1935 Flood devastated Miller family

Friday, May 28, 2010

SPEARFISH, S.D. -- Nadine Miller Fidler's last memories of her mother are of her straining to reach the outstretched arm of Nadine's uncle, and not being able to make the connection before the raging waters of the Republican River took away her mother and baby sister.

Seventy-five years ago Monday, Nadine's family was devastated by the worst flood in the history of the Republican River watershed. On May 31, 1935, 51⁄2-year-old Nadine lost her mother, her three sisters, her brother and her aunt in the flood waters. Someone may be caught off-guard initially when Nadine says the anniversary doesn't bring back memories. "Oh, it doesn't bring back memories," Nadine said Thursday morning as the anniversary approached. "They're with me all the time."

At 80 years old, Nadine remembers that day 75 years ago as if the flood happened yesterday.

Nadine's parents, Charles Jr. and Frances Miller, were raising a family of six children on Charles' father's dairy farm, in a house situated on the west side of the county road on the north bank of the Republican River south of the Perry Elevator west of McCook. "Ours was the last place before crossing the bridge over the Republican," Nadine said.

Nadine's grandparents, Charles Sr. and Lena, lived in McCook, at 406 E. Sixth, across the street west of the Lutheran Church.

The family sold their dairy products at a creamery shop in McCook, the "Miller Cloverleaf Dairy" in the 200 block of East B Street, east of Hormel Chevrolet (now Wagner Chevrolet).

Nadine said that on the 31st of May in 1935, her father was recuperating at his parents' house in McCook after surgery. Frances and the children were on the farm west of McCook; Nadine, the third oldest of the six, was 51⁄2 years old.

Nadine remembers that it had been raining "a lot" for several days, and her grandmother called from McCook encouraging Frances to bring the children and Frances' sister, Elizabeth Shook, a teacher who was visiting for the summer, into town. "Mother wasn't worried. She said she'd seen the river high before," Nadine said. "She felt nothing drastic was going to happen."

Nadine recalls waking up that morning. "It was such a strange, strange sight because there was water in the front yard. Our house was sitting in the middle of water. Yet, the water was quiet."

She continued, "Our dairy cows were standing in water nibbling the leaves off the branches of the trees because they couldn't find any grass."

"Mother was composed," Nadine said. "She kept us children quiet."

Nadine remembers that men on horseback tried to reach the family in the farmyard, but the horses became mired in the mud and they couldn't get through, so they had to give up.

Nadine's father's brother, Dale Miller, and a friend, Clyde McKillip, came in a rowboat, Nadine said, and she continued, "A neighbor west of our farm, I think a Mr. Cappel, called and told Mother that 'a wall of water is coming'."

Uncle Dale and Clyde and Mother and Elizabeth and the children went into the back bedroom, Nadine said, and, standing on the frame of a bed, one-by-one, the adults lifted the children into the attic.

"The wall of water came, all right," Nadine said, talking faster. The water swept the dairy barn, sitting west of the house, off its concrete foundation and slammed it into the house, and then the house moved, she said.

"Uncle Dale made a hole in the roof and we children were put onto the roof of the house," Nadine said.

"I can't say that Mother and the baby ... I don't recall that Mother and my baby sister ever made it to the roof," Nadine said. "My next memory of her is seeing her in the water."

"The water was moving so fast ..."

"I watched Uncle Dale kneel on the roof and reach out his arms to Mother. I see Mother reaching toward Uncle Dale with one arm, the baby clutched in the other," Nadine said. "But they couldn't make the connection ... "

"I had no idea I would never see my mother again," Nadine said. "At 51⁄2, I had no concept of death."

Nadine feels badly that she can't remember when happened to her younger sisters, Virginia and Claudine. "Maybe they fell of the roof?" Nadine wonders.

Nadine's older brother, Johnny, and her Aunt Elizabeth jumped from the "raft" of the roof into a cluster of trees. "I don't know why ... they were trying to leave the raft which they thought would surely disintegrate," Nadine said.

That left Clyde, Uncle Dale, Nadine and Nadine's older sister, Charlotte, on the raft.

Clyde and Charlotte too jumped into a cluster of trees, and were rescued later that day, Nadine said. "My Uncle Dale and I were the only ones left on the roof," Nadine said.

"I had no fear," Nadine said. "My Uncle Dale was taking care of me. I was cold and hungry and probably kind of whiny. I probably gave my uncle a much harder time than he should have had."

Nadine said she had no concept of time, and her uncle was uncertain of the time. "The skies darkened, and I thought it was night time," Nadine said, "but it was the tornado that swept through, because the skies lightened and then darkened again at night time."

"I slept off and on," Nadine said, "and by morning, the waters were quiet."

"Uncle Dale carried me. He was so weary and worn from all the tragedy," Nadine said. "I was heavy, I'm sure, but I was not going to let him put me down. I didn't wan to let him go."

"He finally told me I'd have to walk, and he put me down. The water was so strong, I had to lift my head to stay above it," Nadine said. "It was a force to walk through."

The two finally came to a sandbar, Nadine said. "Uncle Dale was so weary. With his hands, he scooped out a basin in the sand and set me in that. He told me, 'I'm coming back. If you've moved, I'll paddle you.' And I believed him."

Dale waded through water to the south shore and finally reached the farmhouses of a Mr. Adams and another family whose names Nadine couldn't remember, possibly Rice or Weskamp, Nadine said. "Uncle Dale collapsed there," she said, but not before he asked others to go get Nadine off the sandbar.

"I watched a light airplane overhead, but I was afraid to look or motion, because Uncle Dale had told me not to move," Nadine said. Finally, she said, she spotted two or three adults walking and one on horseback on the south side of the river. "The man on horseback rode into the water, and told me, 'I'm going to help you. I want to take you to safety'."

She continued, "He put me on the horse, and I thought, 'I'm in trouble now. Uncle Dale will know I moved. He'll come back and I'll have moved.'."

The man on horseback took Nadine to her Uncle Dale on the Adams farm. "Jim Adams rescued me," Nadine said. "I met him when I was a grown woman."

The Adams family "fed me warm soup, and I took a nap," Nadine said.

"When a small plane could land, Uncle Dale and I went into town," Nadine said.

The bodies of Nadine's mother and baby sister Beverly, sisters Claudine and Virginia were found and buried in Memorial Park Cemetery. The body of Nadine's brother, Johnny, was never found, but a stone in the family plot in Memorial Park marks his life and his death in the flood.

Nadine said that the flood so devastated her father, that he couldn't cope. "He left McCook, and our grandparents raised my older sister Charlotte and me," Nadine said.

"Uncle Dale couldn't stay in McCook any longer either," Nadine said. "There were such memories and heartaches ... "

Nadine graduated from McCook High School in 1946. She married Raymond H. Fidler of Cambridge, and he worked for Breland Funeral Home in McCook. When the couple had an opportunity to purchase their own funeral home, they moved to Spearfish, S.D., in 1955.

Nadine said she returned often to McCook, to see her grandparents and her father, who moved back to McCook, and then, with their passing, to decorate family graves. Charlotte and her oldest daughter are also buried in Memorial Park Cemetery.

Nadine keeps in touch with her cousin, Marilyn Miller of McCook, who remembers a minister coming to her grandparents' house after the flood, the adults crying, the minister praying with them.

Too much rainfall falling too fast just created more trouble for residents of the High Plains trying to survive Depression and drought in 1935. The country was coping with the Great Depression when the year began and dust storms blackened the skies over the thirsty plains throughout the spring.

However, in late May, the rains started falling. Heavy rains had fallen on May 28 and raised water levels in the Republican and its tributaries, and on the night of May 30, one storm system hovered over Nebraska and another darkened Southern Colorado. The systems merged over Northeast Colorado, where the Republican and the Arikaree rivers meet before crossing the state line into Kansas, and dumped up to 24 inches of rain in Eastern Colorado, Western Kansas and Southern Nebraska.

The heavy rain moved east through the night, following the Republican's drainage area and overfilling the river's banks. The storm lasted until June 2, dropping anywhere from two to seven additional inches of rain.

Joy Hayden, of the National Weather Service in Goodland, Kan., writes, "This rainfall meant the flood crest traveling down the Republican River encountered the extremely high waters of tributary systems in southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas."

The flood killed 113 people, Hayden's research indicates. It caused millions of dollars in property losses for residents of Northeast Colorado, Northwest Kansas and Southwest and Central Nebraska.

Hayden writes, "The force of the water easily lifted homes and barns from their foundations and twisted railroad tracks as if they were toys."

Hayden continued, "Although warnings had gotten to some of the area, many residents would not leave their homes, believing that after living in the valley for 50 year, the flood would never reach them."

To commemorate this event, the National Weather Service in Goodland has created a web page that features stories and pictures from the flood: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/gld/?n=1935flood

Hayden has also created a program about the flood; interested parties are encouraged to call her at (785) 899-7119.

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