Eighty years ago, Tuesday, May, 6, 1930, an F-4 tornado struck the nice little town of Frost, Texas, destroying the downtown business area and tore apart residential homes as if they were a tiny matchbox. Winds traveling 260 miles per hour took only two to three minutes to do an estimated $2 million damage to Frost and surrounding communities.
Much of nothing was left of the nice little town of Frost, population 748, census 1930. Frost was established in 1881, named for Samuel Romulus Frost, a local politician and attorney for the railroad.
Killed in Frost on that day, May 6, 1930, were Dave Ponder; Leroy Bagley, 9 months old; E.A. Patterson, age 50; J.E. Lee, age 65; John Flen, age 17; R.L. Bell, age 50, and child; Mrs. League Wooley, age 35, and child, age 12; W.H. Bowman, age 70; Mrs. W.H. Bowman, age 60; Gid Bogan, age 35; John Fly, age 50; Mr. and Mrs. Tom Bogan; Prentice Fiew, age 21; Mary Currie, age 50; A. Jones, age 35; infant child of Jesse Satchel; four unidentified Negroes, three unidentified Mexicans, and Grandma Berryman, age 82, for a total of 27.
Edna Mae Bell, born 1908, later my mother, was the first child of Robert and Lillie Bell. Ten other siblings came along every two years through March 20, 1930, the last Billy Ray Bell, less than 2 months old on the day of the storm. The Bell family lived north of the Frost Cemetery, land owned by Uncle (called Uncle by everyone) Jerry Scott, residing in a frame country house with all of those then modern-day necessities including well water, an outhouse, coal-oil lamps for light, an ice box, wood-burning stove, plenty of heavy quilted blankets for the winter months, and a wrap-around porch to sit and enjoy the days, weeks, months and years that were slow in coming. Cotton was the source of income for the Bell family.
Back to the tornado!
It was about 3 p.m., recollected by mother Edna Mae Bell. Most Frost residents that lived in the city and country had storm cellars for safety when approaching low dark clouds could be seen with the naked eye. A few Frost residents chose not to enter their storm cellars. According to mother Edna Mae Bell, 27 occupied the Bell storm cellar. The men were the last to go down below ground. Get the women and children seated and then slam the door.
Many stories have been told of the Frost tornado. Mother raised up out of the cellar that day and noticed a large horse standing in a pasture nearby, with a splintered two-by-four through the horse’s upper part of body. Later the horse lay dead on the ground. The home of Iva and G.M. Grimes’ family was destroyed. That evening Iva was playing the piano shortly before the tornado touched ground. When the storm passed, the piano was still standing, sheet music in place.
Carl Matthews’ Model T Ford was sent sailing through the air, but landed upright on all four tires.
Ed Patterson, Frost pharmacist, was found amongst the broken pieces of rubble inside of Frost downtown drug store and bank. Ed had two sons, Curtis and Rex, who later were pharmacists in the same rebuilding location. Rex’s son Chad and I were good friends growing up in Frost, 1940s-1950s. Mrs. Patterson invited me for lunch a number of times. I still remember eating her favorite dish — tuna fish over lettuce salad! Although I wasn’t fond of tuna fish over lettuce, I ate every bite. All of the Pattersons were wonderful people.
Curtis Patterson later in life moved his pharmacy business to Corsicana at 205 S. 15th St., next to the old P&S Clinic, now the parking lot of H-E-B grocery. Curtis had on display inside his pharmacy building a small section of a telephone pole with a single straw sticking into the side of the pole.
Back to the tornado!
Soon after the storm had passed and headed toward Bardwell and Ellis County, National Guardsmen were sent to Frost helping families gather up what was not destroyed and protecting against any looting, which didn’t occur.
Several residents survived the storm by getting inside the vault of Citizens State Bank that was destroyed.
The Frost jail was the only public building that was not demolished. Many took refuge inside the jail!
Frost Baptist Church, where I later attended, was destroyed. The church members and volunteers rebuilt the church, located on the corner of State Highway 22. During my youth Sunday school class at FBC, we sang children’s songs “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands ... He’s got the little bitty baby in His Hands.” The mind of a child runs deep! I’m sure many Frost children in 1930 wondered why God would allow a tornado to “strike the nice little town of Frost, destroying residential homes and killing all of those beautiful people.”
A part of Frost High School was destroyed, but repaired in time for the fall September 1930-1931 school year.
Two school teachers, who kept their heads and stuck by their jobs while a black funnel which they knew carried death when swooped down on their little grade school building, were the heroines of Frost that Tuesday night. Seventy-five panicky children were in the schoolhouse when the storm was seen approaching. Miss Lois Rogers of Hillsboro and Miss Millie Yarbrough of Mertens knew that to stay in the frame structure meant death. They herded their small charges into an open cotton field nearby, and there every child was made to lie down along the rows of cotton. From this place of security, they watched the twister engulf the schoolhouse and tear it into bits. Not a child was hurt!
Mr. League Wooley, earlier seeing the cloud approaching, went to the schoolhouse for his child. He and child returned home just as the storm struck, killing his wife and child. Later that day, May 6, many infant children lay on improvised cots or in their parents’ arms, mangled and bruised. Next day, May 7, in response to an appeal from the Corsicana American Red Cross Chapter, the Dallas County Chapter, Wednesday, May 7, dispatched 100 cots to Frost for people made homeless.
Some of those who saw the cloud said it “bounced along” and appeared to be in two sections.
Posts were snatched from the ground. The wind lifted up the infant child of Jesse Satchel, and at a late hour the body had not been found. Next day the dead child was discovered.
Undaunted by the devastation wrought by the tornado that “almost wiped their little town out of existence,” residents of Frost turned their efforts Wednesday, May 7, to the heroic task of bringing order out of chaos left in the wake of the death-inflicting winds.
Heads were bowed with grief over the loss of relatives and lifelong friends, but courage was brought to the hearts of Frost residents as neighboring towns opened their purses and poured aid into the stricken community. Corsicana residents raised $12,000 and several hundred dollars were raised by residents of Italy at a mass meeting to collect clothing, food and necessities.
Frost victims of the tornado were buried Thursday afternoon, May 8, at a mass funeral. No place of worship was left in which to hold final rites for the storm’s victims, so services were conducted at the home of L.A. Morgan, in charge of relief work, with Frost ministers officiating. The Rev. E.R. Swindell delivered the funeral address.
It’s been 80 years since the May 6, 1930, Frost tornado. The town of Frost and residential homes destroyed were rebuilt in less than a year. Only memories of the devastation from the F-4 tornado remain amongst the handful of survivors living today.
Dorothy Holladay, resident of Corsicana; Sonny Morris of Cedar Creek; and Helen McCarter, Heritage Oaks West, Corsicana, are the last of the Bell family that survived the tornado.
Sure do miss mother Edna Mae Bell Basham, who lived to the age of 91, and her many stories of that deadly day, Tuesday, May 6, 1930.
“The wind blows, but now it’s still,” our mother would say to my three siblings and me, “we’ll head for the storm cellar, and James boy, you slam the door tight once we’re all inside.” That I did!
Submitted by Corsicana resident James W. “Jim” Basham with some of the information provided from various newspaper accounts regarding the Frost tornado.