Half of a century is a long time. In 50 years, photographs in scrapbooks fade and crack. But the memories of individuals who experienced the Flood of 1951 are as sharp and intact as photos snapped with today's most sophisticated camera.
Their memories recount the stories of ordinary people who rose to the occasion in extraordinary ways: homeowners who rebuilt after losing everything and those who generously gave them shelter and assistance; frightened survivors who were rescued from the Kansas River's rising waters and boatmen who risked their own lives in the evacuation efforts; civilians who worked alongside National Guardsmen filling and stacking sandbags in the futile attempt to hold back the rising river.
Everyone who lived through that flood has a story. These are only a few of them.
Fred Johnson kept an uneasy eye on the river Wednesday, July 11. He had a close view of it from his job at the city water plant, Third and Indiana streets.
Fred said, "Although I was anxious to evacuate my family from my home at 524 Lincoln St., I couldn't leave work because I was the only employee who could row a boat and operate a crane."
While his ability to operate the crane wasn't needed, his rowing skills were important because the area north of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, normally dry, was flooded and accessible only by boat. "Major Hagar, the water superintendent, told me if I'd stay until the work was done, they'd all help me move my family and belongings."
Meanwhile, Marguerite Johnson, at home with the couple's three children the youngest only a week old nervously awaited her husband's return. At 11 p.m., with work completed, Hagar, leading Fred's fellow employees, followed him to his home. "I'll bet we had 10 pickups over there," Fred recalled in wide-eyed wonder. "Still, we got everything out with little time to spare."
The next day, with the dike breached and water pouring into North Lawrence, Fred headed to the potato dock, between Fifth and Sixth streets. The dock was along the Union Pacific tracks, where he had moved his cow and calf to safety.
"As I was feeding them, I could see the water from the railroad tracks it looked like the first wave was 3 or 4 feet high come all around my house. It got up to the eaves and then I left. I didn't think there would be a house there after the flood."
By the time the flood reached its crest on Friday, July 13, only 14 inches of his home's roof remained above water.
Surveying the damage after the waters retreated, Fred noticed that the turbulent waters had behaved in the capricious manner of tornadoes: "I had a well with an electric pump that was bolted down to cement with a sort of doghouse over it to protect it. It washed it all away, but left a coal bucket that had been sitting right beside it. The flood did some odd things."
It took Fred working alone seven months to make four rooms of his house habitable for his family. "Then it took me two years to fix the other three rooms. I had other things I had to do."
Tom Burns awoke on the morning of July 12 to Arden Booth's excited voice on KLWN radio urging North Lawrence residents to "get out, get out, the dike has broken."
Tom turned off the electricity and gas at his home at 321 Lyons St. and headed across the river to his parents' home on rural East 11th Street.
Tom got their neighbor, George Sizer, first to take him to higher ground at 11th Street and Haskell Avenue.
"When I came back, my mother was standing in the yard with her suitcase. She waded out into the water and jumped in the boat before I even got it stopped."
After seeing his parents to safety, Tom and his friends turned their attention to ferrying livestock to the sale barn on high ground to the west. "We put 14 shoats one to a gunny sack and tied them with baling wire with their heads sticking out."
However, Tom was unwilling to trust a 500-pound Landrace sow in his boat. "Scrubby Corel, Phil Saunders and I drove her into a shed and shut the door after we put logs and anything else we could find in there for her to stand on. When I went over to feed her the next day, she was standing with her front feet on an old icebox to hold her head out of the water."
When Tom next looked in on the sow, the water had receded to a few inches and he went to the barn loft and brought dry bales of straw into the shed. "The third day when I went over, there were 14 of the muddiest piglets you ever saw! And she raised all 14 of them."
Near the flood's peak, Tom attempted to take his boat to Eudora to check on a friend. He was stopped by a Coast Guard official, who questioned his boat's safety and told him that to venture downriver he must have a convoy of two boats with two lifejacketed men per boat.
Bill Cox, who would later serve as Lawrence's police chief, earned Tom's gratitude when he declared, "If this man says the boat is safe, it's safe." Tom sans lifejacket proceeded toward Eudora, where he found his friend, Bill Saunders, sweeping water off the wood floors of his 4-year-old home. Saunders remained in his home, sweeping water, for the duration of the flood.
Tom Burns never attempted to count the people he evacuated. "I knew only a few of the people I took in my boat. Other boatmen and I circulated all over North Lawrence as the water rose, picking up people and taking them to Woodlawn School, where another boat would take them across the river."
The evacuation effort was perilous because boatmen couldn't see hazards that lurked under the water. As example of those hazards, Tom cited Shave Mumford's Farmall tractor, which had broken down on Locust Street as he tried to drive it to safety. Only 6 inches of its exhaust stack above the water warned boatmen that the tractor was there.
As the waters slowly re-treated, Tom operated his boat as a water taxi, transporting people over flooded areas to their homes so they could begin the arduous process of shoveling out mud and ruined possessions. One of those trips was to Tom's own home, still containing more than a foot of water, with Arden Booth as his passenger. "As Arden and I waded around in my house, we came upon one of my daughter's dolls floating in the muddy water. Arden reached down and picked it up. Its head fell off and tears just rolled down his cheeks."
In an interview several years ago, the late Eunice Smith described a flood experience harrowing enough to strike fear in the heart of every parent. Early in the morning on July 12, she was working at Safeway, 945 Mass., when the manager told her that the dike had broken upstream. She immediately headed to her home on Elm Street, where her two sons, ages 4 and 5, were with a baby sitter.
Officials wouldn't allow her to drive across the bridge so she parked her car at the south end of the single bridge that then spanned the Kaw River and proceeded on foot to her home. Once there, however, getting her small children back across the bridge ahead of the flood posed a real problem, so she "flagged down a ride with a man driving a truckload of cattle out of North Lawrence."
Asleep at his rural home abutting the river in North Lawrence, Albert Shepard was awakened by an "ear-splitting gobbling" from the turkey farm 100 yards east of his house. He rushed out the door to view thousands of R.C. Jackman's turkeys floating down the river.
Jackman, a well-known Lawrence resident with diverse business interests among them WREN radio, Bowersock Dam, Jenny Wren Flour Mill and apple orchards stood beside Albert, shrugged his shoulders and said, "There's nothing we can do but let them go."
While some turkeys initially made it to the safety of trees along the river, after the flood only 500 turkeys remained from a flock of nearly 10,000. In spite of Jackman's seemingly philosophical attitude, his grandson, Charles Jackman of rural Baldwin, said, "Losing those turkeys absolutely broke his heart. My grandfather loved those turkeys."
Albert, who the previous day had been working for Wakarusa Township in the Lakeview area when it flooded and "relieved some of the pressure on downstream areas," realized there was no hope of saving his home when he saw a "tidal wave" of water coming at it from two directions.
Astride his horse, which swam part of the way, Albert headed for his father's home at 842 Elm St. to wake him and tell him to evacuate. The elder Shepard wasn't worried. "Everything will be all right," he said to his son.
But within 20 minutes, water filled Wesley Shepard's driveway and the two men began moving four truckloads of livestock to safety across the river. During the process, the water rose so quickly that it reached the truck's fan belt and the men switched to using a large tractor to do the hauling.
Albert said, "I remember that on the next-to-last trip across the bridge, a little cafe under a big tree was still there. On our last trip, both the cafe and tree were gone, washed down the river."
One minute Barbara Crews' husband, Ray, was standing in the middle of Third and Lyons streets talking to her brother-in-law, Hugh Randall, and the next minute both men had retreated to their respective corner properties and were yelling to each other across the flooded street. Barbara Crews and Blossom Randall are sisters whose parents, A.B. and Sally Ewing, lived on the northwest corner of the intersection.
A.B. Ewing was a child in 1903 when a flood devastated North Lawrence, so he purposely built his elegant home at an elevation he believed to be 3 feet above the level of the 1903 flood. Consequently, his daughters thought they would be safe in their parents' house, which was stockpiled with food. Barbara Crews and her infant son, Chip, crossed Lyons Street to her parents' house in a rowboat escorted by two men walking on either side.
Within a couple of hours, however, it became clear that their refuge was an illusion and the Crews family, along with nephew Steve Randall, were evacuated by Gib Francis.
"Ray tried to take Chip, but I wouldn't let him have him. Later, I thought if we'd been thrown out of the boat, he would have been much safer in his father's arms. I guess I was just being a mother," Barbara explained. "Each time the boat crossed an intersection, the current spun it around in circles. It was very, very scary!"
The Ewings, still confident that their home was high enough to avoid flooding, stayed put. But the river peaked 3.42 feet above the 27-foot level reached in 1903, forcing the couple's evacuation by Navy launch (the water was too swift for a less powerful boat) later that afternoon.
Barbara still marvels at the generosity of a group of Lawrence physicians. While staying with friends across the river, Chip became ill and was treated for strep throat by Dr. Helen Gilles.
Barbara said, "Later we received a letter from the doctors in that practice Dr. Mary Boyden, Dr. Gilles, Dr. Richard Hermes and Dr. Raymond Schwegler which said they were not charging for any treatment they gave to flood victims. I know one woman who gave birth and wasn't charged."
At a time when few people had health insurance, and many had lost everything in the muddy waters, the doctors' benevolence remains a bright spot in Barbara Crews' otherwise dark memories of the flood.
George Francis said his late father Gib Francis, the well-liked businessman and sportsman who rescued the Crews family and so many others, accomplished those rescues in the boat he used for lake fishing.
George said, "It really wasn't equipped to deal with swift river currents. And I'll bet he didn't even have on a life jacket!"
George likely would have been helping his father in the rescue operation had he not been on duty with his National Guard unit. Guardsman and civilians worked tirelessly, side-by-side, day and night, filling and stacking sandbags in an effort to keep the river from breaking through the dike. To provide illumination for the workers, some portions of the dike were lined with the town's Christmas lights.
George, who was stationed northwest of the city at the farthest end of the dike, realized something was amiss when he looked to town and saw no lights along the dike.
"We still had our generator-driven lights, but the river had broken through the dike east of us, and no one came to tell us," George said. "When we realized it, we just got in our trucks and took off."
Darlene Musick of Eudora said the 1951 flood, which destroyed her home at 801 Lake in North Lawrence, made her vow to "never live where it could flood." Darlene, her mother and siblings drove out by car the night before the dike ruptured, while her father, Harry Workman, walked out leading their cow to Harley Davenport's high ground one block south.
It took "some persuasion" the next day for officials to allow Harry Workman accompanied by his son-in-law, Dave Farrier to return by boat to the second-story windows of his home to rescue the cat and retrieve his hunting rifles and shotguns. The family had moved everything they could carry upstairs, believing the water wouldn't rise so high. They were wrong; water in their home's second story reached a level of 2 feet.
After the waters withdrew, the Workmans were left with the daunting task of shoveling out mud that reached to the doorknobs on the first floor.
"It was like shoveling glue," Darlene remembered, "and it smelled terrible!"
For months, the family lived in a south Lawrence apartment, while Harry and Melva Workman put in a full day at their jobs and spent the rest of their time gutting and rebuilding their ruined home through the aid of a low-interest government disaster loan.
Decades later, Darlene asked her mother why they rebuilt: "Why didn't we just leave?"
Her mother, Melva Workman replied, "When that's your home and everything you have is invested in it, you don't have a choice. You have to clean it up and rebuild."
Westvaco, now Astaris (but better known as FMC), had been in operation at Ninth and Maple streets for only a month when it was inundated by floodwaters.
For Bob Snow, who had quit his job as a Lawrence firefighter to go to work for Westvaco, the situation could hardly be worse: "My job was underwater and so was my home."
Snow, an energetic 80-year-old who still rides his bicycle 9 miles each evening, lives in the same home at 876 Oak St. He evacuated his wife, two children and his mother, then went back for his father. Though blind and unable to walk, Snow's father was reluctant to leave his small home just east of his son's.
Finally, Snow called Rumsey's Funeral Home at that time mortuaries provided the city with ambulance service and asked them to evacuate his father. Snow followed the ambulance in his 1948 International truck and was alarmed when he thought the water crossing Elm at Third would wash the ambulance into the river. It didn't.
The next day, Snow and his friend, Dean Cain, put a boat into the river at the paper company (then at Sixth and New Hampshire streets). Equipped with a 5-horsepower Mercury motor, the two friends and a passenger "wanting a ride across the river" started across the raging torrent to Snow's property.
Snow said, "About halfway over, a piece of debris sheared off the propeller pin and I had to row the rest of the way. We held onto the willows at the back of my land and used a piece of welding rod to replace the pin. I don't think our passenger even took a breath until we got going again."
The flood did bring Snow a good surprise. Even though many employees couldn't report to work, Westvaco kept all employees on its payroll.
Inside the plant, the damage was substantial and required 50 electricians working around the clock to make repairs.
Snow laughed when he recalled an incident during the cleanup when his brother, riding with him, asked Snow to stop his truck and allow him to wash his boots off in a puddle in the road.
"He stepped into the puddle and disappeared. Then his hat floated to the top." His brother had stepped into a 10-foot hole that that been washed out by floodwaters.
"We were lucky," Snow said with a wry grin, "that we hadn't driven into it."
Also ingrained in Snow's memory: "I went into Dean Cain's barn, where I had stacked some hay. Someone had piled their furniture on top of the hay in an effort to save it, but lying on this very fancy sofa was a 400-pound sow. I'll never forget that sight!"
Delores Hubach of McLouth said her family the Dunns lost almost everything in the flood except for copies of the Journal-World newspapers from that time. (The paper was then called the Law-rence Daily Journal-World).
Although 13-year-old Delores and her younger sister, Janet, helped their mother, Corene, carry possessions upstairs, much remained below because their father was sandbagging on the dike and at the paper company, where he was employed.
Delores' father, Paul Dunn, did find time to move the washer, on which he laid the rolled-up living room rug, from the basement to the dining room. But the water rose to the middle of the first-story windows, destroying everything on that floor.
In her haste to evacuate, Corene Dunn forgot her overnight bag, in which she had packed insurance policies, marriage certificate and other treasures. When her husband returned by boat to check the house, he found a mattress floating with the bag still on it.
"The special things she had attempted to save were all muddy and wet," Delores said ruefully, "but they were still readable. That was a miracle in itself."
She credited her father's co-workers for encouraging him to rebuild his home at 742 North Fifth St. instead of abandoning it. The north side of the house, "about to cave in," was reinforced with steel rods.
The powerful current carved a hole "deep enough for a dump truck" in their driveway and the street in front of it. "We fished in there," she said, "and caught some, too!
"There was a lot of help and love from the community at that time," recalled Delores, who suffers no lasting emotional effects from her flood experience.
Janet apparently was not so fortunate: "My sister, to this day, will not go on water, boat or anything like that, she was so traumatized."
High and dry on her farm west of Law-rence (land currently being developed as the Reserve at Alvamar), Christina Goff had no worries about the safety of her own small family as the river that bisected the city rose higher and higher. But she was so concerned about the safety of her mother and sister, Lillian and Jeanetta Fowler, who lived on Grant Street north of the Union Pacific tracks, that she sent her husband, Raymond, to bring them to the farm.
Before the Goffs knew it, their small home sheltered 20 people their own family of four and an additional 16 family members and friends who fled the floodwaters. "You could hardly walk through the house without stepping on someone sleeping on a pallet on the floor," my mother-in-law remembered, "and we had to eat in shifts."
Adding to the problem was the fact that the family's water supply was stored in a small cistern, meaning there was no indoor plumbing.
Writing about others' flood experiences brought my own hazy childhood memories of the 1951 flood into vivid reality.
Our home on Walnut Street stood on a long stretch of land that stepped down three levels and ended at the river, which I still tend to call the Kaw.
It was a great place to grow up and while my sisters and I were not allowed to go to the river unattended when accompanied by our parents, we frequently enjoyed playing and picnicking on the fine white sand that formed the river's banks. In the five years we lived there prior to the flood, we had never seen the Kaw's savage character.
On one of the many rainy days that preceded the flood, I was sprawled on the couch reading the latest Wonder Woman comic when Dad, a city commissioner, answered the phone. As the East Lawrence woman began speaking, he prudently held the phone inches away from his ear, allowing me to hear both sides of their conversation. "Stop the rain," she screamed. "Stop the rain now! It's flooding the alley and killing my chickens!"
Never long at a loss for words, my father, Lew Henry, hesitated only seconds before replying, "Madam, if you have that sort of power with the Almighty, I wish you'd exercise it. He's apparently not listening to me."
The rain continued, more chickens died and the water rose higher. As cautious North Lawrence residents began to evacuate the area, my mother, June Henry, refused to consider the idea. Because Mom has been terrified of water since childhood the result of the preacher who baptized her in a spring-fed pond losing his balance and almost drowning both her and himself it seems she would have been among the first to leave.
She recently answered my question about her reluctance to evacuate by explaining, "I really didn't think it would get that bad."
On the night of July 11, Mom stood at the back door and listened to the angry roar of water and the curious popping and splashing sounds she couldn't identify. "The force of the water is breaking off those big cottonwood trees," Dad said, "that's the pop, the splash is them falling in the river."
That convinced her! Mom, Dad, Vicki and I took advantage of Charles and Julie Stough's offer to share their home. Sisters Lesta and Bette stayed with Dr. James Mott, the county's chief health official, and his wife.
We were fortunate that floodwaters never reached our home, and although Dad and a couple of his fellow commissioners had taken the precaution of carrying Mom's new automatic washer out of the basement, scratching it and tearing off a piece of chrome in the process our basement remained dry while the Stoughs' basement on south Vermont Street eventually held 3 feet of water.
In spite of its proximity to the river, our land was the highest ground in North Lawrence.
Floodwaters raced back to the river a half block to the west and a block to the east, cutting deep holes in Walnut Street. The American Red Cross set up a kitchen for cleanup workers on land immediately west of us and animals, both wild and stock, made their way to our dry yard providing one unexpected bonus, according to Dad: "I never grew bigger roses!"
Because of the protection presently offered by reservoirs and levees, Lawrence will be unlikely to ever again experience an inundation as severe as the Flood of 1951.
And while the memories of individuals who endured that flood supplied this article with compelling stories of heroism, compassion, humor and dogged determination, everyone wishes the crisis that produced those stories could have been averted.
Of all the adjectives tragic, catastrophic, destructive that can be used to describe the flood, one that cannot be used, at least in human terms, is deadly. Not a single human life was lost locally in the devastating Flood of 1951.
Marsha Henry Goff is a free-lance
writer in Lawrence. Her e-mail address