Remembering a flood in 1924

One of the ways that history fascinates me is that there’s the facts of something — the who, what, where, when, why, and how — and then there’s the memories someone has about the event. For example, reading about what happened when the Titanic sank is one part of history, and hearing the survivor accounts of their memories fill in another perspective of the facts of that event. 

The filters of our backgrounds and experiences color our memories, and I’m always interested to hear different how people around me remember certain things we experienced together. I laugh when getting together with old friends or family members who remember something about something I experienced but had no recollection of — and vice versa. And sometimes, our memories include things that simply couldn’t be, based on the facts of the events, but it doesn’t change the fact that we remember them, either from our memories melding with other stories we’ve heard, or our imaginations creating something to get us through the event, or what have you. 

I came across the memories of a woman recalling a flood in Belle Fourche in 1924, when she was 6 years old. Whe was writing about the memories more than 60 years later.

“This is the story of something that happened sixty-three years ago. I was six years old, so the things that I’m telling you about didn’t necessarily take place just this way, but it’s how I remember them,” Helen Herrett writes in the article, “Aunt Helen and the big flood,” in “Butte County, South Dakota: A History.” “Then, too, we talked about the flood for so many years that my memories have blended in with stories told and retold in the evenings when neighbors dropped in or relatives came to visit.”

Herrett describes that the flood took place in the spring of 1924, about a year after her parents, Lou and Nellie Lawson, sold their homestead and moved to a ranch on the Belle Fourche River about seven miles west of Belle Fourche. They moved so that their three daughters, Helen, Betty, and Dorothy, could attend school. She remembers that the buildings on the ranch were close to the riverbed and that her parents worried about their proximity to the water: “My mother watched us closely and, as the oldest, I had orders to keep the little ones away from the river.” 

The first winter the family spent on the ranch, the area received a lot of snow, and a warm rain caused the snow to melt all at once, causing the river to rise within its banks before breaking out and causing flooding: “No matter which way we looked, all we could see was water, around the house, covering the road, the paths to the farm building,” Herrett writes. “But my parents had been busy, doing all they could to be prepared.” 

She describes that her mother had baked and prepped food, taking vegetables and meat from the root cellar, as well as moving family treasures upstairs to keep them out of harm’s way from the water. The family caught all of their chickens, which lived in a coop near the riverbank, and moved them to the top of a nearby hillside in a wagon to safely wait out the flood. They also moved the pigs into the hay-mow of a barn.

“They boosted the mothers or coaxed them to climb the stairs after their piglets until they had all but one sow high and dry. This one evidently had a mind of her own. She refused to go with the others and as the barnyard was filling up fast with water she climbed to the top of a manure pile near the barn and waited out the flood,” Herrett said. 

The cows needed to be milked, floodwaters or not, so Herrett’s father and a hired man would saddle their horses, feed the animals, milk the cows, and carefully return with buckets of milk. “It must have been hard, to carry a pail, watch out for floating debris, and not spill too much on the way,” she writes. She also remembers that once, one of the horses they were riding stepped into a hole and had to swim.

Herrett also remembers that the cows, who could just drink from the floodwater, would instead wade to where the water tank was located — even though floodwater flowed freely over the tank — and drink from that location. 

Eventually, when the water continued to rise, Herrett, and the schoolteacher, who boarded with the family, went to stay with neighbors who lived farther from the river, so they would be able to continue to get to school. Herrett never remembered feeling scared during the flood — excited maybe, “but I didn’t have sense enough to be scared,” she writes.

That wasn’t the case for the rest of the family. She describes that her grandmother was frantic, hearing stories about a house floating down the river and getting caught on a bridge. The story goes that the house eventually had to be dynamited — but because the telephone lines were down, her grandmother had no way to discover whether her family was safe. 

“The water rose until it was nearly even with the floorboards on the front porch … then, inch by inch, began to fall,” Herrett writes. Cleanup afterwards was quite a task, but eventually, the animals were returned to their normal locations, the family could sleep at night without having to watch the river, fences were mended, and a new cellar was built to replace the former that had been washed out, she describes.

“I’m sure the neighbors helped all they could because in those days that was what being a neighbor meant. Beside, you never knew when you would have trouble,” Herrett writes. “Two good things came out of this. The water that flowed across the river bottoms brought topsoil from the hills and the lowland farmers got the best crop of hay they had had in years. Another was that the river was too impatient to follow the gently curving bend where the farm building stood so it cut a new channel that was straighter and far enough from the house that my mother didn’t have to think about the children playing too close to the water. We found lots of other ways to worry them but that was one problem that was solved for good, though it took a flood to do it.”

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