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Kentucky by Heart: Unique book offers personal accounts of life in Ky. during Great Flood of 1937

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series.

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

A friend of mine, knowing my love for old Kentucky books, recently gifted me with one that drew immediate fascination. It’s called Flood Stories, and it’s a collection of personal accounts of The Great Flood of 1937, a tumultuous natural catastrophe resulting from heavy rainfall causing the Ohio River to overflow its banks in January and February of that year.

The flood wreaked havoc on thousands living anywhere near the river, creating plenty of opportunities for acts of despair or of heroism. I’m happy to say that most accounts in the collection demonstrate a tendency toward heroism or, at least, a willingness to do what had to be done and a desire to assist others if possible.

Particularly interesting about the book is that it was written by girl students of the “Grammar and Composition” class at Shawnee High School, in Louisville. It was published by Standard Printing Company, also in Louisville, in the same year of the flood. Details about the process of putting together the stories are limited (a bit frustrating for me), but Lucie Lowry wrote in the preface: “These twenty-four varied stories are literally true, and are printed as the pupils wrote them.” I’m not sure if Lowry was the teacher (or editor of the book, for that matter), but she noted the strong personal investment of writing down their thoughts each girl made, saying they “believed that in the long future other young girls would wonder at the unbelievable statements the barest outline of their adventures must include.”

As I read each of them, these primary source accounts of their daily activities helped me feel connected to the time and experiences. The period covered was relatively short, from late January into the first few weeks of February. However, a whole lot happened in that time, and the challenges required three things for handling the situation: a change of mind-set regarding one’s acceptable life “comfort level,” an extra dose of energy—both physically and emotionally—and a desire to care for the needs of others, too.

For the most part, that’s what I saw in Flood Stories. And not only that, many of those exhibiting such virtues were young people, both those who wrote the stories and other young people living in their circles. That’s uplifting news from the past, a positive example for the present.

I’ll attempt to capture the essence of their struggles by paraphrasing summaries of several of the girls’ personal narratives, along with including many of their direct remarks. I’ll not edit apparent grammar or spelling errors that I notice:

Living on an Island by Virginia Austin, 403 North Thirty-fourth Street.

On the first day of the flood, Virginia and some friends took a drive by the Ohio River before school started that morning, saying: “I saw how high the water was rising, but I didn’t realize how serious the flood was until I got to school.”

(1937 flood (Image from Pinterest provided)

Virginia arrived at school, but with the water rising, students were sent home after an hour and a half. At home, her curiosity led her to go for a walk to see “how serious it was getting” and later that night after supper, she noted: “I listened to calls and bulletins that came over the radio… but we were told not to become alarmed because we were high and dry.”

Except that Virginia’s family was not. Four days later, water entered their basement and kept rising. A mad scramble ensued with family members moving items to the second floor, including a gas stove, a heating stove, and a washer. “All of us helped to carry upstairs a ton and a half of coal which was put in our used-to-be kitchen,” said Virginia. “We were on an island which covered the whole square from Alford to Jewell Avenue.”

Interestingly–and probably distastefully–these items floated down the street and were “fished out,” according to Virginia: a barrel of Red and Green Pickled Peppers, a large pile of wood, a drum of ether, two drums of tar, a drum of olive oil, and a dead pig which was roasted and fed to the family’s dogs and cats.

Stalled in a Truck by Irene Bartley, 2312 Woodland Avenue

After release from Shawnee High at 9:15 a.m. on January 22, Irene and some friends were unable to board a school bus because of overcrowding, so they attempted to walk home but found that high water made it very difficult. They continued to the home of a friend, where they dried their clothing. “My girl friend’s father took us home in his car,” said Irene, “but we had to detour about six times.”

Irene and her family were forced out of their home a few days later and were taken by boat to the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company. However, it was too crowded, and they were taken to the Board of Education Building to stay among hundreds of others—without heat or light. “The doctor arrived about six o’clock in the evening,” said Irene, “and gave everyone a typhoid shot. As there were no beds, we had to sleep on chairs.” Irene graciously volunteered to help with the record-keeping for the shots.

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)

Soon, the Bartleys were among those who moved again. “Our family traveled in a big Hampton Cracker Company truck to Prospect (Kentucky) with about twenty-five other persons,” she explained. The riders could not see out because there were no windows in the back of the vehicle, and without notice, the truck stalled under a viaduct. “Every once in a while, the truck driver would shout, ‘Is there any water coming up in the truck? This frightened us more than ever.” Fortunately, a truck ahead of them pulled them out. The adventure of the day ended when the “refugees,” a descriptive term used often in the accounts, arrived in Prospect at about 7:30 that evening after leaving earlier at noon. However, their stay at a one-room church in Prospect was, she said, “a very unpleasant one. We bathed in an old washtub which we found behind the church. There were about six wash rags and towels among twenty-five people.”

Irene’s group returned home after two weeks, worn out. They received little rest in the near term. Though the Bartley family home was damaged less than they expected, the grocery store they owned was a wreck, and Irene’s job was to wash the mud off cans of food under the light of coal oil lamps. Often, the labels came off and the food couldn’t be sold, so were taken home to use. Eventually, the family opened a grocery at another location.

Being Quarantined by Alice Bonkofsky, 2721 West Main Street

Alice and her family were more fortunate than many in regard to property damage, and she found time to be helpful in her community. She worked at the Fourth District Police Station for the Red Cross, writing “slips” for record-keeping purposes as food was dispersed to flood victims. “Some days over a thousand people came to get food,” she explained. “Finally after a few days I got so hoarse from asking the people for information that I could hardly talk.”

When the relief station was moved elsewhere, Alice had some time to go and see different areas of the city. She went by her grandmother’s house, “the most pitiful sight I had ever beheld,” she said. “Some of her (the grandmother) furniture was out in the front yard and some in the back yard. There was even some hanging out of the upstairs window.”

Meanwhile, parts of Louisville were quarantined to keep people safely away. Alice’s father got caught away from the family’s home and stayed with his boss. National Guards acted to direct people and offer help. “One dark night when I had to go down to a friend’s house, I could hardly see,” recalled Alice. “One of the guards saw that I was having quite a time trying to walk, so he used his flash light and walked along with me.”

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