[The following story was written by Fayetteville Historian John Lynch and was first published in the fall of 2006 in the Fayette County News.]
The date was January 5, 1892. The weather in Fayetteville that morning was cold and wet. It had been raining off and on for days. The dirt sidewalks were so bad that the town of Fayetteville had placed sawdust over the rain-soaked walkways in an attempt to ease foot traffic downtown. To put it bluntly, it was just miserable.
A bright spot early that morning had been the birth of a precious little baby girl to Mr. and Mrs. Will Travis, who lived in the Henderson home a couple of blocks south of the Courthouse. Dr. J. W. Davis had delivered the baby around 4 a.m., and had unintentionally left his overcoat hanging on the hall tree near the front door.
Mrs. Travis’ sister and mother were scurrying around taking care of mother and child and preparing the home for visitors. As the day went on, several friends and family members came to pay their visits to the Travis’ and see the new addition to the family. Three students who boarded in the Travis House and attended the nearby Fayetteville Academy took time to see the child before they went to school that morning.
As the day passed, the temperature began to rise, and the weather became a bit muggy, which was unusual for January. By late afternoon, the rain picked up, and the warm air made for an eerie feeling. A dark cloud could be seen approaching from the northwest followed by a deathlike calm.
Just before dark, most everyone in Fayetteville had taken refuge from the storm, many preparing for their evening meal. Such was the case for the J. W. Graham family a little south of the Courthouse Square.
The Grahams and their 10 children had sat down for supper when the wind picked up, and moments later a loud, strange roaring sound drowned out all conversation. Eight-year-old Sallie Kate asked her father what the noise was outside. Before her father could answer, the house began to shake and fall in around the family.
Instinctively, the entire family sprung from the table and ran. A few minutes later, as the parents were gathering their rain-soaked children around them, they realized there was one missing: Sallie Kate. A search revealed she had been trapped inside and had perished under a fallen chimney. Some of the other children had suffered severe injuries.
The source of the upheaval was a “cyclone”, as tornadoes were called in those days. It was a very powerful tornado. After demolishing the entire second floor of the Graham House, the twister jumped across the road to the east and struck the empty Fayetteville Academy, completely imploding it.
The cyclone’s next victim was the Henderson House, another two-story home that had been the scene of much joy earlier in the day. Mr. Travis ran to the front of the house to investigate the cause of the terrible roaring noise only to be blown away as he opened the door. His lifeless body was found the next day 200 yards away in a well under a pile of rubble left by the storm.
Mrs. Travis and baby were upended from the bed where they lay as the entire house began to fall. Both were trapped under a mound of timbers. Miraculously, their only injuries were slash wounds to Mrs. Travis’ head caused by flying splinters. The baby and other children were unharmed.
Tom Kerlin, Lillie Kerlin, and Tom Busbin, the students who boarded in the house, suffered injuries of varying degrees. None of the house was left standing except for a couple of interior walls. Ironically, a large ceramic pitcher and crystal butter dish were found undamaged amid the other shattered furnishings.
The newly-built home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Garrison was downed in one sudden, fearful crash. None of the occupants were killed, but several were severely injured.
Ten beautiful homes and 20 other residences were destroyed overall by the twister, including those of the Browns, Camps, Knoxes, Peevys, and Englishes.
The outbuildings destroyed were too numerous to count. More than 30 people suffered injuries. One of the saddest moments of the catastrophe came upon the discovery of a black baby girl amidst the timbers and debris left by the storm. No one ever claimed her body or identified her.
“Uncle Joe” Banks was on his way home from Hampton when he noticed the black funnel cloud coming right toward his wagon. He hurried to the nearest house, which was the Fitzgerald home of Margaret Mitchell’s ancestry. It was near the Flint River. The cyclone moved right over the house but did not damage anything. All members of the Fitzgerald Family were on their knees praying with rosaries, and, for that moment, at least, Uncle Joe became a Catholic, praying with them earnestly.
Many strange things happen during a tornado, and this one was no different.
It was said that chickens were running around, plucked of feathers. Lumber strips were found imbedded 15 feet into dirt banks. Stunned mules and other farm animals were roaming the countryside, unhurt.
The storm had lifted floorboards out from under trunks, which stayed undamaged on floor joists. It was reported that water from wells had been sucked out by the enormous pull of the funnel, with tree trunks and limbs red with their mud.
A silk dress from the Graham House was found two miles from town without a tear or scratch. Dr. Davis’ overcoat was found 20 miles away in McDonough, identified by a piece of mail in one of the pockets. Other items were found in Stockbridge.
For weeks after the storm, contributions came in to the newspaper office that went to the unfortunate victims of the worst storm ever to hit Fayetteville. It is interesting to see the names and the amounts contributed. One citizen gave 35 cents with a note, “all he had”.
The Graham House on Beauregard Boulevard was rebuilt, minus the second floor. The Henderson Home, now known as the Travis Place on Lee Street, was also rebuilt. The Garrisons built another new home on South Jeff Davis Drive across from Mask Tire. The bell from the academy was salvaged and is now in the steeple of Fayetteville First United Methodist Church.
The most poignant story to come out of the disaster was the naming of the Travis’ new baby. She was named Willie Kate Travis in honor of her father Will and neighbor Sallie Kate, both victims of the storm. They are both buried in the Fayetteville City Cemetery on Stonewall Avenue.
Sallie Kate was a niece of the Dorsey Family, who occupied the Holliday Dorsey Fife House at the time of the cyclone. A group photo of students seated in front of the Fayetteville Academy can be seen at the Holliday Dorsey Fife Museum. Little Sallie Kate, a VIP at the museum, is pictured on the front row.
Learn more about the museum at hdfhouse.com.