Milam County Texas Archives
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  Contributed by: Milam County Genealogical Society

The Big Flood of 1921
(Researched by Mrs. Ida Jo Marshall)
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63 DEAD IN MILAM CO., $5,000,000 DAMAGE

Their House in the Forks of Brushy and San Gabriel Swept Away in Monster Flood of Friday Night . . . Known Dead Now Totals Sixty-three

The known dead in the floods of Milam County from Sept. 8 to Sept. 15, 1921, totaled 63 as follows:

Bailey P. Turner, Rockdale; H. C. Sullivan, Rockdale (Body not recovered) Fred Kennedy, Tutner's farm hand; Grandma Bonner, age 85, at Green Camp unknown white woman found in San Gabriel River below Sheckels bridge Maynard Robinson and F. W. Leatherbury, Santa Fe railway offcials, drowned at the Santa Fe bridge on Little River; Roy Cass, white, son of Elijah Cass of the Liberty Hill community; Hardy Huff, Negro boy, on Bailey Turner place; a Mex~can at San Gabriel town; twenty-three Mexicans in Laneport community five Mexicans at the Redville gin on Alligator, two miles from San Gabriel Mrs. M. L. Brown and son, Lee, at the Redville gin, Mrs. Lee Brown rescued from a tree top; eleven Mexicans at San Gabriel town; two white children at the Hogue crossing on Brushy; Negro woman and two children at the Lawrence crossing on Brushy, southwest of Thorndale; five Mexicans on the Minor farm; three Mexicans on the Watt farm.

There were reports of other deaths from all over the flooded districts, but the above were the only ones The Reporter had been able to get accurate and positively reliable information on.

Cameron reported only two deaths, those the Santa Fe officials referred to in the above list. This report was remarkable, as Cameron is almost surrounded by river bottom farms.

Of Rockdale citizens, or of people whom Rockdale could justly claim as such, only four deaths were certain. These were:

Bailey P. Turner, owner of a big plantation in the forks of the Brushy and the San Gabriel.

H. C. Sullivan, Bailey Turner's farm manager and general right-hand man and close companion.

A young man who came into the community only a few weeks before and went to work for Turner and Sullivan.

Grandma Bonner, the mother of Mrs. Arledge, who was drowned at the Green sawmill camp.

The above information was carried on the front page of the Rockdale Reporter September 15, 1921. Starting about 11:00 a. m. on Sept. 8, 1921 it began raining, and rain fell intermittently all day Friday. Shortly a*er dark that night the floodgates of the heavens seemed to have loosened, and old residents say that such a rain never before fell in Rockdale. The streets were all turned into creeks, and Ham Branch was a raging river, rising to heretofore unheard of heights, and causing almost a complete exodus of those residents who lived along its course. The water came up into houses never before reached, and Mayor Meyer said he waded water waist deep in Leonard Isaacs' back yard. The Gee residence was flooded. The Meyer residence, being of more than one story, was the mecca for a number of neighbors who spent the night there, some of them wading waist deep to reach there. Practically every residence in town leaked more or less, and it rained so hard that chimneys were flooded in a number of instances. The damage to streets, bridges and culverts was very great. The rainfall was variously estimated at from 12 to 18 inches.

Out at Minerva the rain was accompanied by a small cyclone which did a lot of damage. The residence on the old Dave Robertson place, a quarter-mile east of the school house, was completely demolished, no two planks being left together. This house was occupied by L. L. Smith and family. Every member of the family was hurt, although none of the injuries were serious, Mrs. Smith being the worst hurt. How this family escaped death was miraculous. To the north of them the old church house at the cemetery was demolished, and further north still the big red barn on the old Robinson hog farm was demolished. J. C. Trotter's house and barn were damaged, George Manley's house partly destroyed, and other damage wrought here and there. Big oak trees were twisted off and uprooted.

The foregoing, however, was but a prelude to the major damage wrought in the county by the flood. Brushy Creek, the San Gabriel River and Little River, all three, set new high water marks. The floods of 1913 were thought to have been the climax, but the flood of 1921 was much higher, the water being estimated all the way from ten to fifteen feet higher than in 1913. Furthermore, the rise was quicker and more unexpected. To give an idea of the water's depth let it be known to those who know the country that the top iron framework sides of the Holtzclaw bridge on the San Gabriel were covered, and the water almost completely covered the two-story Phillips gin nearby. The Brushy bridge was likewise completely covered, while the Sheckels bridge was completely washed away. Damage was done to the approaches on all river bridges, and the Holtzclaw bridge on the Gabriel was otherwise badly damaged. The McCown bridge on Little River near Cameron, was also badly damaged, the San Gabriel-Thorndale bridge washed away, and the Holtzclaw bridge on Little River was damaged.

The damage to crops alone was incalculable. Every bit of ungathered corn and cotton in the bottoms was lost. The hard rain beat the hill country cotton into the ground or washed it away. The damage to crops alone was staggering, while the damage to bottom land farms in the loss of houses, barns, vehicles, tools, stock, etc. was past all calculation. The Phillips Bros.' loss at the gin ran into thousands of dollars, every house on the place being swept away, together with the seed house containing 30 or 40 tons of seed. The gin house remained but as it was all under water the damage was severe Rockdale was almost barred off from the world, the damage to railroads being of staggering proportions. The most noteworthy loss was the long trestle of the S. A. & A. P. over Little River bottom. This trestle was almost a total wreck along its entire mile and a quarter length. The piles were left standing but much of the track, cross timbers and sleepers were washed away. Sections of the track were washed for miles. Never before was the water over the top of the trestle, but this time it was estimated to have been six or eight feet under water. Several hundred yards of the track on the dump were washed away. There was also a smaller washout just south of Minerva.

The I. & G. N. Iost a mile and a quarter of trestle, dump and track between Brushy Creek and Thorndale. This washout was said to have been one of the most complete and one of the hardest to repair in the history of the road. The 1. & G. N. had plenty other troubles west, all the way to San Antonio. Their track was clear east until Saturday when the flood waters of Little River were added to the already flooded Brazos with the result that Valley Junction was under water to a greater depth than in 1913, and appalling damage to the tracks there resulted. Train No. 3 from the east came in Friday shortly after noon, and went back to Palestine. That was the last train to run as the big Brazos flood followed soon after.

The S. A. & A. P. had been clear south, and was running one train a day each way, Rockdale to Yoakum and connecting points. This train brought a limited amount of mail and a few papers.

The Santa Fe had its troubles, too, losing its Little River trestle just east of Cameron. The Katy which runs north also had troubles while all roads out of Temple had washouts galore.

The lines of the Texas Power & Light Company went down early in the game Friday night, September 9th. Power and light service was not restored here until Monday night, September 12th and then only intermittently until Wednesday, September 14th. Telegraph and telephone lines were also entirely out of commission for several days.

The loss of livestock in the county was staggering. Fully 90 per cent of the cattle, horses, mules and hogs that were in the bottoms were drowned. All those valley farmers lost practically every head of stock they had, the loss including work stock and milch cows. Rescue workers in the bottoms report the stench was almost overcoming. There were literally thousands of dead rabbits, 'possums and birds, as well as fish.

The flood damage to bridges and roads was appalling. Big bridges known to have been swept completely away were the San Gabriel-Thorndale bridge, the Sheckels bridge on the San Gabriel and Elm Creek bridge on the Cameron-Ben Arnold road. Every bridge crossing Little River, San Gabriel River, Brushy, Elm Creek and Alligator were damaged by having the approaches swept away if nothing worse. The McCown bridge was one of the worst sufferers.

The unprecedented rainfall caused heavy damage to all classes of roads. Hundreds of culverts and small bridges were washed away, and the road bed badly injured in many places.

The Rockdale schist roads stood up better than was thought possible following such a supreme test. Of course the loss of culverts and wooden bridges was very heavy, and in places the road beds had been washed, but generally speaking the schist roads stood up well. The Gay Hill road was probably the worst sufferer. This road lost the Pecan Creek bridge and any number of small bridges, besides suffering worse washes. The Kolb road probably came next in point of damage. All graded roads suffered heavily, and the damage to the iron bridges on the Tracy and Kolb roads was quite a tax on the county treasury. Commissioner 0. K. Phillips had gangs at work all day Sunday, September 11, making trafftc possible. The people living south on the S. A. & A. P., yet to be built, were fortunate that construction had not begun.

Rockdale was quick to start the work of rescue of flood victims. The work began Saturday, increased in intensity Sunday, began to get whipped into organized effort Monday, and on Tuesday the searchers had been thoroughly organized.

Interest centered on Bailey Turner and his associates, and on Ed A. Green and his associates at the Green sawmill camp near the Turner farm, both being in the forks of the Gabriel and Brushy. The Green folks were rescued Sunday noon, but Turner and Sullivan and their hired man undoubtedly perished. The flood swept away their house, all their barns, sheds and stock, leaving only Turner's car which lodged in a drift. Green says he heard shots and cries from the Turner place shortly before daylight Saturday, and it was believed their house was then going. A Mexican marooned in a tree over on the Minor farm reported having seen a house go by with two men on its roof. The Turner house, broken to pieces, and much of their personal property was later found on the lower edge of the Minor plantation. It seemed certain that right about this point was where all three men lost their lives. This theory was still further borne out by the finding of the body of a white man near this point Tuesday by a party of Rockdale searchers headed by Dr. 1. P. Sessions. The features were unrecognizable, but from clothing and general description it was practically certain this body was that of Turner's farm hand. Near this point, also, Bailey Turner's little pet dog came safely out of the flood.

It was quite definitely proven that the body of the white man found by the Rockdale searchers Tuesday on the Minor tract was that of Fred Kennedy, a young man who came to Rockdale five or six weeks before the storm, and who had been employed by Bailey Turner on his farm for several weeks.

This young man lived in Cameron for a year or more before coming to Rockdale, and worked for C. H. Landis, proprietor of the S. A. & A. P. Hotel in Rockdale. Mr. Landis, description of the man and his clothing tallies. Also, about a week before the flood he met Kennedy on the street and talked with him, and Kennedy told him he was working for Bailey Turner out on the Gabriel.

Young Kennedy was from somewhere in South Texas where he had a widowed mother, but further than that Mr. Landis was not informed. He had only recently been discharged from the army when he came to Cameron.

In response to call from Mayor H. C. Meyer the entire town closed up shop Tuesday and approximately 300 able-bodied men searched the fields and bottoms of Brushy, the other half to the Holtzclaw bridge on the Gabriel. The parties went out on a systematic search of the whole country, yet on account of the heavy mud and the frequent deep sloughs, making it necessary to do much swimming, together with the heavy drifts, it was found impossible to cover the entire territory. A party consisting of Dr. Sessions, Harry Williams, Chas. See, Tol York, Rich Harris and others found the body of the white man above referred to on the Minor farm. The body was in an advanced stage of decompos~tion. On account of the heavy mud it was found impossible to convey it back to headquarters of the Holtzclaw bridge, so Chas. See took it in a small boat down the Gabriel, thence down Little River to a slough which led back up into the Robert Isaac's farm, where it was landed. It was placed on a truck and brought to town, where after all due examinations had been made it was taken in charge by the Henne & Meyer undertaking department and given decent burial in the New City Cemetery.

The rescue work of Tuesday showed how Rockdale people can get together when necessary. The organization effected was complete, with a commissary department that supplied all the workers with hot food, hot coffee and cold drtnks. The transportation department had plenty of cars and trucks on hand. Many of the searchers came out away down on Little River below Minerva where they were met with cars and carried home.

Tuesday night an open air meeting was held in town and plans laid for Wednesday's search. Ed A. Green was named as captain and fifty able-bodied volunteers were called for. Wednesday morning fully that number left town with the intention of completing the work started the day before, and of finding the bodies of Turner and Sullivan, if possible.

This party went to the Bauer farm, swam the Gabriel, and searched out the country below, down to the forks of the Gabriel and Little Rivers. It was a heart-breaking job for red-blooded, full-blooded American citizens, and it was done right. Again the commissary department functioned and again the ntght came on with no results.

Wednesday night another meeting was held, and again Ed Green was named captain, and again fifty able-bodied men volunteered for duty. The plans laid were to proceed to Holtzclaw bridge on Little River and work down that stream on the north bank, on the presumption that the bodies may have been swept over into that territory. The commissary department was to meet the rescue party at the mouth of Cattail Creek.

All doubt of the death of Bailey Turner was removed Thursday afternoon when a body, unquestionably his remains, was found on the Simms ranch about two hundred yards north of the second concrete dip on the Tracy road west of the Holtzclaw bridge. The remains were in a slough that was full of running water until Thursday September 15th. The body was entirely buried in the mud, and was found by Tom and Bud Nelson who were attracted to the spot by a swarm of green flies.

The fact that the body was so buried was favorable to recognition. In one pocket was found Turner's pocketbook with papers which would unquestionably supply his identity. However, the body was otherwise identified hair, scars, etc. Ed Green, L. C. Wilson, L. E. Wyatt, Gip Matthews, Bud Randle and other members of the Rockdale searchers were nearby and took charge of the remains which were brought to town and turned over to Henne and Meyer undertaking firm.

In addition to finding the body of Bailey Turner on Thursday, Rockdale searching parties found three more bodies.

G. C. Murray was at the head of a party which found the remains of a woman in the channel of the San Gabriel River near the Turner farm. The remains were buried nearby.

A party headed by E. A. Camp found the bodies of two Mexicans across Little River opposite the Lensing place. One, a man, was recognized as a member of the Minor farm crew. The other was that of a boy about eight years of age. The man was completely covered in the mud except one foot, while the body of a boy was found in a tree top. These bodies were brought to town and interred Thursday night.

On Friday afternoon, September 15, the report was brought in from the rescue workers in the bottoms that so far H. C. Sullivan's body had not been found. Neither had the workers located any other bodies, although the bottoms were being searched thoroughly.

Searchers reported that the stench in the bottoms was becoming almost intolerable from the countless carcasses of animals. One man was heard to say that the only live things he had seen in the bottoms were one cricket and a butterfly. All living creatures had either fled the country or been drowned.

It was known that Bailey Turner usually wore two valuable diamond rings, and searchers again visited the spot where his body was found the day before. They found both rings where they had slipped from his fingers when his body had been first removed from the mud and drift.

One of the most thrilling experiences and narrow escapes from death recorded in the floods was that of "Comrade" Ed. A. Green and the two sons and one daughter of Mrs. Minton Arledge, all of whom were caught at the Green sawmill camp in the San Gabriel bottom below Sheckels bridge. A saddening feature of their experiences was found in the death of the grandmother of the children, Mrs. Bonner, who at the advanced age of 85 years was forced to endure the sickening hardships incident to spending a night in a tree, wet to the skin and so weakened by exposure and fright that it was necessary to bind her to a tree, and who finally succumbed and dropped into the raging torrent, to be swept away.

Mr. Green in relating his experiences said that they were not anticipating any high water, and that the water was two or three feet deep when they discovered it about 2 o'clock Friday night. The rise came so rapidly that there was no chance to get out, and it was only an hour or two until they were forced to climb to the roof of the house. About 3:30 a. m. the water reached its crest and they felt the house begin to give way. A large whiteoak tree extended a convenient branch over the shack, and they all climbed into its branches. Just as he lifted the old lady up to one of her grandsons the house floated off about 60 or 70 feet and lodged against some trees. After daylight dawned Saturday the waters fell and the house seemed to settle on the ground, and in settling the current was so divided as to make swimming possible, so Mr. Green and the young people swam to the house where a more comfortable perch was had on its roof. During Saturday, however, another rise came and the house again became dangerous, so they again took to the trees. Mr. Green swam back and forth to the old lady a number of times, trying to make her more comfortable and cheer her up, but he observed that she was getting much weaker and he bound her to the tree with a blanket. Night came on, and some time during the night the grandmother became delirious, untied herself from the tree, and exclaiming " I am gone," allowed herself to drop into the dark waters. The balance of the party spent their time alternately on the roof and in the trees. Mr. Green climbed to the top of the big whiteoak Saturday morning and attempted to signal for help, but could see no help from any direction.

Mr. Green said that during the early hours of Saturday morning before daylight he heard shots and cries from the Bailey Turner place further on down the river, and he felt sure both Turner and Sullivan, his partner, were drowned shortly after that hour.

Sunday morning about 9 o'clock Buck Hillin and another man came to the Green camp in a small boat. They could only carry two passengers so they took the girl and one of the boys, coming back later for Mr. Green and the other boy. Green said that the relaxation from the nervous strain and sleepless hours was so great that both he and the boy lay down on the roof of the shack, which was two or three inches deep in slimy mud, and went sound asleep, sleeping until Hillin came back. During their thirty-six hour vigil in the trees the party had nothing to eat except a five pound can of sugar, and nothing to drink except the muddy river water.

Hillin carried the rescued party to high ground on the other side of the river and went on looking for others who might be similarly marooned. Two or three hours later a rescue party composed of E. V. (Gene) Marshall, Charley See, Martin Whiteley, Henry Seelke and Harry Moody, in two boats, showed up, and brought the Green party across the river, landing them on the hill this side of the Holtzclaw bridge.

The young folks were named Matcek, the girl's first name being Virginia, and Mr. Green said this girl showed unusual grit and vitality. She kept her brothers awake throughout the long hours of the night, frequently slapping and pinching them into wakefulness when to fall asleep meant death.

Mr. Green was none the worse for his experience and had since been leading the rescue workers from Rockdale.

At a mass meeting held on Wednesday night, September 19th, Mayor Meyer appointed the following committee to search out the actual flood sufferers in need of immediate aid: Lon Hudson, Chairman, A. Longmire, C. M. Sessions, W. E. White and Andrew Perry.

A relief association was formed, the ladies of the town held a meeting Thursday and a call was issued for donations of clothing, bedding, etc. The relief work was well under way, both as regarded food and clothing.

Mayor Meyer had received several telegrams from other towns volunteering financial assistance, but by vote at the Wednesday night meeting the citizens decided to not accept any immediate financial help. Mr. Meyer replied to the telegrams, thanking those towns, and stating that if later it was necessary to call for help they would be notified.

However, he stated that lists were open for contributions to the flood sufferers relief fund. The Relief Committee had found many who would help and much help was already being given. Rockdale citizens, as usual, did the noble thing and voluntary contributions were made in big amounts.

When asked what he thought of the way the rescue work had been carried on, Mayor H. C. Meyer enthusiastically responded that he had never seen more unanimous response in time of need. "Rockdale people have done many good things since I have been mayor," said Mr. Meyer, "but never before have I been more pleased than on this occasion. They have responded nobly to every call, and when I say 'Rockdale people' I mean to include all these brave country boys and men who have joined in the rescue work."

An incident of the rescue work undertaken by Rockdale citizens was the action of Joe Stein, Rockdale's old reliable baker, in donating the bread for the noonday meal prepared for the 300 rescuers on Tuesday. When the commissary department was organized a member thereof went to Mr. Stein and told him that a basket or two of bread would be necessary, to put it up and charge it to the Chamber of Commerce. "Charge nothing" said Stein. "I don't sell bread for such purposes as that. You can have all you want free."

And he made good on his promise, and while so doing also sent out a number of cases of cold drinks for the rescue party—all free. This was not the first time Joe Stein's generosity had shown itself. He had always been found ready to do his part as a good citizen. Continuing Mr. Meyer asked The Reporter to convey his thanks as mayor of Rockdale to every man and boy who assisted in any way in the wor}. He said when he made the offer of a reward to the one who found Sullivan's body the offer was spurned in true American style. The workers were not working for a reward because they deemed it their duty. "Of such stuff," said the mayor, "are heroes made."

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