Wednesday, November 5, 2014

“Blew our schoolhouse away”—Duffield, Virginia

Rye Cove Intermediate School
158 Memorial School Lane
Duffield, Virginia

Oh listen today and a story I tell
With saddened and tear dimmed eyes
Of a dreadful cyclone that came this way
And blew our schoolhouse away.
--“The Cyclone of Rye Cove” by A. P. Carter, originally covered by
The Carter Family

In the news business there’s the old maxim, “if it bleeds, it leads,” thus headlines are often gory. Americans were jarred on the 3rd of May, 1929, by headlines about the huge storm that passed through Virginia and the rural wooden schoolhouse in Rye Cove that didn’t stand a chance against one of the storm’s tornados. The Associated Press story about the tornado was printed in papers from Maine to California.

The story of the storm appeared on the front page of the Alton Evening Telegraph in the Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois, incidentally noted to be one of most haunted cities in the Midwest.

RYE COVE, Va., May 3, (AP)—Grief stricken parents searched the debris of the Rye Cove Consolidated school today, fearful of finding additional victims of the tornado that yesterday claimed the lives of 13 children and one teacher in the greatest disaster ever known to this western Virginia mountain village.

The tragedy at Rye Cove has been the worst thing to occur in this tight-knit community in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Indeed, the spirit world will not let the community forget this tragedy and, according to folklorist Charles Edwin Price, the ghastly roar of the tornado’s wind and the accompanying cries of children are still heard on the anniversary of the fateful day.

The history of this quiet cove in the Appalachians began with a tragedy in 1773 when a group of settlers were attacked here. Despite treaties forbidding settlers from settling in territory claimed by Native Americans, settlers began to make their ways into that territory. On the evening of October 9, a group of settlers including James Boone—son of the famed frontiersman, Daniel Boone—were set upon by natives attempting to guard their territory. The sleeping settlers were fired upon as they slept with two killed instantly. Two others escaped into the woods while Boone and another settler were tortured before being killed. One African slave hid in the forest and witnessed the ordeal while another slave was taken by the natives.

Rye Cove’s baptism by blood was just the beginning. Other settlers filtering into the area had their lives cut short in similarly bloody ways. Permanent settlement did not begin until after the American Revolution, though Rye Cove—due to its isolation—grew very slowly. Additionally, farming in the area was made difficult by the large outcroppings of limestone that punctuated the land throughout the cove.

The hard-scrabble families in the cove eventually built a school in the mid-19th century which was replaced by a modern schoolhouse in 1907. By 1923, the Rye Cove Consolidated School had grown to eight rooms and an auditorium. This was the building that housed some 150 students around noon on May 2, 1929.

The school’s principal, A. S. Noblin, was at lunch when his landlady noted the storm that was brewing outside. As he left his boarding house to return to the school he saw the black shape that was quickly making its way up the valley. Noblin reached the schoolhouse just in time to watch one of the automobiles parked outside the school rise into the air. Moments later, the wooden building disintegrated into a mass of splintered wood with students, teachers, chalkboards, pot-bellied stoves and other debris careening through the air.

Noblin told a reporter for the Scott County Herald-Virginian, “Trees were swaying. As it neared the school building it became a black cloud…I think I yelled. It struck the building. The next thing I remembered I was standing knee deep in a pond 75 feet from where the building stood before it was demolished.”

The Bee, a newspaper in Danville, Virginia, picks up the story. “The two-story frame schoolhouse was ripped from its foundations, torn asunder and strewn over a distance of 300 to 400 yards, some of the children were blown almost 100 yards while others were buried in the wreckage.”

Anxious parents and neighbors from throughout the valley soon flooded the scene and began digging through the wreckage. Included among the many neighbors who came to help was A. P. Carter who would compose a song mourning that Rye Cove, “where in life’s early morn, I once loved to roam,” was now “so silent and lone.” The search was intensified when overturned pot-bellied stoves began to ignite the wooden debris of the school.
Headlines from The Bee of Danville, Virginia, 3 May 1929.
The Bee of Danville, Virginia, picks up the story: “Great confusion followed the tornado, anxious fathers worked feverishly in the ruins, fearful that they might discover the bodies of their children. The anxiety of parents was intensified because the injured children were hurriedly rushed away for hospital treatment before the parents arrived.” Rye Cove’s remote location lead rescuers to evacuate the most seriously injured to Clinchport, Virginia while some were taken by train to Kingsport, Tennessee.

In the end, the lives of twelve students and one teacher were lost amid the ruins of the schoolhouse. The remainder of the school term was canceled and a new school was constructed on the site with a memorial plaque installed in memory of the thirteen victims whose memory is still stirred by the sound of howling winds and screams every May 2.

Sources
Associated Press. “22 Dead and 100 hurt is state’s toll.” The Bee (Danville,
     Virginia). 3 May 1929.
Associated Press. “Death toll from storm reaches 49.” Alton Evening
     Telegraph (Alton, Illinois). 3 May 1929.
McDaid, Jennifer Davis. “Rye Cove Cyclone.” Encyclopedia Virginia
     23 November 2010.
Mills, Elizabeth. “Rye Cove High School: A Brief History.” Scott County
     Public Schools. Accessed 5 November 2014.
Price, Charles Edwin. “Death in the Afternoon: The Rye Cove Tornado.”
     Rootsweb FOLKLORE-L Archives. 28 April 2000.
Price, Charles Edwin. The Mystery of Ghostly Vera and other Haunting Tales
     Of Southwest Virginia. Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 1993.



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