Bullitt County History

1937 Flood Remembered Fifty Years Later

On February 18, 1987, fifty years to the day after the first publication of The Pioneer News after the great flood of 1937, the newspaper published a commemorative issue which included a facsimile of the original front page of that earlier paper, along with two pages of photos and a page written by John Roberts in which he interviewed six people who described what they remembered of the flood. They included Roy Troutman, Jack Stottman, Eva Whittle, Anna Hawkins, Howard Shane, and Mary Farmer.

The Pioneer News has given us permission to provide a transcript of that page which you will find below. Occasional notes will be added within brackets to clarify things a bit. This story is copyrighted by The Pioneer News and all rights are reserved to it.


"It happened a long time ago, but we remember quite a bit of it," said Roy Troutman of Shepherdsville.

Troutman was born in 1913 and was 24 years old during the flood (on January 29). He recalled the Salt River being high in both November and December of 1936, but he was not prepared for what would happen in early 1937.

With 19 inches of rain and subsequent snows, Bullitt County was in for its worst water disaster in memory.

The deluge brought 12 feet of water standing in the Main Street of Shepherdsville, said Troutman. "The city was covered. The first floors of all buildings were under water and the only way to stay safe was the second floor. There was 10-11 feet of water in the stores," he recalled.

That was the way life was lived for some two weeks as the water crested and then began its downward crawl.

Troutman remembers the time. There were no rations and no supplies. The only way to get around was by boat. Some food was salvaged, such as potatoes, beans, flour, meat and canned goods.

"Those were difficult times and several of the homes had to take in people," said Troutman. He remembers that one dwelling had 35 people in a single place.

But the water did go down and Troutman said it receded faster than people expected.

"It didn't take long for it to go down, about 10 days," he said. And then came the cleanup.

Watching an entire city emerge from receding waters is much different than cleaning out a bathtub.

"There was quite a bit of damage and a lot of people lost most of all their possessions," he said.

Desks, chairs, family scrapbooks, tables, and clothes were just a few of the things the water either destroyed or carried away.

Yet the worst loss was in the livestock category and the farmer's in the area suffered considerably.

"People got out what they could but a lot of hogs, cattle and mules were killed in the flood," said Troutman.

These animals were pulled from their watery graves and buried in mass trenches. It was only part of what the waters of history carried.

Even though the season was winter, crops did not fare well either. Hay and corn stored in barns were caught underwater and rotted.

"Cleaning up was an awful job because we had to get the mud out of all the homes. The smell stayed around for months and everything everywhere was floating," said Troutman.

Jack Stottman of Shepherdsville recorded the flood on paper for its 50th anniversary. His initial encounter with the waters came after days of heavy rain.

"Then it really started raining hard for three days," he wrote. "On the evening of the second day, as I came home from work at the L&N Shop with my brother, Joe, and others in the car, we found the water over the bridge at Brook Run Creek."

They had to detour back to Jefferson County, take Bardstown Road, then Highway 44 just to get home. Even then, the water was just about ready to cross Highway 44 at Shepherdsville.

"That night, I remembered standing in front of the Bullitt County Bank watching the water run around the sidewalks. A black man we called Tobe kept telling us that this was nothing and how high it was in 1913," he said. It was a sentiment a Lebanon Junction resident, Howard Shane, also expressed.

Stottman's adventures with the flood began at 4 a.m. one day when he was summoned to help Victor Lee move cattle from one barn to another via a boat.

"Victor was nearly hurt when a bull hooked a horn into his jacket and ripped it open. Later, the cows were moved to another barn where they all drowned," he said.

The same scenario took place with chickens at Will Simmons' residence as Stottman helped him clear out the hen house.

"I went there in a boat," said Stottman. "The water was too high to get through the door and the chickens were sitting in water on the roost poles. I took some of the metal sheets of roofing and reached through the sheeting and got the chickens."

The chickens were put in sacks to keep them from flying into the water; a few of them smothered and the rest were put on an enclosed back porch.

The effort was entirely in vain, though, as Stottman said, "of course, they all drowned later."

"By this time, everyone was forgetting animals and helping people get out. Some had started wading up the highway but could not get any farther than the little cemetery because of the lower place in the road at the Bob Lee Farm."

On the Friday night leading into the weekend and the infamous "Black Sunday", Stottman said he saw something in a snowstorm he'd never seen before ... lightning.

The Masonic Temple on the corner of Main Street and Highway 44 was designated as the relief headquarters. The Monday following the dark and dismal Sunday signaled an end to the rain for several days and featured the challenge of feeding the people.

"Some food was salvaged from General Wilson's store (then located where the Troutman's Dry Goods Store now stands). [This was in 1987 before the store moved to Second Street. The former building is now (2008) occupied by "Two Guys Printing."] I remember seeing a grass sack of beans that had swelled until the sack had split. These were washed and distributed," said Stottman.

There was a rumor that someone had killed a fat hog swimming in the water and skinned it.

The flour mill had plenty of flour and a truck was sent to the Highlands in Louisville where some supplies were received by Harry Combs and Nata Maraman working with the Red Cross.

Maraman asked Stottman to survey all the homes around the Gap n' Knob to see how many refugees were situated in the homes. The number surprised Stottman as he learned that all the homes had all the people they could handle.

His job was to deliver food by boat to this section and the schedule called for deliveries every other day with only the vital necessities transported.

One meal of the rescuers and helpers included hot dogs. and stewed prunes served at the Masonic Hall, he recalled.

Stottman also recorded the aftermath of the flood, what happened when the waters went down and how the clean up "made men out of boys."

"The State Guards were called in and they patrolled the streets as the water went down," said Stottman.

"We could now get back to our homes by boat and start cleaning up, sloshing out mud, throwing out things and trying to salvage what we could.

My Dad tried to nail back the furniture the best he could. I had some ducks which I thought I would never see again, but as soon as the ground began showing through, they came walking in. Our two dogs had drowned," he said.

The one clean up which will always stick in Stottman's mind occurred at Maraman's Store.

"What a mess that was," said Stottman. "Many items had to be discarded because of health laws. I picked up a box of Cracker Jack's and shook it and could hear it rattle. I broke it open and it was as clear and crisp as when it was packaged."

Another surprise Stottman encountered involved breaking open a sack of flour. The sack had formed about an inch of dough on the outside. The rest, he said, poured out about as good as ever after two weeks in water.

After the store, a group went to Roy Maraman's house to clean up. During the job, Stottman and company were informed of the flood's only loss of life.

"A car with four passengers had gone in the flood water of Brooks Run Creek. These were Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, Mrs. Melton and Mr. Greer," said Stottman. They became the only direct casualties of the 1937 flood. [See Mrs. J. R. Holsclaw's account of the accident that was printed in the 1937 paper.]

Stottman said that after the mud dried up and people had their shots to protect against disease and keep down a possible epidemic, the Red Cross was helping those who needed it make a new start in life.

"Spring had set in and we were on our way again," he said.

Eva Whittle of Shepherdsville identified the Sunday it rained as January 23. She also kept a vivid record in her memory of the events which took place that bleak month 50 years ago.

"It rained all day and just came down in torrents; it really came down," she said.

In trying to describe the sights of the city, Whittle could only exclaim, "you cannot imagine how bad it was."

She graduated from high school five years prior to the flood and spent the time during the disaster recovering from the flu.

Afterwards, she said it took 12 months to recover from the flood.

"We got enough from the Red Cross to get by, but there was nothing anybody could do - just try to help as many people as possible," she said.

There was the case of a woman who saved 81 chickens out of 100 or so as the water continued rising.

The Whittles [Should be "Maramans" as Eva Whittle was Eva Maraman at the time; she later married Noah Whittle.] were not as fortunate as they lost a sizeable portion of their livestock including four cows, one calf, three horses, one goat and two dogs.

"The dogs were killed when the water turned furniture in our house over on them," said Whittle.

There were 62 inches of water in the house they stayed in on Beech Grove Road. [See Minnie Maraman's recounting of the flood.] That translates to over five feet. The family had only a few canned goods left and they couldn't eat them because the Health Department said they may be contaminated.

"We never got so tired of eating hash and prunes," she said. "The hardest things to get were soup and salt."

We all know what a normal river looks like, but imagine the Salt River flowing across the entire city.

We also know what happens when a river flows as well, it transports various materials with it.

The 1937 flood brought quite a record of memorabilia, much of it too terrible to be forgotten.

Whittle remembers watching human waste float by with no place else to go.

She remembers that men had to use the bathroom by boating over and then walking past a dry hill. Women used a slop jar and threw it out the window.

Yet she said they were not worried because everyone's waste was floating down the bloated river.

Through faith and good will, the townspeople bailed and shoveled their way out. "We had prayers and scripture readings all day Sunday, Jan. 23," she said.

The Pioneer News was published in 1937... for 11 and one fourth months. The flood managed to infiltrate the building where the presses and type were located and throw the schedule out of whack for a few weeks.

J.W. Barrall was the editor at the time. Anna Hawkins ran the paper for some 60 years and these people were in charge when the flood came through.

For many of those years, the paper was published out of the current home of the Porter and Edison law offices on Main Street. [Next door to the old Troutman's store on Buckman Street.]

Hawkins said that when the flood waters flowed in, the rollers on the presses were damaged and chunks of rubber fell off.

"We also had to hand wash the type and it took weeks to get it all clean," she said.

The paper was not published for three weeks, mostly during February. The first edition to appear after the flood came out on February 18, 1937 and contained reports of how the county was faring during its worst disaster of the era.

Hawkins remembered how grateful the staff was to the people of Jeffersontown, who helped get The Pioneer News back before the public's eye.

"They did it all, from setting the type to publishing the paper," she said.

Howard Shane of Lebanon Junction was fortunate enough to arrive in the state on the exact date of another flood just over two decades before the 1937 disaster.

"We came to Kentucky 74 years ago today," Shane said on January 12. On that day, the flood of 1913 commenced, caused by the Ohio River flooding from the Kentucky hills to the Indiana hills.

What a welcome to a state, a county and a city.

The Flood of 1913 was memorable, but a distant preview of what was to come and Shane will never forget the Flood of 1937.

"The one in 1913 was not as bad as the '37 flood. It was the worst we had in a century, maybe more," said Shane.

At the time he lived about a mile out of town on a farm. The house the Shane family occupied was a feeble little dwelling and he said they had to stay out of it as the rivers, creeks and streams continued swelling.

The house Shane and his wife currently reside in was inundated with about seven feet of water. He moved there in 1945 and has lived there ever since.

"The only way you could get around was by boat and you didn't do much traveling. Still, we were very fortunate during the flood."

Call it good fortune or what have you, but a rail car carrying beef and bananas was stranded near the city during the flood and the railroad company ordered the food to be distributed to the families before it spoiled.

"A lot of people had to eat that (to survive)," said Shane. He was remarkably prepared for the flood with meat and fruit and other foods, and, in his words, "we didn't suffer that much, but a lot of other people had a rough time with it."

Mary E. Farmer did not experience the flood firsthand but her parents did.

William and Clara Joyce's house on Lee Street in Shepherdsville was filled with five feet of water causing Farmer's brother, Thomas, and husband, Harry, to rescue the couple.

"The water's were from the back to the front at my mother's place," she said.

"The water got as far as Bates Hill and then started to go down after what seemed like a long time," said Farmer.

Some of the family's possessions did fall victim to the cold and ever-flowing streams but one thing which they did save was the piano.

"Other items of interest were either lost or found in hard-to-believe places," she said.

Farmer said one of the strangest incidents involved the location of her birth certificate. It was found floating in the hen house.

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The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 11 Sep 2020 . Page URL: bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/flood1937fifty.html