado.

But other parts of Waco saw much greater devastation. Some houses were blown to bits. Gillett’s school in East Waco was destroyed, with his classroom the only one left standing on the top floor. And in downtown Waco, the toll, both property and human, was enormous. “R.T. Dennis [building] fell in completely and most of the buildings from there to the river were completely blown apart. Hundreds of people were killed…Downtown Waco has been put under martial law and Daddy will not be able to get to work. Many gas lines are broken down town and everyone is afraid of a terrible explosion.”

The Waco tornado is tied with the 1902 Goliad tornado as the deadliest in Texas history, and is one of the most deadly in US history. 114 people were killed, and property damage was in excess of $50 million—with inflation, that would be about $400 million today. The Waco tornado helped incite the development of a nationwide severe weather warning system. On this week of the 59th year since the tornado, we remember those who were lost.

You can read the complete letter at The Texas Collection in the Harry Gillett papers. Gillett also saved a few postcards depicting the 1953 tornado’s impact, which we’ve featured in the slide show below. If you’re interested in reading, watching, or listening to more accounts of the storm, check out Waco Tornado 1953: Force that Changed the Face of Waco (an oral history project by the Waco-McLennan County Library and the Baylor Institute for Oral History), “Living Stories: Radio and the 1953 Waco Tornado,” a collaboration of the Institute for Oral History and KWBU-FM, and the “Waco Tornado: Tragedy and Triumph” video at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. The Portal to Texas History and Waco Tribune-Herald also have compelling images and contemporary news coverage of the storm.

Preserving Texas Folklore

On a cold December day in 1909, two English professors acted on a common thread of interest—preserving the songs, music, and tales of Texas, known collectively as folklore. John A. Lomax and Dr. Leonidas Payne created the Texas Folklore Society to begin collecting folklore across Texas and the Southwest. Today, the organization still stands as the second oldest such society, behind only the American Folklore Society. Members write papers and articles on different types of folklore and can present their work at the annual meeting that is held in a different Texas town each year.

Texas Folklore Writers exhibit at The Texas Collection

In recognition of their work and in conjunction with the Baylor University Libraries’ “A Celebration of Texas: Literature, Music & Film,” The Texas Collection is hosting “Texas Folklore Writers,” an exhibit examining the roots of the Texas Folklore Society and its current role. Texas Folklore Society exhibit detailThe exhibit displays photographs of the early “pioneers” of the Society, such as Lomax, Payne, Dorothy Scarborough, and J. Frank Dobie; a wide array of the Society’s yearly publications; the story of its symbol, the roadrunner; and the Society’s current activities.

A Baylor literary legend, Emily Dorothy Scarborough, is featured centrally in the exhibit. Ms. Scarborough taught English at Baylor and at Columbia University in New York during the early twentieth century. Detail of Scarborough songbookMs. Scarborough was passionately committed to preserving folklore and spent summers writing down the “elusive” folksongs of Southern mountain families and African-Americans.

Dorothy Scarborough portraitKnown for her adept and sensitive portrayals of Texas life around the turn of the century—likely aided by her folklore work—Ms. Scarborough wrote novels set in almost every region of the state. One of her most famous novels is The Wind, written in 1925 and set in West Texas. The book weaves a tale of a young woman from the East driven mad by the howling Texas winds. First published anonymously for media speculation, the book was a hit and made into a movie at MGM studios in 1929, starring Lillian Gish. Original transcriptions, documents and manuscripts, photographs, quotes, and first edition volumes by Ms. Scarborough are on display.

Visit The Texas Collection from March 29–May 31 to see the exhibit. Be sure to drop by  the other “Celebration of Texas” exhibits at the University Libraries, including a Texas Writers exhibit at Moody Memorial Library, Texas poetry at Armstrong Browning Library, and Texas works from the Hightower Collection at the W.R. Poage Legislative Library. Check out our calendar of events, too!

By Ann Payne, exhibit curator

A Homegrown Vision: Robert L. Smith and the Farmers Improvement Society

In the late 1800s, Robert Lloyd Smith came to Texas. Smith, a highly educated man and an advocate of Booker T. Washington’s  philosophy of education and economic improvement for African-Americans,  called himself a “practical sociologist.”  He was also an educator and a businessman.  In 1890 Smith founded the Farmers’ Home Improvement Society in Colorado County.

Smith created the F.I.S. as a self-improvement society to help tenant farmers out of a cycle of debt and poverty. The Society provided life insurance, financed a bank in Waco, operated an agricultural boarding school, and provided a social life in a religious and fraternal setting for African-Americans across Texas. At its high point in 1911, the Farmers’ Improvement Society claimed 12,000 members in 800 branches across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.  Smith’s wife, Ruby Cobb of Waco, was instrumental in helping him run the F.I.S. 

A Homegrown Vision: Robert L. Smith and the Farmers Improvement Society was curated by Paul Fisher and Ann Payne and is made possible through the generous gift of materials from the Smith-Cobb family of Waco.

Stop by The Texas Collection from February 1 – March 20, 2012 to view the exhibit.

 

Click on images to enlarge.

Santa, bring me a Cyclecar next year

Did you ever ask Santa for a pedal car?   Was there ever a toy that seemed more simultaneously wonderful and out-of-reach?   Maybe you wanted the fire truck with a bell you could ring, or the sporty caror perhaps the airplane?

In the early days of automotive history, the irresistible desire to cruise and the immovable impediment of cost collided to bring in the era of the cyclecar.  Cyclecars were lightweight vehicles, part motorcycle and part automobile. Compared to full-sized cars, they were inexpensive to purchase and operate, and were licensed and taxed at a reduced rate, further increasing their appeal.

The Hall Cycle & Plating Co. of Waco, Texas sold bicycles and motorcycles.  Partners Lawrence Hall and John B. Fisher were active in the local Young Men’s Business League.  (You can see one of their motorcycles with the Y.M.B.L. in the detail from a panoramic photograph below.) Then, in 1914, Lawrence Hall designed a chain-driven vehicle called the Hall Cyclecar.  It had a four-cylinder, air-cooled 18 horsepower motor, seated two people in tandem, and could be converted into a light delivery van by removing the rear seat .  Hall Cycle & Plating Company was reorganized into the Hall Cyclecar Manufacturing Co. and was incorporated with a capital stock of $25,000 by W. J. Lincoln, E.B. Baker, and Lawrence Hall.  The 1914 edition of Automobile Topics reported that Hall hoped to sell the vehicle for $400. The prototype moved into production. 

The cyclecar boom was brief.  By the 1920s larger manufacturers began making affordable cars that undercut the cyclecar companies.  In 1915, manufacture of the Hall Cyclecar stopped.  Lawrence Hall moved to Los Angeles and a little bit of Texas history remained only in memory and photographs.

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                                 Click on image to enlarge

Texas Trailers


The Texas Collection staff decided to have a bit of fun over the summer and created video trailers to introduce you to some of our favorite collections.  Our Texas Trailers are up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.  We’ve put together short movies about western pulp fiction, panoramic photographs, promotional literature, the Adams-Blakley collection, and Jules Bledsoe archival materials. We hope you’ll enjoy this look into the stacks and vaults here at Carroll Library.  Leave your comments below!

We were not orphans — Stories from the Waco State Home

“We were not orphans. Our parents were living; they just couldn’t take care of us.” This poignant remark captures the heartbreaking reality faced by thousands of “dependent and neglected” children from the 1920s through the 1970s who grew up at The Waco State Home.

On Friday, February 25, 2011 at 3:00 p.m. in Bennett Auditorium (Draper Academic Building), TheTexas Collection presents an afternoon with noted advocate and former Baylor student, Sherry Matthews, author of We Were Not Orphans: Stories from the Waco State Home.

A book signing and reception will follow at The Texas Collection. The event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP to rsvp@wewerenotorphans.com or by calling 512.600.3711

Best around town

One of our recent experiments over on Flickr is a gallery of our favorite images of Waco. We searched through hundreds of photographs posted on the Flickr photosharing site, and found some terrific shots taken by folks who live here or were visiting the area. These photographs aren’t owned by The Texas Collection; instead they represent a virtual collection of people’s creative responses to Waco. You can find information on individual photographers by clicking on the images.

We hope you’ll enjoy the show!

Updated June 27, 2012: You’ll see something a little different in this slideshow now–instead of just favorite Waco photos, we’re starting to add favorites from other special collections too that we find on Flickr. Enjoy a trip through all kinds of interesting places!

Blogging about Texas

Welcome to the newly created Texas Collection Blog! The Texas Collection is steeped in tradition and history. There’s so much to share and show that we thought it was time to communicate more directly and informally with you–sharing highlights from our collections and projects, and providing a venue for your comments. We also want to learn from you because The Texas Collection houses a few mysteries that we’re hoping you can help us solve.

We’ll be updating this site regularly, so check back often to hear about our latest discoveries or read about what’s new. There’s always something exciting happening in Texas.

Sincerely,

John S. Wilson

Interim Director. The Texas Collection

Cameron Park: 100 Years


 

If you find yourself in Waco, come by and see us at The Texas Collection. We’re located in Carroll Library on the Baylor University campus. Visit before October 15th, and see our current exhibit: William Cameron Park: 100 years. You can learn more about the display on our Flickr page. Just click on any image in the slide show above to continue on to Flickr.