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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Hail Storm

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Just a boy at the time, Howard Campbell never lost his vivid memory of the only time he ever saw both of his parents cry.

They lived in Jones County on what Campbell called a ranch, but they did more farming than ranching. And on that day in May 1920, their leased land had never looked finer. Almost-ready-to-harvest grain and row after row of corn extended for 400 acres around their two-story house.

"The barely, wheat and oats were all waist high and ready to bundle and shock," Campbell later wrote in "Spotted Stripes," a self-published family history. "The corn was also about waist high and had been plowed out two or three times. All the crops were extra good for that time of the year and the pasture grass was equally superior."

Campbell had watched his father and uncle move the broadcast binder from a shed to the shade of a large live oak. Soon it would be time to harvest their crop, the best they had ever raised.

But grain and corn weren't the only things growing that spring. Campbell's mother was pregnant, and the country doctor she saw reckoned she would be having twins.

"It looked as if nature had smiled on everyone and everything in that part of the state," Campbell continued.


Around 3 p.m. tall, dark clouds appeared on the horizon to the northwest. Back then, long before commercial radio, television or radar, the only warning most Texans got of an impending storm came in seeing its approach.

When it seemed clear that they would be getting rain, Campbell's father and uncle rolled up the binder canvas and put it under a shed so it wouldn't get wet.

By now, distant thunder gave way to close-in lightning strikes. The thunderstorm towered so high, a bright afternoon had turned nearly into night. Then the hailstones larger than hen eggs began coming down, preceding the rain and wind.

(An amateur storm chaser's Web site, www.chaseday.com says hail falling from 30,000 feet, a typical figure, reaches 120 miles an hour by the time it reaches the ground. Hail has been known to fall in baseball to grapefruit size, the largest recorded stone weighing more than 1.5 pounds.)

"Mom and dad, my uncle and another hired hand began putting quilts on all west windows," Campbell wrote. "The front porch protected the windows to the south."

The blankets did little good. Hail beat out all the upstairs windows and even came crashing through the roof of their house. When big chunks of ice came rolling down the stairs, Campbell's mother grabbed a bucket and began trying to pick them all up.

The bombardment continued for 30 minutes, with wind and torrential rain going on for another hour.

When the storm abated, the Campbell family rushed outside to see what damage had been done to their property. They could hardly believe what they saw.

Dead chickens, their coop destroyed, lay buried in drifts of hailstones. The sheds and barns looked like they had been bombed. Most of their roof was gone and all the exposed windows of their house broken out.

Even worse, their fields "lay as flat and barren as desert." What two hours earlier had been their best-ever crop had floated off and now lay in large drifts against their fences and in gullies.

At least no one had been hurt. In fact, only two fatalities have ever been attributed to hail in the United States. One of those cases occurred in Texas, where a farmer caught out in the open near Lubbock died in a severe hailstorm on May 13, 1939.

The Campbell ranch had been visited by what meteorologists call a hailshaft, a column of hail falling from a single thunderstorm cell. The area swept by a hailshaft, again in scientific speak, is called a hailstreak.

"I saw my parents embrace and cry profusely," Campbell wrote. "This made a lasting impression on me and [served as] a constant reminder that when it pertains to farming and ranching, one never has it made until the money is in the bank."

Campbell's mother and father both cried, but they did not give up. Within three weeks of the hailstorm, the family had re-plowed and re-seeded their fields in cotton, maize and grass.

Those crops came in bountifully. And in July, as Campbell put it, the family had "two more cubs in the den."



Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 19 , 2007 column



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