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“Flooding and Farming” by Erwin A. Thompson

It's that time of year. Will it flood? If so, how high? My father's history of what it was like to farm around th floods gives us some good historical context. --Janet

As I grew up I was aware of the river's "flood stage," but only as a matter of interest, not survival. The Riehl farm had about 25 acres of tillable "overflow ground", as well as several acres of softwood timber. We got our corn from the tillable land. This was not free. There were times when the water came up and halted the planting process after the ground had been plowed.

Sometimes the water receded so late that we could not depend on the usual varieties of "hundred and twenty day corn" which produced the best yield. There was the "90 day" variety but it did not produce nearly the yield that the longer maturity varieties did. I remember such a year in 1934, when our neighbor, Ed Maupin, was farming our bottom ground on the share. He gambled, and planted the hundred and twenty day variety.

He won. We had a late frost that year, the thirtieth of October. The corn matured and hardened so that it could be cribbed without the danger of it "heating" as it would have done had it not been properly matured.

One year the water receded too late for even the ninety day variety. My Grandfather bought several pounds of turnip seed, put on his hip boots, and broadcast the seed on the mud left by the receding waters. That fall he supplied the surrounding neighborhoods with turnips. Ten cents for a gunny sack full, or a dollar for a wagon load. The story was still a neighborhood legend during my growing up years.

The water also came up in the fall, sometimes, although this was not the usual. One year they had the corn cut and stored in shocks, still left in the field. This was a common practice, and it had advantages. Corn fodder is not the most nutritious food, but it will "beat snowballs" as one of our hired men used to say. How true! Also, when left on the stalk, if the ears are not harvested in a timely manner, the squirrels often harvest a good deal of it for their own benefit.

So, one fall, the corn was in the shock. Water came up so quickly that there was not time to rescue the shocked corn and haul to higher ground. Someone else saw the opportunity and used a boat to raid the nicely stored shock corn.

It was often the practice for the men to cut wood in the winter time and not haul lit out immediately. They learned the fallacy of this practice. An entry in Grandpa's day books: "River rose, and flowed off some of my stove wood."

Cord wood was often sold. Some times it was hauled into town by land transportation, but there are entries in the day books: "Banked cordwood for the [family name] at $2.50 per cord. (A cord of wood is four feet high and eight feet long, made up of wood cut in four foot lengths.)

The H. K. Johnson Hardware Store, on the north-east corner of Broadway and State Street had marks on its building of the various heights of river water in the floods that had taken place during the recorded history of them in this area. This was always a source of great interest to me when I was growing up. If I was missed during our trips to town I could usually be found right there.

Another interesting happening caused by the floods was the people on Scotch Jimmie's Island, just across from our farm. Legend has it that James Powrie was granted a forty acre homestead there for his service in the Civil War. I have never found a way to either prove or disprove this. The day books are full of references to dealings with Mister Powrie. One time I found a reference in an old newspaper article that said my Uncle Ed Riehl had played for a dance in the house there on the island. There was no date. The Powrie girls went to Randolph School with my mother and my aunts and uncles. When the river was impassable during the worst of the winter they stayed at the Lock home.

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3 Responses »

  1. This is a nice glimpse into life in other times, the little details adding up to a picture that (for people like ex-Peace Corps Volunteers) reminds us of what we learned about how few of the changes in life, over the last 70 years, really translate into improvements in the quality and fulfillments that life offers. The price of a cord of wood back then also suggests that the dollar we earn today is not the same as a dollar yesterday... more like four cents yesterday. Keep those reminiscences coming!

  2. Alan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. We are so blessed that Pop has intrepidly documented so much of the stories of his times.

    Thanks for teasing out some of the lessons.


  3. As always, we are treated to pages out of history when Erwin puts his pen to work. Thanks Janet, for bringing his stories to us through your site. My experience of the Russian River floods here in No. CA is quite different but it is so easy to picture the corn thieves cruising by and taking stock! My son used a canoe to rescue our dog from our front porch where he'd climbed on top of the washing machine we'd hoped to protect. We had taken refuge in the new two story house across the way. Dog was happier on the neighbor's deck and so were we.
    Regards and love to you and your Dad.

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