A flood of memories

In a kid’s mind, the deluge of water that inundated downtown Marion in mid-July 1951 sometimes meant an unexpected good time.

“I’m afraid we had lots of fun at other people’s expense,” said Jim Christensen, a lifelong Marion resident who was 11 when the great flood hit. “We would ride our bikes down the hill on Main Street running right into the water at the Dairy Queen (now the Big Scoop).

“That was about as far as we could go before it got too deep. It was great sport.”

But even kids realized this food had a dark side, too.

“I had to get (typhoid) shots because I went in the water,” Christensen said. “I hated shots. I don’t think I would have gone in if I’d known I had to get shots.”

This past week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1951 flood, still regarded as the worst natural disaster to strike Eastern Kansas and Missouri in the 20th century.

Go into any Kansas town east of U.S. Highway 81, and the persons who lived through 1951 can tell you where they were at the time just as surely as later generations could tell where they were the day Kennedy was assassinated or men landed on the moon.

Even the young people in towns like Marion, where a big flood was an event sandwiched between small floods, remembered 1951 as the grandfather of floods.

As Dick Varenhorst said, “I might have been only 7 years old at the time, but something like that you don’t forget.”

Eugene Christensen was 7 when the flood of 1941 hit Marion. He remembers dangling his feet from the top of a piano into flood water at the family home on North Walnut.

When the Big One hit 10 years later, at 17, he was wading chest-deep in an effort to help Marion residents.

In the 1960s, a photo among the memorabilia kept by the Marion City Museum shows him in yet another flood-this time helping to guide a log down Main Street to keep it from going through store windows.

* * *

In Marion County, crop loss acres estimates ran as high as 15,000 acres in the 1951 deluge, including perennial crops like alfalfa that stood for days under deep water.

Millions of dollars in livestock, businesses, homes and personal injuries were lost, many of which are known only to individuals involved.

The 1951 flood probably was a proverbial 100-year flood. The U.S. Geological Society said historically it was exceeded by the 1844 flood, which averaged as much as five feet deeper in the Kansas-Missouri river basins.

An earlier flood in 1785 may have exceeded either one of those, but the only measurements of it were done at St. Louis. It is only suspected that Kansas water contributed because information is sketchy. A 1903 flood was only slightly smaller.

By 1903, Marion already was regarded as a “flood city,” and records at the City Museum indicate residents even tried to have fun and gain publicity from the event. Most Marion post cards of the era are photos of flood events. Photos show horses and buggies on Main Street in the water, boats, people floating in a bathtub, workers cleaning, and a horde of kids and adults just wading around.

Looking at them, a person wonders if Marion, a town built in a broad valley where four streams confluence-Mud Creek, Clear Creek, the South Cottonwood and the Cottonwood-hadn’t grown so accustomed to floods that the residents looked forward to them as regular events.

The 1951 flood and its aftermath changed all that. Even for kids.

“All we did was play, get shots and help clean up, nothing spectacular,” Jim Christensen said. “The merchants gave us kids things to help clean up. I helped clean the Kaw Theater (at the west end of Main, where Central National Bank is now). I remember washing it down. When we got to the bottom of the theater, we loaded wheelbarrows with the mud to bring it out.

“You could see the results of all the floods on the old wooden floors in town-like at the hardware, they would expand, contract and buckle.”

Eugene Christensen said the mud smelled, and Varenhorst said it was the stink of the mud he will always remember, a drying slime replete with dead vegetation and “dead critters” that covered everything.

* * *

It was the mud that brought tragedy to the Van Buren home in Marion. Earl Van Buren, owner of Van’s Time Shop downtown and regarded as one of the better watch repairmen in Kansas, had put his valuable jewelry cases on the sawhorses to keep them out of the water, recalls his wife, Alice.

“But the water filled them, and turned them over, so everything was covered with the mud,” she said. “It looked like we would lose everything.”

Then the Van Buren’s jewelry supplier did “a lovely, lovely” thing for them.

“They said if we would clean the jewelry and send it to them, they would replace it all,” she said.”So we brought it all to our home on the hill, and washed it by hand in the kitchen sink.”

But the worst wasn’t over for the Van Burens. Their new baby, Jan Erpleing, now married and living in Nebraska, contracted polio from the mud they brought to the house.

“She’s had to walk with a limp her whole life, but we’ve been blessed that she’s had a normal life,” Alice said.

Dick Varenhorst was at the farm home his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Orville Mese, one and a half miles west of Marion, while his parents, Wayne and Dorothy Varenhorst, struggled to save merchandise at their new business, Vans Department Store.

Even at the farm, water came up almost to the front yard, Varenhorst recalled.

“That farm was National Guard headquarters for a while, where they would send rescue boats out from,” he said. “I remember them bringing in a couple of guys who had been clinging for at least a day to a log in the water. They were covered with water beetles and kind of in a state of shock.”

Vans Department Store had opened in March in the west side of a brand new building leased from the American Legion. The same building also housed the Sanitary Market grocery store owned by Ed Sandwell on its east side, the Legion and the Marion County Selective Service Board upstairs.

“My folks were in the store trying to move things up, trying to keep things above the water as it rose,” Varenhorst said. He recalled his mother saying she stood in water up to her armpits.

“The water outside became higher than the water inside, and the doors opened outward,” he added. “They discovered they couldn’t open the door to leave. Finally, one of the windows broke, and the water came in to equalize the pressure. They were able to escape upstairs to the Legion.”

When Varenhorst came back to town after the water receded, he was greeted by a grisly sight.

“There were cow and pig carcasses right in the middle of the street at First and Main,” he said. “The water had been three feet deep in our house on First Street and five feet deep in the store.”

The swirling water had swept away a lot of the store’s contents.

“There was costume jewelry in plastic cases with our little tags on it that floated out,” Varenhorst said. “People from way down the Cottonwood River found them, and brought them back.

“One of our mannequins floated out, and someone thought it was a woman drowning, and tried to rescue her.

“People from all over the country donated hundreds of books for the kids and for the library, and you could go down to Bown Corby school to get one.

“The mud was two inches thick on everything. Everybody tried to have concrete or linoleum tile floors. The best you could do was squeegee it, and garden hose it out the back door, and hope that the rain would wash it away. There are still basements all over town with dry, caked mud.”

* * *

Eugene Christensen said his family had moved to a farm west of town by 1951.

“They flew food and stuff out of our pasture to people who needed it,” he said.

By that time, Eugene Christensen was already working at the International dealership, which was located downtown at the time. He said it was a busy time with many trips through the water. Most farm machinery had been driven through the water to safety before the main flood hit.

“It came up pretty fast, deep and swift,” he said. “You had to be pretty careful because the current was strong. I can’t swim either. The water was over the tops of the counters before we got the last of the machinery out. They finally made us get out of town because the water got too deep, too dangerous.”

Dean Fincham, who now lives at Marion County Lake, was unacquainted with Marion in 1951. He got his first look at the city from the air.

“I got a call from three businessmen in Pratt,” recalled Fincham, a combat pilot in the South Pacific during World War 2 who owned a 170 Cessna at the time. “They wanted to take the day off and fly up to see the flood.

“We flew up, and circled Marion. We could see people going down Main Street in boats, and the water appeared to be up to the first-story windows. We could see people on the roofs of the buildings waiting to be rescued.”

The irony for Fincham was that while Marion and Florence were flooding, his own ranch in Pratt and Stafford counties was withering from drought.

“I hadn’t had any rains in three years out there, 1949, 1950 and 1951,” he said. “My crops were gone. I didn’t have anything to feed livestock. I guess I just had a good banker. When I got back to the drylands at Pratt, I was wondering why I couldn’t have just a little bit of that water.”

Fincham moved to the county lake in 1976 after going to work for a Wichita firm.

* * *

As an elevated building, the Marion County Courthouse, at times during the 1951 flood was a center for rescue efforts, coordination efforts and a center for persons stranded.

Peabody was the first community in the county to be flooded in July, but escaped the heavier damage in Florence and Marion because of its topography.

The governor declared martial law and units of the national guard came from Newton to Florence and from McPherson to Marion.

The Red Cross assisted in relief and typhoid shots. Rescuers told of taking people from second-story windows and trees, and of parents holding children out windows by armpits above the water for rescue. Boys and young men delivered food and supplies by boat to people stranded.

The Bass Bridge two miles south of Marion was inundated for the first time by the 1941 flood, then twisted and dislodged by the 1951 flood. The power of the water can be seen by the fact that most official recordings of stream flow across the state during the flood ranged in the 40 thousand to 500 thousand cubic feet per second range depending on size of stream.

The 1951 flood wasn’t the last one to strike Marion.

“There were a lot of other minimal floods in the ’50s and ’60s,” Dick Varenhorst said. “Mr. Meisner, the county engineer, was pretty good about telling when the water would get here by when it was cresting at Durham and other places; they’d sound the fire sirens for warning, and we’d get three to six hours to pack things before the storm drains and sewers would back up. Lots of times First Street would be three feet deep.

“After each flood, the hill people would come down to help the valley people. We’d open the store, and pretty soon 15 to 20 people would show up to help. Hill people would put valley people up for the night. They became a resilient people.”

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