The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 6, 2012

Limestone's deadly tornado history

By Kelly Kazek

By 1924, longtime Elkmont farmer George Collins had witnessed several decades of weather and its impact on crops. The decade already had been an active one for tornadoes. There is no doubt George knew the harm Mother Nature could do. There is no doubt he knew to watch for tornadoes.

The problem was that he couldn’t see one coming at night.

With no public alert system and no threat foreseen on the warm spring day on May 26, the Collins family would go to bed ignorant of the approaching monster.

The event is chronicled below in an excerpt from the book “A History of Alabama’s Deadliest Tornadoes.”

Just two days after the 1924 summer season officially got underway with a dance at the resort at Elkmont Springs, the members of the Collins family were beginning a new week tending their farm three miles outside Elkmont, a tiny burg that even now has fewer then 500 residents.

Schools held their graduation ceremonies the week before, and a long stretch of summer vacation awaited the children of George and Ethel Collins: James Lewis, 21; Sam Lee, 19; Charles Delbert, 17; Edna Lizzie, 14; Verna Lue, 12; and Annie Bell, 6.

George Collins was known as a man who helped those in the community in times of need. If a neighbor was sick, George could be counted on to help bring in his crops.

He also was a man who lived by the Bible and worked hard to provide for his growing family. The Collinses had purchased the farm only a few years previously and had nearly finished payments.

On May 25, the two oldest Collins boys, Louis and Sam, traveled the 10 miles south to downtown Athens, the county seat, to purchase items for the farm. George had finished cutting a tree into firewood and loaded it into a wagon to take to town the next day to sell.

George and Ethel were close with George’s nephew James Collins and James’s wife Julia, who lived within sight of the elder Collinses’ farm. James and Julia could look out and know that their family was available, if needed.

George, Ethel, their children and James and Julia went to bed that night with the farm work done, ready to begin a new day of chores the next morning.

They had no indication they needed to fear the weather.

At about 11:30 p.m., a storm broke over Elkmont. Some in the community heard the roar as strong winds passed overhead. Others slept soundly on. None would realize for many hours that a killer had been among them.

As dawn drew sunlight over the farm, James and Julia awoke to begin their chores. It was then that the couple and their neighbor were confronted by a terrible sight: George Collins’ house was gone.

The main house had vanished with the exception of the steps that once led to the front porch. The family dog lay beneath them, frightened but alive. The wood from the wagon had been tossed like kindling.

It was unthinkable that it could have been a tornado.

No other home or building was touched except those on the Collins farm. No one else had been hurt. Although the Collins barn and outbuildings were destroyed and some chicken had lost their feathers, all of the livestock survived.

Weather experts, though, later confirmed that the deadly winds of an F3 tornado had cut a path through a nearby forest and lifted the Collins home from its foundation. Remains of the home were scattered across the three-acre farm. But where were its occupants?

Neighbors spread the word and soon a search was underway for members of the Collins family. Their bodies, too, were scattered, left crushed and battered by the wind, all eight stripped of any clothing.

One by one, the bodies of the Collinses were gathered from around the property — some many yards from the house — reverently dressed in clothing donated by neighbors and placed inside a small building known as Hillbilly School until enough hearses could be found to transport them.

Several hearses and two Holland and Company trucks were dispatched Tuesday afternoon from Athens carrying two black caskets, one each for George and Ethel, two gray ones for Louis and Sam, and four white ones for the youngest children.

By Wednesday morning, Holland and Company found enough hearses to transport the eight caskets to Antioch Cemetery on what is now Alabama Highway 127 to be buried in the 20-by-7.5-foot grave. The service was held at 2 p.m. on Wednesday.

The day after the funeral, Limestone County’s two weekly newspapers proclaimed the event one of the most tragic in the county’s history. In the Limestone Democrat, beneath the headline “George Collins, Wife and Six Children Killed by Tornado,” was written: “Probably the most terrible tragedy ever enacted in Limestone’s long history took place shortly before midnight Monday.”

A reporter for the Alabama Courier wrote, “Limestone has witnessed many sad spectacles but nothing quite as distressing as this has ever happened here before.”

In a strange twist, another tornado would hit less than two hours later 90 miles to the south in the mining community of Empire. The F3 tornado would kill 11 people, including members of another family: Billy and Mollie Robbins and eight of their 11 children died on their farm. Those killed were Willie, 25; Itra, 21; Virgil, 18; Edna, 16; Nora, 13; and Alta, 9. Four older sisters who were living away from home survived — Hester, Icey, Curtis and Ethel — as did their youngest brother, Clifford, 11, who was spending the night with Hester when the storm hit.

Itra was to have been married that weekend. Her fiancé, Rile Coffman, is the one who found her body, which had been stripped of its nightdress. Rile covered his beloved with his jacket and carried her body to a neighbor’s home.

Itra would be buried in the wedding dress sewn for her by Hester.

Like the Collinses at Antioch, all eight Robbins family members were laid to rest in a mass grave at New Canaan Baptist Church Cemetery in Empire.