Written by W. Gene Barron
Just past midnight on Saturday, December 24, 1921, a devastating storm originating in Crittendon County, Arkansas tore through the village of Spencer, virtually destroying the entire town. The Missouri Pacific Depot, a store and five homes were destroyed. It was reported that not a tree nor a fence was left standing, but luckily two homes escaped destruction. One of these was the home of William Laurence Spencer which was heavily damaged. The tornado tore a path 300 yards wide and hit Spencer dead center. The population of Spencer, numbering nearly a hundred, lay injured in the rain for several hours after the storm pasted.
Lula Spencer, who lived in the old Spencer home on the other edge of the storm, walked to her son Laurence’s house in the dark after the storm with only a lantern to guide her. When she arrived she broke the devastating news to Laurence of the destruction she had witnessed on her way to his house. Laurence then walked to Ouachita City to the nearest telephone and notified Dr. Mingis, who lived in Sterlington, of what had happened. Dr. Mingis drove to Spencer from Sterlington early Sunday morning to attend the wounded. He reported that a number of injured would probably die.
A special relief train was sent from Monroe on December 18th to Spencer with Dr. J. L. Adams in charge of a number of physicians and nurses equipped with medial supplies after W. L. Wall, agent for the railroad, and his wife, were reported injured. Mrs. Wall had two broken ribs and Mr. Wall was badly bruised.
Two men, whose names were reported to be Ellidge and Esthoil or Easterman, had arrived in Spencer late on Friday night and were warming themselves at the depot waiting room heater when the storm struck. The building collapsed and pinned them under the timbers until the storm blew the timbers away and released them. Ellidge was struck in the face by flying debris and blinded in both eyes.
D. R. Jenny and J. B. Brazier walked from Monroe to Spencer Sunday evening and returned to Monroe to buy a casket for John Eckhoff. John, who was an oilfield worker employed by Federal Petroleum Company, died when his home was demolished with him inside. Mrs. John Eckhoff was battered and bruised but survived. The Eckhoff’s baby was found unharmed, without a scratch, about 150 yards from the home still asleep in its bed. Eckhoff’s car was blown hundreds of yards into the woods and destroyed. Eckhoff’s body was taken in charge of by the Woodsmen of the World and buried in Liberty Cemetery. He was 23 years old.
Samuel Trout, the young son of J. L. Trout, was asleep in his bed when the storm struck. He was found unharmed still asleep in his bed after the storm. Mr. Trout was the section gang foreman for the Missouri Pacific. The Trout home, located behind Spencer’s store, was completely destroyed.
Many of the surviving residents of the demolished town went to stay with relatives. Other victims of the storm were taken to Monroe late Sunday evening and were attended by physicians at St. Frances Sanitarium, the Red Cross and other citizens of Monroe. Mayor Arnold Bernstein sent members of the police force to help care for the victims and provide homes for those who needed a place to stay. Mrs. Ed Colston, who was badly bruised during the storm, gave birth to a healthy baby girl on that Christmas morning. The baby was delivered by Drs. Graves and J. L. Adams. Both Mr. and Mrs. Colston were recovering from their injuries in St. Francis. H. V. Leckie was being treated at St. Francis was not expected to recover. His face was crushed by a heavy timber and at danger of losing his sight.
Two residents of Spencer died during the storm and many others injured. The property damage to the town was reported to be $50,000. Laurence Spencer’s store and contents valued at $8000 was a total loss. The post office where Laurence served as post master was gone. The Missouri Pacific depot was also completely destroyed.
The tornado originated in Crittenden County, Arkansas late on Friday, December 23, 1921 and traveled south through Morehouse and Union Parish in Louisiana before crossing into Ouitman County, Mississippi and traveling on through Coahoma, Carroll, Leflore and Yazoo Counties. A total of 44 individuals were killed and over a hundred injured during the storm.
Almost immediately after the storm, efforts to rebuild Spencer began with the help of companies such as Missouri Pacific Railroad, Federal Petroleum Company and others with vested interest in the area. Inhabitants who had fled began returning and building temporary shacks to live in until a substantial home could be built. The Missouri Pacific and Federal Petroleum companies began efforts to build homes for their employees.
The Missouri Pacific Railroad suffered a substantial loss. Not only was the depot completely wiped away, leaving nothing but the slab where the building had stood, but also a line of small houses that housed the section crew workers, which were located just south of Spencer’s store, were destroyed as well as the aforementioned depot agent’s home. The strength of the storm was evident as the rail-cars, which were sitting at the Spencer siding, were blown off the tracks and in some cases the wheel assemblies were completely separated from the cars. Even the tracks were ripped up and twisted.
The Federal Petroleum’s tent camp located two mile from Spencer was completely destroyed. Transcontinental Oil Company suffered the loss of its camp, which was located in Spencer and also mostly a tent camp, but had a frame commissary. Several of the company’s derricks destroyed.
On December 29th a movement was started to rebuild the town of Spencer in a more suitable location some two miles to the south of the old location. Union Sawmill Company, which had considerable timber holdings around Spencer was in favor of the move. The Spencer family was fervently against the move as it would be disastrous for their holdings. The idea of moving was soon abandoned due to the opposition and the cost involved.
At the time of the storm, Spencer was only sixteen years old and had sprung up due to the timber and gas industries. It had grown fast and was a bustling town. Many wondered if the town could recover. None wondered more than Laurence Spencer. Although his family was well off, he didn’t have the money to rebuild his store. He was devastated. He had suffered the loss of his father, who was killed during the feud with the Pinckards in 1915 and the death of his wife on November 1st, and now this!
Laurence’s mother agreed to finance a new store so Laurence began planning to rebuild and ordered a new stock of merchandise. The area was searched and a small amount of merchandise was salvaged that was scattered for miles around from the W. L. Spence Store.
The Missouri Pacific, Federal Oil Company and the Transcontinental Oil Companies began to rebuild their interests in the area. The community began cleanup operations and to rebuild their town. James Taylor Spencer is credited for founding the town of Spencer but, after the tornado, his wife Lula Parks Spencer must be given the credit for preserving it. With her money, she not only helped Laurence rebuild, but she also took into her own home some of the homeless and helped finance the rebuilding of some of their homes.
Spencer did recover from the storm and Mrs. Lula Spencer lived to see it, but sadly she died three years after the storm in 1924 – the last of the couple who founded Spencer. She was laid to rest beside her husband in the Parks Cemetery.
Gene has also written two historical books on Union Parish. I highly recommend both.