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'51 flood not forgotten after 6 decades

Managing editor

When it began raining mid-July 1951, Marion County residents geared up for what they thought would be a routine flood.

Flooding had become commonplace in the valleys and other low-lying areas of communities around the county.

But little did people know that this flood would be different.

This flood would be the worst since 1903.

Peabody was the first community of the Cottonwood Valley to be ravaged. A story in the Peabody Gazette-Herald described a torrential rain prior to the flood similar to “those seen in tropical countries during the monsoon season.”

In the early morning hours of July 11, Marion suffered at the hands of Mother Nature, sustaining an estimated $500,000 in damages.

In Florence, two homes and two businesses were washed away.

Water more than 10 feet deep ravaged the outside of homes and businesses. People had climbed to the roofs of the buildings to escape the high water. Motor boats on city streets became commonplace as neighbors helped neighbors evacuate.

Beverly Bredemeier Jirak was a child and lived with her family on Walnut Street, across from the city’s water plant.

There was a peak on the roof over the family’s front porch. When floodwaters came, Jirak’s family, the Floyd and Velma Bredemeier family, went upstairs to wait to be rescued.

“When a boat got us, we had to go off the peak of the porch,” Jirak said.

There were 52 inches of water in her house — above the light fixtures, lapping the ceiling.

“Leta Rees took us in,” Jirak said, a common occurrence.

Many families living on the hill took in families from the valley.

“I remember typhoid shots and eating canned foods without labels,” Jirak said.

Jirak’s father was the manager at the alfalfa mill. She was the middle child of a family of three girls — Nova Brunner and Roberta Warren are her sisters.

“We would have little floods where we lived,” Jirak said.

And each time the floodwaters would come, the Bredemeiers would prepare for it by moving the family cars north of the house. It had always worked before but in 1951, it didn’t.

“We had a new Chevrolet,” Jirak recalled. It was swept away in the raging waters.

Jean Pierce’s late husband, Bud, was in business at Walnut and Main streets. The Pierces lived in an apartment on Billings Street.

“We were told the water wouldn’t get that high (in the valley),” Pierce said, but it did.

Bud Pierce was in the process of installing new gas pumps and his gas station on Main Street.

“They would float so things had to be brought in to keep them from floating,” Pierce said.

To keep his desk high and dry, Bud put it on the car lift, but water reached the bottom drawers.

“I remember Ollie Wight helping to get people out of flood areas,” Pierce said.

Wight was the owner of the local funeral home and was the father of Joan Meyer.

Jean Pierce’s brother-in-law, then Sheriff Jim Kline, lived with his family in the county jail building. Pierce’s sister had just had a baby. The entire family was rescued and they stayed with Pierce’s mother on South Lincoln Street.

In the aftermath of the flood, when water receded, came the real work of cleaning up.

Much of Bud’s inventory was along the railroad tracks. Bud salvaged what he could find.

Pierce remembered Shorty Powell’s Dodge-Plymouth dealership west of Marion Auto Supply.

“They had scads of little parts,” Pierce said. “He and his wife washed all of that.”

During this time, the National Guard was called in, along with the American Red Cross to assist the community.

Many Marion families moved from low-lying areas to the hill.

Marion Reservoir was put into operation in 1968 and a levee around the valley was built in 1979, ending the possibility of another flood like the one 60 years ago.

Last modified July 14, 2011

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