Moseying: History of the Southern Llano Estacado
Memories of Storm Cellars, once considered a necessity in West Texas
September 18, 2011
Before World War II storm cellars were often part of a West Texas homestead. Not only did rural people build them, but so did townspeople. Without the accurate reporting by Doppler radar and constant weather reports on television, folks back then seemed to fear storms much more than modern people.
In late July a Facebook phenomenon went viral. People started pages titled, "Remembering (name of a town) when..." When I reported the phenomenon to the American Association of State and Local History page, I was told the phenomenon was national. Academic historians are hoping that Facebook will allow archives of the pages to be kept for future study.
Big Spring, Midland, and Odessa all have pages, on which thousands of people joined , asking who remembered favorite hang outs, old scandals, names of favorite teachers, and a thousand other questions. These Facebook pages are still very active, with stories continually being posted. On the "Remembering Big Spring" page I posted a photo of a storm cellar in a pasture (with the house long gone.) Fourteen people shared their memories of their experiences with storm cellars, and gave me permission to use their stories.
A common theme was expressed by Danny Johnson, "I would rather be "blowed away" than snakebit!" Johnnie Pickett echoed the thought, "My grandmother had one, and we found rattlers in it once -- I hated the thing!." Frances Miles commented, " The first thing my dad did after we put up our tent to live in was to have the neighbor boys dig a storm cellar. I almost preferred staying in the tent than going into that hole with all of the spiders, and we always worried about finding a snake there." Ms. Miles comment is a good reminder that during oil booms in the early days, folks often lived in tents when they first arrived.
There was other reasons to be scared. Nancy West wrote, "My grandmother had one with a wooden door. When it rained or hailed, the noise was so loud we were terrified. I was three the first time we used it -- I was so terrified!." Jennifer Gaines Rainey commented, "Every time we would have a storm, my mom would come into our room, tell us to put on our shoes, and then we would wait and wait and wait, and if started to get worse, we would run out in the wind and rain and get into the shelter. We were scared! (But we were very glad we had one.)"
"When we bought our house, the first thing Daddy did was to get a shovel and dig a cellar. He used concrete blocks, and it is still in good shape forty years later. They still use it every time we have a threatening storm," Debby Cook reported. Dawne Pearson commented, "My mom was in a tornado when she was young, and every time it rained were in our shelter. There were always all sorts of bugs, and I was terrified!" Barbara Richmond said, " My dad gave us a choice -- storm cellar or swimming pool. We three girls chose the pool."
Bobby Watson told the group, "I spent a lot of time in one when we lived out at Chalk. We even got trapped in it one time, when the wind blew a tree branch down on the door and wedged it shut. Lucky for us the neighbors checked on us. Back then neighbors did things like that." Valerie McNutt said, " I had to go in a storm cellar alone when I was 8 months pregnant with my first child. I sat there with a flashlight, thinking, "What if I go into labor?" I thought about Indians delivering their own babies --- I was so scared!"
Not all of the memories of storm cellars focused on their primary use. Julie Lagourney said, "When my grandparents bought their house the first thing added was a storm cellar. I remember all of the homemade canned goods she kept there." Kerry Fletcher told the group, "When my parents had gone to sleep, all the kids would come to our backyard storm cellar and party. Cars would be lined up around the corner from the house."Jack Taylor reported, " When I was 12 we moved to a house that had one. I decided to make it my bedroom. Dirt floors, dirt walls, dirt ceiling -- it smelled of dirt. During the summer it was fine but when fall came I woke up one morning with a big frog on my belly -- so I moved back into the house!"