By Elisabeth Altamirano-Smith | Community columnist
Spring is fast approaching and in Alabama that can only mean a mix of freezing weather and sunshine. In this clash of heat and cold, bad weather occurs. This March marks the infamous 90th anniversary of the deadly tornado that killed 55 Chilton County residents aged from infancy to 88 years old. The 1932 tornado also destroyed at least 44 homes in Chilton County, including tracing a line from Stanton, through Thorsby to Union Grove. An event described as “the greatest calamity that has ever struck the people of Chilton County”.
Just six days after the March 23 tornado, on Easter Sunday, another tornado ripped through the county killing six more people, bringing the total fatalities to 61. Hundreds were reportedly injured. Tents that had been erected for victims of the first storm were ripped apart and destroyed by the second tornado.
Although 90 years have passed, there are still a few local residents who still remember the devastation, and many more can recount stories told by loved ones.
For those who were lucky enough to survive the storm and keep their homes, many more were still affected in one way or another. Many residents whose family members experienced the event have had a lifelong fear of the weather.
Polly Watley, who died in 2021 aged 99, told how the tornado changed her life during a 2020 interview for The Clanton Advertiser. In 1932, Polly was in grade three when the tornado swept through her community. Polly, her siblings, and other neighborhood children walked to school at the Pates Chapel Church, which also served as a school during the week.
“After the tornado, I didn’t go back to school. I went to work on the farm,” Polly said. “I would dig up an onion, take a piece of cornbread from the stove and eat it on the way to the fields.”
Not only were the church and school destroyed (ending Watley’s third-grade education), but his aunt and grandmother also died during the storm.
Community members immediately organized and donated to provide aid and relief. Residents collected money. Tiffin-Klinner Furniture Company entered into agreements with manufacturers in Birmingham to supply goods such as “stoves, beds, springs, beds and mattresses to storm victims”. The furniture ad read: ‘We will be happy to receive your order through your local Red Cross agency. All such orders will receive special attention.
The county hospital had been closed but was reopened when 40 people were immediately admitted. Some churches held up to five funerals simultaneously after the event.
While technology has blessed people with better assurance of future weather forecasts, this anniversary still reminds many to stay alert and aware as warm weather arrives.
In memory of all those who perished in tornadoes and their affected families.