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Memories from the flood

Submitted photo This photograph was anonymously submitted to the Pioneer Journal and dates back to the April-May flood of 1942.

In late April and early May of 1942, a massive flood ground life in Sebeka to a halt. Looking at pictures from that moment more than seventy years ago, it’s hard to imagine just how much day-to-day life was affected as townspeople waited for the floodwaters to recede. However, this wasn’t the worst flood to ever hit Sebeka.

It wasn’t even the worst flood for the town that year.

According to the archives of the Sebeka Review-Messenger, there were three floods in the span of 11 months. It began with the spring flood of 1942, then another in August, and finally a third in April of 1943. The floods impacted transportation most of all, inundating both the highway and the freight railway running through town, as well as a number of surrounding county roads. Businesses and homes were also flooded, causing thousands of dollars in damages. Several local gas stations and the Peterson-Biddick feed store were particularly flood-prone, but by the time the third deluge happened in 1943, they had the process of evacuating their wares to safer ground down to a science. Farmers, however, lost tons upon tons of hay and grain crops as the fruits of their labor were either ruined by water saturation or just swept away.

Throughout the flood series, citizens of Sebeka in some cases still managed to soldier on, carry out their daily routines, and see the silver lining of the situation. This excerpt from a contemporary Sebeka Review article on the August  flood of ’42 – arguably the most severe of the three – tells of a jovial atmosphere around the lake in the middle of town.

“Although the serious flood caused untold inconvenience and loss to residents, there was a cheerful attitude in the air and people made the best of it. Wisecracks and jokes were heard, above cheerful laughter; old and young took off their shoes and stockings and waded through the water…”

As much as they could, Sebekans also didn’t allow the floods to get in the way of their work day. In 1942, Claire Polman was a recent graduate of Verndale high school and had gotten a job as a milkman in Sebeka. While trying to navigate his usual route during the floods, he remembers simply plowing his truck through the flooded streets where the water was shallow enough and going around where it wasn’t.

“We just went to the ones we could reach,” he said.

Not every motorist had the advantage of a big truck for getting through the floodwaters. Instead, they relied on twelve-year-old James “Jimmy” Walter and his gang of friends to push them up the street. Drivers would sometimes give him a quarter or fifty cents for the help, big money for a kid back in those days.

Walter also remembered flooding in his basement almost all the way up to the next floor. Outside, there was so much water that his family had to use the elevated railway bridge to get to town.  

“As the river kept coming up, we knew we were probably in trouble,” he remembered. “The only warning we got was as (the rain) came down.”

Although the floods caused extensive damage and inconvenience, there were no known injuries to townspeople.  In the mid-1950s, the Red Eye River was straightened, alleviating a great deal of flood risk. Ask the elders of Sebeka, however, and they may tell you of a time when the danger of severe flooding was not just occasionally present… but commonplace.