Farm families survive storms together

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flooded pasture
(Farm and Dairy photo, February 2018)

The flood of 1969 changed the simple balance of life on our farm for a very long time.

When my father told the story, he always started by making the point he already had lost a large part of his crop in early June of that year, due to excessive rain that wiped out the first fields he had planted in May. He felt that frantic rush to replant and was grateful to have it done.

A storm brewing

I was 10 years old and went to bed on July 4 feeling upset that Dad had insisted we come home early from a family gathering. I remember my father unable to take his eyes off of the skies that evening, and telling my mother he thought we needed to head home shortly after the picnic meal.

There was a foreboding of something brewing. Dad was a man who cared a great deal about his family and his farm. When something wasn’t quite right, he became quiet, thinking every angle through. His demeanor was anything but celebratory on that Independence Day, and we left the home of our aunt and uncle early, riding home in silence.

“I don’t like the look of that sky,” I remember him saying, more than once. The thunder and lightning began as we stopped by the barns to check everything over before turning in for the night. The lightning seemed unbelievable in its intensity, and it felt as though once it started, it never stopped.

Major flooding

Sometime in the middle of the night, Dad woke us up and we gathered on the main floor, something that had never happened, and never would again. He told us the rain was coming down so hard he felt sure there was major flooding all around us. He was calmly preparing us for anything.

My sister Debi was away at church camp, and I now know my parents were regretting letting her go. There was nothing to do but wait and worry, and pray for the safety of everyone.

It seemed Dad wore a path from the living room to the kitchen window that night, and from time to time he would say, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

My big sisters were whispering to each other, and I tried hard to hear what they were saying. The words didn’t matter; the sense of enormous concern was pervasive on that stormy night. When it was time to do the morning milking, my older sisters went with Dad to the barn in the pounding rain.

When they finally came back in the house, Dad said, “That milking will likely be for nothing. There is no way the milk truck will be able to get to us.”

Storm results

The flooding was extreme on our land. Our farm was an island for several days, as the Jerome Fork swelled far beyond its banks, connecting with — and ruining — our farm pond that we loved so much.

We could not get to the town of Jeromesville because flooding was so massive in all directions. We learned of 22 deaths in Wooster, not at all far from us, and one very close to home, when a semi truck driver gave up waiting for help after standing on the top of his truck for a time. He decided to swim for help, and was swept away in the raging flood.

Dad lost nearly all his crops in that flood, and it had to have been a massive financial hit for my parents. In March, they had lost five of their best Holstein milk cows to electrocution when a hot water heater, already in place when they purchased the dairy farm in 1963, malfunctioned in the milking parlor, later determined to have not been grounded properly.

Figuring it out

The vantage point of childhood caused me to feel my parents were well-established adults who could handle anything. It surprises me, still, to realize my parents were only 37 and 35 years old in 1969, working hard to build a healthy balance sheet.

Most important, always, was family. We were finally able to get my sister back home from church camp where she had a few horror stories of her own, and we helped neighbors every day during that unfolding disaster.

“We will figure our crop out, even if it means selling cows if we don’t have enough to feed them all,” Dad said.

He planted Sudangrass in fields that tended to lie wet even in the best of years, far too late for a corn crop once the flood water finally receded and the hard work of clearing an enormous amount of debris was complete. We were together, all under one roof, and happy to be safe and dry. Tomorrow would be a better day.

The July 4th flood would be one for the history books. We were happy to file it there, as survivors.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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