We often assume that when a tragic event happens that affects us, we are the only ones who have gone through the hardship. Researching the 1937 flood, I found that mentality nearly non-existent. Even those who had nothing helped to reclaim their homes, their belongings, their neighbors’ things. In Dayton, over 7,000 people were forced from their homes. Hundreds of houses damaged beyond repair. Family heirlooms were lost. These are just some of the facts of an event that happened eighty years ago. Dayton, Kentucky was not the only town that suffered from the 1937 flood, but the devastation that hit the town seemed insurmountable in a population of 10,000.
The Benner family lived at 632 Third Street in Dayton. Stories from the family included how they walked across a frozen river in winters before the flood, the sound of the calliope as steamboats floated lazily on summer evenings. But on January 18, in the midst of rain that began falling 5 days before, Cliff Benner, the father of the family, nervously watched as the water crept up Berry Street, seeking the lowest point as it went. Surely it would not reach the house. Still, he began to make arrangements for his wife, his daughters, and a sister-in-law.
Cliff was no stranger to flooding. Prior to the flood of 1913 that destroyed Saint Francis of Assisi Church, he’d captured the beauty of the place in a photograph. But the beginning of 1937 was different. Ornately carved tables from Germany, alabaster figurines, Limoge and Haviland China, all was packed up hurriedly in the face of rising waters.
Rowboats appeared when the water lapped at the front stoop, the place that Cliff had taken picture after picture of his young family. He’d made sure the photographic equipment and family photos were saved. Precious photos of his wife in the backyard amid chickens, their children gathered on a happy summer day. Not like this January when the sky only took on hues of gray.
It could have completely wiped out the spirit of the city. Instead, after the waters receded people went back to survey the damage. Today, we talk about how much it costs in monetary terms to lose a town. Much of what I have read about the ’37 flood has to do more with the fact that people worked together.
You can find all sorts of information about the flood on the internet and most assuredly in the newspapers this month. And yet, the spirit of the people of Dayton during and after the flood is what means so much to the residents of Dayton today. There was a “Can-do” attitude that fed the rescue efforts.
Cliff and his family went back to their home only to find busted out windows, the house next door tilted on its side, leaning up against the brick wall of their side yard, and a keyless piano butted up against their front door. Mud, more than a foot deep layered in the streets. Power lines were down and generators ran for warmth.
Slowly and often with tired smiles, people cleaned and captured what they could of their homes to once more hear the sound of the calliope along the river.
Submitted by: Tina Neyer
Dayton Community News