Six tornadoes touched down within a twenty-mile radius of our little house across the road from the creek here in Knobite Corner during the outbreak of storms on April 27. We were lucky; despite fierce wind, rain and hail my immediate family is safe, though not all in their homes thanks to ongoing power outages.
For me, it’s a day of set pieces:
Mom in her wheelchair in the hall in the center of the house.
My nephew and his carpool buddy outrunning a tornado that chased them back up Route 95 on their way home from work.
My older niece spotting a funnel cloud as she approached town, hovering over her neighborhood, and turning back to the relative safety of Mamaw’s house.
My younger niece and brother-in-law taking shelter in the basement of a nearby church while lightning did a merry danse macabre over the graveyard.
Our local NBC station, WBIR-TV, Channel 10, Knoxville reports this morning that in our area the NWS issued sixty-nine tornado warnings and twenty-four severe thunderstorm warnings within a fifteen hour period, with a lead time of reaching safety that averaged out to about twenty-nine minutes. I’m sure that in other areas the total numbers are much higher, and there was less lead time.
In the old days, before our present early warning systems, there was no lead time at all.
All these circumstances reminded me of another spring, and a monstrous storm that came seemingly out of a clear blue sky. Out of that storm came a heartwrenching song by the great Original Carter Family–and a ghost story, with echoes right down to the present day.
Up until one o’clock in the afternoon, or thereabout, May 2, 1929 had been a quiet, very normal day in the little Scott County, Virginia town of Rye Cove. It was a school day; Rye Cove Consolidated School, with around one hundred fifty students ranging from first graders to high school seniors, was just settling in for an afternoon’s work following the midday lunch break.
Just east of nearby Cove Ridge, a bad storm was moving through a valley. A farmer out in his field was the first to notice that the storm was circling back on itself and becoming a “cyclone”, as Appalachian old people often still call tornadoes.
The school’s principal, who had gone to his boarding house for the lunch break, reached the school just about the same time the tornado did, entering through a door that splintered around him.
~~wood and glass sailing through the air, cutting down anything and anyone in their wind-driven path.
~~pencils, blackboards, hot coals from the stoves that still were in use that May afternoon, smashing, stabbing, and burning against flesh and walls.
~~and the screams. Oh, God, the screams, rising above the roar of the wind.
It was all over in little more than a heartbeat.
Of the one hundred fifty-odd people who were in Rye Cove Consolidated School that day, more than fifty were transported to area hospitals.
Ten were found dead at or near the scene, including one teacher, whose body was found seventy-five yards away from the ruins, where the storm had dropped her. Two students died during transport; another died the next day in a Kingsport, Tennessee hospital, bringing the total of deaths to thirteen. The teacher who died was a twenty-four-year-old; of the students who were killed, the oldest were eighteen, the youngest six.
Three of the dead bore the surname Carter. They weren’t relatives of the famous A. P. Carter, songwriter and song collector; he was visiting friends in the next valley over when he heard of the disaster and rushed over to offer his assistance, however it might be needed. Carter wrote a song about the tragedy: he called it “Cyclone at Rye Cove” and a year or so later he, wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter recorded it.
Oh listen today and a story I’ll tell,
In sadness and tear rimmed eyes,
Of a dreadful cyclone that came this way,
And blew our schoolhouse away.
cho: Rye Cove (Rye Cove), Rye Cove (Rye Cove),
The land of my childhood and home,
Where life’s early morn I once loved to roam,
But now it’s so silent and lone.
When the cyclone appeared it darkened the air,
And the lightning flashed over the sky,
And the children all cried, don’t take us away,
But spare us to go back home.
There were mothers so dear and fathers the same,
That came to this terrible scene,
Searching and crying each found their own child,
Dying on a pillow of stone.
Oh give us a home far beyond the blue sky,
Where storms and cyclones are unknown,
And there by life’s strand we’ll clasp the glad hand,
Our children in their heavenly home.
The Rye Cove storm was one of a series of tornadoes that struck western Appalachia that spring; the others were less deadly.
Rye Cove held no school term in 1929-1930. In the fall of 1930, a new school, called the Rye Cove Memorial High School, opened some little distance away, and a memorial plaque with the names of the thirteen dead was placed on an outer wall. Other memorials are nearby.
They say that there are less tangible reminders of that dreadful day in Rye Cove, though–
for on May 2 each year, so it’s said, you can hear the freight-train rumble and roar of a circular storm tearing its way up the valley, hear wood being rent from wood and glass splintering and flying in an ominous tinkle, and hear the screams of the injured and the dying, even when the sky is a clear blue and no clouds blacken the sun.
For more information on the Rye Cove cyclone, check out Nancye’s site, which contains several contemporary newspaper reports about the storm and its aftermath. My favorite collector of Appalachian ghost tales, the great Charles Edwin Price, wrote briefly about Rye Cove in his 1993 book The Mystery of Ghostly Vera and Other Haunting Tales of Southwest Virginia. He expanded on the material in that book in an article called “Death in the Afternoon” in the May/June 1998 issue of Blue Ridge magazine.