Part one of a series
Birds were singing on a bright and beautiful Sunday morning with healthy crops in the field, according to Margaret Goetzinger. June 16, 1946, was a special day for the family with Alvin Goetzinger’s baby daughter, Joan Kay, having been baptized that morning at Crooked Creek Peace Church.
However, the day became very hot, humid and windy. By late afternoon and early evening, it became hazy. It was a few decades before radar would be available to issue weather warnings.
That forenoon, the Goetzinger family had watched the last switching of cars on the railroad at the depot in Freeburg. But that night, that depot would be swept a half-mile away by the calamitous flood of 1946 – what many would call the Freeburg Flood.
“At sundown, the thunder clouds suddenly appeared, black and ominous,” recalled Margaret, who went on to describe torrential rain with the darkness punctuated by severe lightning. “It kept up all evening. Soon lights were out, telephone service was out, and all we could hear was a roaring-like wind in the trees. Little did we realize it was water all over the valley. The storm continued, and we went to bed. There being no lights and no way to get out as the dry run across the driveway was flooded, too.”
Their two-year-old daughter awoke during the stormy night, and as Margaret went to her, she passed a window overlooking the valley and could see nothing but water from hill to hill. “Thinking I was dreaming, I stood and watched for a while, and yes, it was water!”
After awakening her husband Arnold, they dressed and went outside about 2:30 a.m. to check on the sows they had in individual houses in the valley. They did not get far before stepping in mud and silt. Realizing that the water had already receded, they knew that everything was gone. They went back into the house to await morning light.
Dawn revealed surging water had destroyed the fields of corn and grain in its path. The flood had gouged out big holes in some places and left deep deposits of mud, silt, trash and trees in other areas. “Silt was so deep you couldn’t wade through it,” lamented Goetzinger. “The hog houses, fences, brush and even trees gone and flattened, like a big roller had gone over it all. The railroad tracks up toward Pohlman’s farm was gone from its bed, broken and twisted, ties all over, some buried.
“There were some big cottonwoods near the ‘curve bridge,’ which caught many trees, brush and other debris. (we) even found the carcass of one of our young cattle, which was in the debris up high in the trees.”
They discovered some of their cattle had been swept down to Freeburg. “They were tired and frightened. They just stayed there until we could get them home again.” Of their nine sows with baby pigs, only one sow and family did not survive. The hog houses had all been destroyed, but the other mothers had somehow protected their broods in the water. “The next day toward evening, we saw the sows coming home, each with their own babies,” said Margaret. “As they reached home, they laid down in exhaustion.” Eight sows and their babies were bruised and exhausted, but finally home again.
After a thunderstorm arrived and stopped, Elmer Kohlmeier quit his farm chores and drove the Model A Ford to get his wife and children, who had gone out to pick strawberries. Rain came through the radiator, killing the motor. “The rain came down as if someone was pouring it out of a large bucket,” said Kohlmeier.In Caledonia, the transformer station was giving off a consistent arc due to the lightning. After stopping for about 20 minutes, he was able to drive on toward Winnebago Valley. Soon, the road was completely covered with water, forcing him to turn around and return home.
Rudy Simon had taken his girlfriend home early and stopped at Link’s Tavern to play cards with Chuck Neuman and Baker Fisch. It was raining, but a disaster was not expected. After a couple of games, they looked outside to find the road through Freeburg under water. Fisch was able to get his car home on the east edge of town, but the vehicle eventually was full of water and would succumb to the flood as well. Simon, however, was not able to start his 1932 Chevrolet, which eventually was filled with water, too. Stranded, he spent the night in the tavern, as did Neuman.
Lucille Tony, during lightning strikes, could see at least two calves bawling while floating downstream. Her grandfather Edward Theabold saw railroad ties and rails holding back debris before finally giving away as track, ties and all descended onto lower land.
What dawn had revealed to the Goetzinger family was just one of many stories from that unforgettable night. “It was all mud and water,” said Eldor Wunnecka. “Twisted railroad tracks, bridges out… Fences all gone… through the whole valley.”
William Schaller said at first there was lightning but not much rain. But when the creek became full, he went out to get the horses pastured nearby. Suddenly, a six-foot wall of water engulfed the animals. “All I could see of the horses was their heads, but they swam out.”
Water rose into the Schaller home, where the family moved up to the second story. When the water receded, seven inches of mud covered the ground floor. In the garage, water had risen up to the door handles of the car. The fences were all gone. The bridge on Crooked Creek was found a half-mile downstream. “We carried cream across the creek by foot, until the bridge was replaced.”
“It was a summer of hard work and disappointment trying to clean up and make new fences and roads and crossings again,” lamented Margaret. However, “there was much thanksgiving through it all that no one was killed.”
How could there be so much water so quickly? To be continued…
Sources: written recollections at the Houston County Historical Society and a 2006 article by David Heiller, published in the Caledonia Argus