The storm of the century
As told to writer JW Edwards
In the pages of my recipe book ( Maw Maw’s recollections, observations and recipes ) where I talked about Baptist fried chicken, I had made mention of the Great Appalachian flood of 1950. I remember it as well yet as you younger folks remember Hurricane Katrina. In fact, it was our Katrina. On Saturday, the 25th of November a freak early winter storm hit our area like a brick going through a window.
On Thanksgiving morning of the 23rd, it was cold, too cold for West Virginia for that time of year. Over the radio, we was warned a severe cold wave was approaching. Henry and I made sure all the cracks in our wood frame house had been stuffed up with rags. It was a heck of a way to spend Thanksgiving day! Rags had to be stuffed into the uneven spaces between house and the top of the block walls in the basement. A year previous, Uncle David and Henry had dug out under the house and laid in a clay block basement. Not being bricklayers, the rows of bricks ended up looking like sea waves or a roller coaster, but I wasn’t going to complain. We then purchased a deep freezer and an extra refrigerator along with rows and rows of shelves for all my canned goods.
No longer did we need to cut and haul ice from the pond anymore. Henry turned the room under the barn floor into a room for him and his Paps hobby. Cheese making. When he did, however, he hired on a couple tile layers from Hinton to do the job. Henry installed a dumb waiter for hauling up and down milk and cheese products and replaced the steps with wider ones made of steel.
The old walls had a new white ceramic tile laid on them along with a smooth concrete floor. Stainless steel tanks and tables would be put in along with other cheese making stuff.
It was a paying hobby that in just a few more years would have to move from the barn to a real building. Their hobby would become a true business. The cheese making facility would be housed in a building they’d have built for it up in Princeton. Henry’s Pap retired from the logging business due to bad hips that year . When Henry approached him about moving the cheese making facility up to Princeton and having his Paps run it, his Paps readily agreed. For the last couple years, they had been producing some fine cheeses in that barn room but without a bigger facility they couldn’t grow any more. The move would give the company the room it needed. Within six months of moving they would have seven employees and their own delivery truck.
But in November of ’50 that building wasn’t even an idea yet and I had Henry home with me tearing up and stuffing rags into our home to keep the pipes from freezing.
We had no television yet. It wasn’t until the 60’s that the Television signal was made powerful enough to be caught by a set of rabbit ear antenna in our neck of the woods.
Until that day came, AM radio was our window to the world.
The radio warned of the freeze coming that night but by noontime on the 23rd, the sky looked angry and dark. In the summertime I would have made for our new basement with a good book to wait out the storm. But this was November and storms of any consequence were rare if not unheard of in our area. Most we ever got was a long cold drizzling rain spell. That night we all enjoyed a hearty Thanksgiving dinner and many of the recipes I used in that meal will be told to you..
The next morning on the 24th, frost was on the ground but we stayed warm and cozy inside the house. The weather report on the radio said there was a low pressure area developing down in South Caroline and was headed up to Virginia. Other than the cold, it didn’t look too bad. By dinner time it had begun to snow.
The kids sure enjoyed the sight of an early snow and asked if they could go outside to play in it for a bit. I felt ill at ease there for some reason. I felt there was something ominous about the weather and I spoke to Henry of my concerns.
He’d had his ear glued to the radio waiting for any word about the storm. Paying attention to his own gut feelings, Henry said we should secure the barn and put out extra feed so’s the animals could get a boost of energy to stay warm. We let the boys outside to play just until we got back from barn chores. On our way to the barn, bolts of lightning started to light up the falling snow. That added to an already uncanny feeling that we were in the first stages of something terrible. We both quickened our steps.
Inside the barn, the animals seemed agitated and skitterish. We laid out two more days supply of hay and extra feed in the troughs. Henry carried water in and filled the big round cattle buckets. We put out extra feed in the chicken coop and made sure each animal was given few moments of attention to help in calming them down before we left.
When we got back to the house, the boys had made a mess of the new fallen snow out front in their fun, but was more than obliging when we told them to get inside. They were soaked with melted snow and froze to the bone. I had the kitchen wood stove fired up from making dinner yet but added even more wood to cut the chill that begun settling in. Henry went down and stoked the wood burning “boomer” gravity feed furnace we had installed in the basement. The house got so warm, we all took our shoes off and enjoyed Henry’s reading a story book to us in our socks by lamp light.
When it came time for the boys to get on up to bed, Henry turned the radio back on. The man on the radio was giving warnings of severe cold for the next day but didn’t mention much else. Now we had heat only on the downstairs floor at that time. Large open cast iron heat grates had been put in each upstairs room’s floor. This way, the rising heated air would make it’s way from the first floor into the second floor above.
Many houses built in our area used he same method of heating the second floor. It wasn’t until we converted to an electric fan driven coal furnace that heat pipes were installed in every room.
I decided the boys would be warmer if they got their bedding and camped out on the living room
floor. They made a fun time of it and I knew it would be a late night with them staying up from all the excitement.
Their happy faces changed to worried ones when the wind began blowing in gust so hard it ripped the screen door clean off it’s hinges. Henry made a sharp comment regarding not latching the hook when Earl, our youngest, reminded him that he was the last one inside. Shortly after that episode, something (most likely a branch) slammed into the side of the house with such a bang we all jumped. By now Henry was saying that this weren’ t no regular storm and wanted to check on the animals once again in the barn. He was afraid a latched door or hay loft window may have blown open.
So I told him I’d put the kids down and he could go out and check the barn while I got them settled.
We had electric out in the barn but it wasn’t working when Henry tried to put the lights on. Clicking on his flashlight, He followed the wires outside until he found one hanging loose from the pole. It had been blowed down in the wind. Fortunately, his tools was kept in the barn. He got the wires reconnected in the freezing wind and snow and thankfully, the lights came back on inside.
By now he was half froze through and his flashlight was on dim. He made a quick check of the latches to see if any had come loose and was satisfied that they was all tightly hooked. He made his way back to the house in the deepening drifts that were now forming. Once he got back inside the house, the boys had fallen asleep being curled up in a pile of warm blankets.
I hugged him ’cause he looked so cold and raw. I loved that man beyond what words could declare. I took his hand and led him upstairs into our bed. 4:30 am came all too soon.
The morning wind had not slowed down one bit, in fact it was worse. I left the boys to lie where they was while I stoked the stove fire back up and started first breakfast. By the time I set the bread on the stove top to make toast, Henry come down stairs. He had left the water running a smidgeon in each tap the night before so’s they wouldn’t freeze up. Good thing too because it was now just above zero outside. It was November 25th.
The wind was now howling at a constant 60 miles an hour. Some of our tar roof shingles were being blown off. Henry had to go outside in the weather to close the window shutters that had only been closed once before on that house. He found himself in snow up to his knees. It may have been a blessing having the screen door torn off by the wind the night before. No way could Henry have opened it outward with the snow drifted up on the door as high as his waist. With first light, Henry made his way to each window. What would have been a five minute job was turning into a job that made each trip outside last for a half hour at a time. He’d return each time to warm up before heading back out to continue closing the shutters. By seven am, Henry’d made his last trip and returned to the safety that was inside. All the shutters, high and low were now closed and we felt now more at ease.
Second breakfast had been waiting on Henry to come back in and the boys devoured it right quick when we finally sat down to eat.
Henry went on over to the radio to listen for any updates. The farm news was on but it was interrupted time and time again with storm updates.
On the radio were stories of far away towns in New York State, Ohio and Pennsylvania reporting constant winds of over 100 miles an hour and very heavy snow fall. Snow fall in southern Ohio was so dense they said visibility was no more than arms length. They was callin’ it the storm of the century.
We worried over how the house would take the high winds. We had never had a sustained blow like this one was giving us. Every now an then we heard a brick or two let loose from the chimney and tumble down the roof. I feared for my own Mam and Paps place not a mile away, but it might have as well been on the other side of the earth. Thank goodness we layed up extra feed for the animals out in the barn. If a latch had gone and let loose, there was no fixen it now. We hunkered down keeping warm while the storms fury pounded the earth outside our little Ark.
For the noontime meal, I put in a big chicken pot pie to bake. The smell was wonderful and gave us all a sense of peace within the confines of our home. Outside, it seemed the Devil himself was rippen’ tree limbs off and venting his fury on mankind. Some of the windows had jarred loose and snow was blowin’ past the shutters and through the window.
Once when I had gone upstairs to make up the beds, I had to brush a dusting of snow off my own bed! Again went the rags to the cracks.
Having the shutters closed gave the looks that we was in the night time. Just as I made the comment to Henry that I was thankful to the Lord for having the electric to see by, everything went dark. I found that later, over one million souls had lost electricity in West Virginia during that storm.
As the house went black, Henry’d asked if there was anything else I would like to mention seein’ as the Devil had forgot to put us all in the dark…that is, untill he heard me thankin’ God out loud.
By 8pm (close to our bedtime now) we was fearing the worst now. We could see earlier out the window on the door that snow had reached waist high in most places and had drifted more than 30 feet high in places. No longer could we see the barn doors at all.
Our beloved ’39 Chevrolet Deluxe had been left outside next to the house on purpose. Henry had moved it out of the barn just in case we needed it in an emergency. Well that ‘ol vehicle wasn’t being seen now! The snow had drifted well over the top of it.
It would be another week before we freed it up enough to move it.
That night as Henry and I laid on a make shift bed next to the boys in the living room, we all took turns thanking the Lord out loud for his protection then asking for our continued safety. I prayed special hard for our Mams and Paps and siblings. We didn’t have no phone back then either.
I fell into an uncomfortable and restless sleep as the storm continued to rage throughout the night.
The next morning brought more the same. Worry was eaten us like a cancer.
Fearing all our frozen goods was going to melt without electricity, Henry, the kids and I started the chore of moving the still frozen meat and such to bushel baskets and placing them outside the door. I wasn’t fearing an animal would eat the stuff as no animal could get around in that deep snow.
We emptied the deep freezer and put the refrigerated items in other bushel baskets in the attic. It was cold up there but not to the point of being frozen.
We had started a game of “Easy Money” and I was winning over the others when a tree limb the thickness of a mans leg came crashing through the side of the house into our Pantry. It was off our Black Walnut tree out back. With the limb poking through the wall, and snow blowing into the house, the smell of broken canned goods filled the house. Assessing the damage, Henry said the first thing was to cut out the stuck limb. Unfortunately, the saw, as were all the other tools , were in the barn. Henry had no choice but to brave the storm outside and try to make it to the barn. He told me that when he got into the barn, that he’d also care for the animals and I shouldn’t worry if he was gone for a spell. I got out Henry’s Bibbs, another set of Long Johns, more socks and a heavy coat. I kissed him inside the kitchen, opened the door for him and let him out into the still raging blizzard. I watched as he trudged like his feet were made of lead up towards the barn. I lost sight of him partway’s to the barn in the blowing snow.
I was thankful Henry’d mentioned taking time to care for the animals as it kept my worry down to a minimum when after an hour he still hadn’t returned. I was in the middle of pray’n that he was ok
when I heard his boots thump onto the stoop. He was so frozen his hand holding the saw wouldn’t release. In his other hand he held onto a canvas satchel filled with other hand tools and nails. It took another hour to cut out the limb from the wall. Meanwhile the house was chilling fast. In order to patch the hole up, Henry removed some shelves in the basement holding more canned goods and nailed them up over the hole. We again had a sense of relief come upon us and the chill began to recede.
It wasn’t until Tuesday on the 28th of November, that the storm finally blew itself out. When it did, we woke up that early morning to a quiet that we had not heard in days.
Just because the storm had ended though did not mean we could get on with our daily routines as usual. True, my routine stayed somewhat the same. Cooking, cleaning, and keeping the boys from killing each other. For Henry, it was the start of many days of repairs that were being made more difficult from the heavy snow fall.
That morning Henry and I both trudged out to the barn. The boys were left to themselves and were
given in clear terms what would fall their upon their backsides if they didn’t behave. They were given the chore of housekeeping. Amazingly, when we returned to the house, we found it to be spotless!
We made it to the man door on the east side of the barn where the drifting was at a minimum. While still outside we looked over the place for obvious damage. None could be seen but we noticed the power lines leading to the barn were nowhere to be seen. Fact was, the pole itself was gone too! Looking further down our entrance road, we noticed every one of those poles the co op had put in was left standing with a lean to them now. We was in for a long winter!
Once inside the barn again, Henry removed his gloves and headed to the feed room. There he took out feed for the chickens, poured some into a pail and handed it silently to me. I went and opened the chicken coop up and fed the chickens and gathered what few eggs was inside. Although the chicken coop was built outside the barn, Henry had made it so’s the one wall was also the wall of the barn. In that wall he had put a doorway so you could enter from inside or outside.
After I filled the feed and water trough I closed the door, thankful no chickens had froze to death.
Henry had finished filling the feed troughs inside and had pulled a few more bales of hay from the hayloft above. We began our inside inspection of our Civil War era built barn. Other than some tin missing from the roof, we could find no further damage. With wind no longer howling through the cracks, the animals seemed calm and back to normal. We cleaned up the manure, spread down more straw and headed back to the house. Later we would notice a great reduction in mice population after that storm. Whether or not the decrease was from being froze or eaten by the barn cats, it didn’t matter, we was still grateful.
Making our way back to the house, the sun come and through the clouds. Lit brightly for the first time in days, we could see what the storms fury had wrought upon us. Nowhere to be seen was the pasture fences, the drifts covered ’em all. The western side of the house had a drift going all the way up to the roof. It looked more like a white mountain had decided to place itself in our yard. Some of the tree’s had only the highest branches exposed. A small animal corral for the goats in the back yard was completely drifted over. I was thankful Henry had moved ’em into the barn when the storm started.
It would take weeks before we had electric strung up again. Even after we did, the main power lines heading to our property weren’t restrung until late December.
Repairs were slow going but one by one they were done. Henry had to make his way up to the finishing shed by the saw mill. That shed contained a big planer machine that made smooth a boards surface and made it into a desired thickness. We called it a shed but the fact was, it was bigger than our house. There was other wood working machines in there too but I really couldn’t tell you what they did.
Anyway, Henry come back with some planks the same as the houses siding that was being stored in there. All day he worked on the hole in the side of the house made by the falling tree limb. As the days wore on that first week after the storm, the weather improved greatly.
At first we considered it a blessing to see the snow melting away. When patches of grass and fence lines began to appear again, the radio began sending out dire flood warnings for the area. Seems the Bluestone dam in Hinton was causing more problems than was solving them. About twenty miles north east of our place was the town of Hinton. The Government decide it was a good place for a dam since the New River valley was sparsely populated and would provide some needed flood controls. Work began in ’41 but wasn’t in full operation until ’52. Our storm hit in ’50. This meant the damn wasn’t ready yet for a flood like we got. Luckily, it could have been worse because they had lowered the river in anticipation of the spring thaws.
With the dam not able to handle the rising water level, creeks and such draining into the New River began to swell. Soon the New River overflowed it’s banks causing all the tributaries leading into it to over flow also. The Bluestone Dam never was much of a well built Dam. Constant problems plagued it over the years. Even today, the Government engineers decided that the Dam has the ability to literally move downstream in one piece if the water level rises beyond it’s present “Low water” level. Dang!
At first we only noticed the streams and creeks rising near our place. We see this each spring and it was no cause for concern. But one morning Henry and the boys went to do morning barn chores and found a lake had surrounded our house! It was only ankle deep but we had never seen the likes of it before. Athens town was south.of us and on higher ground but the radio was saying even Athens was experiencing flooding. Now the bottom of the house started about two feet off the ground as it was laid on a foundation that was raised above ground level. It wasn’t the depth of the water so much as the power of the current that scared us. I feared the whole house (like some others we heard of ) would up and drift away in the flood.
Water was near to the top of the stoop by then. With only a few more inches to go before water poured into the house we began to remove everything we could from the basement and bring it upstairs. We kept the gravity furnace going on low heat fearing if the basement flooded, the cast iron insides would crack from the cold water when it became submerged. Seems all we did from the beginning of the storm was work to survive. Thankfully, we had no windows put in when Henry built the basement under the house. The original stone block foundation was built water tight.
Since the roads was too flooded for an vehicle to drive on, Henry fired up our gas tractor with a hay wagon behind it and drove on into Athens on it for supplies. Along route 20 there was a small amount of merchants springing up. These were pretty much a loss now. Henry’s tractor made it’s way along flooded low spots that sometimes forced him to lift up his feet. He later told me the water was so high in one spot that most the cooling fan up front was under water and sending out spray like a fire hose!
In town, he found the people there was pretty dry but the lower roads was flooded causing people to evacuate their places and head on into town for relief. The School had been turned into a shelter of sorts for those flooded out. We had nothing like that near us to fall back on accept our own churches…those that weren’t under water anyway.
Our own Baptist church was up on a hill so it never got affected by the flood. Those people displaced from the flood was staying in the recreation room out back. Until the bodies started arriving.
The funeral home up in Princeton couldn’t handle but six bodies at any one time and besides that, most the roads leading to it on Greasy Ridge was still impassible.
The call went out for emergency space to hold bodies until they could be transferred to Princeton for embalming. No one was being buried ’cause the flooding. Our Pastor approached what elders he could locate and got permission to let any bodies not able to make their way up to Princeton to be stored in the recreation room with the doors open and heat off until the roads was passable again.
Eighteen of the twenty six that lost their lives in our area ended up in our church’s recreation room. Those that had sought shelter there were now sleeping on the churches pews. Grieving family members came and identified the dead but a few never found their loved ones at all. They was just listed as “missing” from then on. It was hearing of the dead children that drove me to my knees in tears. How I prayed for those who’s babies was gone forever.
Pastor held prayer services and passed the collection plate each night for the dead and suffering. Henry attended along with Uncle David each night. Henry and his siblings also donated all the fine cut maple boards from their mill so coffins could be made from them. Cabinet makers, Pete Haynes and his son donated all their labor in making the coffins at no cost. Few if any of the dead had insurance.
Uncle Davids ranch suffered only minor damage. No flood damage at all, just from the wind during the storm. My Mam and Paps place needed a new roof and one out building collapsed but none of the animals lost their lives.
Henry’s Pap injured himself trying to re hang the barn door that got knocked off it’s track, but within a few days he was up and around again and doing fine. Our family was lucky in many ways. We sustained some damages, but nothing that compared to those who had lost everything.
Losing all your possessions and even loved ones was bad. But I truly think there was something lost that was worse yet. It was hope. Some folks had lost so much they couldn’t find the strength to start over again.
There was no FEMA or Government hand outs back then. If you couldn’t pull yourself up with your own bootstraps, even with help of neighbors, family and friends, you might as well just lay down and die. Some did just that. Suicides were a common occurrence for months afterward. What the storm didn’t destroy, a gun or a razor did.
Today I can drive my vehicle and point out homes still standing and what damage they had had done to them back then. I knew the family’s living there and many I called friends.
They’s all but gone now. Most passed on, some in nursing homes. I’m not sure why the good Lord saw fit to let me live as long as this. I’m still quick in my thoughts and sometimes my mind forgets my bodies old and I find myself doing something an old lady like me shouldn’t do. Like driving maybe.
Still, I could be sad about all the friendships now gone and a loving husband no longer here to warm my bed and rub my aching feet at night. But still I rise up each morning like I did today and think, “what chores do I have to do today?” You got to stay young in your mind to stay alive. Back in the day, we was the first to have indoor plumbing installed in our area. Today, I’m going Wal-Mart to buy a Kindle!