The catastrophic Republican River flood of 1935 has long fascinated me.
Two years before I was born in Alma, Nebraska, a Republican River town, walls of water, eight-to-ten feet high, bolted down the 500-mile-long river. The torrent moved from Colorado through Nebraska and into Kansas, swelling from several hundred feet to three to four miles wide, sweeping houses, people, barns, horses, cattle, innumerable chickens and wildlife to their deaths, upturning railroad tracks, smashing bridges, and carving new beds for the river.
As a teenager, I watched the federal government built a huge dam across the river, a dam to control the river and end all its floods.
In 1989, my Great Plains Patchwork came out. Two chapters deal with the flood. One chapter described it, but the other chapter, "My Flood Story," told Arlene Dake Mintzmyer's experiences in her words. Her story had never been published. She refused to speak to reporters, no matter how they coaxed, although she did agree to let Willa Cather interview her, a planned discussion that never materialized.
So why did Arlene let me tape her story? Blood. We're distantly related, but close enough that she trusted me.
Since then, I planned to write a book about the flood. I collected bits and pieces, newspaper stories, typed memories. Then I found High Water Mark, a 250-page collection of news stories and photographs by Raymond Borchers. And in 1995, a 462-page photocopied account, Bluff-to-Bluff by Marlene (Harvey) Wilmot.
Every word I found strengthened my resolve to write my own flood book. But I was always too busy writing something else: first Mail-Order Kid, then Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers and now my work in progress, I Watched My Dad Beat Jimmy Hoffa.
Then, ta-da! Joy Hayden's book, The 1935 Republican River Flood, fell into my hands. I've read 108 of its 160 pages, but I knew long before that I was reading the book I would have written. It's all there: the data, the history, the stories, the pictures, the clean professional writing, wiping out the need for me to write a book. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Here are some of Hayden's quotes:
"Local historians agree that it is the deadliest weather event of any kind to occur in the Republican River Valley in modern history." (That would include dust storms and tornadoes.)
"…many residents believed they were witnessing the end of the world. The suffocating downpour made the simple act of breathing extremely difficult." The thunder roared so loudly "that the family had to shout to hear one another as they sat side by side watching floodwater creep under the door of their house."
Afterwards, searching for a dead woman, "the buzzards called attention to her location" but they'd left her body in such "poor condition…that she remains unidentified."
Books rarely make me weep, but this story brought tears: Bill Rogers, sixty-five, and a shepherd dog were doing chores at the barn when the water hit. Rogers freed the livestock as a swell swept him away, dashed him against a big elm tree. He fought the water, managed to reach the lower limb and pulled the dog up with him. One of the barn cats joined them. They watched the barn crash and disappear. Half the farm, annihilated, swept by.
That night rain soaked Rogers, the dog and the cat. He shivered so much he could barely maintain a grip. "In response to Roger's distress, the dog settled himself around Roger's shoulder like a shawl. The cat curled into his lap. Together they waited and watched."
Joy Hayden, who wrote this fine book, heard about the flood as a child. Her curiosity evolved into spending years compiling the history of the flood, meeting with survivors, and traveling along the river. Her book is available through The History Press www.historypress.net or, of course, through amazon.com.