Gail’s Memories of the Flood of ’51

Last month, I posted a pieced-together account of the 1951 flood, but now I have recovered Mom’s account of it using the Wayback Machine. Here is Gail Lee Martin’s story of that event.

“My husband and I with our four children were living 3 miles northwest of Madison in northern Greenwood County, Kansas in the summer of 1951. We had never had to worry about the river, as it was a good half-mile away. But in 1951, after several days of steady rain, the Verdigris river became fuller than ever before.

While we were asleep the river started backing up every creek and stream that normally flowed into it. When our youngest woke up in her baby bed and began to cry at the sight of water in our bedroom, she woke us up. What a shock it was to swing my warm feet into cold, muddy, river water.

The river had silently backed up the tiny stream nearby and overflowed everywhere. It had slowly crept into our back porch on the ground level, then up higher and higher above the two cement block high foundation, before spreading its dirty mess into our house.

We waded around through the house trying to put everything up high on cabinets, the sink, and the stove because they were already standing in two foot of water.

When we first discovered the situation, the water in the county road was already three foot deep, so all we could do was watch the water rise higher and higher to the door handles of our car, parked in the driveway.

Our children, Owen, Susan, Ginger and the baby, Cindy were wild with the excitement of actually ‘wading’ in the house, until they saw the rabbit hutches had tipped over into the water drowning their beloved pets. We never had swift water, I think my terror came from the silence as the water just steadily flowed backward, rising higher all the time.

My brother-in-law, Norman Harlan, waded in from the shallowest west side and helped carry the children to safety. Our toddler ran out to jump into his arms and not being able to tell where the floor ended, she stepped off into the water and would have sunk if he hadn’t been quick to grab her.

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Gail’s sister, Melba and Melba’s husband, Norman Harlan in 1949. Their children – Vicki, Tim and Bob.

I’ll never forget the beautiful breakfast my sister, Melba, had ready when my bedraggled, wet family arrived on her doorstep.

Of course, the rain did quit, the water went slowly away and we were left to clean out the mud and haul away what couldn’t be saved. Our children held a quiet funeral and mass burial of their pets.

To this day, some of our furniture has knee-high water marks, sad reminders of what can happen while you sleep.”

Going, Going, Gone…

A Guest Post by Gail’s daughter, Karen Kolavalli (written in 2014 for Bubblews)

“I spent the afternoon sorting, sorting, sorting! It’s a seemingly unending job of sifting through boxes of photos, letters, and documents. In doing so, I came across a printout from a page at Genealogy.com that shows a listing of my Mother’s stories that were archived there. It says that “Gail Martin created this page with the help of the ‘My History is America’s History’ website.”

I was able to pull up the page at Genealogy.com with the list of her stories, but when I tried the links to go to the stories, all I got was “The connection has timed out.” And when I tried the link to “My History is America’s History,” it took me to a page showing that the domain name was for sale, so that site went belly up at some point.

I recognize many of the story titles as chapters in the books that my Mom published with the help of my sister, Virginia. There are some, though, that I’m not familiar with, such as Treasures from the Barnyard, More of the Treasure from the Barnyard, Carol’s Memory of the Flood of ’51, and Ginger’s Year 1948. I hope these stories survive in printed form and that my sister will be able to find them in my Mom’s files. Those files were transferred to her care and keeping after our Mother passed away a year and a half ago.
 
Mom didn’t start writing until she had all six kids raised and out on their own, and then she made up for lost time! From the late 1970s until her death in 2013, writing was her life and the stories poured out of her. Although she was an avid reader, she had always struggled in school and thought it was a miracle that she graduated from high school. So every award she received for her writing absolutely blew her away.

She loved to teach memoir writing classes at a senior center and was the much-loved moderator of a writers’ website, called Our Echo. When her daughter helped get her books published, she was over the moon. But at the end of the day, she was proudest just to be able to share her stories.”

gail and star writer

Gail Lee Martin hard at work on her Star Writer word processor.

Gail’s Memory of Her Mother’s Apron

For Mother’s Day 2017, I’ll share with you one of Gail Lee Martin’s most popular stories. It’s a nostalgic piece about her mother’s apron. It was also recorded and you can hear the story in her own voice on the Our Echo site: Mother’s Apron.

“Mother’s aprons
I grew up in the oilfields of Greenwood County Kansas in the dusty thirties but I remember Mother’s apron always kept her neat and clean. She made aprons to cover the whole front of her dress and tied with a bow in the back. Her aprons had two large patch pockets on the skirt and Mother used them in so many ways.

On washdays, she carried clothespins out to the line in her pockets instead of juggling a separate clothespin bag. She also picked her pockets full of peas or other produce for lunch as she left the garden after her daily hoeing. With aprons protecting her clothes, she could wear the same dress for several days. A real plus when you had to haul all your water during the dust-bowl days.

Two or three safety pins adorned the bib of her apron and even a threaded needle so she was always ready for a quick repair of our clothes or on the spot splinter removal. I recall her using a corner of her apron to wipe her sweaty brow and my childhood tears.

While cooking, a corner of her apron became an instant potholder. Each evening she would shoo the chickens into their pen for the night by flapping her apron skirt. My fondest memory is Mother coming in with her apron full of chilled and mewing kittens followed by an anxious mother cat. She warmed them by the kitchen fire and saved their lives.

In the 1930s chicken feed & flour companies began using an attractive print material for sacks to hold their product. Mother was in seventh heaven with this new source of material. She made dresses, skirts and blouses, and more everyday and fancy aprons.

When company came to visit Mother would whisk off her apron. As she greeted her guests, they saw no trace of her work-filled days. Her dress was spotless.”

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Clarence and Ruth McGhee – This is the only photo I could find of Ruth wearing her apron. In all other photos, she’s removed it.

Keeping the Old Car Running

Gail Martin wrote this advice piece for the eHow website over 10 years ago.

The car is getting old, but there’s no money in the budget to replace it. What do you do? Here’s our experience of how to keep that older car running so you don’t lose your mobility. Ours has over 200,000 miles on it now.

Mom and Dad's old car

Here’s their faithful old car that lasted for years.

Ideally, you have some mechanical aptitude and can make repairs to the car yourself. This saves a bundle over taking it to a mechanic. My husband and son both taught themselves to fix most car problems we had. This is easier to do with an older car that doesn’t have lots of computerized parts in it.

clyde-repairs

Clyde Martin kept the family cars going for many years.

If you don’t have a friend who can show you how to fix things, look for a class through adult continuing education or a local community college. Something like a “powderpuff mechanic” or a “shade tree mechanic” course.

Go to the public library and ask to see their auto repair manuals. Usually, the Mitchell manuals or Chilton manuals are in the reference section or they might have it on a computer. Copy or print out the pages that tell how to fix your car’s problem.

Get the parts for the repair at the cheapest place, usually an auto salvage yard. If they don’t have the model or part you need in a junked car, then you’ll have to go to an auto parts store.

If you are unable to fix the car yourself, find a mechanic. Try to build up a relationship with one place so there’s less chance they will try to take advantage of you. Usually, a small mechanic’s shop will charge less than an auto dealership.

Tune up the vehicle regularly, so you don’t ruin it by letting it run out of oil or something else that’s preventable.

Keep some emergency repair items in the trunk. I recommend having some cans of extra oil, a charger to jump start the engine, and an air compressor that you plug into the cigarette lighter to reinflate a flat tire. It’s also handy to have a rug to lay on if you need to get under the car and some rags to clean your hands after a fix-up.

Tips & Warnings

  • Don’t raise the car just with jacks and get under it. We knew someone who was crushed this way.
car repair pixabay vintage advertisement

Vintage car repair advertisement from Pixabay

J is for Journaling

My mom, Gail Lee Martin, kept a journal in whatever blank book came to hand over the years. She wrote in school type notebooks back when her children were little. She called them her blue books. I don’t know if the covers were blue or if she wrote about the things that made her blue. Perhaps in those spiral notebooks with lined pages, as an isolated young housewife, she could pour out her heart.

Somewhere along the way, these early journals were lost in the many household moves. Life became too busy with six children to raise, so she gave up keeping a diary for those hectic years. In retirement, she took it up again.

Now, there’s a whole shelf of these slightly battered books. The entries stop and start, sometimes with more than one year sharing a book. Often the entries are pretty ordinary with the small events that made up her day. She noted a visitor, a phone call, a baseball game watched on television, or the activities of a neighbor.

She kept the current one on the side table by her chair in the living room.

 

diary pixabay

Photo from Pixabay

 

Along with her journal, she maintained a variety of notebooks. Each featured some aspect of their life. One documented the sales made at the farmer’s market with a meticulous count of how many jars of jelly or loaves of bread were sold. Another notebook traveled with her back in the days when they drove to Prescott, Kansas on weekends. She noted short descriptions of scenery that perhaps she planned to use in her writing or to turn into a poem someday.

mom's book list notebook

The notebook above lists the books they collected. That was a small one that she could carry in her handbag for consulting when she found a book at a yard sale or shop. In another one, she kept a log of the fish they caught at Sugar Valley and photos of the catch.

For the most part, the journals and notebooks served as a mostly mundane record, mere fragments of her life. Her real writing about family history and about her childhood went into her essays. She labored over those and wrote a number of versions of the memory pieces. These eventually became her published memoir, My Flint Hills Childhood.

 

 

After Graduation in 1942

In May of 1942 I graduated (barely) from Hamilton High School in Greenwood County, Kansas. I lived with my folks in the Seeley school district where Daddy worked as an oil field pumper for Phillips Petroleum Company. By the time school started in September I was offered a job caring for three-year-old Ann Neumayer and doing light house work for her family. Her mother taught at the Seeley grade school, her dad was a pumper for the Ohio Oil company, and she had an older brother, Robert and an older sister, Peggy, who went to school with their mother.

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Hamilton High School in Kansas where Gail Lee McGhee graduated.

My job was like any babysitter of today. Ann was a darling toddler, who loved to tag-a-long doing whatever I was doing. That family ate big servings of fried potatoes every night for supper, with fried meat and gravy. I used to say after peeling that big pile of potatoes every night, “I might as well be on KP in the army.”

At the start of the next school year, Mrs. Neumayer was allowed to take Ann to school with her. So I was wondering what I was to do, then we heard about the government’’s NYA program for the young people of America. The closest school for girls was at Winfield, Kansas. My folks agreed for me to go and they took me down there. My boyfriend, Johnny Faylor, had been sent to Fort Leonardwood for training in the army. Our friend Clyde Martin was rejected when he was called up because he was a farm boy and was needed on the farm as his older brother, Ralph was already in the air force. He went to the boy’’s camp in Cherryvale and took welding classes.

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1942 postcard of Cherryvale, Kansas’ downtown.

My parents took me down to Winfield shortly after school was out in May of 1943. There they tried to teach me to be a riveter. But I was a skinny kid weighing only ninety-nine pounds so I couldn’’t hold up the big heavy rivet gun. So they tried to teach me to hold the bucking bar on the back side of the sheet metal. I couldn’’t even do that the way they wanted. I was so disappointed that I wasn’’t going to be one of the famous ‘Rosie the Riveters.’

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NYA poster  (source)

Due to politics and shortage of funding the NYA closed down July 12, 1943, just a week or two after I arrived. Most of the girls decided to take the bus to Wichita and try to get jobs in the aircraft factories. I went with them. I was lucky and got a job with Boeing helping build the B-29s in the electrical wiring department. I was thankful that Boeing was not union! After all the Phillip’s employees trouble with City Service union guys, I didn‘’t want anything to do with unions.

I found a room in a castle looking house at 1313 N. Emporia. I was on the second floor and in the north turret. The biggest problem was having to go downstairs to the basement for the communal bathroom.

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Photo by Karen Kolavalli. The rooming house that Gail Lee McGhee stayed in during WWII while working at Boeing.

My paycheck sure looked good but the money disappeared so fast. I had to pay for my room and all my meals plus bus rides to work and back. No matter where I went I had to ride the bus or walk. The winter approached and I had to buy a warm coat, mittens and a stocking cap that would pull down around my ears. I bought a few things for Christmas presents but also had to save money to buy my bus ticket to Emporia in Lyon County for the holidays. My parents and little sister, Carol drove up from our home in Greenwood County to  Emporia to pick me up. Being with my loved ones was so good that I do not remember what gifts were given to whom.

After working in the electric wiring department for several months I became unhappy when the inspectors ran a slight electrical charge to see if my work was OK. They didn’’t tell me when they were going to do it and I became scared that the charge might get stronger so I asked to be transferred to another department.

The next department was in the tool shed, where the employees checked out tools they needed to work with. I enjoyed this after learning what each tool was called and where each was stored. It was kinda like working in a library only at the end of the shift all tools had to be checked back in and I had only a short time to get them put where they belonged before I could check out.

(Aug 11, 2012 email from Gail Lee Martin to daughter, Virginia Allain)

 

Gail’s Early WWII Memories

On December the 7th, we were all shocked when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Now World War II was not just looming, it was a reality. Rationing became a way of life; my friends older brothers were inducted into the army, navy or the air force. All eighteen-year-old males had to register for the draft. Everyone was worried. My friend, Clyde Martin’s brother Ralph, who had been working at Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, enlisted in the air force.

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Scrap metal and rubber collected during WWII for the war effort. (photo taken at WWII museum in NH by Virginia Allain)

Life struggled on as we all tried to be patriotic by saving scrap metal and grease. We went on scrap hunts to find unused and abandoned metal. Sugar, meat, oil, gasoline, and rubber went on the ration list. Families were issued ration booklets to keep everybody honest.

War slogans became my classmate’s secret passwords, “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT” and we interpreted that slogan to mean we did not need any more studies; we wanted to help win the war.

 

Christmas was very quiet that year. Packages of home baked goodies were mailed early to our relatives, friends, and neighbors in boot camp or overseas. No one went any place unnecessary because of the shortage of gasoline and tires. My family usually had relatives come to our home for Christmas for lots of good food, togetherness, and exchange of homemade gifts, but not the Christmas of 1941.

wwii-ration-book

The spring semester dragged on and I managed somehow to get good enough grades to let me graduate. No one knows how worried I was about passing the 12th-grade exam. However, I must have known more than my teachers and I had every thought of. As long as I was not rushed or having to recite out loud I did well. This exam was a written test; anyway, I passed and attended baccalaureate ceremony and the graduation ceremony. Back in those days, we did not wear floor-length dresses except for fancy weddings. At least in the Midwest and in a county that was made up mostly of farmers and oil workers.

(emailed to daughter, Virginia, on Saturday, August 11, 2012)