For Florence, flood was a watershed

The flood of ’51 devastated the city of Marion temporarily, but the town of Florence never fully recovered from its aftermath, say longtime residents.

Florence, with a population today of about 670, then boasted of nearly 1,500 residents.

“We had floods every year, but they were just common,” said Lois Huntley, one of those longtime residents. “The ’51 flood really hurt us. Florence was a real thriving town, but the flood kind of ruined us.”

This month marks 50 years since the Cottonwood River swept through the business and residential areas of Florence early in the morning of July 11. By afternoon, the river level was reportedly four feet higher than the record 1941 flood.

All but one business and 90 percent of the residences were filled with river water. The flood level reached between six and seven feet inside some businesses, according to the 1972 Florence Centennial book.

Two homes and two businesses- the Bullock service station and Jim Jackson’s liquor store-were swept off their foundations.

By night, marshall law was declared to prevent looting and the governor called in the National Guard.

Total damage to the community was estimated to be $500,000, according to a commemorative booklet produced shortly after the disaster.

Benard Stromberg, 88, of rural Florence, agrees the ’51 flood left a lasting mark on the town.

Stromberg lives about four miles north of Florence on Yarrow Road, the same place he was living when the flood hit.

Even though his farmstead was not in the path of the raging water, he said he experienced the flood’s impact.

Torrential rains had filled the Cottonwood River’s banks. Stromberg said he did not know how much rain fell, but he had a 10-gallon barrel that filled with rain water and overflowed.

Near Florence, crews had been working on U.S. Highway 50, Stromberg said, and mounds of dirt initially held back the water.

“But when it was high enough to cover the highway, the water swept through town.”

Residents in houses in the low area, usually hit by flood waters, got out earlier, “but those in ordinary houses where the waters never came, stayed,” Stromberg said.

A friend of Stromberg remained in his house across from the Florence Christian Church, then located at Seventh and Main streets.

The water level in his home gradually rose.

“Pretty soon the piano got to bobbing around, so he opened the door and just pushed it out and let it go down Main Street,” Stromberg said.

His friend watched as his piano floated through Florence’s business district.

“It wasn’t going to be any good anyway, so if he could get it out he wouldn’t have to worry about it,” Stromberg said.

Another incident Stromberg recollected happened to the Ludwig family, who lived in the big house at 506 Park Ave., near the old bridge, currently the residence of Suzanne Robinson.

Stromberg described the Ludwigs’ rescue: “He and his wife were going to stick it out, so they stayed in there and went upstairs. Finally the water kept getting higher and higher, so neighbors on this side decided they better get them out of there.

“A bunch of guys from Newton brought boats over here to rescue people. These guys had a boat and the water was so swift, they couldn’t cross the river. So we set planks up on the roadway. We carried that motorboat up the blanks, across the bridge and over the side, so they could go down and get the Ludwigs.

“We watched those guys go down and waited and waited a long time. And thought, ‘My gosh, they must have drowned.’

“Well, they had got down to the house and the Ludwigs had a grape vineyard in the back. Those grape vines got caught up in the propeller of the motorboat, so the guys had to tie the boat to a tree and take the engine off and untangle it.

“So finally, after a long time, we could hear a motor and see the light and they were coming.We got the Ludwigs up the bank and carried the boat back up and put it on the other side and took the Ludwigs up to the high school.”

The Red Cross had set up headquarters at the high school, where many of the Florence residents were evacuated.

“Seventy-five percent of the people up there were my customers,” he said.

As a dairyman, Stromberg made regular deliveries of fresh milk and cream in town.

“But we couldn’t get out to Florence,” he said. “The approaches to the bridge were washed out.”

With no place to deliver his milk, he said, “We had to just pour the milk down the drain.”

The community had to pull together to overcome the damage caused by the flood.

“It took at least a year and half for people to recover,” he said. “But then some of them never did start over.”

Among the businesses that were never rebuilt was one of the drug stores.

“I kind of have an idea that it might have come back for a little bit, but not for long,” Stromberg said.

Some of the flooded businesses built or moved up the hill, west of Doyle Street to U.S. Highway 77, to vacate the town’s lowest-lying areas.

“They moved a lot of the houses up on the circle drive,” he said. ” I don’t think there were too many new houses built.”

When the big flood hit, Florence had three grocery stores. The one on the corner, owned by Frank McMillen, was probably the biggest store in town before the flood, Stromberg said, but the flood devastated his store. So he built the building that is now the Town & Country Cafe and moved his grocery store up there.

“He had a restaurant on one end of it and a grocery store on the other,” Stromberg said. “But for some reason or another that never did take off too good.”

Another grocer, Lee Josephson, had built a market right in the middle of town.

“He was smart enough-he just called in a salvage company and they just cleaned out his store,” Stromberg said. “The flood took everything he had and he started all over again.”

The third store was owned by John Hendren, who “lasted for awhile, but sold out to another fella and quit because he was getting older,” Stromberg said.

After the flood, the Florence Christian Church built a new building on the hill.

“The flood really messed that (old) frame building up,” he said.

The Methodist Church had rebuilt after a fire in ’49.

“We were done building,” he said. “The flood sure didn’t do it any good.”

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, on Eighth Street, probably had water in the basement, he said.

In the years that followed, proponents sought to have a flood control levee built around the city. After initial opposition, the levee was built. Control was turned over to the city Nov. 30, 1964, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Stromberg said the ’51 flood was one event he cannot forget.

“I never saw anything like it and I don’t want to see it again.”

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