Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

Adventures in moving

Hardships in SE Kansas couldn’t compare to Lawrence flood of ‘51

March 25, 2001


Late June 1951 was an exciting time in our lives. My husband, Ross, a vocational-agriculture teacher, had a new job with higher pay. We had a baby boy, 8 weeks old, and we were moving our household from north-central Kansas to a school in southeastern Kansas so he could be on the job by early July. Vo-ag teachers work 11 months per year instead of the usual nine months for most teachers.

It was early morning but a truck had already loaded our furnishings and left for the new location, where a house had been rented ahead of time. I sat on a step in the empty house, our baby in a basket atop a mattress with one day's supply of diapers packed beneath and other necessary items in a diaper bag and purse. Ross had gone to make a last call on one of his students at a farm outside of town. He would be back to pick me up and we'd be on our way.

However, "the best laid plans (including ours) of mice and men" did not take into account the disastrous flood of 1951 in northeastern Kansas. There was a "small puddle" in the road on the way to this farm, which Ross had been through on previous trips. This time the front of the car dropped down into sand and water, a washout under the road. When he finally contacted me around noon, the car had been towed and was in the shop awaiting a replacement motor, which we were lucky to get by the next day.

Since we had a nursing baby, we were able to camp in the house overnight with the help of kindly friends and neighbors. Ross called the highway patrol to learn a safe route to drive to Lawrence, his hometown, and we were on our way early the next day. The spring thaw, followed by continuing heavy rains, had caused many streams in northern Kansas and Nebraska to overflow their banks, but we got by without crossing any of the large rivers. We found Lawrence preoccupied with the rising Kaw River, sandbagging the dikes; some lowlands north of town were already covered with water. I did diaper laundry, using his mother's washer daily laundry was a necessity in those days before the era of disposable diapers. We continued on our way south the next morning.

No place to stay

We were counting our blessings when we reached our destination, a small settlement of 1,500 or so, until we found no place to stay. A family was living in the house, which had been promised us, and they had no intention of moving. Yes, the truck had unloaded our belongings, and they were stored in the attic. It seems the owner had changed his mind about renting it and had instead sold it.

Meanwhile, amid worries of rising flood waters from the Verdigris and Fall rivers in that area, the odor of souring corn in the fields and steamy July temperatures, few people were concerned about where the high school's new vocational agriculture teacher would live. Small communities such as this had a general store and post office but not apartments or hotels. Two larger towns in the area were across the rivers, which had already covered the roads, so our town was isolated at that time.

A member of the school board suggested talking with Miss Smythe, a former YWCA missionary, who lived in the middle of town and had a large house. She was an elderly retiree who had traveled the world, then returned to live in her parents' old home. She agreed to let us use one upstairs bedroom and a small porch with a sink and hot plate (spare kitchen), which were in opposite corners of the second floor with a bathroom in a hallway between until we could find permanent quarters more suitable for a family. At least here was temporary shelter. She also permitted us to bring our washer from storage to the little porch.

But, then the local crisis continued. My husband was invited to join others in rescuing equipment from the local water plant as the water continued rising. He came back after wading in that murky floodwater to announce the city water was now off and he needed a bath!

So where could he find clean water to bathe? We piled towels and soap into the car along with the baby in a basket and drove toward what high ground was available until we found a small stream. It was almost narrow enough to step across but did have a deeper pool near a small bridge or culvert on the road. Ross said, "You watch for cars while I get a bath, then I'll watch while you bathe." I stood at the corner of the bridge and watched for traffic until he reappeared, looking and feeling refreshed. Then it was my turn. I removed clothing, waded in, and had started scrubbing when he announced, "Here comes a truck!" Quickly I crept under the low bridge, then came out fighting cobwebs and debris when I heard him laughing there was no truck. Somehow I failed to share his amusement as he said. "Why didn't you just slip down under the water?"

"Because I had to save your son's lunch," I muttered, meanwhile trying to remind myself as we finished and went back to the car that my medical training may have distorted my views. His agricultural training gave him a more casual attitude toward sanitation than I had from studying medical technology.

Back in town we struggled along without city water for the next week. Ross found some people in town who had a cistern and would give us a cram can of water each day or two to get by until the flood receded and city water was restored. Time went very slowly for those few days, and I learned to conserve water in ways I had never previously dreamed I would. The supply was insufficient for diaper laundry with soap followed by rinsing, so I rinsed the wet diapers in clear water and hung them in the hot July sun. Each day the supply diminished until I began to wonder how we would cope. After five days or so I asked our missionary landlady-hostess, "What do they do in countries where they don't have diapers?"

Her reply was not helpful as she said, "Oh, they just hold the child out from them." I started saving and collecting all the newspapers that came near my abode, thinking if necessary we could lay the baby in the middle of a pile of them if worse came to worst. Luckily the city water was restored before I became that desperate, and I was able to use our washing machine on the little porch.

Though she did not help much with our laundry problem, Miss Smythe was a very thoughtful and compassionate person. She enjoyed children and had a story hour for them at her house in the late afternoon each day, about the time the mothers in the area were busy preparing their evening meal. The children enjoyed it immensely and the mothers were happy with the arrangement, too. Of course, all the children had to see the tiny baby at Miss Smythe's house, so they came parading though our place upstairs also each day. I soon became acquainted with other mothers through their children, and so was able to make friends with some local people before school started in the fall.

Relatively lucky

Meanwhile, Ross was unable to find any vacant houses in town, but he learned through local gossip that another member of the school board owned a bungalow in town, which would be vacant Sept. 1. Mr. Street agreed to rent it to us at that time. Miss Smythe said we could stay until then, so we settled for the new lifestyle during the remainder of that hot summer, which went slowly as we struggled along in the temporary quarters without refrigeration or fans. We did have the city water, and a truck delivered blocks of ice to town several times a week. We put it in an old-fashioned ice box that was there, where it melted rapidly and kept cold only food placed against it in the ice compartment. We became faithful customers of the local general store because we had to buy small quantities of perishables often.

There was no doctor in this small town, so we located one in the county seat after the rivers receded and roads were open. A well-baby check assured us our young one was staying healthy in spite of our way of life.

By mid-July we were feeling more secure when a messenger asked Ross to report to the local telephone office for a message from the Red Cross we had no phone. Ross anxiously hurried to the local switchboard, and was greatly relieved to learn it was our family in Lawrence inquiring if we were safe. They told of the worst flood of the century that had hit Lawrence and other northern Kansas towns and wreaked havoc in the industrial bottoms of Kansas City, Kan. The Kaw River had crested about July 12 at more than 30 feet, North Lawrence had to be evacuated, and the current as it swirled through the area caused a great deal of destruction. Later they sent newspapers and pictures of the struggle in their area.

Suddenly we felt very lucky. We were high and dry and healthy, even though we had suffered some inconvenience and expense. Ross was busy visiting his farm boys and families and I was eagerly planning our future in the bungalow, and at long last we would have our refrigerator back in use. Ah, the comfort of a few modern furnishings such as a rocking chair, crib, child's high chair and bathing equipment!

Margaret Fisher is a free-lance writer living in Lawrence.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.