1900 it had not occurred to anyone that pursuing a tornado would someday be considered
an adventure sport. Back then, people let storms do the chasing and took to their
cellars when they heard a roaring wind.
Minnie Tims Harper lived with
her husband and three children on a ranch eight miles from Childress.
Recalling what happened one spring day decades after the fact, she described their
ranch as being on “a lonely hilltop.” Her husband often had to be gone for days
at a time, making that hilltop “depressingly lonely.”
That’s why she welcomed
any opportunity to hitch up the team, load the kids in the buggy and go to Childress
for supplies or simply to visit friends. But one day she came close to paying
a dear price for the sake of having someone to talk to. “I had imprudently visited
too long…and had been too late starting home,” she recalled.
She’d gone only a short distance from town when the wind picked up and she noticed
that “the atmosphere had grown hazy.” Looking behind her, she saw a dark cloud
building low on the horizon.
“I drove on unmindful of danger and was past
the last house on my route before I thought again of the cloud,” she wrote. “When
I looked, I was alarmed. It was a wind cloud and moving swiftly toward us.”
modern meteorlogical speak, “wind cloud” means wall cloud, the dangerous formation
from which tornados spawn. Indeed, the storm already produced strong gusts. Tumbleweeds
shot past the buggy and blowing sand stung the back of Minnie’s neck.
back around, she swatted the horses with her whip, the equivalent of stepping
on the gas. Dixie picked up his gait, but Walter bolted forward too fast, forcing
Dixie to increase his pace to keep up.
“I [envisioned] at once the team
racing wildly across the prairie hitting prairie dog mounds, cat-claw bushes and
thorny mesquite, dashing the children out one by one, or the team likely crashing
into a barbed wire fence leaving our managled bodies and buggy wreckage entangled
in the wire,” she wrote.
Moving as far forward in the seat as she could
and bracing her feet against the dash, Minnie pulled the reins tight with both
hands to slow the team while fighting an urge to make the horses go even faster.
“I was reasoning that if the storm did overtake us the result might be
just as fatal,” she continued. “I could not, in either case, hope to save all
the children. I even caught myself wondering which one I should try first to save.
A maddening thought – there was no choice.”
Suddenly the wind stopped,
followed by what Minnie called a “brooding calm” -- another indication of a tornado.
Clearly, the horses had picked up on Minnie’s nervousness, as had her children.
The kids became “cross and fretful” while Walter the fractious horse tossed his
head, shied easily and moved at an irregular gait.
Reaching the first gate
of three gates on her route, she pulled the horses to a stop, hopped out of the
buggy, tied the reins to a fence post and ran to open the gap. Then she had to
unhitch, get back in the buggy, walk the team through, tie the horses again, climb
down, close the gate, and untie the horses.
“This same amount of precious
time had to be wasted at each gate,” she wrote. “After each ordeal, delayed by
my clumsy shaking fingers, my nerves were keyed to the breaking point as I started
Now within a quarter mile of their white, two-story ranch house,
Minnie reined the team to open the last gate.
“The wind was so strong
that when I took two steps forward I was blown back one,” she recalled.
she got back on the buggy, the horses panicked. Chomping down on their bits with
their heads up and ears forward, Dixie and Walter broke into a full gallop heading
straight toward the strong plank fence around their yard.
“God help us!”
Minnie screamed, pulling on the reins as hard as she could while talking soothingly
to the horses. When they paid no attention, Minnie resorted to punishment, sawing
the bits back and forth in their mouths. But still they ran.
the storm hit with full force, ripping Minnie’s hat from her head and streaming
her long hair in front of her face. Above the screaming of her children she heard
a roaring sound.
“Grown vicious with fear for the children’s safety, I
jerked savagely at the right rein while damning the horses for unruly beasts,”
she wrote. “This treatment swung them enough to avoid disaster.”
limbs became deadly projectiles in the wind, Minnie got Dixie’s reins tied to
the fence. When Walter jerked his reins from her hands she decided she had done
all she could for the horses. Grabbing her baby from her oldest son, the tenacious
ranch wife half-led, half-dragged her two boys to the safety of the cellar.
written account, published in 1944, stops suddenly there. But no matter how much
damage the storm ended up doing to her home, she and her children survived her
wild race with the wind.
Cox - March
1 , 2012 column
Storms | Texas
People | Texas Towns | Columns