By Ala Westmoreland Byram
Madison Coordinator’s Note: This account of the 1927 Flood by Ala Westmoreland Byram was graciously provided by her granddaughter, Janet Byram Newsom of Marshall, Texas, daughter of J. C. and Billie Byram of Tallulah. The photos were all supplied by Janet and are from the Byram family album. RPS November 2003.
Before Levee Broke Near Levee Break
The levee broke on May 3, 1927. Just 1 ˝ miles from my home, it was a sight to see so many men passing in trucks by my house to put sand bags on the levee to keep the levee from breaking. Different farms would take their men and work them. And when it was our time I for the negroes to go they didn't t want to go without my husband. The other bosses were so mean to them and would hit them over their head with their guns.
My husband would ride up and down the levee guarding the levee and would bring his men home at night or they would have to sleep on the floor of the boat. So one night he was late coming to get them, and they had scattered all over the boat. About nine o'clock he called, "Percy" and the rest would say, "Here we are Mr. Clark, Please take us home." They would just have old sacks to sleep on.
They thought it would hold and so my husband and other men from Tallulah went down twenty-five miles where the water was running over the levee seven miles, and was working there when the levee broke here. They thought sure it would break there. I didn't know what to do but ring the bell. We could see negroes running ever where over the farm. One negro was driving the tractor behind the barn went off and left it running. One negro woman had some clothes under her arm and she told me later, "I just tell you Miss Clark I don't know when I lost my baby clothes." I didn't know what to do but just stood out in the yard, but I soon saw my husband coming like lightening. He said he was trying to get home before the water came in between him and home.
Lots of people from town brought their horses, cows, chickens, even the piano from the Baptist church, preacher's chickens out for us to take care of. They said, "this place didn't go under in the last over-flow" and thought it wouldn't this time, but it sure did.
It broke about 12:30 o'clock and didn't get to the house until about seven o'clock that night. All the old negroes said it would go down and then come back up in the low places. So we started to the levee with all our mules, horses and cows. The cows from town wouldn't go across the bridges; we had to work with them and had to push them in the water to get them going. We had to make scaffolds for the hogs under the barn. But in a few days we had to let them down it was so cold under the barn where they couldn't get any sunshine, but they got fat on crawfish.
I had 200 little chickens we had to catch and 100 with hens, but couldn't catch them until they went to roost. And 75 of the preacher's, they were all put on the front porch and on the other end was our car. Didn't have time to get the truck up there. We caught a cow with a young calf and put her in an old house, and fed her. She gave us enough milk to cook with.
Sandbagging top of levee Furniture stacked on top of house
About 9 o'clock that night my husband said for me to kill some fryers and cook them that he was hungry. We had put all of the things up on scaffolds but the 2 pianos, cabinets and stove, but before I got the water hot for the chickens my husband said, "I expect you and the children had better go to the barn." It was a large built barn, so we started, it was about seven thirty then and lightening, when, it lighten we could see the water running into the bayou. I would have given any thing if we could have seen the water coming up. We hadn't gone far before the water was ankle deep and it was waist deep before we got to the barn. We had to cross the road to get to the barn and an old negro heard us coming and came to meet us to tell us how swift it was. He said he just caught one of my boys (Gaines) - before the water took him down stream. We stayed in the barn with the negroes in one end and we in the other. They sang preached and prayed all night long and my children telling me "Mama you think more of those old chickens and cows than you do us, if it hadn't been for you would been out of this place." I could have, but I had too many things to just walk off and leave. I had worked hard to get them.
My husband wanted to send me to my mothers but I knew the children would run her crazy. We had five. I said if he stayed I was going too. After we got settled in the barn my husband came back to the house and cooked those chickens. He came in a boat the next morning. He had cooked breakfast for us. We stayed in the house with the water just running over our second step until 4 of July.
We boiled all our water and put it out under the house to stay cool. We had to sleep under blankets every night. We would boil our clothes in a lard can and go in the water to hang them out. If they fell in the water they were gone the water was so swift.
We had gotten some oil on the porch and had a brooder lamp to boil on. It done very well but was so slow in heating. They were expecting the levee to break in another place so my husband had to go and sit on a 2 by 4 plank so the negroes would work. They would beg him to come home and get us, said "if it broke this time it would wash us away." While he was working at this place he went to the car house and came back with a rope. I asked him "what was he going to do with the rope?" he said, "I need it in my work." So a few days after that I found out he tied that rope around his waist and had swum out in the river where it had broken and they took his picture. He knew not to tell me. A man from Vicksburg Miss. was up there and told him, "he could have a gotten lots of money for that if he had advertised."
The children and I stayed about four days and night. My husband would come home every night. I didn't like living in a tent with ten or twelve and they wasn‘t so clean, so while up there some clothes came in by boat. They got in line; one woman said "Come on Mrs. Clark you can get some," but I said I wanted good clothes if I stood in line so long. They were old rotten things. The new ones they would throw to some one they knew, and call their name. So one man came to my husband and ask him didn't he have two girls about 11 and 13. He said "yes." He said, "Well I'm going give you this box for them." Well when he brought the box home and they opened it, it was a box full of baby clothes. I wished then I had a baby but that was all we got. But at last the Red Cross came and things were quite different.
They were divided right and some didn't get all; it was that way with the food at first. We came home. My husband would make a trip to town every day to get groceries, and we could hear his motorboat when it stopped. He was going through a place where they would have to get out and pull the boat about a quarter of a mile. He would take his hands and throw crawfish out on a little knoll and the negroes would be there each day to gather them in lard cans. Then he would start his motor and come on down the bayou and go on up to the levee where the camp was to deliver the groceries. One time we got some horsemeat, it sure was tuff. We didn't eat it after we found out what it was.
I enjoyed all of the time because my mother lived on Red River for twenty-five years and she just thought I was going to the bad place when I came to Madison Parish. She said she lived on the river so long when they made a good crop the water would come the next year and take it away from them the next year. I have a pitcher that she saved during an over flow on Red River. She was living in a two-room house and went from the kitchen to get some coals to build a fire in the kitchen stove and the kitchen just left the house and that pitcher was the only thing she saved. It is about sixty years old now.
We stayed on in our house until 4th of July. We made a raft out of some logs and put the truck on and put behind the motorboat and took it to the levee and went up about twenty-five miles and stayed until the water went down. Every one said we could stay until the water began to go down. That would be the time we would get sick.
We would come back every Sunday to see about everything. It would look so bad I wanted to cry. Not a green thing to see on the ground, but we were greeted by the old colored man, “Tom.” He had salted the eggs in my cabinet, so I had to take them all out, and wash the cabinet out. I would take a water bucket full and a sixteen lb. Bucket back with us each week. We stayed at this place until school started.
Fighting Second Break in Levee Waiting for the water to go down
Clark Byram (on right) in front of Piggly Wiggly
Greatest of Keepers.
Isaiah 41: 10-20 In the crisis God spoke to remind the people of his power and care. He is the Great helper to the weak the friendless. To us all he still says, “I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. This was his promises.