By Brandon Hembree
Tornado season in Georgia and the southeastern United States peaks during the months of March, April and May, with the middle month having the most activity. On April 6, 1936, a rare double tornado destroyed much of Gainesville just north of Sugar Hill and Gwinnett County. This infamous disaster, because of the significant destruction in downtown Gainesville, has been written about and studied extensively. During that time period, the weather event known as the Tupelo-Gainesville tornado outbreak was covered in the national media and even led to the first ever natural disaster visit of a sitting president. President Franklin Roosevelt visited by train on his way back to Washington on April 9 to view the damage in Gainesville. Coming from Warm Springs, he passed through Suwanee, what is now Sugar Hill, and Buford before eventually making it to Gainesville. The tornado had killed 187 people in Gainesville and left over 2,000 people homeless. Historians believe the death toll and true impact were much greater. It was a significant disaster for a country already struggling through the Great Depression, and President Roosevelt believed that the visit was important despite continued bad weather and torrential rain on April 9.
Barely known to history is another deadly tornado or “cyclone”, as it was sometimes referred to in those days, which has ties to Sugar Hill and that left a swath of destruction in 1924. A 1924 article from the Charleston Daily Mail of West Virginia covered the disaster that happened on April 30. The article stated that the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama were all ravaged by a storm system and tornado. In total, over the four states cited in the article, an estimated 24 people were killed with more than $1 million in property damage. The tornado or tornadoes left a path of destruction from around Anderson, South Carolina all the way down to Opelika, Alabama. The destruction was so bad in the mills and mill villages in South Carolina that physicians and nurses were called in from Spartanburg.
In reality, a weather system of perfect storm proportions, over a two-day period of April 29 and 30, may have spawned at least 28 tornadoes. The storm system also impacted Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Virginia. The tornado that started in southwestern South Carolina and ended up near southwest Georgia is believed to be one of the tornadoes. Sources say if it was one tornado, that it may be the longest-tracked tornado observed in the southeast at the time. From start to finish, that tornado could have traveled as far as 135 miles.
Closer to home, six people were reported injured in Lawrenceville during the 1924 tornado, with property damage of nearly $200,000. The storm destroyed a church, badly damaged a mill and a mill village, and even destroyed a historically significant schoolhouse that dated back to 1895. It was stated, at the time, that the roofs of nearly 26 homes were completely torn off. Under the modern-day Fujita scale, the 1924 tornado has been estimated as an F2 or F3, with winds speeds from a low of 113 miles per hour to as high as 206 miles per hour. Despite the ranking on the scale, the winds would have been destructive and potentially deadly regardless. The 1924 article from the Charleston Daily Mail doesn’t specifically mention the death of Margaret Powell or any death for that matter in Gwinnett County, but her death was one of the local tragedies of the natural disaster.
Margaret Powell, with close ties to Sugar Hill, was killed when a home was buried beneath trees destroyed by the 1924 tornado. Her death certificate lists her as a widowed housekeeper and her cause of death as “killed in cyclone by falling timbers” at 12 a.m. Margaret was 68-years old and had moved to Sugar Hill from Tallulah, Georgia in Rabun County shortly after the death of her husband, Andrew Powell. In the 1920s Margaret was living with her son and daughter-in-law, Carlton and Fannie Powell, in the Sugar Hill area of Gwinnett County. She is buried with her family and descendants in Historic Sugar Hill Cemetery, sadly without a marker. Were it not for a great historical researcher and Sugar Hill resident, Stephanie Isaacs, Margaret’s story would be lost to the winds of history.