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FLOOD OF '51: First-hand memories of flood survivor

Memories columnist

As one of the few remaining residents who lived through the 1951 flood 70 years ago this week, I have been asked to put down on paper some of the memories I have of the most devastating flood experienced in Marion.

My husband, Bill, was at that time associate editor of the Marion County Record. I was office manager at the alfalfa mill for W.J. Small Co., Inc.

The flood lasted two days. We got through the first day (July 11th) fairly easily but were alerted early the morning of the 12th that a second rise was expected.

Bill and I joined other employees at the newspaper office that second day to “put up” equipment that might be flooded, The building, when built, was thought to be above flooding.

After getting things up to where we thought they would be safe, I spent considerable time watching the water rise while sitting on steps going to the second floor of the building. And rise it did.

A flood itself is quiet, but I could hear motorboats approaching from the west, supposedly from McPherson, with the purpose of rescuing those trapped in their homes. As they came up from the west I could hear plate glass windows of stores breaking out from their wakes as they roared by.

Then, items from stores began floating by. The flood’s current turned south at Farmers and Drovers National Bank at 3rd and Main St. and went directly past me. Shortly after boats went up Main, I saw everything from hundreds of light bulbs out of the hardware store to the ice cream unit from the drug store floating by.

As water continued to rise, I moved to the upper floor. climbed a ladder, and went through a trapdoor that allowed me to reach the flat roof of the building.

The roof allowed me to have an amazing view of downtown. At one time I looked down from the south side to see my dad, Ollie Wight, in one of the small outboard motorboats.

Locals were checking homes and bringing those wanting to go to higher land to the courthouse, where they were transferred to more powerful boats and taken to the hill.

I yelled down to my dad and chastised him for not wearing a life jacket especially since he couldn’t swim.

People were on roofs of other downtown buildings. In our vicinity, friends Alex and Rosse Case were on the roof of the Case building, and John and Ella Brose were on the roof of the building across the alley from me where their apartment was located. The Case boys had no food, and the Broses did. John was attempting to send some to them by casting it across the street with his fishing rod. I never knew whether that venture was successful.

When a motorboat came by late afternoon, I accepted an offer of a ride to the hill. It was the last boat leaving the downtown area that day.

A couple of stops were made along the way. First, we went over to the corner of 1st and Miller Sts., where an older woman yelled out of her second story window that she was going to stay with her house.

We then went back to Main and stopped by the steps to the old Marion Hospital, where a bottle of oxygen was produced to be sent to the yet unopened St. Luke Hospital, which was being used for emergencies.

Leaving the old hospital, we fought a really strong flood tide, angled across Main and the post office toward the back of Central Park until the current allowed us to turn back north toward Main.

The boat pulled up at a sidewalk next to the driveway to the park and unloaded me and the oxygen tank.

Days following were hectic. The water finally receded, and cleanup began. Volunteers came in droves. A Red Cross disaster crew arrived, as well as the National Guard.

Displaced residents were housed with volunteers. A temporary kitchen was set up at the high school. There was even a large galvanized stock tank filled with ice and soft drinks on the high school lawn.

As the flood receded and while cleanup was being done, permits were required for anyone going into the flood area. Typhoid and tetanus shots were required.

How everyone came together during the time was nothing short of miraculous, and the experience, though harrowing at the time, is one I have remembered for years.

Last modified July 7, 2021

 

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