Remembering the 1974 tornadoes and their destruction

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By Steve Moore

Thirty nine years ago today, April 3, 1974, many lives and landscapes in Kentucky changed forever, and as I write this on Monday, April 1, I remember that so much changed in Campbellsburg exactly 39 years ago, too.

It was irony and coincidence that placed me in touch with both days of disastrous tornadoes. 

I was a senior at the UK College of Agriculture on Wednesday, April 3, 1974, and was returning to my dorm (Kirwan 1) from an afternoon class when I overheard folks talking about a threat of tornadoes in the area.  Later, when someone said they heard a tornado blew the roof off Freedom Hall,  I remember thinking they were just joking or exaggerating. 

But, just about dark, I got a call on the dorm room phone from a neighbor near my family farm just south of Danville that something had gone through and knocked houses, barns, trees, and power lines down, and that they felt like I should get home as soon as possible.

I drove home in my 1961 Volkswagen Beetle and just as I rounded a curve coming out of Danville I saw one of the best sights I’ve ever seen in my life:  a big bolt of lightning lit up the sky, and I could see my folks’ two-story white house still standing!

Parking at the base of the front avenue, I picked my way through all the downed trees to the house where my dad, mom and younger brother were okay, and found out that my grandmother across the road was okay, too.  That night, I slept on the couch in the living room in front of a window that had been blown out. 

In the daylight the next morning, I began my education about what a tornado could do, and with everything we found, I was more awestruck.

The tornado had taken down all five barns and two stripping rooms on the two farms.  With a chain saw, we started clearing drives, and got a tractor out of one of the downed barns.  We had to cut into two livestock barns to get cattle out.

These livestock barns had lofts full of square bales which we threw down into rack feeders each day, and when the lofts collapsed, several cows and calves were killed.  It was Friday before we could get to the flock of sheep in one of the barns.

I remember crawling back through the driveway of the barn, chainsawing a hole in the gate, and watching as, one by one, the entire flock of sheep slowly walked out of the barn and over to the pasture field.

I don’t remember a single casualty and we think they were spared by the portable hay rack feeders in their area of the barn.  We couldn’t see injuries with their thick wool, but later in the month when they were sheared, we found that most of them had lots of cuts and bruises. That was one beat up flock of sheep!

We continued the cleanup process through Easter Sunday, April 14, and on Monday, April 15, I went back to school, coming home only on weekends until my graduation on May 11th.  During this month, dad continued the cleanup, pulled every nail out of every piece of lumber in that big cattle, sheep, and tobacco barn on my homeplace, and had designed a new, less tall, multi-purpose barn that would also contain a stripping room.

I will always remember him saying, “you know, a farm without a barn is just not much of a farm at all!”  While none of us were barn builders, from May 13 until June 1, we built a pretty decent barn all by ourselves.  We were certainly aided by the fact that this particular barn was pine.  I don’t think we would have ever driven a straight nail into seasoned oak!

On Monday, June 3, 1974, I drove that 1961 VW to the Henry County Extension office in the courthouse in New Castle for my first day of work; I still remember being amazed that I would get paid for a whole month as the new 4-H Agent when I didn’t even show up until June 3.  I met my co-workers Jim Prewitt (Ag Agent), Jeri Cockrel (Home Demonstration Agent) and Sheila Atchison (Extension Secretary).

Mr. Prewitt took me on a quick tour of the county, where I saw Campbellsburg for the first time in my life and still remember a tree close to the railroad track with a sign that said “HERE LIES CAMPBELLSBURG.”

Since I had not seen Campbellsburg before, I didn’t really get the full impact, yet I felt a certain kinship with the residents who had the daunting task of cleaning up after a tornado.  I didn’t learn until later that the first and most damaging Tornado had been on April 1 , and another had touched down close by on April 3.

Starting work with any car at all was just lucky for me.

On Sunday, March 31, 1974, just three days before the tornado, Dad and I finished some engine work on that 1961 Beetle and swung the engine back up into the car.  If we hadn’t finished the work that day, the car would have still been in my grandmothers big livestock and tobacco barn and been swept over the bank and down into the creek nearby. 

I still have most of that car!  The other real lucky part for me was that my first job after college was chock full of good people who helped me and mentored me and so it has been my only job.