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Tornado Alley Trauma

by Lois Fowler Barrett
As featured in Marion Living Magazine

I distinctly  remember pressing  my face  against a window, staring into blackness,  trying  with  all  my  might  to see  the house across Reeves  Street in Marion, Illinois on  that  dreadful – world falling apart – day, in  1940. I  can’t  personally  remember  what day or month it was, but one child survivor  remembered  there  was  another  month of school after.

“I cain’t  see Deaton’s!” I shouted.  My going-on-seven -years brother, Lyndel, was  in the room.  No  memory  exists of  whether I said  anything  more. I held my doll tightly as I watched  hail  bounce off  the ground. It was strange and unusual weather. Noise and blinding lightening  blacked  out visibility across  the street.

My  mother, Lois  Barnes, answered with   a command  from the kitchen:  “Pauline, get  away  from  the  window!”  My father, Luther, wasn’t  home.

Lyn, two years older,  remembers  that  Mom yelled “It’s coming!” before  the  house began  to  roll from  west  to east. He said  he could  hear gravel hitting – could it have been hail –  as we started to roll.

It’s important  to know  the  layout  of  houses where we lived and played.  Our  grandparents’ house  rested on  land across  an  alley to the east. My  uncle’s  family  lived a few hundred yards to the north of our  house on the  west side of the alley. The  rest  was open  field. Grandparents  Irl and Allie Radcliffe  owned  that oversized “block,” with  a  narrow  alley  separating  two parcels.

Aside  from  this ,  my  strongest  memory  is  one  of  confusion,  in  the aftermath  of  the  tornado,  as my body  hung  high in the air on upright  bed springs  against a wall.  A blue dress and  red  coat  supported  my  weight. Lyn strongly remembers the red coat with a collar. I  remember  crying  later  because  my  dress  tore.

Suspended  there,  I could  see   my  brother  lying  on  the floor  –  or  what  had  been  the ceiling  –  with a coal  stove  leg  pressing  against  his head.  I   had  no concept  of  death   at  that  tender  age. Thank God,  he  survived, and  at  seventy-two,  sports  a scar on  the side  of  his head. I  notice it, and  the scene  floods my mind. He tells me  now  that  he didn’t know he was injured.

Also, Lyn  tells  me  that  he tried  valiantly to drag me off  the  bed springs, but couldn’t, so left  me  hanging there.  Memory  does  not  serve  me as to how long I  hung  there. Also I don’t  remember my  mother lifting  me down, but  he remembers.

While I was  rescued, he was directed to “get help!” and climbed over debris toward what should  have been  my grandparents house.  It was on fire.

A  definite story is that  my  mother  was  pinned  down  by  a cabinet and  kerosene from a five gallon can pouring onto  her. Apparently,  she  managed to free  herself and save  me. That explains  the story of  her  clothing “glued “to her body. My  oldest  brother,  Luther,  said  the doctor had  to  remove  rice  from  inside  her ears. The  rice  probably poured into her ears from the cabinet.

While  I  hung  there,  my  brother lying in the floor, and my mother pinned in the kitchen, the story  goes  that  my  uncle, Lawrence Radcliffe, with his home gone, anxiously  sought  shelter  for his family. On  the  way – and  before  he attempted  to  rescue anyone – my  uncle  encountered  insensitive,  heartless  looters only  minutes  after  the  tornado’s  invasion. They  were angrily  chased away,  as reported  by  my cousin,  Kathy,  who  learned  from  an oft  repeated  story.  The house was on fire  with  his parents pinned inside!   If  he  used  any  strong  language, it  was  not repeated.

It’s common  family talk that  my grandmother  was pinned  between a fallen chiff-a-robe  and  a  wood burning  stove,  fully  in danger of  burning alive. Our  home rolled east  across  the alley onto  their house.  My Uncle Lawrence – after safely depositing   his  wife and  daughter  in  a  neighbor’s  house –  along  with   my older  brother, successfully  ripped  aside everything to rescue her. He was inside when the tornado struck.

It was time to find Grandpa!  They discovered him  pinned down on  a bed  by  the  roof,  attempting to raise  it up with sheer strength, cracked  ribs and all.  Underneath, or at least by his side,  was   my baby sister,  Jeannette. Grandpa  was  in the process of laying  her on  the bed  when  the  cyclone struck.  Luther – a frequent  visitor – said Grandpa  yelled,  “Tornado!” as he headed for the bed.  He spent so much time with Grandpa, he can be counted as a credible witness.

Here, two stories unfold. Lyn  remembers  that a decision  had to be made –  due to the fire – on which person  to save.  It was  quickly decided  that  Grandpa  would be the one – he was Lawrence’s father, after all – so  they grabbed his legs and pulled  him free. He  had  an  arm  wrapped  around  Jeannette  and  she  was  pulled  free also.

Older  brother  Luther said  she  was  unconscious  and  turning  blue, and that the shape  of  her  head  was  imprinted  in  my grandfather’s chest, crushing his ribs. “Well, even  with  broken  ribs,” Lyn laughs, “once out of the danger,  pushed his beloved  pickup free of the fire area.”

The rescued ones  were taken   across  the  street, where  Mrs. Deaton  – I wish I could  remember her first  name – rose  to the occasion  and  blew  into  my sister’s  mouth  to  revive  her.   “It  was  old  time CPR, ” Luther laughs.  My  mother,  my grandfather,  my sister,  and  my  brother, Lyn, were  taken to the doctor. Lyn  said he wasn’t  hurt  that  he knew of,  but didn’t  want  to be left  behind. The doctor found his  head wound . I  imagine strong-willed Grandma  didn’t  let them go without  her. I don’t know if Luther went along.

The Deaton  residence  was  only about forty feet from  our homes, and though  turned slightly crosswise  on the foundation, sufficed  as a temporary shelter for survivors of the disaster.

Earlier, when Uncle Lawrence sought  shelter  there for his wife and baby girl, Kathy,  Mrs. Deaton  was  reluctant to allow  anyone  inside. Upon  my  uncle’s  strong  insistence – he had already  boldly dealt  with looters – she changed  that  attitude.  Whether she  was apprehensive  because  of looters, or whatever  reason,  my  uncle  became frustrated enough to shout at  the  neighbor   until she admitted  them.   My aunt  had  already risked drowning by falling into a water-filled ditch. She wasn’t the only one who ended up in a ditch, Lyn says.

I cannot,  for the life of me,  remember  arriving at Mrs. Deaton’s house, or how long I was  housed  there, but I vividly  recall  Mrs. Deaton  owned  a pug-nosed  bulldog – a protective little animal –  who zealously, and viciously,  guarded  his  mistress if we dared go near her.

My eighty-four- year-old aunt, Aileen Radcliffe, confirmed stories of  how  her  family  was saved.  Wisely,  my Uncle  Lawrence  gathered  them  on their  bed – a family of  three at that  time – where  the head and foot  supports  served as a barrier between  them and  the roof  as it blew away.  I  was later  told  that  he calmly  sitting in a chair reading,  and   my  aunt  was  rocking  Kathy when  the weather  became  danger. They decided on  the bed as the safest place.

My  brothers  also  remembered  that  the woods  to the east of our homes was flattened  as though  mowed down  by a giant  lawnmower – typical of tornados.

Although  uprooted, our house  did  not  burn, and  was salvaged  by  my uncle. He  rebuilt it northeast of my grandfather’s land,  across another  alley from his original house.  My  aunt  lives there still,  on  what  is  now  named  Radcliffe Street.

My father  moved  us to a rental  house on  North Vicksburg  Street in Marion.  Red  Cross provided  my  grandparents  a new,  two  room  house several  yards east of the destroyed one. That  house is  there  yet, at  the corner of Radcliffe and  Reeves  Streets.

I  vaguely  remember following  Grandma  through  the burned-out  remains of  her   house, searching  for  melted change – money brought home over night from  their downtown café, The  Farmer’s Lunchroom – located  on The Hitch Rack.

She  picked  up shiny lumps of  metal  I presume to have been  pennies, quarters, nickels, and dimes.  I  think  I remember a look  of pain on her face as she  rolled the lumps around, and then allowed  me to hold  them. Was she thinking how to operate their business  without cash ? Where would they live?

Thank God, no one died in that dreadful event, but the  memories, and for some the fears, never fade. Ask any survivor in our family.

Now, when  the weather sirens  blow  in  Marion, do people  pay attention  to the sound?  Do they seek shelter?  They would  if  they  knew  the  trauma.


O. Fowler


Backwoods  Artist
As featured in Springhouse Magazine

One of the little-known artists of Southern Illinois, whose paintings may be found in many homes, churches, and even public buildings, was Orval  Madison Fowler – O. Fowler – of rural Marion, Illinois. Who he was, where he lived, and the legacy he left behind might be obscure to many, but not to those who knew and admired his work. His descendants are scattered over the United States, with many living in Southern Illinois.

Fowler  never became rich because of a fear: losing his World War I veteran’s pension and his small social security check if he earned too much. Actually, all he wanted was praise and recognition.

Most people who commissioned Fowler to do paintings are gone and perhaps that is the mystery surrounding a scene he did of a Herod, Illinois cave and cliff building. The painting was featured in a Southern Illinois magazine – THE SPRINGHOUSE – in 1984, and prompted a request for this article of explanation.

The artist loved Southern Illinois areas and the outstanding scenery he beheld during many trips over the ribbons of highway that connect southeastern Illinois to the rest of the nation.  He often talked of “going to Cat Skin country – Carrier Mills, Illinois – to visit relatives if he could bum a ride there.” He never owned a car.

His mother, Elizabeth Davis Fowler, who died in the late Fifties, was from there. His father, James Monroe Fowler was an offspring of the settlers of “Fowler District” near Pittsburg,Illinois where the artist was born.

Fowler boasted of having an inborn desire to paint, often telling the story of how his parents placed him on the floor near a pencil and some money. Young Orval promptly crawled to the pencil.

He claimed that his first painting, an owl sitting on a limb with a drive below, was laughed at by relatives. Rather than being discouraged, he studied it for improvement and claimed never to have been laughed at again.

During the earlier years of his painting career, beginning at age 18, he worked mostly in watercolors and pencil. Later, he learned of the ease of painting with oils, teaching himself to that end by trial and error.

With no formal training, Fowler worked out things for himself, and just before he died, he was still “learning.” He had only an eighth grade education, and couldn’t attend an Indiana art school he desired because of his father’s death.

The aspiring artist was little more than a teenager  but was left with a mother and sister to support. As a young man, Fowler painted as much as he pleased, but in later years he had to admit to taking more orders than he could fill. He did hundreds of paintings, including wall murals.

Many of these  may be still be found  in Illinois and include, but are not limited to, other distant areas: Florida, Washington, D.C., Texas, Michigan, California, and Wisconsin. He had repeat customers, such as a Sister at St. Antony’s Hospital in Chicago, who ordered fourteen of his paintings.

By far, the best of his blue-ribbon portraits is of an auburn-haired woman, his son’s one time mother-in-law. The eyes of the painting are disconcerting, eerily following one anywhere in the room from where the painting is situated.

This painting hangs in his grandson’s home, Brian Fowler, of Harrisburg, Illinois who is also the grandson of the portrait lady.

Though he was mostly commissioned to do religious art work, he would also do family pets, loved ones, and special scenes. A foreign scene painted from a photograph taken in a country a client visited hung for years in the Marion, Illinois senior citizen center. Since he often worked from photographs, it is perhaps in this way that he produced the painting of the cave and cliff in Herod, Illinois.

He was not above doing copies for anyone who wanted them: he painted for the sheer joy of it. In his later years Fowler’s painting supplemented his meager income of a World War I veteran’s pension – of less than a hundred dollars per month – his social security income and what little his wife could make at miscellaneous odd jobs.

However, as mentioned earlier, he would not charge outrageous fees for the paintings, fearing it would deprive him of his other incomes.

His family of five children were never richly clothed or fed, but they survived through good times and bad, apparently happy with their lot in life. Fowler also supplemented the family  income playing a “fiddle” at dances. He had no use for “high-toned violinists, and their violins.”

Fowler was not a handsome man by most people’s reckoning, with his rather large nose, close-set eyes, and a shock of unruly white hair, He managed to lure four women to the alter by the time he was thirty-two.

Three of these share the same cemetery with Fowler.
A son, a grandson, and a granddaughter – all deceased – inherited Fowler’s talent, but did not work at the art as he did. The granddaughter, Julie Fowler Orange, has paintings scattered over Southern Illinois. She died in a mysterious fire at age thirty-two, which cut off her legacy.

A miner until the mid-forties, O. Fowler retired early from the work force and devoted most of his time to the fiddling at dances, painting and reminiscing about his younger days.

He was conservative, using  masonite – he called it – for most of his paintings, not only to save money: he found the substitute for canvas easier to work with.

It was rare to visit his home and not find one or two outlines of of paintings taking on the essence of yet another attractive work. He was not a modest man, and would not hesitate to extol  the ability he believed himself to possess. In later years, sales fell off due to a loss of eyesight from cataracts, but this did not lessen his opinion of his paintings though he could not see the thick globs of paint and the harshness of color he was using.

His fourth and youngest wife – his eyes –  had died several years before. Although the buyers took the paintings, disappointment was often evident on their faces.

Active and on his feet until the day he sort of stumbled and fell, he asked a son to take him to the hospital. Fowler could squat on his heels with the best of them at age eighty-plus until the the last day prior to hospitalization.

He died peacefully in 1969 in the Marion, Illinois Veterans Hospital. Just before death took him, his faded eyes suddenly cleared and he described every detail of color in his hospital room, probably thinking how he would fit it to canvas.

Jul 26, 2010 - Everything Else    No Comments

Lady of Mounds


Originally featured in Springhouse Magazine
By Lois Fowler Barrett

She stepped through the door of the Mounds, Illinois senior citizens center, white hair neatly combed, with a companion: a woman of some eighty years trailing behind. Smiling, the well-dressed, high-heeled lady of undetermined years was gently chiding her friend for not having a garden out, since it was already late for spring planting.

“I’m eighty-two years old,” snapped her companion.

“So what, I’m a hundred and three!”

Looking quickly to see if anyone was noticing the conversation, I questioned the declaration. A receptionist assured me that indeed, “Goldie Grandstaff is one hundred and three, and we plan to celebrate her one hundred and fourth here, in September. We have a big blowout planned.”

“She can hear well, see well, and doesn’t dwell on the note that people her age usually are in nursing homes. Her memory is great. In Mounds, nobody pays attention to the fact that Goldie still gardens, helps neighbors, visits the center every day possible, and is always ‘dressed up’ in case anyone comes by who wants to go somewhere.”

Human dignity and worth until death is the ultimate goal for all, recognized or not. It is especially the goal of senior citizens. Goldie was a shining example of endless efforts to sustain that goal. She had another goal: “To reach the age of one hundred and five, and to have a really big party, maybe catered and have all my friends attend.”

I met Goldie in the Eighties when working with seniors for the State of Illinois. She was fully involved with life. She became a lovely subject for a story, and I fully intended to publish it. I never did. However, a story told is better late than never.

So much did this lady make people aware of her human dignity and worth that anyone just had to inquire after “Goldie” in Pulaski County; no last name needed.

Retirement was not a word in her vocabulary. Goldie should have – by all traditions and human nature – set back and relaxed in her twilight years, letting others attend to needs and wants. But this would not have been Goldie.

Living alone, with her “all white cats” for company, with gardening in the summer months, and other occupations to keep her busy, Goldie met each day “looking for something good to happen. I open my eyes with a prayer. It makes the day more secure,” she explained.
When she arose, about 6:30 a.m. most days, strong coffee was a must, followed by several more cups during the day. “If the local senior citizen center is open,” she said, “my agenda calls for lunch with neighbors and friends.”

“Of course, at my age, most of my friends are one or two generations younger,” she laughingly told me, “but little matter: the respect is there. The visit,” she added, “fills my need for conversation, food, and a little something to brighten the day. I try to find something good to do each day, even if it’s just a word to the lonely.”

Used to attention, Goldie was honored many times for community work, which included being a charter member of the Congregational Church, the Magnolia Garden Club, Woman’s Club, Republican Women of Illinois, and, she added proudly, “the second person to sign up for the senior citizen nutrition program a few years ago.”

An alert mind, reasonably good health, a great sense of humor, and the ability to still wear “heels,” all belied the fact this lady had been a living part of history for over a century.
Goldie was born in Villa Ridge, Illinois, in 1879, the youngest child of a river boat captain and a school teacher. Her father died when she was less than two years old, leaving the mother to raise four other children. Since there was no government assistance available then, Goldie was left to live with her grandparents.

It was in this position that she became interested in politics; her grandfather was once sheriff, among other positions, she said. Goldie recalled vividly many happenings in

her life, far too many to mention here. Among these earlier memories were school, recreation, and courting.

“There were not, of course, any buses,” she said, “so school was attended by walking, sometimes many miles, and oftentimes in deep snows. It was not unusual to wear more than one petticoat and long underwear,” she said. “Lunch was carried in a tin bucket.”
Recreation in the late 1800’s consisted of walking to church mostly, gathering followers along the way. Few people she knew in Southern Illinois were fortunate enough to own horses and buggies.

“Courting was done,” Goldie said with a twinkle in her eyes, “on the philosophy the longest way around was the sweetest way home.” She became Mrs. Lester Grandstaff in the early 1900’s, and they lived in the thriving railroad community of Mounds, where he was a clerk for Illinois Central Railroad.

“Mounds, at that time, boasted a population of two thousand plus, with a roundhouse, rail yards, repair sheds, hotels, restaurants, and a large YMCA. A strike by IC railroad employees in 1920 closed the operations. The community never recovered.”

Although Lester died several years ahead of Goldie, she still had her three children in the Nineteen Eighties when I met her: Harry, 74, who lived in northern Illinois; Catherine, 68, who lived in another state; and Lester, 67, who lived in Mounds, but not with Goldie. She valued her space.  She also had five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. “I travel and visit them when I have a way,” she told me.

“I’m looking forward to the senior citizens helping me celebrate my September 22 birthday anniversary with a big party. You’re invited.” I intended to go, but couldn’t.

With these memories, and the activities that kept her interested in life, Goldie expected, always: “something good to happen.” I saw that gracious lady one more time, the day I gave her a photo of herself autographed by Secretary of State Jim Edgar. It was her own photo, not his, but Edgar’s signature below her likeness made her day. “I’ll hang it with my other politicians.”

Was that a humorous play on words? I’ll never know. But I know I met a real, Mounds, Illinois lady.