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Kentucky by Heart: More stories of the Great Flood of 1937 from Shawnee High School students

Author’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series looking at a book published in 1937, called Flood Stories. It’s a collection of personal accounts—each written by a girl student of the “Grammar and Composition” class at Shawnee High School, in Louisville—that occurred around Louisville and The Great Flood of 1937. I have paraphrased the following narratives except when inserting direct quotes from the girls’ stories. (Click here for part one.)

By Steve Flairty
KyFoward Columnist

Forty People on Island Square by Ethel Durham, 457 South Forty-first Street

Not realizing the seriousness of the flood, Ethel Durham was doing some water sightseeing in a boat with a couple of girlfriends and a boy. When she got home, the basement was flooded, and with floating furniture for all to see. That night, the family and others went to a friend’s house, but soon the water there rose high and they found themselves marooned “on an island about a block long,” she explained. “There were forty people on this block besides a horse, chickens, dogs, and cats. The name ‘Niburg Island’ was given to this square because Mr. Niburg, a war veteran, was put in charge of this island. We made rafts and boats most of the day to get from one side of the street to the other.”

Images of Louisville during the 1937 flood (Photo from Pinterest provided)

There were twelve people staying at the friend’s house, and a total of forty on the square street area. Food was available at a local police station, and when alerted about the forty, efforts were made to send large food boxes and crates of milk. It still wasn’t easy for them, however. “The gas and lights were off so that we had no place to cook the food,” Ethel said. “The people next door built a stove out in the yard and we cooked large quantities of food at one time. In this way we kept from getting sick and hungry.”

Irene and her family returned home when the water receded, and like so many others, it was a mess. To get it ready for living in again, it took plenty of effort, but persistence paid off. “We are pleased to say that we are almost finished after two months (February and March) of hard and steady work,” she said.

A Refugee in Lexington by Jane Brown, 3121 Portland Avenue

Jane Brown described her experience in serving flood refugees as “one I will never forget.” She volunteered to work in the Portland Library, in West Louisville. There, she noted, all types of people came, often “cold and scantily clothed. . .(and) were cared for and (then) taken to homes out of the water. . .not only poor people, but also rich people.”

After that short period of service, Jane and her family had to leave their flooding home and were taken to the Madrid Ball Room, located at Third and Guthrie. Soon, approximately six hundred came for temporary sanctuary. They were awakened early in the morning on the first day to receive typhoid shots, and many got sore arms and felt sick in the aftermath. With a lessening amount of food, little water and no heat, the throngs of people were moved out of the location.

Louisville during the 1937 flood. Photo from Pinterest provided)

Jane and her group, as well as many others, were sent to Lexington on Fayette County school buses. They left on January 28 at noon and arrived in Lexington at about 10 o’clock that night. The unusually long trip time occurred because of detours taken around Louisville and also in the flood-ravaged Frankfort area.

They landed at Lexington’s Adath Israel Temple, where they were treated very well. “The bedrooms were the Sunday School rooms, but they were very nice,” Jane said. The guests did enjoyable things for amusement such as reading books, doing puzzles, playing cards and even dancing and attending picture shows.

They also enjoyed the trip from Lexington, Jane remarked. “The sights we saw when Leaving Lexington were very interesting, such as the race horse farms and farm reservoirs. As we approached Frankfort, Kentucky, we could see the capital in the distance. We saw the convicts who were being kept in tents on the hill because the penitentiary was wrecked by the flood.”

The return to the Brown family home presented big problems because of the flood damage, but memories of the Lexington trip would be theirs to keep forever.

Rehabilitation of a Flooded House by Dorothy McCown, 238 South Forty-second Street

Dorothy wrote in her account one of the most graphic and telling descriptions of the damage to a house. The water leveled on the family’s first floor crested at about four feet, causing disheartening property damage. This was the high schooler’s words:

The doors and windows were swollen and could not be opened. Therefore, my father had to force them open with a crow-bar. Upon entering the house, we had found the furniture turned over and some of it apart. The first floor was covered with about one-fourth inch of slimy mud. The wallpaper had come loose from the wall. In some places the baseboard was badly warped. The paint was peeled off the woodwork; however, there was more damage in some of the other rooms. The plaster was damaged to a great extent. The hardwood floors were buckled, and we had to take them up and throw them away. We estimated the damage done to our home at approximately one thousand dollars. That was the condition in which we found our home.

steve-flairtySteve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Dorothy also talked about the hardwood floors being “taken up” and subfloors scrubbed and disinfected with ammonia to free from germs and disease. Wallpaper was removed and they took loose plaster off and replastered. Casing and baseboard were also replaced, along with two new doors installed. They sprinkled lime on the yard, she said, “to make the living condition around our home more sanitary.”

The McCowns were without electricity for three weeks. They used lanterns and candles to see; they went to bed early at night. All suffered and all pitched in to help the family get along.

Expressing what many others felt, too, Dorothy said “This is the first flood that I have ever experienced, and I hope that it will be the last one that I will experience.”

Overconfidence by Lela May Rubarts, 2602 West Madison Street

Lela May Rubarts said her father first scolded family members for “being alarmed.” He even repeated such as the family was taken in a crowded truck to Cresent Hill (four miles east of downtown Louisville), and then to Middletown (a small town on the east side of Louisville). Their furniture had unwisely been left on the first floor of their house. Within a day or two, there was clearly a reason to be alarmed.

The refugees’ group the Rubarts family traveled with temporarily stayed in two Middletown houses. “We put all of the men in the donated house, and the women in another house,” wrote Lela May. “We divided the work of washing, cooking, and cleaning house among the women, and the men came to our house to eat. As we couldn’t get coal, the men went to the woods and chopped trees for fuel.”

Lela May’s grandfather contacted her family and soon drove from Liberty, Kentucky, to take them to his home, approximately 110 miles away. They ran out of gas on the way and had to beg to get some to finish their trip.

While in Liberty, she volunteered to help other refugees in a local schoolhouse. It proved enjoyable to do so. “As I am fond of children, I soon became attached to an adorable baby girl there. Her mother allowed me to take her to my grandfather’s store, where I dressed her in an entire new outfit,” Lela May said. She became “attached” to Liberty and her experiences there, she noted, “and felt like I had been on a vacation instead of having been a refugee.”

The return home to Louisville changed that positive feeling quickly, being that their home was a wreck. However, she said that “everyone was busy at work reconstructing the city. Louisville was coming back bigger and better.”

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