A reunion to remember
The 1935 Republican River Flood is arguably the greatest disaster ever to befall our valley. This year, 2010, the 75th Anniversary of the flood, offers the opportunity to look at some of the stories to come out of that bleak time. The following story is of the McNeece and Rippen families.
Friday, the first of June 1935, was a happy time for Mr. and Mrs. Joe McNeece, who lived on a farm just east of Culbertson, between the Republican River and the Ferguson Irrigation Canal. Son, Dale, and his father-in-law, Mr. Mitchell, were visiting from California and the family was using this as an excuse for a Memorial Day Weekend family reunion. Daughters, Eileen, and Iris (Gummere), and Iris' baby boy, came from Stratton to join sisters, Mavis, Jesslyn, and brother, Jack, 14, who still lived at home.
All that week there had been rain, a lot of rain. At first everyone welcomed the rain because it broke a prolonged dry spell. But as it continued, day after day, the Republican River neared flood stage. During the night, there had been heavy rain to the west and north, and the river was out of its banks, and some water had even come into the McNeece house, but the girls had mopped up the mess quickly in the morning. This minor flooding had happened on numerous occasions and no one thought too much about it. During Friday morning the family visited around the kitchen table, enjoying catching up on the latest developments in everyone's life, though Mr. McNeece slipped outdoors from time to time to check on the river. About noon, Henry Rippen, a neighbor to the east, his son, Harlon, 17, and Lawrence Paris, a ditch rider for the Ferguson Canal, drove up to the McNeece farm with a team of mules and wagon. They spoke quickly with Mr. McNeece, who then spread an alarm to the people in the house. They had heard news of a wall of water, coming from the west, and coming fast. The men hurried everyone into the wagon. Already the bridge across the irrigation canal had washed out, taking away that means of escape. The only route open was to the Rippen farm, on higher ground, two miles to the east. All of the McNeece family, except Jack, climbed into the wagon with Mr. Rippen and Mr. Paris and started for the Rippen farm. Jack chose to ride along on his horse, Beauty.
Though the water was high, the trip went well for about a quarter of a mile. Then, as the wagon entered a low spot on the road, high water made further progress impossible. Everyone in the wagon was able to wade to a stand of trees nearby and the men were able to cut the mules loose from their harness. But Jack, on Beauty, attempting to go around the wagon, was caught in the current. Harlon Rippen, a good swimmer, dived into the water after him, attempting a rescue. All the rest could do was watch helplessly, as the boys and Beauty, were swept downstream, out of sight.
The remaining members of the little party managed to reach the trees, and, as the water rose, they climbed, one after another, into two particularly sturdy trees. As the water rose they were forced to climb higher and higher. Eileen, the first one into the tree, was eventually forced into the topmost branches, so that the others could climb above the water level. Mrs. McNeece, distraught with grief, and had to be continually pulled higher up the tree by her husband. Dale carried Iris' baby in his arm as he climbed to his spot in the tree.
All day and into the night the little group clung to their precarious perch, as the Republican River raged past them on the north, and the irrigation canal, by now essentially another river, raged past on the south. Throughout that long day, they could only watch as buildings and farm animals floated past. Dale's father-in-law and Mr. Paris, especially, were very good about keeping everyone talking or singing, so that they would stay alert and not lose his or her grip in the tree.
Rain continued off and on throughout the day and the water around them continued to rise. Late in the day they were faced with another danger. The wind began to blow and their trees began to sway alarmingly and they were fearful of being thrown into the water. They later learned that they had been just on the fringe of a tornado, which slashed through the area between them and the Rippen farm, uprooting very large trees, larger than the trees which had been their refuge. A four-mile area northwest of McCook caught the brunt of the damage by the tornado, which claimed the lives of a Mrs. Zander and her two sons.
About midnight, the storm abated and the water receded enough that they were able to descend from the trees. They waited among the trees until daybreak. When there was light enough to see, they set out once more -- on foot. Slowly they made their way across the irrigation canal to high ground, and eventually to the Egglings place, a neighboring farm on higher ground, which was untouched by the flood. As they approached the Eggling farm they were greeted by the Eggling (and a good hot breakfast, the first food for almost 24 hours), and brother, Jack and Harlon Rippen, along with Mrs. Rippen and her other sons, Leland, Alfred, and Gordon. What a reunion! Jack had been sure that his family had been lost, as they had been sure that he was gone.
It turned out that Jack McNeece had managed to grab a railway tie for support and had floated safely down the river, with Harlon close behind. As they neared the Rippen farm Leland and Alfred Rippen, on horseback, were able to haul them ashore. Mrs. Rippen had immediately dosed the boys, liberally, with pure cream, to cause them to throw up the quantities of brackish flood water that they had swallowed on their perilous swim. The boys were thoroughly drenched, scared, and near exhaustion, but otherwise unhurt, and suffered no adverse effects from their ordeal.
Ironically, the family later found that had they stayed in the upstairs of their McNeece home they would have been perfectly safe. Floodwaters had wedged boards between the trees just west of the house. These boards had acted as a diversion dam, keeping the main current of the floodwater away from the house. However, the house was filled to the windowsills with mud and eventually had to be torn down. The farmstead, as well, was destroyed. The river had scoured the farm's cropland into a lake, and pastures were layered with several feet of unproductive mud.
Later, the McNeece family took refuge with the Rippens for several days, until they could safely ford the river and find suitable living quarters in Culbertson.
The McNeece Memorial Day reunion was very different from what they had originally imagined, but they were all safe, so, for the family, it turned out to be a most joyous affair after all. Truly, it was a reunion to remember.
Note: Eileen McNeece Moore, in the above story, was a familiar figure in Downtown McCook for many years, as the head lady at Sehnert's Dutch Oven Bakery, and is a resident at McCook's Willow Ridge Retirement community. Leland Rippen currently lives at Hillcrest Nursing Home in McCook. We are grateful to them for information and insight concerning the flood. More complete stories of the flood by Leland Rippen and Eileen's sister, Jesslyn can be found in Marlene Wilmot's book, "From Bluff to Bluff," available at McCook's High Plains Museum.