By Kelly Kazek
Like any farmer, Wes Isom knows weather.
He knows a late frost can kill the family’s budding peach trees; he can calculate the impact of too much or too little rain.
He also knows firsthand the devastation wrought on the four-generational business by deadly tornadoes.
What Wes learned on April 3, 1974, when a tornado leveled the family business and home, served him well after a deadly twister in 2011: “Trees can be replaced. That’s nothing compared to losing everything you had or losing your family.”
Isom’s Orchard lies on U.S. 72 about mid-way from Athens to the Madison County line, in the bull’s-eye area of two of Limestone’s deadliest tornadoes: One on April 3, 1974, and another on April 27, 2011.
Researchers have found the paths of the two F5 twisters match closely and often exactly, with about a half-mile variance at times, from Tanner through East Limestone and into Madison County.
Both times, Isom’s Orchard suffered losses. While damage from the glancing blow in 2011 was a setback, what occurred on April 3, 1974, was life-changing for the then-14-year-old Wes.
“The house and all the buildings were gone,” Wes recalled. “There wasn’t a building left on the place.”
Since rebuilt, the picturesque peach orchard owned by the Isom family has lured drivers from U.S. 72 for more than a half century. Each spring, the rows of trees burst into color, promising a harvest of fuzzy, juicy fruit in summer.
In April of 1974, the trees at Isom’s Orchard were covered in a blanket of pink.
At the time, Joe Isom and his wife Joanna were running the roadside produce stand he opened in 1957 after his father, E.K. Isom, began growing peaches in the 1940s.
A small tornado had felled trees two days before, on April Fool’s Day, so Joe was on alert on April 3. Twisters had been wreaking havoc across North Alabama for most of the day, wiping out Parkway City Mall and Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, and now it would be Limestone County’s turn.
A teenaged Wes Isom and his parents rode out one of two twisters to hit Limestone County beneath the overpass at U.S. 31 and U.S. 72. “It was hailing so hard we couldn’t see the tornado, but we knew it was bad,” he said. His brother, Greg, was at senior play rehearsal at Tanner High School, also in the path, but he, too, was uninjured. Wes recalled his surprise that members of the National Guard arrived within hours to offer assistance. “They deserve a lot of credit.”
The Isom home, fruit stand and orchard were directly in the path of the deadly F5. Even more disturbing than the sight of the devastated Isom home was the realization that the five members of the Green family who rented a house on the farm had been violently tossed into the fields.
“We were the first people on the scene,” Wes said. “We helped get the people out.”
Joanna, trained as a nurse, helped the injured until they could get to a hospital.
The three young sons of Ananias and Lillian Green were quickly rounded up and rushed to the hospital. Young Ananias Jr. and Titus would survive their injuries. Little Amos, 10, would not. Lillian also was fatally injured. Ananias, a local pastor, would spend three months in Lester Hospital recovering from his injuries, unable even to attend the funerals of his wife and son.
Lillian and Amos Green were two of 16 people killed in Limestone County by the 1974 outbreak. Sixteen more would die in Huntsville, and another 16 in Lawrence County. Eighty-six died statewide.
Many other towns were devastated in the tornadoes of 1974: The outbreak dropped 148 twisters on 13 states in one of the worst weather events in history.
Though the Isom business was ruined, with trees and the roadside fruit stand shredded, the family was undeterred.
“We had to start from scratch,” Joanne said.
Because the land was scarred and debris-cluttered, Joe Isom bought 40 acres of land at Mooresville and Pepper roads, but the family would eventually rebuild and replant at their familiar orchard on U.S. 72.
On April 27, 2011, Wes and his wife Marlene walked across their yard to Joe and Joanna’s home and took shelter in the storm.
“It makes you nervous after you’ve been through something like that (in 1974). You don’t forget it,” Wes said.
This time, the 210-mph twister passed a half-mile or so to the south, striking Bethel Church of Christ with a direct and crushing blow. But the massive wedge tornado was nearly a mile-and-a-half wide at points and, even on its outer edges, it caused major damage.
“The peach trees did pretty good,” Wes said, explaining their deeper root system. “But there was a lot of damage to the apple trees. We lost 400 or 500 trees.”
The fruit stand also suffered some damage and debris was flung across the fields but Wes knows it could have been worse.
“If you’ve got a bed to lay in and your health, what else do you need?” he asked.