Fremont County, Iowa

Floods Past, 1882, and 1952
by Jerry Birkby

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of June 27, 2011

I have written about Rich "Dick" Bobbitt before. When I was a boy growing up he seemed ancient to me and perhaps he was; he was born April 25, 1869. He was raised in a large brick home, that stood near where Horse Creek passes under Bluff Road, where Jerry and Pat Hume now live. He told me of an experience he had during the flood of 1882.

In April of that year, a friend of the family landed a boat in the field in front of the Bobbitt house, to visit with Dick's father. On learning it was Dick's birthday, he took him for a boat ride to celebrate. They rowed around what is now Veda Hume Hilding's land, Golden's landing strip, and some of my land. The river was truly bluff to bluff that year.

The spring of 1951, was very wet. I remember we could not get all our crops planted. In late August of that year, my father and I were digging post holes out on low ground and water came up several inches in the post holes. Then the winter of 1951-1952 saw monumental amounts of mountain snow in Montana and Wyoming and the spring of 1952 brought warm rains that melted snow in record time. The dams, now in the news, were largely unfinished so the water ran off unchecked.

Reports of flooding began to circulate, and farmers, around Percival began to ask my father if it would be all right to park some machinery on our higher ground. He always said, "Of course." So it was that we went to bed one night and woke up to a yard full of machinery, a barn full of livestock and a shed full of seed beans and oats. The word had come during the night that a break in the levee was imminent. This was in the days before computers, cell phones or Code Red but we did have the party telephone line.

The break held off for several days. I was a sophomore in Sidney High School and volunteered for sand bag duty. I don't remember where all we worked, but I do remember being on a levee somewhere with the water a few inches below the top of the levee and a two story house across the way with water running in the upper windows. One of the last days before the break, we worked the levee just north of the Nebraska City Bridge. Crews had driven 2 X 4's into the top of the levee at regular intervals and nailed a couple of foot boards onto them. The top of the levee looked like it had been snowing sledgehammers. Brand new six-pound sledge hammers lay everywhere. I have always wondered where they came from and where they went. Of course, they had been used to drive the 2X4's, but my little farm boy mind couldn't grasp the sheer magnitude of the effort involved. We boys threw sandbags against the boards, but soon ran out of sandbags. The main thing I remember, from that day (besides the sledgehammers), was the way the water surged through the chokepoint under the bridge and then dropped some four or five feet when the river widened on the other side. I thought then, and I think yet, "Poor design," but it has never been changed from that day to this.

The break came on April 19, 1952, when the levee at Plum Creek failed. I was at school because the trucks (to take us to sand bagging) had not come that day; perhaps a safety issue was involved or our guardian angels were at work. My cousin Pete Gardner and his wife Cleo were here at the house visiting. They got word of the break and walked up the Bluff back of the house to watch the water. They were awed at seeing a wall of water sweeping down from the north inundating the valley before them within minutes. When the flooding began, Alfred and Lynn Bobbitt and Basil and Bob Golden were on the Base Line Road near No. 6 ditch. Using their bulldozer they tried to push a dam across the Baseline Road to the higher ground of their basin to the north. What is now the Golden Wetlands and Knox Creek Basin was, at that time, a large 240 acre field planted to wheat, which they were trying to save.

They turned the water at the Baseline Road, but then it went roaring on three-quarters of a mile to the south, broke through a levee and started coming up behind them. They start to move their bulldozer to higher ground. At about this point two fellows flying over in a light airplane saw the drama and began to circle around to see what developed. Suddenly their carburetor iced up and they made a forced landing in the water. Neither of them was seriously hurt so they waded out of the water and join the exodus. The plane stayed where it was until the waters receded.

The flood stayed high for a week to 10 days. The first order of business was the houses. Most of them were structurally okay, but they usually had up to three inches of silt. This was flushed out with a hose connected to a pump situated near a puddle.

After about three weeks farmers were able to get back into their fields although the roads were in terrible shape making it hard to get to fields. The gravel was scoured off the roads and many had large washouts. The fields were littered with logs that appeared to have been buried in the bottom of the river for a hundred years. Fences had been torn loose with fence wire and fence posts strung across the fields. Telephone wire was also a problem as nearly every phone line was torn down.

In some cases, fields were covered with sand up to a depth of 4 feet. Sometimes this proved to be beneficial where large plows pulled by large track tractors deep plowed and mix the underlying gumbo with the sand to make a great improvement in the soil. In other places, the sand was just too deep.

Despite the late start, most crops in this area were planted and the weather that year was nearly ideal. Maybe nature really does try to make amends for her excesses. At any rate everyone managed to raise a fairly good crop.

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