On Thursday November 25, 1926 at 5:45 p.m. the communities of Cleburne County were devastated by the most disastrous tornado in the county’s history. The tornado claimed the lives of 21 people and left 750 homeless. The storm also destroyed 145 homes, five churches, numerous barns and partially damaged many other buildings and structures. The property loss amounted to approximately $500,000, which today would calculate to $12,306,835. The storm struck in the southwest part of the city and continued through town, leaving mass destruction in its path.
On Thursday November 25, 1926 at 5:45 p.m. the communities of Cleburne County were devastated by the most disastrous tornado in the county’s history. The tornado claimed the lives of 21 people and left 750 homeless. The storm also destroyed 145 homes, five churches, numerous barns and partially damaged many other buildings and structures. The property loss amounted to approximately $500,000, which today would calculate to $12,306,835. The storm struck in the southwest part of the city and continued through town, leaving mass destruction in its path. Following the catastrophic tornado of June, 1916 the residents of Cleburne County had an engrained fear of violent storms. Many built storm cellars and when the black wall of clouds rolled into town on November 25, 1926 most citizens retreated just in time. This fact kept the death toll from reaching the hundreds. While the property damage of the storm was twenty to thirty times that of the 1916 tornado, the death toll was no worse. The tornado outbreak of that day is ranked the eleventh most severe weather event in Arkansas’s history. There were 27 tornados reported in the state and approximately 51 fatalities occurred. Of the 12 counties affected by the storms, Cleburne had the highest number of casualties. The storm hit the southeastern section of Heber Springs first. Moving in a northeastern direction it crossed the south side of Main Street and then hit Spring, Sugarloaf, Pine and Clinton Streets. Within the 15-block tornado zone, uprooted trees left holes in the ground that measured more than 10 feet in diameter. A reporter from the Arkansas Gazette described the storm, “The storm struck with a suddenness that dazed the populace. A threatening cloud appeared late in the afternoon and within a very short time the whole sky was overcast. Heavy drops of rain began to fall, flowed by hail, which caused considerable damage. Then there was a low hum from the distance and the tornado struck with a devastating blow. The fury of the storm lasted only a few minutes, possible five or six, which seemed like an eternity. There was a deafening roar and the mighty crash of timbers being torn apart. The tornado swept onward toward the northeast.” As soon as the tornado had finished its annihilation of the city of Heber Springs, the community rushed out to begin rescue work. The storm had knocked out the power, leaving the town in complete darkness. The volunteers worked feverishly amid blinding sheets of lighting and a hammering downpour of rain and hail. While the aftermath of the tornado made the rescue work nearly impossible, citizens began their search for victims with only lanterns to guide them. Half an hour after the tornado cut its path through Heber Springs, another equally catastrophic storm system hit the community of Wilburn. This tornado killed a family of four and did much damage to the town. The storms also destroyed much of Quitman, causing numerous injuries but no deaths. Back in Heber Springs, fires began to break out, incinerating some of the victims. Fortunately, the torrential rain kept the flames from spreading. The courthouse was immediately converted into a hospital. The dead and injured were taken there as the rescue workers found them. The city remained in a state of pitch-black darkness, yet the rescue operation continued with the use of lamps and lanterns. The three or four doctors in Heber Springs were overwhelmed by the massive amounts of injured citizens. Missouri and Arkansas railway station agent, Fred E. Vining wired immediately to summon help from nearby towns. The train was held at Searcy until doctors were able to reach the station. Doctors and nurses from Searcy and Pangburn arrived on the 7:40 p.m. train. Within the dimly lit Cleburne County Courthouse, the work of mending the injured began. Vining's quick work saved many of the injured citizens' lives. Morgan Beatty, one of the first reporters from the Arkansas Gazette to arrive on the scene, described the chaos, “Two major operations were performed in a law office in the courthouse. Shoffner Love, who was injured internally, was carried on a cot into the spacious front office, and before unblinded windows was operated upon, four women standing by, clam and obedient to the doctor in charge. Crowds outside gazed in awe until the surgeon began his operation, then spectators thinned out. Plain washbowls and enamel wash pans were used as receptacles.” Survivors worked all night digging through the wreckage in search of victims. The Olmstead mortuary was crowded with bodies before dawn. The upper level of the courthouse was also used to house the dead. The work to clear the streets continued as soon as the sun began to rise. While the city was in a state of desolation, the community pulled together with a strong sense of determination. The only church that was left standing after the storm passed was the Methodist Episcopal Church, now First United Methodist Church, on Pine Street. The Richardson building, which was located directly across the street from the church, obtained a massive amount of damage. The Richardson building was picked up and hurled across the street by the tornado, killing the seven people inside. On Friday November 26, Mayor Raywinkle of Heber Springs appealed for relief funds for the damaged city. The appeal was answered by many of the surrounding communities. At a meeting on Saturday morning a committee of local businessmen met to discuss the rehabilitation of Heber Springs. All present came to a unanimous decision to let the Red Cross take over the work of permanent rehabilitation. First Lieutenant Sam Smith and the Coast Artillery Company of the National Guard assisted the sheriff in maintaining order and clearing the streets. One of the Guard’s most important functions was to help with sanitation. Hydrants and water mains had been broken and the water reservoir was dry. Springs and wells were the only source of water. Hundreds of animal carcasses were scattered around the county, threatening to contaminate the water supply. The Guard and volunteers carried the animal remains to the country and burned them, allowing the water supply to remain clean. All of the local eating establishments stayed open 24 hours a day and provided free coffee and food to workers. Residents opened their homes to those without shelter. The Red Cross provided dozens of tents to be used as temporary housing, but for the most part they were not needed. Hundreds of individuals and organizations contributed money and supplies to the rehabilitation of Heber Springs. The town was quickly rebuilt. Approximately 50 to 60 percent of the damage was covered by insurance. The majority of the reconstruction of was completed within seven months. Almeda Riddle Great American folk singer Almeda Riddle was born and raised in Cleburne County. She was born on November 21, 1898 in Pangburn. In 1916 she married H. Price Riddle and started a family near Heber Springs. According to the Cleburne County Historical Society’s Winter 2004 Journal, Price, Almeda Riddle and their children were not able to get inside a shelter fast enough to escape the 1926 tornado. They were living in a rental home located on Searcy Street, behind what is now the Heber Springs Emporium. Almeda held her daughter Milbrey’s hand and carried their one-year-old child, C.C., in her arms as the family ran to nearest storm shelter. Price had their sons, Clinton and John, in tow. When they approached the home where the shelter was located, Price decided that they should stop and ask permission to use it. He did not know that the family was already safely inside the shelter. As the Riddles climbed the steps to the house, the tornado struck. The house was completely destroyed. One-year-old C.C. Riddle was killed instantly. Almeda Riddle was also seriously injured and underwent one of the first plastic surgery operations in the state. Price Riddle was hit by large, fallen timber and never regained consciousness. Clinton Riddle’s left femur was crushed. John Riddle, age four at the time, suffered a serious scalp wound, a broken wrist and broken ribs. Milbrey Riddle also suffered a serious back wound. The family had only lived in Heber Springs for a few weeks before the tornado struck. After death of the infant child and husband Almeda Riddle began singing. She collected and sang traditional ballads throughout her life, usually unaccompanied. Riddle was introduced to a wider public by professor and folklorist John Quincy Wolfe. In 1959 another folklorist, Alan Lomax, asked Riddle sing on his college campus. This was the first of many invitations and Riddle was soon appearing around the country. She began frequently sharing the stage with musicians such as Doc Watson, Pete and Mike Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and many other well-known performers. Her memory of ballads, hymns, and children’s songs is one of the largest single repertories documented by folksong scholars. Young audiences appreciated her plain singing style and her traditional songs. Riddle’s style was a stark contrast to the formulated lyrics, packaged sound and exaggerated performances of contemporary singers. Riddle began recording extensively. She claimed to be able to perform over 500 songs, 100 of which she could call up from memory instantaneously. She was often referred to as Granny Riddle. After two decades of concerts and recordings, she received the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for her contributions to the preservation of Ozark folksong traditions. Riddle’s last performance was in 1984 at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View. In December 1984 she moved into a nursing home in Heber Springs where she died on June 30, 1986. “I never really cared too much for a song that didn’t tell a story or teach a lesson,” Riddle once remarked. Grandma Almeda James Riddle taught the world a powerful lesson herself: One of perseverance, humility and strength.