Henderson County Devastation, 1937 Flood

Author's Note: This story is based on the recollections of my uncle, Gerald Rhodes, who was ten years old at the time of the 1937 flood. His memories of that event remain vivid after more than 60 years.

By Sue Perkins - 2000

On January 1, 1937, Arthur Rhodes had much for which to be thankful. He and his wife, Elsie, had seven healthy children: Harold, Leon, Gerald, Kathleen, Lois, Anthony, and Louis. The family lived in a four-room house on a rented farm, near Newman in Henderson County, Kentucky. He felt grateful that the farm included acres of fertile bottom land near the Green River.

The previous fall, the land had yielded a decent crop of tobacco, which had brought the best price (per pound) since 1929. The barn was well-stocked with hay; a plush green carpet of winter wheat now lay across the flat fields. Perhaps next year's crops would bring even better money, if they were lucky. He could at last buy a farm of his own.

Mr. Rhodes could hardly guess that within a couple of weeks, he would consider himself extremely lucky just to be alive. He and his family would be homeless, with no possessions other than the clothes on their backs and the children's pet collie, Jack.

Ten-year-old Gerald was too young to really understand his father's concern about the chilling rain, which had fallen non-stop since January 9th. As the rain continued, his optimism for the future gave way to dread. Already sections of his bottom land lay beneath several inches of water. Day after day, unrelenting rain and sleet pelted the Ohio Valley, overflowing creeks and swelling the Ohio River to dangerous levels. Young Gerald and his family watched as flood waters crept toward their home. The anxiety of the adults mounted. If they had to leave, what would happen to the livestock? Though the family prayed, fervently, for clear skies, the rain didn't cease.

When the swirling, muddy water rose to the front door and spilled inside the house, Rhodes gathered his family into the wagon. The collie clambered in and snuggled beneath the tarpaulin with the children as Rhodes guided the horses through standing water to a nearby two-story tenant house. The family climbed to the second story, built a fire, and passed an uneasy night. By morning, water surrounded the house, making escape impossible. Rhodes repeatedly fired his shotgun to alert rescuers.

People from Newman paddled a canoe to the house to remove the Rhodes family to safety. With their oars, the rescuers beat a narrow channel through the ice-crusted water to reach the stranded family. The boat was a welcome sight. The family and the dog were taken to Waits' General Store, where, along with about 50 other refugees, they passed a restless day, then slept on the floor that night.

The next day, a tug boat transferred the evacuees from the general store to higher ground at the community of Stanley, about four miles east of Newman. They were taken to the Stanley Elementary School, where more people had gathered after having been driven from their homes. Here the Rhodes family spent another uncomfortable night, as more icy rain battered the countryside.

The next day, the evacuees were placed aboard rescue barges, hastily constructed by W. P. A. crews at the county garage near Owensboro. The crude transports provided no protection from the sleet that pounded them, during the hours-long journey up river to safety.

Cold, wet, hungry, and miserable, the Rhodes family was relieved to touch dry ground again, when the barge finally pulled up to Frederica Street in Owensboro. The landing dock, normally used to disembark freight and ferry traffic, was submerged beneath several feet of flood water. As dark settled, Rhodes left his family at Turley's Hardware Store, at Main and Allen Streets; then walked over ten blocks to his sister-in-law's apartment on East Fourth Street. Her husband drove him back downtown to pick up the family.

The Rhodes family spent yet another night sleeping on a floor, but no complaints were heard. The next morning, the family moved to the Third Baptist Church on Allen Street, where temporary living quarters had been set up. Families were assigned a Sunday School classroom, which afforded them a measure of privacy. Cots and blankets were furnished by the Red Cross, and hot meals were prepared in the church kitchen.

The rain finally stopped, but troubles continued for Mrs. Rhodes. Two of her younger children, Kathleen and Anthony, developed pneumonia as a result of exposure, during the trip aboard the barge. Although a doctor visited the children at the temporary shelter, no effective treatment was available in those pre-antibiotic days. Mrs. Rhodes spent some anxious days at the bedsides of her sick children; but fortunately, both recovered.

Like the doves sent forth from Noah's ark, Mr. Rhodes made more than one attempt to return home, before the waters had receded sufficiently. When finally he viewed the damage to the house, his heart sank. Every window was shattered. A log had passed through a window and had wedged, diagonally, across one room. The flood waters, which had risen to within one foot of the ceiling, had stripped the wallpaper from the walls, and whisked away most of the furniture; those few pieces that remained were warped and unusable. From a peg, high on the wall, dangled the smashed neck of Mr. Rhodes' prized guitar.

Though Gerald did not hear his parents complain of their misfortune, he knew his mother's heart must have been broken. She managed to salvage some framed pictures and a few dishes, but all her cherished handmade quilts were ruined by the stinking mud. Clothing, not swept away by the raging water, was stained and unusable.

The one bright point in the tragedy was the retrieval of the family dog, who had been left in the care of Mr. Cole at the general store in Newman, when the Rhodes family evacuated to Owensboro. It was a happy reunion when the children met up again with their pet collie, but all their livestock (two cows, four horses, and several chickens and pigs) had drowned.

Starting over again, Arthur Rhodes and his family farmed on rented land for five more years, until he bought 117 acres in southeastern Daviess County in 1942. Wisely, he saw to it that the house was on high ground.

Sue Perkins, 2010 Arborcrest Dr., Arlington, TX 76012, 817-303-9272, email: [email protected], shares with our readers her uncle's recollections, as a ten-year-old boy, of the 1937 flood.