FLOODING IN MADISON PARISH
Modified from The Madison Journal Centennial Issue August 14, 1975, Section V pp. 4-5
Centuries of flooding have made the lands of Madison Parish among the richest in the world. But, though floods are good for the soil, they are a menace to humans and their property. The growth of Madison Parish and the value of land have always hinged on the adequacy of flood control measures,
Levees had been in use on the lower Mississippi near New Orleans for almost a century before the first ones were built in Northeast Louisiana. Grants on the riverfront were given by the Spanish and French on the condition that the grantees build levees sufficient to protect the country from inundation. Though the practice of making the riparian planters pay for flood control was outlawed at the time of the Louisiana Cession in 1903, the first territorial government of Louisiana continued the practice in its first levee law in 1807.
It was assumed at that time that the riverfront planters received the greatest benefit from their levees. This was in large measure true. The early settlers preferred the land on the riverfront for its access to river transportation, and because it was the highest. Relatively few were settled in the low backcountry at that time.
The first levees were built for the sake of economy on the natural levees deposited by the river right near its banks (this was always the highest ground; delta land slopes back from the river about eight to ten feet). The banks frequently caved in during high water and long lines of levees were washed away.
For long time settlements in Northeast Louisiana did not form a continuous line along the riverbank. There were of course no levees where there were no settlements. The early levees in the area were inferior, disjoined piles of earth which offered poor protection to the country.
But by1844 levees had been extended to form a continuous line from the mouth of Red River to the Arkansas boundary. This development contributed much to the rapid growth of the area. The early settlers back from the river contributed nothing, however, toward building the levees. Planters who owned lands by the river were required by law to maintain levees along their property, or have their land sold. These levees had to have a 20-foot base and be at least four feet higher than the highest ridges. This required some to be higher than others.
The floods of 1849 and 1850 broke the levees in several places, resulting in a public clamor for a better levee system. The Federal Swamp Land Act of 1850 permitted Louisiana to sell its unsold over-flowed lands to provide funds for levee construction. An overall lack of cooperation prevented the program from working.
By 1852 the levees had been built to a height of about ten feet with a 50 to 80 foot base and offered fairly good protection. But by this time the specifications required by law made levee building an impossible task for most riparian planters. In many instances all the land owned by a planter would not sell for enough to build half the levee.
Whenever the Police Jury had levee work done, it could force planters to reimburse it. This resulted in many planters losing their farms, and the riparian proprietors began to demand that the legislature change the law.
As early as 1844 there were many who believed that the people back from the river should help in building the levees. Said the Richmond Compiler in May of that year: "The people in the river parishes should be taxed sufficiently to keep up the levees. Until this is done, we despair of ever seeing good levees kept up on the banks of the river. It is folly to think of keeping up levees by solely taxing the lands of the river proprietors. In many instances the lands are not worth the cost of the levees. The back settlers are undoubtedly deeply interested in this subject. If the river water is kept within its proper channels, their lands are then protected and rescued."
The people of Tensas Parish were the first to take a forward step. As a result, Tensas had the best levees north of the mouth of Red River. It became famous for its well protected lands and fine cotton plantations.
Madison followed later by levying taxes on all the people in the parish for levee construction. This tax was objected to at first by some landowners back from the river. In time they too came to see that the levee problem was one which individual enterprise alone could not solve.
Madison and Carroll Parishes formed a joint levee board in 1859. The operating funds came from taxes on land and cotton. Also, bonds were issued and $400,000 was borrowed from foreign capitalists. This greatly improved the levee system for these two parishes. The program was interrupted by the Civil War and none of the borrowed money was ever repaid.
WAR DEVASTATES LEVEES
During the war, the levees were cut and destroyed in many places to aid in military activities. For many years following the war, the people had little money with which to rebuild them. As a result of this neglect, the delta was overflowed year after year. The assessed value of taxable property dropped from nearly 14 million dollars in 1860 to an all-time low of less than half a million dollars in 1868.
Following the Civil War the local system of levee administration was abandoned. It was replaced in 1866 by a uniform system of statewide control which lodged all responsibility for a levee system in Louisiana in a single State Board of Levee Commissioners.
The worst flood in Madison's history, up to that time, occurred in 1867, stripping away long lines of levees which had cost thousands of dollars to build. A State Board of Public Works took over the job of rebuilding the levees the following year. Their work was undone, however, by another flood in 1871.
State administration ended with the 1871 flood, but statewide authority continued in a private corporation, the Louisiana Levee Company. The company was established by a special legislative act to assume full charge of the levee system and to carry on its work under contracts with the state for 21 years.
Although a three-mill tax had been put on all property there was not enough money to provide complete protection. Extensive breaks were left open and the surrounding country was subjected to annual over-flow. The result was general abandonment of plantations, loss of property, and a general decrease in taxable wealth.
Many breaks occurred in these early levees due to lack of proper preparation of the foundation. Exploration ditches to disclose the presence of buried logs were not used at that time. Stumps and fallen logs were often left in levees by contractors who wished to cheapen the cost of construction. When they decayed, weak places developed which were sometimes responsible for serious breaks.
These defects were due mainly to lack of proper supervision. Levees were allowed to grow up in weeds and trees which prevented them being sodded with bermuda. In many places levees were used as public roads, there being no roads behind them. Tenant houses and gardens were sometimes situated on top of them. Years later, laws were passed to prevent the levees from being used for such purposes.
Dissatisfaction with the Louisiana Levee Company developed during the later Reconstruction Era. It was finally abolished well before the expiration of its original authorized corporate life. Louisiana eventually turned to a system of local levee districts, each governed by a board of commissioners vested with authority and responsibility for the levee system within the territorial limits of its district.
CONGRESS GETS INVOLVED
Congress appointed a civil and military commission in 1874 to make a full report the best system of permanent flood control and stronger levees, but no appropriation was made for levee-building.
The Mississippi River Commission was created in 1878. In its first report, it proposed to prevent the caving and erosion of the banks and to protect the levees by revetment. Congress appropriated the money for the revetment in 1881, but was unwilling to allow any to be spent on the levees except as a means of improving the river for navigation.
However, some money was allotted for building levees in the following year. During the 1880's modest improvements were made in the levee protecting Madison Parish. It was an earth embankment with an eight-foot crown, but with practically no freeboard above the flood of 1882. As the levee lines gradually became complete and floodwaters were confined to the river channel, it became necessary to make the levee higher and increase the width of its base.
Moreover, the lack of good levees in southeast Arkansas made Madison's Mississippi River levees almost futile. It was proposed that an immense levee be built across the Louisiana -Arkansas border from the Mississippi to the hills to keep Arkansas' water out of Louisiana. Or, the Federal Government could build the whole line of levees from Missouri to the Gulf.
For years Congress was not disposed to act on either proposal. However, the Mississippi River Commission eventually built a solid line of levees from the mouth of Red River to Helena, Arkansas. Louisiana money still goes toward the maintenance of Arkansas levees.
FIFTH DISTRICT FORMED
The State Constitution of 1879 first granted the legislature authority to establish levee districts. The Fifth District was created in 1886. Its territorial jurisdiction comprises all the lands in the parishes of East Carroll, Madison, Tensas and Concordia.
A Board of Commissioners was created for the district, consisting of two Governor-appointed members from each parish. The president was chosen from the members of the Board, and the Commissioners appointed a secretary. A member of the Department of Public Works was to attend each meeting for the purpose of advising the Board.
Originally, the levee district assumed primary responsibility for the construction as well as the repair and maintenance of levees. As railroads replaced steamboats; as commerce carriers and the economic importance of river borne commerce waned, Congress began to realize that the most serious problem of the delta was flood control.
By 1887 more than a million dollars had been spent by the Federal Government in the Fifth Levee District. For every dollar appropriated by Congress the District contributed two. The disastrous floods of 1892 and 1897 inspired more federal aid, so that, in 1899, for the first time in history, a spring rise reaching the height of 49 feet was carried to the Gulf without a single break.
Breaks occurred in 1903, and again the levees were made higher and stronger. They held soundly for nine years. People grew complacent and Congress provided less and less money, reaching a low in 1911. The result was the greatest disaster up to that time - the flood of 1912.
Land values declined, as after every other flood, and most of the crops were destroyed. Landowners were liable to pay taxes, and without tax money the Levee Board was handicapped in its rebuilding efforts.
To meet this emergency, the Fifth Levee Board issued bonds to the amount of $500,000. Congress passed a National Flood Control Act in 1917 stipulating that Congress appropriate money for levee building on the condition that each local organization contribute not less than one third of the amount allotted to their district. The Fifth District met its obligation with a special election authorizing an additional 5-mill tax.
Another reason lay in the fact that extensive drainage systems had been constructed throughout the Middle West and there were no reservoirs to hold the water. The Mississippi River carries water from 41 percent of the mainland United States. Thus the process by which the country above was relieved was that by which the country below was ruined.
Depot Street in Tallulah during the 1927 Flood
(For other pictures click here)
All during the winter of 1926-27, heavy rains fell up and down the main stem, and in the flood plains of the tributaries. The low-water period, which normally starts about the middle of October and continues into the winter, didn't come to pass
By February, the ground was soaked everywhere, unable to absorb any more rainfall should it occur. But rains did continue, and here and there the floods began to crumble the private walls people had built to hold the waters.
Water from breaks in the Arkansas River system rushed down upon this area and joined with floodwaters from the Cabin Teele break in the northern part of Madison Parish. The entire district was covered to a depth of from six inches to ten feet.
A later rise coming through this crevasse kept the water over the lands until late in July; consequently no crops were made in a great part of the territory. The Police Jury later estimated the damage totaled almost $2,000,000 in Madison Parish alone.
Even before the flood waters had reached their peak, residents of the Lower Mississippi Valley demanded national assistance - not only immediate relief but a long-term commitment of American money and brains on the scale of the Panama Canal project to conquer "Father Mississippi" for all time.
Delegations of river folk descended on Capitol Hill demanding national assistance. Extensive advertising campaigns were launched in Washington newspapers. As a result, Congress passed what many hailed as the "Flood Emancipation Act" for the Mississippi Valley. Officially, this was the Flood Control Act of 1928.
The Act authorized the Mississippi River Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers to use federal money to develop a unified flood-control system in the alluvial valley without contribution from the state or parish.
Funds for carrying out this Act and later supplemental Acts have amounted over the years to hundreds of millions of dollars. These funds have made possible one of the world's largest and most complex flood control systems.
The narrow concept of levees only was expanded by the addition of controlled floodways, cutoffs and reservoirs. The 1928 Act provided for a research program in flood control and related fields. To carry out this part of the Act, the U.S. Waterways Experiment Station was established at Vicksburg.
The stabilization of the bank of the Mississippi River is the greatest challenge in modern flood control. Many types of protective works have been used to prevent the banks from caving in. These have included screens of wire, light timber, permeable cribs, and submerged spur dykes. All these proved inadequate.
The standard revetment now used is made of concrete mats laid together along the bank, below and above the water surface. Casting of the concrete mat squares is carried on by contract at Government-owned casting fields; one of the largest is at Delta in Madison Parish.
The entire flood control system, costing about $2 billion, has been designed to protect against the hypothetical "Project Flood." This dream flood would be the result of combining the most severe storms of record and placing them in a pattern to produce the worst possible run-off conditions.
FIFTH DISTRICT TODAY
Since the Federal Government assumed primary responsibility for flood control following the 1927 flood, the role of the levee districts has been one of repair and maintenance. The levee boards have the power to levy taxes and issue bonds without a vote of the people in the district, and to appropriate property upon which to construct levees and land for ditches to drain them.
The present procedure is that where the construction of a levee is made necessary by the encroachment of a caving bank, the levee board appropriates the necessary land and lets a contract for the moving of the buildings and improvements. The Corps of Engineers, acting for the Federal Government, then lets a contract for the construction of the levee setback. The state and levee boards continue to build minor flood control projects in localities where the Federal Government has no jurisdiction or funds available.
The eight persons appointed to the Fifth District Board of Commissioners serve terms concurrent with that of the governor appointing them. They receive a per diem of $35 per day during the time they are in actual attendance upon the board or performing duties authorized by the board, plus 16 cents per mile for traveling expenses.
The Board of Commissioners now serving in the Fifth Louisiana Levee District consists of Leo Young, President, Concordia Parish; Clyde Guthrie, Vice-President, Tensas Parish; Howard Gittinger and G. A. Cheek, East Carroll Parish; E. C. Woodyear and T. A. Bishop, Madison Parish, D. H. Ratcliff, Tensas Parish; and Walter B. Shelton, Concordia Parish. The Levee District is domiciled in Tallulah, Madison Parish, with office in the Parish Courthouse.
Though there have been serious floods as recently as 1973, and Madison residents living in low-lying areas are occasionally inundated during heavy rains, the parish has been free from overflows since 1927. It is liable to stay free from flooding as long as the need for effective flood control is recognized.
From August 1927 Atlantic Monthly & Madison Journal Centennial Issue August 14, 1975, Section V pp. 6-7
Madison Coordinator's note: "Miss Minnie", as she was affectionately known, died in 1957 and is buried in Silver Cross Cemetery at Tallulah.
May 3, 1927
I awoke at five o'clock this morning possibly because of the strain under which we've lived for the past three weeks, hourly dreading, hourly expecting an overflow; but more likely because of the subdued but insistent meows of Herman, standing by my bed, tapping my cheek with his black paw. I remonstrated that a cat born in the purlieus of New York City should not so far forget metropolitan customs as to demand breakfast at such an hour, but I arose and went with him to the ice box; for Herman is a little black tsar, and we his grumbling but adoring Minions.
He ate daintily, washed his face then asked to be let out and as I opened the door I saw the huge trucks filled to 'standing room only' with Negroes going to work on the levee. They were shouting and laughing, chewing tobacco and swearing, but going cheerfully to delve in the muck and the danger, driving heavy piles, tying willow mattresses, filling countless thousands of sacks with earth to top the already high levee crest.
How our men - white and black, even the high school boys - have tolled, day and night, through these horrible weeks! Everything known to engineering ingenuity is being done to hold back the sullen, swollen river which looms above us sixty feet on the Vicksburg gauge.
I was roused from these musings by another sound on the highway - the thud, thud of many feet There went the Scott's mules, seemingly an unending line: the stock from three plantations, where the ploughing and planting had gone on methodically, in spite of high-water menace. It was a gamble for the planter; if the flood came, seed, labor, wages - all would be lost; if not, why he was that much ahead of the game. But even the most optimistic souls were becoming depressed by an ever rising river and appalling reports from the Greenville flood, and those who had not sent their stock out of the state were heading them now for Transylvania, twenty miles above, where the old and well-sodded levee would give them at least a place to stand on.
Uncle Shepherd and I went to work in the flowers - his twisted old hands slaying weeds and grass and sparing the frailest flower. He was droning to me of the glory of "dem days," when an ominous sound disturbed us - a heavy trampling, rushing and scuffling; deep blowing anguished bleating; the hissing of whips and shouting of voices; then, all at once, our quiet street was submerged in an onrush of terrified cattle. Hundreds of them! Cows, seeking lost calves; great bulls, frothing and bellowing yearlings with fear in their soft eyes; young calves, stumbling in weariness.
It was Mr. Moberly's herd of handsome Herefords, and I wondered if, in their confusion, they'd ever reach the higher ground. As they stampeded and many went, plunging and bellowing, across the yard, cutting the turf, breaking the shrubs, crashing into the trellis where the queen's wreath and star jasmine grow. I rushed among them, helplessly waving them back, while Uncle Shepherd, from his retreat on the porch implored me to come back before I was ‘tromped clean to death.'
I was not afraid of being 'tromped'; the poor creatures were not vicious, but utterly confused at the break in their tranquil lives, by still waters, in green pastures. The incident, however, disturbed me; it seemed an omen of worse to come, and when, late in the afternoon, the whistle of the fire engine, the preconcerted warning that the levee had given away screamed out In shattering shrillness, I found myself strangely quiet, wondering dully, where - where has it given way?'
We ran downstairs and found Mrs. Agee, white and breathless, at the door. 'At the Bend, it's gone in at Milliken's Bend!’ She cried in answer to our questioning eyes.
And yet I could not rouse myself to the horror of a break at that spot, only six miles away, with a few trees, a strip of woodland, to check the cruel currents and crushing body of water hurling toward us. I thought, irrelevantly, of the skirmish between Grant's and Confederate guerrillas at Milliken's Bend, during the Civil War; of the little town, from the ashes of carnage into increased prosperity – a shipping point of importance, where stately steamboats dropped their stage planks and disgorged Immense piles of freight, reloading with cotton and other produce from neighboring plantations. I could see the little town hall, serving, alternately, as lodge, schoolhouse, and ballroom, its worn floor, richly polished by untiring young feet.
Then remembered Milliken's Bend as it has been for many years: deserted, encroached upon by new levees, claimed by the ruthless river. A few scraggly shrubs mark the sites of lovely gardens; the old Yerger house, former abode of many children and much hospitality, stands alone, crumbling and shabby, but obviously looking down on the fishermen's huts and squatter's tents scattered at intervals. Well, Milliken's Bend was having its revenge - its old enemy was placing it in the limelight again.
After the first deadening shock our town awakened to frantic activity. There was no outcry. Work was to be done, and people with white, tense faces set themselves to do it.
In response to urgent warnings many had raised their household goods onto scaffolds, or taken them to warehouses and two-story buildings; those who had not were struggling feverishly. Automobiles tore through the streets; trucks thundered by piled high with trunks, furniture, chicken coops, band-boxes, pets, and people - all headed for the railroad, where passenger coaches, box cars, cattle cars, flats, and locomotives had been stationed for weeks, steam up, ready to rush to a place of safety.
Having a two-story house, we preferred to stay at home, and made our plans accordingly. We elevated every thing on the first floor, took down doors and mantels, carried the coal-oil stove and other culinary adjuncts upstairs, requisitioned one of the bathrooms as a kitchen, and made ready for light house keeping.
We were well stocked with canned goods and staple provisions, also with lamps and candles, against the dread time when our power plant would be put out of commission, but before running my car on to the platform in McCaffery's garage we made a farewell trip for the chickens and meat for Herman - the last steak that pampered rascal would see for many days.
Everywhere, people were working, nailing, hammering, lifting, struggling; and always that steady trek to the railroad. Trains were loading as rapidly as possible, running to Delhi, safe and dry on Bayou Macon's red hills, then back again for another load, and in my heart I gave credit and praise to the IC and the Missouri Pacific for standing by us so valiantly. Our worst trial would come when they would be compelled to leave us, all forlorn, cut off by an inland sea from communication with the outside world.
Always we were asking one another, 'When will the water reach us? How high will it come?' And over and over we wondered if people in the outlying districts, up the highway, down the bayou, had been brought to safety; if the cattle had all been cared for; if our platforms were high enough; if we'd be able to catch our chickens; and what would become of the poor stray dogs and cats.
With the coming of night there was but little rest. How could there be, with locomotives shrieking and shunting, cars chugging back and forth, chickens squawking and fluttering, and an incessant whirring of saws and battering of hammers! A magnificent symphony of distress and unrest!
An aviator, flying from the scene of disaster, had comforted us with the information that the break was not at Milliken’s Bend at all, but nearer Cabin Teele, and it was widening slowly, the crest having given way, but the body of the levee yet holding, so the would not reach us so soon as we had expected.
In the stillness of dawn, with Herman at my heels, I crept out into my garden - a fairy garden it seemed in that uncertain, rosy light - and with a sickness in my heart I drank in the beauty of my flowers: roses blooming prodigally, deep crimson, scarlet, and blush, rich yellow and silver white; tall hollyhocks in multicolored bonnets, peeping over the fence; larkspur, blue and pink and white, springing everywhere; pansies and violets, blending their modest fragrance with the vivid perfume of queenly Easter lilies.
'Oh, Herman,' I moaned, 'to think in a little while they will all be gone! To think that ugly brown water can wash out so much loveliness!' But Herman switched his tail and chased after a cricket; and as I returned to the house I looked north, and far over the fields a glistening sheet was unrolling steadily and the dull roar of rushing water broke on my ears. At ten o'clock it had reached the Fair Grounds, surging over the race track, climbing up the grand stand; then on into Sheriff Sevier's yard, smothering Mary's pretty flowers; rushing through the ditches, filling the low places till by night our streets were long mirrors, reflecting eerie shadows.
We tied our little homemade bateau to the back steps, ready for action, and carefully corralled Herman, who since emancipation from apartment life had become a 'regular fellow,' given to staying out nights, and we had no idea of having him caught away from us.
We managed to get Mamma off on the last refugee train this afternoon. She rebelled, being of pioneer stuff, but we did not know what might be ahead of us, and in case of illness there would be no ice, no lemons, nor other luxuries. We took her to the train at eleven o'clock in the morning, but it did not get off till 4 p.m. At that time loading and shunting, running through the water to Mound to pick up cattle, horses, and terrified stragglers; back again to find belated groups, with bundles under their arms, dogs shivering at their heels, coops of chickens, cages of birds, an occasional ruminating goat, even boxes with pet squirrels, huddled around. It might have been ludicrous if it had not been so pathetic. I thought of the exiles of Acadia who sought shelter in Louisiana, and of how many of their descendants were now fleeing from the oppression of an unprecedented flood. I shall not soon forget the faces of those who were leaving.
We watched the water take the vegetable garden this evening: corn waving high green banners and promising luscious roasting ears; peas loaded with plump pods; butter bum, okra, beets, lettuce - all the good things that add so much to our living - destroyed utterly!
We went early to bed, worn out with the excitement and exertion of the day, but now another noise made sleep all but impossible-- the frogs! How could there be so many frogs in one small world! - Every gradation of sound they emitted, from deep bass to C in alt. Tree frogs, spring frogs, toad frogs, bullfrogs, all meeting in one glad and grand reunion and raising their voices in a concerted paean of Praise for the waters that be. Not since the overflow of 1912 had such a joy been theirs!
May 5, 1927
The water rose rapidly last night; it is now lapping on our top step and by tomorrow will be in the house. Even then we shall not be so badly off as some of our neighbors. Mr. Bethea, after raising his scaffolds till his furniture hit the ceiling, has moved up into his loft and presents a unique appearance emerging from the ventilator under the eaves and stepping into his boat, anchored to the roof. Mexican Joe's little shack, down by the woods, is submerged up to the comb. It will be a long while before Joe, a pack on his back, will take up his march down our streets, chanting:-
hot!- Red hot!
Hot tamales, good and fine;
Two for a nickel, five for a dime
Would give you more,
But they ain't none of mine.
Red hot! Red hot!
We have had many callers today in many kinds of crafts: high-powered motor boats, graceful skiffs, slender pirogues, blunt nosed bateaus, canvas canoes, and rafts. It is amazing that so many should appear all of a sudden, and that everyone handles his or her craft with the apparent ease of long practice. We are an adaptable people and, having accepted the inevitable, everybody seems cheerful and determined to make the best of an unfortunate situation.
Our big Orpington rooster awoke his harem of yellow beauties with vibrant calls this morning, nothing daunted at being confined in a coop on top of the woodhouse with no earth to dust in, no worms to scratch for; 'Pretty Polly, I from his perch on the upper gallery, screams 'Hello! and 'How-dee-dew!' to the boats that pass; ‘ Ziggy,' swinging in his cage, tries to outsing the mocking bird in the big oak, and flutters his golden wings in rivalry of the cardinal that comes for crumbs on the window sill; the docile capon, with his adopted children, has settled down to an enforced domesticity.
Only Herman remains disconsolate and perturbed. He hates the roar of the motor boats, the click of the oars, the drone of airplanes, the constant lapping of water. He misses his meat and his mice, and, most of all, his trysts with kindred spirits in the still shadows of summer nights. He thinks with me, that the rumble of the subway, the roar of the L, an abode six flights in the air, a potted palm for shrubbery, were not so bad after all.
The water is well into the house this morning. It has a dampening effect on one's spirits to see it spreading over the floors, creeping past the baseboard, staining the wallpaper; but we are very cozy and orderly upstairs and housekeeping goes on apace.
Mr. Shields came in his big boat this noon, bringing bread, milk, and eggs, which are all most acceptable. His plantation, 'Roosevelt,' fifteen miles above us, is out of the water, and the Taylor's herd of Jerseys is being pastured there. Agnes, with her unfailing thoughtfulness, sent us a box of delicious teacakes. That is what I call being a really good Samaritan!
The Chapmans' white duck appeared in our yard from heaven only knows where, today, and quacked and called so piteously that we took a pan of grain and went out to feed her; but a frightened duck in five feet of water is a vanishing equation, so we left the corn on a floating log and hoped she'd find it. Late in the afternoon we spied her, preened and proud, swimming with a handsome mate. So it was not her nine little ones for whom she mourned!
The law of compensation exemplifies itself in the wonderful weather we are having a glory of sunshine, with soft breezes, and the few flowers that are not submerged are stimulated by the moisture and blooming as never before. Every morning I paddle around my own and my absent neighbors' yards and gather great bunches of roses, honeysuckle, althea, and cannas. My Marechal Niel, by the steps is the loveliest thing one could imagine—great festoons of rich yellow blossoms, flanked by leaves of tenderest green, and that heavenly fragrance not equaled by any other rose. When the water goes off I shall cut it back and cover the roots with hay in a desperate effort to save it.
But it will be a long and weary wait before the water goes off. It is now four days since the break and the crevasse is widening and deepening all the time. It is reported 2100 feet wide, and it rushes through with a deafening roar, seething and tumbling like the, rapids of Niagara, except in the very centre, where its great depth makes it flow with a treacherous smoothness.
All houses near by and the stretch of woods have been swept away and crumbled like kindling wood. Yet not a hundred yards from the break several hundred Negroes and a few white people, with their accompanying train of dogs, horses, cattle, and pigs, are camping on the levee, calmly pursuing their daily lives. They spread their mattresses and scanty covers on the sod, regardless of sun or rain, place their battered remnants of furniture about them, build their fires, prepare their meals, feed their stock, comfort their crying babies, and go their ways with patient stoicism. They have been through deadly peril, they have gazed on sickening sights, yet they are alive--there will be another chance.
When I think of those who have lost so much; those whose homes have been swept away, whose fortunes have crumbled as the yellow tide swept over wide acres of growing cotton and corn; those who have helplessly watched their live stock drown and listened to the terrified screams of their children-when I think of all these I am ashamed that I should grumble over stained paper and buckled floors, that I should pine for ice and fruit, letters and newspapers, that I should lament the defection of Martha and Mary, growing fat on ‘gov’ment rations' in somnolent idleness, while I wrestle with pots and mop floors; and I resolve to grieve no more, not even for my lost posies, nor for the reproach in my cat's yellow eyes when I give him canned milk in lieu of Jersey cream.
May 8, 1927
After the manner of Mr. Pepys, 'up very much betimes this morning and as perfect Sabbath day as ever I did see’. A wonderful stillness hung over the town; the parade of boats had not begun; even the birds called to each other gently; the tall smokestacks of the oil mill pointed heavenward like grim accusing fingers, the expensive machinery rusting beneath a yellow slime, the gin loft sacrificing its lint and seed to shelter homeless Negroes, a brace of hunting dogs, a flivver, a church organ and a balky mule--so are the channels of industry diverted!
I spied Mr. Marvin Lewis on the top of his garage, sketched boldly against the morning sky, and I half looked to see him turn his face to the east and utter the muezzin's cry; but he only waved a hand and climbed into a wire cage to feed his chicks. That reminded me of our modified Noah's Ark, so my husband and I went the rounds of our birds and beasts not forgetting the mother cat and three bedraggled kittens, which we had rescued, wet and famished, in Miss Emmie's crape myrtle tree; nor the little yellow cur which, after days in the water, clambered, more dead then alive, on to our step. He was not very acceptable in appearance or personality to Herman, so we quartered him in the garage loft, and upon our visits the little fellow forgets his food in humble joy over human companionship.
We scattered crumbs and grain on planks and fences for the birds - there are myriads about the place; probably their instinct tells them it is a closed season for cats, and in the ravaged condition of the forest, they must stay close to man's habitat for largesse. I was rejoiced to spy my little humming bird flashing dainty wings against the vermilion and green of the pomegranate bush. His seems a fragile life to stern such hardship.
Amy Holmes tells me she is feeding a rabbit on her woodpile, and Mandeville Kell throws corn every evening to a covey of quail seeking sanctuary on a shed in his back yard. Mrs. Boney supports a squirrel family in her poplar tree, and some men of the town carry skeffloads of hay down the railroad embankment to hungry deer that have swum in. So we all have our pet charities these days.
We cannot attend church today, however dutifully inclined, for all places of worship, irrespective of creed are thoroughly immersed. Our ministers, as well as our doctors, stand by us, though, and lend a hand to whatever work comes up. We listen to Brother Kimberlin, the Baptist preacher who lives next door, singing lustily ‘How Firm a Foundation' about six o'clock every morning, as he tumbles from the platform where his bed is raised into his boat, and hurries up to the Red Cross car, cheerfully to put in twelve hours of grilling work. We tremble for the safety of dear Dr. Gaines's two hundred and fifty pounds avoirdupois, when we see him seated in questionable crafts, headed for refugee camps and far-away plantations.
Mrs. Coltharp and I had a long visit over the phone this morning, and I am quite envious of her superior state of well being. She retained her cook, - I accused her of peonage, --and has her cozily ensconced in the parlor; her fine cow is on a raft in the orchard, and furnishes an abundant supply of fresh milk and butter; her chickens, from broilers to bakers, are on platforms in the yard; so she is really prepared for a state of siege.
I, however, am laying claim to a superior supply of intellectual pabulum, for the splendid box of books, sent by David Amacker from Amherst arrived just a few days before the flood and, has indeed proven a blessing. It isn't often one is granted such an opportunity for thought and reading.
We dined with the Craigs today and an excellent dinner it was, despite the effort it is to secure material with which to work. Bertha does not lower her standards of housekeeping for a mere matter of overflows!
This afternoon we went for a long ride over miles and miles of water. Water still and placid as a lake, water rippling and purling; water writhing and rushing in a torrent; water over the graveled highway where one short week ago we had raced in our motorcars; water high over the railroad track where busy engines had, like shuttles, woven the woof of commerce. We came home in the red glow of sunset, and it was very beautiful - if only one could forget the desolation or row upon row of houses, submerged to their roofs, washed from their blocks, and the pathos of starving cats on many of those roofs, watching and waiting with glazing eyes; if one could shut out the horror of swollen bodies of horses and cattle, floating heavily; if one did not mind the disorder of overturned buildings and shattered fences, of floating bits of furniture, of a melee of tin cans, pots, bottles, jugs, and nameless junk; if one could look without tears at the occasional little pot of flowers, set high on a shelf and blooming bravely in the desolation and disorder.
I could not forget these things or keep them from before my eyes, and my heart was saddened that our country should suffer this cruel blow. Our country, so beautiful, so rich in natural resources, so fertile of soil; so worthy of being the banner agricultural spot of these United States; but held down by the terrible menace of recurrent floods. I asked myself rebelliously if we must always be a poor, shabby, struggling people, battling against a force too great for us; and when night came and a wonderful moon rose over the trees and duplicated its silver globe in the mirror of water that lay before us, reflecting trees and houses and flowers and rippling away in dusky shadows, I felt that I had my answer; in the sheer beauty of it here was hope.
As the kindness and generosity of the people of our land are seeing us through this great trial now, so will their intelligence, energy, and ingenuity find a way to deliver us from a repetition of it. Then once again our crops will grow, our cattle browse in peaceful pastures, our gardens bloom, and our homes be established in the joy of permanence.
We have much rejoicing this day! The telephone and telegraph lines have been repaired and the mail has come in! To know just what that meant to us one must have seen the crowd of men, women, and children, of varied types and colors, standing knee-deep in water in the post office and lined up in boats at the door-every face eager and expectant.
We were particularly blessed with stacks of letters and bundles of papers, all a little damp and musty after their long journey by train, motor boat, air-ship, and what not, but oh, so welcome! It was delightful to know that though submerged we were not forgotten. There was a wonderful letter from Mrs. Butler, in Chicago, dear ones from our Smith friends, the Sydney Smiths of Englewood, New Jersey, and the Bolton Smiths of Memphis, Tennessee, and many other kind messages.
Olive Maupin phoned us from Vicksburg to come in the Red Cross boat to her high hills. Tizzie, and Susan rang us up from Lake Providence, and my brother recklessly expended his patrimony - in a long message from Shreveport. In short, we are by way of having our heads turned by so much attention.
Another cause for rejoicing is that the water rises very slowly now; the wise ones say it will be 'on a stand' by Wednesday; then, since everything that goes up must come down, It surely will begin-in its own good time-to fall.
In another three weeks our saffron-colored winding sheet will have gradually unrolled leaving us a little ghostly, a little numb, but with yet enough vitality to struggle back to normal, to show to the world that our heads, though dampened, are still unbowed; that we are the masters of our fate-the captains of our souls!
Jessie Staton was family cook of Mr. and Mrs. Richard K. Boney during the 1927 overflow. She stayed at the Boney's house on South Lincoln St., now the home of the W. P. Seviers. She slept in the living room behind a piano the Boneys had set up on railroad ties. Madison Coordinator's note: "Mammy Jessie" practically raised my sisters and me.
After her experience Miss Staton wrote this article, which, with the picture, is taken from one of Martha Sevier's scrapbooks. Miss Staton is now (1977) 76 years old and lives in Las Vegas.
"Once upon a time I lived in Tallulah, Louisiana; it was 1927 and the levy broke near where I lived, and of course I had a good time. During the high water the first 3 days I went out wading; I can't swim. I thought I knew how to row a boat but I didn't - the first day I started out from the front yard to go out in the back - I went every place but there.
After me trying so hard to get around the house, I was so broke down until I put the oars in the boat and floated back, where I started from. The second day I got along better. I rushed to get through my work and I put my mind on going to town. I lived about 4 blocks from the railroad.
So I first started out with Stanley and Hunter (Coad) riding with them, watching every move they made pulling the boat, so finally their mother called out for them to take her home, and I was glad to go out there - by myself. Up against the trees and telegram posts I went; after all I made it to town safely.
I love to go boat riding. I often wondered why Mrs. Boney and her family didn’t go out with me; I was their servant they trusted me on land but not on water.
Mrs. Boney lived in a 2 story building; the water didn't get in her house and we had a lot to eat and I got tired of eating."
© 1999 Richard P. Sevier (firstname.lastname@example.org)