The Great Flood of 1937, coming in the middle of the Great Depression and following a series of snow and ice storms, was pure misery.
It wasn't all bad news, however. By the following year, the farmers of the New Madrid Floodway had picked up the pieces and were enjoying a bumper crop. And the flooding did provide some comic relief.
Finley Johnson, a resident of the floodway, told a remarkable tale to an Associated Press reporter as he returned to his home. His story appeared in the Southeast Missourian on Feb. 22, 1937:
Lost: One piano -- Found: One piano.
Finley Johnson, whose home is at Wolf Island inside the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway, today said when the waters came up, his piano started floating around in the room, knocking out windows and otherwise damaging the building.
"I was out there in a boat to see how may property was getting along," he explained. "Realizing the floating piano would damage the building badly I opened the double doors and shoved the piano out. I saw it float away."
"Imagine my surprise," said Johnson today, "when I returned to my home and found another piano in my house. It had floated in through the open doors during the flood."
As the floodwaters receded, residents of the floodway were able to return and start rebuilding. They were forced out by the threat of a second flood in May, but soon moved back permanently.
The weather, which had been so terrible in 1937, was much better during the next year. It was a great year for farmers in Mississippi County. The Southeast Missourian on Oct. 28, 1938, reported the story "Farmers Ahead of Schedule as Weather Favors Harvest; District Is Rebuilding Fast":
Ninety per cent of the bumper corn and cotton crop in the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway is in bale and crib as farmers taking advantage of an unusual fall season have turned in a record harvest in record time. Three weeks ahead of the usual harvest schedule, farmers are rejoicing that they have scored a victory over Old Man Winter, who usually caught up with them before harvest was so nearly completed.
"It's the finest fall in 40 years," commented a grizzled veteran of the lowlands as he watched the Storey Gin here suck up the cotton from his wagons and in seemingly no time dump out the baled product. Never had he seen just such a good season, he said, and added that another week of this fine weather will just about take care of all of the harvest cares of the floodway farmers.
This is the second year of generous yield in the 130,000-acre floodway, two years ago ravaged by 15 to 25 feet of swirling, devastating Mississippi River flood, carrying before it virtually every building, fence and thing of value except timber. Today one would hardly believe the transformation unless they saw it. Everywhere are new homes, new schools, stores, gasoline filling stations, cotton gins, farm buildings of all sorts, fences, and roads brought up to and beyond their former state of improvement.
It wasn't all peachy, however, as the farmers encountered an unexpected surprise. The newspaper in March 1939 included this amusing sidebar:
The eastern part of the county, particularly that section inside the floodway, has been infested with the unusually large field rat, much larger than those ordinarily found around barns, since the 1937 flood. Farmers are convinced the flood brought them and last year damage to growing corn in the floodway was extremely high following raids by the rats.
In the Belmont community Cleve Nolan, a farmer, and his sons waged war on the rodents yesterday. He said the rats were forced, by rising water of the Mississippi, to take refuge on drifts and levee mounds. He and his sons, using small rifles, killed 114.
Milan Mitchell of Wolf Island borrowed a motor and exhaust pipe from the family washing machine and sent the fumes through a corn crib. Sick rats ran in all directions. Onlookers killed 222 of them with clubs.
The aftermath of the 1937 flood, the previous time that the floodway was activated, offers a ray of hope for our current flood crisis. Those farmers were able to turn things around within two years, so perhaps we can look forward to the same kind of bumper crops this time. Just be sure to watch out for floating pianos and rodents of unusual size.