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1961 Harrison Flood
1961 flood closed Martin-Rogers store
January-March 2006
Floyd & Verma Rogers
From Boone County Historian / Oak Leaves,
Vol. IV No. I (2006)

By Greg Waters

Boone County, Arkansas residents Floyd and Verma Rogers opened the Martin-Rogers Mercantile Company on March 3, 1932. Their drygoods store soon established itself as the place to go in Harrison for names like Tuf-Nut, Lee, Rough Rider, Simplicity sewing patterns, Poll-Parrot, Roberts Johnson Rand, Brown Bilt shoes and other brands.

By 1961, Martin-Rogers had served Harrison from the same location on the south side of the downtown square for three decades. Like other local merchants, Floyd and Verma had put everything into their store, making many personal sacrifices along the way to build their business into one of the staple elements of Boone County at the time. They had also raised four children, played active roles in their community, and were grandparents six times over.
Martin-Rogers carried no flood insurance, and the Crooked Creek disaster forced the couple to close their doors for good after 29 years in business.
The late Verma Rogers described the flood that ended their business, and very nearly their lives, in her following account:
May 1, 1961 dawned as bright and clear as it had on our wedding day exactly thirty-four years earlier. Floyd and I celebrated our anniversary as usual with breakfast at the church - an annual May Day festivity. There was nothing unusual afterwards as we went to work at our dry goods store, Martin-Rogers Mercantile Company, just as we had for the past twenty-nine years.
Springtime in the Ozarks is a beautiful time, and this one was no exception. Of course, there were some showers, an occasional thunderstorm, and a tornado warning or two. But these had all passed without incident, and we felt secure in our country habitat where we might enjoy the singing of the birds, the frolicking of the little black calves in the pasture, and the planting of seeds in our small garden, which was a haven of rest for us following weary days of work at the store.
On this particular day, the clouds began to gather quickly before noon. Soon it began to rain - a welcome sight at first, as there had previously been only enough to keep our little world around us green and beautiful. But the rain did not stop. Day after day, it continued to fall. Puddles and even pools of water formed here and there, which was unusual in our hill country. The earth was filled with water. Ponds overflowed and washed fish out of them. And still it rained.
An undated Martin-Rogers store window display arranged by Verma Rogers
Saturday, May 6th, was a busy day in our little town of Harrison. Shoppers were taking advantage of special spring sales and stocking up for the weekend. In addition (and fortunately for the ready-to-wear shops), the month of May with its ever-warming effect often prompts people to buy a whole new wardrobe. Between sales that day, we unpacked carton after carton of new dresses, hats, blouses, and all sorts of new merchandise - most of which were items for Mother's Day, which was coming up on May 14th.

As we closed the store that evening, we left huge stacks of unmarked merchandise on tables, promising ourselves to mark and fill them into stock first thing Monday morning. I took one last look as we left the store, and felt it looked exceptionally neat after such a busy day, thanks to our energetic clerks.
A rainy night is always a good time to stay home, and the steady downpour made it easy for us to settle in after supper. Floyd and I spent the evening reading, hardly noticing the weather outside. But as bedtime came, the rain came harder. Lightning flashed - not the quick-streak lightning that leaves one feeling it could strike at any minute, but the ever-constant flashing accompanied by the low incessant roll of thunder. Still, sleep came quickly for us that evening. But it would be a sleep soon disturbed by the shrill ringing of a telephone in the middle of the night.
"All right, we'll be down right away," I heard my husband say as I sat up in bed. It seemed a familiar situation. Back in the spring of 1945, the normally peaceful Crooked Creek which meanders through the town just a block behind our store and many others on the square had angrily overflowed its banks and begun washing into the town. We had been called out by firemen watching the rise to stack goods out of the water's reach. Eight inches of muddy water flooded in, but we succeeded in moving everything far above the water line. Only the mud remained to be cleaned out and the stock put back in order that time. So this time, we would hurry down and again get all the goods put up.
It seemed all the town had turned out. It was 2:30 in the morning, but lights gleamed from all the stores on the south side of the square. We worked frantically. I especially wanted the new line of lingerie that had just arrived the day before to be placed high so the water would not reach it, so I stacked it almost as high as my head. Blankets, bedspreads, table linens, men's shirts, hats, work clothes (enough for ten stores), piece goods (a wholesale house probably wouldn't have as much)… would we ever get it all high enough on the tables?
But soon the water began to come into the store. Yellow, muddy water. It came slowly at first, getting the soles of my boots wet. "We must hurry," I remember thinking - the work clothes under the counters would be wet. I was pulling at them, almost exhausted, when my husband came yelling from toward the front of our store. "We must get out of here quickly - it's over my head at the front door," he said. Hurrying to me, Floyd said, "Come on, we'll have to go to the balcony." But we found ourselves cut off from the stairs that led to the second story of the building.
Just as we turned and started down the aisle to reach the balcony stairs, we heard glass shattering and the sound of rushing water. Two large store windows had broken out - crushed under the force of a huge wall of water that now rushed in to meet us. A massive table holding our 600-pound cash register and stacks of new merchandise (including the pretty new lingerie) was swept aside in an instant, and we dodged the table as the cash register went face-down into the current.
Hand in hand, we fought our way against the waves. Racks of dresses and coats passed us, floating hurriedly toward the front of the store. Finally (and I'll never know how), we reached the balcony steps. As we passed the back door, we noticed a stout iron piece which held a wooden beam across it had been straightened out by the force of the water. We said nothing as we grasped the rail that led to the balcony. Suddenly the lights went out, and there never seemed such darkness before. The water was up under my arms, but we continued on up. I thought the steps would be swept out from under us at any moment. The continuous flashes of lightening revealed the awful, muddy, swirling water all around us. As we looked toward the front of the building, through the door we could see cars and even huge trucks bobbing up and down like paper boxes in the middle of Main Street. We could hear the relentless torrent of rain, and the low roll of thunder told us it would be with us for awhile. Cries of help from up and down the creek reached our ears, until the water covered the balcony windows.
The water continued to come up, following us. It was angry - so swift I had to hold onto something just to be able to stand. It was cold and smelly as well. I reached up, and in the darkness I felt a seam in the old-fashioned squares of ceiling above us. I pulled at the seam, as did Floyd, and some of the tiles finally came loose. Our hands found the rafters beyond the ceiling tiles, and we held on. There were at least twelve inches of space between the ceiling and the second floor. Perhaps that would mean a few more minutes to live if the water pushed us up to reach it.
We heard the crashing of our shelving (whole sections of it were falling), more glass breaking, assorted weird rumblings and banging, and the sound of swirling water. We could feel it too - now it was up to my waist as we stood still atop the balcony. I wanted to be still. I wanted to pray. We had had a good life together - we had four wonderful children - I wondered if they were safe. Arm in arm, my husband and I thanked God for them and for each other. It was dark - we could no longer see the lightening through the windows because the water was so high. There were only sounds of tables moving, squeaking, things falling, water running… we were quiet. A voice seemed to say, "Be still and know that I am God." Still arm in arm, with heads bowed, we waited. Suddenly, something appeared on the water. Very softly I said, "What is that?" My husband answered, "It is light."
A tiny shaft of light had made its way into the store, and it seemed to be directly beneath our bowed heads. Day was breaking - the water was slowly receding. The window above us let in the tiny ray of light, which we took as a sign. It was almost unbelievable, but we each then heard the sweet notes of a mockingbird - just a few notes. That was all, and then it was gone.
We waited. The water went down so very slowly. We had to feel to tell whether it had gone down on our bodies. We stood another hour - or hours, it was hard to tell. It was light outside now. We could see out of the tall windows in back of the balcony now. The muddy, swirling water carried with it logs and trees, boxes and bottles, hats and shoes - various merchandise from neighboring stores.
The flooded southeast side of Harrison square, May 7, 1961
We finally stepped off the balcony steps and into the stench-filled water that again reached my waist. It seemed colder now, and there was no place to put my feet. Tables, racks, shelving and merchandise all lay on top of one another - it was a jumbled mess. It was still dark in the building, but we made our way by feeling along and climbing atop a table, only to have it overturn and throw us down. Moving inches at a time across the 100-foot length of the store, crawling when we couldn't stand, the journey seemed endless. Finally, we found ourselves stepping down into the show window - the window that had previously been dressed with men's apparel. Hours earlier it displayed thirty or more pairs of men's slacks, hats, shirts, and sports clothes. All was gone now, including the plate glass. All of the store fixtures had been washed against the front door, the current having come from the rear - and only for that reason were we left alive to tell it.
When we crawled out the window, we stood in several inches of mud and filth, among shoes, piece goods, watches, bottles, broken glass, and the ruins of a once pretty town. We had been trapped inside the building for five or six hours. Bulldozers were now pushing the debris out of the streets. Crowds were gathering, looking - quietly. Eighty percent of the town had been claimed by the flood.
But a miracle happened that night. Four lives were lost. It could easily have been many more. Men in boats risked their lives to rescue entire families. Many people lost all they had worked a lifetime to accumulate, but a miracle must have happened. For everyone helped each other, and a spirit of cooperation, of togetherness, pervaded the very atmosphere as all joined hands to begin building a new and better town.
~ Verma Rogers
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