Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My Dunnings and the Great Flood of 1937

The Great Flood of 1937 hit the Ohio River Valley hard in mid-late January after 12 days of rain caused every tributary to over top their banks, flooding 70 percent of Louisville and 90 percent of it's sister city, Jeffersonville, Indiana. Things were so bad down river that Evansville officials declared Marshall Law. Upstream, things were nearly as dire for towns like Hazleton, Patoka and Wheeling, Indiana. The highest crest ever recorded in the town of Hazleton, situated at the mouth of Robb's Creek on White River, was in January 1937 at 31.7 feet, just for reference.

Gaylord, Elsie & Nancy Kirk
We'll get back to the flood momentarily, but first let me introduce you to my Aunt Elsie's family. That picture was taken around 1957 of Aunt Elsie with her husband and oldest daughter. Elsie was the first child born to my maternal great-grandparents, David and Ruth (McEllhiney) Dunning. 

She was born in 1909 on the farm of her grandparents, Thomas J. and Rhoda (Greek) McEllhiney. In fact, the attending physician mistakenly wrote her last name as McEllhiney on the birth certificate when, in fact, she was the first Dunning child born in Center Township, Gibson County, Indiana.

Aunt Elsie married Uncle Gaylord on Christmas Eve 1933 in Evansville. She had spent the better part of her life taking care of eight younger siblings, so having kids was not her first priority after marriage. Oldest daughter, Nancy Gayle, wasn't conceived for almost seven years. In the meantime, the young couple took up residence in a house near Hazleton, owned by the Ice family. The Ices were property owners north of Wheeling, not far from where Elsie grew up. The Dunning family farm was on Wheeling Road, north of Francisco. Anyway, Elsie's older cousin, Venita McEllhiney had married Charles Ice three years earlier, so we know the cousins were tight with Charles and his family. While living near Hazleton, Gaylord was a bus driver for the local school there. It wasn't long before they moved into the house owned by Gaylord's grandfather, John A. Kirk, elsewhere in Washington Township, Gibson County.

When they moved to Section 1, Center Township in Gibson County, they were living in the Netty Moore house very near where Elsie attended 7th and 8th grade at the Lawrence School, a single-room country schoolhouse before the consolidation of county schools in 1927. She never went beyond the 8th grade. That old schoolhouse, as well as the Netty Moore place where she was living, was on property once owned by her 3rd great-grandfather, a war hero, Joshua Stapleton, who fought the Native Americans at Tippecanoe (and I believe, also saw battle during the American Revolution). Joshua had lived there as early as 1820 and donated the land for Lawrence School. This was the best place they had lived since getting married in 1933 and it put Elsie much closer, within 2 miles, of her family home.

So that Gaylord could work his own farm, reaping more of his labor, they once again moved within Center Township. This time, they moved even closer to Elsie's family, taking up residence on the 100-acre Morrow farm on Wheeling Road in the Patoka River bottoms. It was late 1936 and they were about to experience one of the worst flooding disasters in Indiana's history. By mid January the next year, with the ground frozen and saturated by the Indiana winter, the rains began to fall, 15 inches in 12 days at Louisville fell from January 13-24th, according to the National Weather Service. As noted at the beginning of this post, it was a disaster of epic proportion for the entire region.

The land rented from Vesper Morrow began to fill with water. Unlike their McEllhiney neighbors across the road who had built their house on an elevated piece of land in the bottoms, the Morrow home that Gaylord and Elsie lived in was at ground level. The Patoka River flowed into the first floor of their farmhouse, but they had prepared by removing valuables to the second level and elevating furniture as best they could. Wheeling Road was impassable below the Dunning farm and the Kirk home on Vesper Morrow's farm was only accessible by boat until waters receded in February. The family had escaped in time and most of their valuables and sentimental items were spared.

It was still a mess and took some time to get back to where they were when they had moved in a few months earlier. Keep in mind, this disaster came on the heels of the Great Depression. As Uncle Les (Elsie's younger brother) reports, the financial crisis did not hit farm families quite as hard as they were more self-sufficient than ordinary homes. For instance, "they had their own wheat for flour, cows for milk and butter, chickens for eggs and meat, hogs and cattle for meat, their gardens for vegetables, enough crops to feed the livestock and sell for the staples needed. Eggs and cream were sold for salt, pepper, coffee, baking powder, soda, sugar and etc." ("The Early Life of Elsie Isabell Dunning/Kirk/McDowell" by Leslie Dunning.).

Elsie took the hardships of the flood without complaining and accepted the gracious help of friends and neighbors to recover, clean and set back up her home. In early 1938, she was dealt another setback, as her mother left her father at home with two children and another finishing high school. Elsie stepped in to help her grieving father take care of the house and the children, stepping back into the role she served as a teenager. 
Aunt Elsie

Her mother left with Elsie's Uncle Edward Williams and soon filed for divorce from David Dunning. This was quite a shocking development and David demanded that his ex-wife, Ruth, have no contact with their children, the youngest of whom, Carl, was only six. Two years later, Elsie became pregnant with Nancy, who was born in early 1941. By then, her brothers, Roy, Tom and Les were serving our country, Ginny was in high school at Francisco and Carl was in 4th grade.

Aunt Elsie survived the Great Flood of 1937 that claimed nearly 400 lives, fairly unscathed, and the personal tragedy at home of her parents' 1938 divorce. She was a great stand-in matriarch for the Dunning family all while trying to start a family of her own. She and Gaylord Kirk had two daughters who are still living in the area where their parents made their humble start. Speaking of humble beginnings, Elsie started her life in a one-room log cabin and grew up on the Dunning homestead, which still stands (in an updated form) on Wheeling Road outside Francisco, IN. She was my great-aunt and lived a great life of 96 years.

My family has now farmed Center Township in Gibson County, IN, for more than 200 years. I'll be posting more about our pioneer ancestors in the weeks to come to commemorate the bicentennial of the State of Indiana, admitted to the Union in 1816.

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