Articles & Stories

Fifty-four Died In Raging

Torrent In Breathitt Co. In 1939

Personal Accounts Of The Cloudburst That

Erased Everything In Its Path In The Small

Communities Of Wilhurst And Vancleve

The Vancleve Bible School on Frozen Creek in Breathitt County before the flood on July 5, 1939. On the left is the Myers' cottage which included rooms used as a boys' dormitory. The large building, originally a commissary for a coal company, housed five young women at the time of the flood. The school was on property donated by the Pelfrey family and lay beside a normally peaceful little creek which flowed down a narrow gorge and into the North Fork of the Kentucky River.
(Photo courtesy of Kentucky Mountain Bible College.)

By Judy Centers - 2006

At 3:30 a.m. on July 5, 1939, a cloudburst on Frozen Creek in Breathitt County, Kentucky, caused a 20-foot wall of water to sweep down the narrow valley through Wilhurst and Vancleve. The flood erased everything in its path. Forty-four houses, 60 barns, outbuildings, and livestock all became part of the muddy torrent. In a matter of minutes 54 men, women, and children were dead.
Mary Lou Pelfrey's Account
The phone rang in the middle of the night and 23-year-old Mary Lou Pelfrey got out of bed and climbed down the stairs to answer it. Just as she lifted the receiver muddy water swirled around her bare feet. Her brother, Nathan, who lived further up the valley, was calling to warn the family of the wall of water which was just now rushing toward them. Mary Lou ran upstairs to wake the family. Will Henry Pelfrey, his wife, Angeline Back Pelfrey, and Mary Lou's little brother climbed out onto the roof of the porch. The view outside was unreal. It was as light as day, and lightning flickered as if someone was turning a light switch on and off.
Will Henry tied a telephone wire around the waist of the little boy, and the boy and Mary Lou stepped off into the muddy waters and swam toward the hillside. He then tied another piece of line around his wife, Angeline, and she too made it safely to shore. Will Henry refused to leave. The 20-foot-high wall of water barreling down Frozen Creek knocked his two-story house off its foundation, but it did not wash it away. Will Henry Pelfrey survived. His family swam to the side of the mountain and climbed until they reached shelter at Jim Banks' house.
In the meantime the oldest Pelfrey boy, Nathan; his wife, Garnet Miller, and their two-year-old baby boy clung to a mattress and each other as they were swept past his father's house and down the valley toward the Kentucky River. The rushing torrent of water poured into the river, dashed against the opposite river bank, and splashed 100 feet or more into the air. Debris tore the baby out of Nathan's arms, and he disappeared beneath the muddy water. The body of little Gary Nathan Pelfrey was found five days later in Beattyville.
The Myers Family
Horace and Nettie Myers and their three small children lived in the boys' cottage on the Bible School campus at Vancleve. Horace taught some courses and served as Dean of Men. Nettie looked after their children: Titus, Phillip, and the baby, Lela Grace. On the fourth of July the Myers entertained teenage cousins, Glenys and Betty Mae, who had arrived from Indiana that afternoon. That night, after homemade ice cream and devotions, they all went to bed and slept soundly until awakened suddenly by the torrential storm.
When Horace opened the door muddy water rushed in. He grabbed his son, Phillip, intending to head for higher ground behind the house. Nettie and Glenys, holding the baby and Betty Mae, huddled together on the porch. Suddenly a 20-foot-high wall of muddy water and debris slammed into the house. The house was knocked off its foundation and the Myers were floating in the darkness. Horace, with five-year-old Phillip clinging to his back, began swimming for the hillside and called back to his family to hold onto the eaves of the house. Nettie started to climb up onto the roof, but before she could turn and reach for the baby she was separated from the girls by the moving house. Fifteen-year-old Glenys held the baby and stood beside 15-year-old Betty Mae as the porch collapsed, and they all went down together. Titus was still asleep in his bed.

The site of the Vancleve Bible School as it appeared on July 5, 1939. As one can see everything in the path of the raging water was erased. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky Mountain Bible College.)

From atop the roof Nettie saw something large hit her husband and youngest son and take them under just before they reached safety. She then was knocked off the roof and swept away from her loved ones forever.
Nettie Myers was washed down the creek and up the river for three miles. A man in a fishing boat heard her cries and rescued her. She walked to the Mt. Carmel campus fully expecting to see her husband and three children. By late afternoon all hope was gone. The two cousins and Nettie's own children: Titus, age six; Philip, age five; and Lela Grace, five months all perished. The last body recovered was that of Nettie's husband, Rev. Horace P. Myers.
Friends and Neighbors
Earl Howard's house was high up on the hillside. Earl and his wife had two boys, Ray and Forest, and a newborn baby girl. One of Earl's neighbors went to his house and told him that the creek was rising, and he should get out. Earl said, "Oh, it will never get this far," and went back to bed. At 3:30 a.m. that morning the house was swept away. Only Ray, the eldest son, survived. The next morning Ray was found sitting on top of Big Rock crying. Ray said that the last time he saw his father, his arms were outstretched as far as he could holding the baby girl's head above water.
In the midst of tragedy miracles happened. In Vancleve Mollie Hatton was awakened by the sound of furniture bumping around the room. She arose from her bed and stepped into the water that floated first the furniture and then the house. She woke her children and told them to climb up the stairs to the third floor. The children made it safely up the stairs, but as Mollie followed them the staircase broke loose and dropped her back down to the first floor where she struggled amid the floating furniture. She managed to shove a tall bureau over to the broken staircase and climb on top of it. Reaching their hands to her the children pulled her up. What was left of her 11-room house floated down the creek and got caught on the remnants of the Frozen Creek Bridge and held there long enough for the family to make their escape. Molly and her three children, Don, J. C., and Louise climbed safely through a third-floor window.
A one-room house was rushing down the stream with a little boy on the roof crying out for help. No one had anyway to reach him. An elderly lady at the scene fell to her knees and started praying. The house struck a tree and stopped long enough for the boy to climb to safety on a tree limb.
Mary Bradley, with her children and sister, Verna, lived just across the road from the river. The water got up so high in their house that they had to climb on top of the roof. Several men climbed the hill behind the house with ropes and got them off the roof and to safety.
Eighty-one-year-old Gilly Ann Prater lived with her daughter, Lona Tolson, and son, Amos Malone. When the deluge came it was clear that their only hope was to abandon the house before it was washed away. Gilly Ann insisted that she was too old to fight the current and that Amos must save his own life and not worry about her. Unwilling to leave her, but knowing that she was right, finally, he jumped into the water and was washed down the creek and to safety. Gilly Ann lit a lantern and held it up so he could see where he was going, and he made it. Later, he said that his last sight of his mother was of her holding the lantern aloft as the muddy water swirled about her. Moments later the house, his sister, and mother were swept away. Mrs. Prater's body was found at Lock No. 13 near Beattyville. She and Lona lie buried together at the Puckett Cemetery in Vancleve.
Walter Rose operated a big general store at Wilhurst. Walter managed to swim to safety but his wife, Evelyn, and daughter, Ola Ruth, vanished in the swirling, muddy water. All he owned and everything he cared for was swept away in an instant.
Curt Childers lived in Jackson. Curt didn't know that his wife had given permission for their 14-year-old daughter, Irene, to spend the night with her cousin who lived on Frozen. Irene Childers, age 14, and her cousin, Irene Spicer, age 12, had spent the July Fourth holiday visiting Natural Bridge at Slade, Kentucky, and now the two girls were spending the night together. The Spicer family lived on the J. C. Hurst farm. A creek ran behind the house and Frozen Creek ran in front of the house. They never had a chance.
The next day 14-year-old Woodrow Spicer stood at the coffins of his father, Richard; mother, Esther; sisters: Arlene, Irene, and Roxie; Roxie's baby; and little eight-year-old brother, Sherman. Woodrow remembered the last words he heard his father speak, "Lord be with us."
Meanwhile, over in Jackson, Curt Childers and his wife didn't know there had been a flood until someone hauled their daughter's body home in the back of a pickup truck.
Blanche Perry's Account
Blanche Perry, a 22-year-old college student, had returned to the Kentucky Bible School at Vancleve only the day before to spend the summer doing missionary work. The following is her account of that terrible night.
"There were five of us girls in the dormitory: Mildred Drake, Lorene Hartley, Christine Holman, Elsie Booth, and I. We were awakened by a crashing of timbers, and we rushed into the hall. There was a deafening roar, and the gas lights flickered and then went out. The building lurched and was swept off its foundation. The water rose 20 feet in five minutes. The building shook violently, the windows crashed, and the ceiling began dropping at our feet. Pictures fell off the walls, dishes tumbled across the floor while trunks, pianos, chairs, and girls were lashed from one side of the hall to the other. The floor opened and furniture began dropping through.
"The water kept rising. We rushed to the attic and behind us the steps disappeared immediately. The water was soon knee-deep in the attic. In less than ten minutes we had floated a mile or more. The lightning flashed and lit up the attic. Elsie Booth stood by the window crying. She said, 'If we really belong to God and He loves us, why didn't we have any warning?' I said, 'Elsie we've trusted God to save us and to take us through school, can't you trust Him now?' Heaven was all over her face as she smiled through her tears and cried, 'Of course, I can trust Him. I don't know why I hadn't thought of that before, in a few minutes we will all be with Jesus.'
"By this time the building was too dangerous to remain in any longer, and we decided to jump out. Elsie went first. I saw her swim a few feet in that awful current, then she went down. Christine Holman sat in the window. I can still see her big, blue eyes and face as white as snow. 'Are you going?' I asked. 'I can swim but not in that current,' she replied. 'If you'll move back I'll go,' I told her, 'We have only a few seconds left.' She moved back, and I jumped into the swirling, muddy water. Christine followed right behind me.
"Since I could not swim I expected to be with Jesus very soon. I knew the current was too strong for me, and there was no use fighting it. I gave myself to the current which sent me to the bottom. I held my breath, relaxed, came to the top, caught my breath then went down again. I repeated this process for two or three miles. Finally, I crawled onto a very small piece of building and lay there exhausted. My ten-mile journey ended when I picked up a 2x4 and pushed away the trunks, mattresses, chairs, and boards and drifted toward the bank. I caught hold of a willow limb and pulled myself out.
"Daylight dawned and it was still raining. I followed a path which led to a house. A mother and several children stared at me with horror. I explained as best I could what had happened. Then the mother asked ,'Ain't ye scared to death?' I said, 'No, I'm a Christian, and I was ready to go.' She gave me some dry clothes, and I walked barefoot two miles across a hill where I was met by the Mt. Carmel workers and taken to the high school."
The body of teacher Christine Holman was recovered 15 miles away. The body of Elsie Booth was found three days later about 50 miles downstream.
Covered With Glory
Richard Rudd and his neighbors worked for weeks recovering bodies. A temporary morgue was set up in the Blanton/Vancleve area. One neighbor, 74-year-old George Banks, was found dead lying on a mattress in an open field. Roscoe Riley was one of the many men who worked around the clock making coffins. The women sewed shrouds.
The Dean of the Kentucky Mountain Bible Institute, Miss Martha Archer, remembered: "As the bodies were brought in, coffins were made, and we had burial services. God was so near and heaven was all over the place. We were covered with a cloud of glory even in the midst of such suffering. We could almost feel the angels' wings as they moved among us."
Mary Lou Pelfrey and Blanche Perry are still living and were happy to share their story with the stipulation that God be given the glory for their miraculous survival. Mr. Woodrow Spicer was also very gracious in sharing his painful story and has lived his life in the belief that God saved him for a purpose. I would like to thank The Kentucky Explorer readers for the stories and details they shared. Also, special thanks to Allan Booth, Joseph Dalton, Doug Reisner, Charlie Turner, Maudie Adams, the Elmer Riley family, Hilda Goff Rudd, Robert G. Rudd, Louise Spencer, Ethel Vance, Patsy Woodring, and the Kentucky Mountain Bible College for assistance in research and for photographs.

Judy Centers, 1918 Yancey Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36107, shares this article with our readers.