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1929 Rye Cove tragedy echoed in recent headlines

Vince Staten • May 25, 2013 at 10:53 PM

It could have been a headline out of Oklahoma on Tuesday:

“A howling black cloud took the lives of over twenty children and one teacher and seriously injured as many more.”

Except that it wasn’t Tuesday and it wasn’t Oklahoma.

It was 1929 and it was Rye Cove, 29 miles northwest of Kingsport, in Southwest Virginia.

It was the infamous cyclone of Rye Cove, made even more famous as the subject of a Carter Family recording the following winter.

In the first decade that the Kingsport Times was printed, the name “Rye Cove” was mentioned only 96 times, less than once a month, and then it was usually when a citizen of Rye Cove ventured into Kingsport to visit a relative and the visit was recorded in the social notes.

But shortly after lunchtime on Thursday, May 2, 1929, Rye Cove became famous all over the world for the horrible tragedy that befell the town.

Here’s how the Kingsport Times described the event: “At 1 o’clock central time today the building in which the children were attending school was completely demolished. The Rye Cove High School, which had a total enrollment of 250 students, was a seven-room frame, two-story structure on a limestone foundation and was located in an open field at the widening of a narrow valley. The storm, which was seen approaching by several living witnesses, was not unlike any other severe shower and windstorm. Floyd Noblin, principal of the school and one of the injured, stated that he had just entered the building when the entire structure collapsed.”

The twister arrived quickly. It didn’t touch earth until it was only a half-mile down the valley from the school. But when it did touch down, it did so with a vengeance.

“It uprooted many trees and carried away the roofs of several buildings. It grew more severe as it reached the open space. The home of J.D. Hill, which stood near the school, was also completely blown away, but luckily all of the family were away from home and no lives were lost.”

Miss Elizabeth Richmond, a teacher in the high school and herself injured, told the newspaper “We had only started school after the mid-day recess when I noticed that a bad storm was coming up. It alarmed me, but I did not say anything to the children. The wind increased to a very high degree with a loud howling noise and then the building collapsed with a smash. It was probably only a few seconds between the time when I thought the building was in danger and the time it collapsed.”

And then the storm was gone.

“Immediately the great twister had gone its way, leaving dead, wounded and desolation in its wake, and those in the vicinity of the school who were left alive and uninjured had recovered from the first shock, the relief work began. The dead and dying children, some of them terribly mangled, and those less seriously injured were dragged from the debris, while automobiles carried the message of death to the outside world.”

Rescue efforts were hampered by the isolated location of Rye Cove. “Most of the road from that place to Clinchport, eight miles away, the nearest point on the way to the hospitals and morgues of Bristol and Kingsport, is mud road, and the remainder is a narrow, twisting and very rough macadam construction. The mud became churned up by the stream of vehicles and ruts were ploughed.”

Quickly word reached the next valley and A.P. Carter hastened to the scene to help.

There he found what the newspaper described as “a scene of utter wretchedness and desolation. Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters were crowding about the emergency morgues, looking over the dead, still uncertain as to whether or not their own loved ones were numbered among the dead. Mothers were wringing their hands and crying out in their grief, while added to this were the pitiful wails of the little sufferers. Occasionally there would be the poignant cry of grief from a mother as she would recognize among the dead a son or daughter.”

It so affected him that he wrote a song, released in February 1930 by the Carter Family, “The Cyclone of Rye Cove” (RCA Victor V-40207).

There were mothers so dear and fathers the same,

That came to this horrible scene,

Searching and crying, each found her own child,

Dying on a pillow of stone.

Rye Cove, Rye Cove,

The place of my childhood and home,

Where in life’s early morn I once loved to roam,

But now it’s so silent and lone.

Contact Vince Staten at vincestaten@timesnews.net or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at vincestaten.blogspot.com.

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