The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 31, 2011

Local house that withstood E5 tornado gets new life

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

— Don Bowers was in the kitchen reading the newspaper by kerosene lantern on April 27 when an EF5 tornado churned toward eastern Limestone County.

He had gone home about 2 p.m. and had seen people clearing trees and other damage from a tornado that struck earlier that day — a day that would unleash 292 tornadoes in Alabama and 16 others states, including seven in Limestone County.

“There was no power, so I was in the kitchen reading the paper with a kerosene lamp. It was pouring rain and I heard the wind — a whining noise and a kind of sound I never thought I’d really heard before,” Bowers said.

He quickly headed through the kitchen, den, bedroom and into the bathroom.

“I got in the tub and put a hammer lock on my head,” he recalled.  “I heard the rain on the tin roof, and the wind was whining, and the three front windows were blowing out — exploding as it went down the line. I heard what I assumed was the tin roof lifting off the house. I didn’t know what was happening and it was over so quickly, it just really didn’t frighten me. It took 30 or 40 seconds and then it was calm — it was over. I walked outside and every tree in sight was down. One of my friends said I called her on my cellphone but I don’t remember doing it. I must have been in shock.”

Bowers idyllic farm was in ruins except for the house. The outbuilding, except for the barn and farm shop, was destroyed.

“My dad told me neighbors took logs out of the swamp with an ox to build the barn in 1939,” Bowers said.

His great-grandparents built the oldest portion of the home, and then had to rebuild it in 1912 after it burned down.  In those days — the days when 2 by 4s were actually 2-inches thick — buildings were built to last. Over the home’s wood frame, the builders in 1912 had nailed planks of yellow poplar — each three-quarter to one-inch thick and 14-feet wide — diagonally from the roof to the floor joists. Over that, 4-inch tongue-and-groove bead board formed the walls and ceilings.

As some point, Bower’s grandparents — James and Sarah Thomas — added on to the home, which is where Bowers’ mother, Naomi Thomas Bowers, grew up.

“Had it not been built real well, I don’t think it would have been standing,” Bowers said, noting that today’s homes are little more than a wood frame covered with wallboard.

When Bowers married in 1971, he and his wife, Judy Locke Bowers, moved to his grandparents’ farmhouse. While Bowers farmed cotton and raised cattle, his wife worked as an executive secretary at McDonnell Douglas and Nichols Research Corp. in Huntsville.

When his wife died in 1994, Bowers stayed on the farm, though now he leases the land to another farmer.

Over the years, he came to know and love the land and its surroundings. He watched the many trees grow like children from saplings to adults, including the many varieties of maple trees that always lit the landscape with their fire in the fall.

So when the tornado wrecked the farm and bruised the home, Bowers, at 74, didn’t want to endure the process of trying to rebuild. In part, because he could never put the setting back the way it was. Instead, he decided to sell the home to Tommy Sprague, owner of All-American Handyman, who lives about a mile away.

Sprague and his wife Karen, who had restored a Victorian home and others before, were happy to get their hands on the farmhouse. They hired Hollis Kennedy House Movers of Huntsville to move it next to their existing home on Pepper Road. In the space of a day, the movers uprooted the two sections of farmhouse from their brick pilings and wooden porches, strapped them onto a flatbed trailer and moved them one at a time from 26401Capshaw Road to Jones Road and planted them both at 25949 Pepper Road.

Bowers watched the start of the move but he couldn’t bear to watch the rest.

“I’d been going in and out of it all of my life, and it was the only place my wife and I ever lived,” Bowers said.

But it wasn’t so much the house as all of it together — the land, the fields, the trees, the wildlife, the stars, the cicadas, the seasons and the lifetime of love that, together with the house, Bowers was missing.

“The destruction of a farm grieves me more than the destruction of my home,” he said. “I was a full-time farmer and put my life into every tree on the farm. Now, they are down and all of my outbuildings, except my farm shop and barn, are destroyed. It grieves me to look at it. The trees around my home are a big part of the aesthetic beauty.  I had many varieties of maples and, in the fall of the year, the colors were just stunning in the afternoons.”

The farm was not the only loss Bowers endured in the aftermath of the tornado. On May 3, six days later, his sister, June Johnson Kennedy, died. Although the tornado did not cause her death — she had been ill for some time — Bowers said it prevented her family from holding her funeral in her church and threatened to keep her from her chosen resting place. Bethel Church of Christ, of which June and Bowers are faithful members, was leveled by the tornado. The storm also snapped so many trees in nearby Bethel Cemetery that Bowers wondered how they could ever get in for burial. But the strength of friends and other volunteers proved more tenacious than the twister.

Bowers said his request for assistance brought nearly 100 volunteers to clear the cemetery. He said the same response brought more than 50 workers from Toyota Motor Co. in Huntsville to his farm to help clean up the debris blown in from the destruction of homes on nearby Treemont Drive and McCulley Mill Road. The Toyota workers, temporarily idled due to tsunami damage in Japan, had volunteered to help.

Since the April 27 storm that changed his life, Bowers has been staying with friends in Canebrake subdivision in Athens. He is contemplating building a small, energy efficient home — possibly the secret dream of any farmer who has ever lived in a drafty turn-of-the-century house.

Bowers, like all who survived the April 27 disaster, needs time to regain his bearings and remember that life is as insistent as that 99-year-old farmhouse, which after being burned, rebuilt and battered, will be back to raise another family.