Flood of ’51: ‘It was just everywhere’

Retabess Ling and Amy Specht recalled their experiences as young women during the Flood of 1951. Both women were able to fly over the area and survey damage from the flooded Neosho River. They were the featured speakers at the Allen County Historical Society's annual meeting Friday.

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October 25, 2021 - 9:54 AM

Amy Specht, left, and Allen County Historical Society Director Kurtis Russell listen to Retabess Ling recount her experience during the Flood of 1951. The two women shared stories from the flood during the historical society’s annual meeting Friday. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

The Flood of 1951 looked different from the sky.

Retabess Ling and Amy Specht shared their memories of the flood at the annual meeting of the Allen County Historical Society on Friday evening. Historical society director Kurtis Russell moderated the discussion.

Both Specht and Ling had an opportunity to view the flood from airplanes during those wet July days, 60 years ago.

Neither of their homes were in danger of flooding, nor did they stay home during the worst of the event.

Specht, who lived at the corner of Jackson and First streets, remembers sitting on the front porch of her grandparents’ house — located where McDonalds is now — and watching the water rise.

“Every day we had rain. Morning, noon and night. It never quit. I swear it didn’t,” she said. 

“I just couldn’t believe how much water there could be.”

After the worst of the danger had passed, Specht asked Stanley Dreher, a local farmers and amateur pilot, to fly her over Piqua so she could survey the damage there.

Jon Wells, left, and Nich Lohman look at a map how far the Neosho River’s water reached in Iola in 1951. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

LING lived at the foot of “Piqua Hill” but was stranded in Iola. She had been at the junior college in Iola to renew her teaching certificate and learned the highway was flooded and she couldn’t get home. She walked from Iola High School, which at the time was also the junior college, to her husband’s grandparents’ 

house on South Street. 

“They weren’t going to leave without getting some stuff out. By the time I left the house, I was wading waist deep through the alley. The water got up to the windows in the house,” Ling said.

A friend offered to fly her home; he knew of a hay meadow where they could land.

“As we were ready to leave the airport, we heard of a boy stranded in a tree by Neosho Falls,” she recalled.

“We got in his little plane and flew over Neosho Falls. There were trees, animals and houses floating down the river. We kept circling, looking for a young man in a tree. We finally gave up. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re green.’”

She was able to return home, and someone got word to her husband, Kenny, that she was safe.

Roger Carswell looks at photos and news articles about the flood of 1951. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

She didn’t know until later, though, that her husband had spent his day risking his life to save others.

Kenny Ling had taken a 14-foot fishing boat with a 5-horsepower motor to Neosho Falls, where he made multiple trips to rescue people from the rooftops of houses and the third floor of the school.

“I think he made at least three trips in and out,” she said. “He told me the bottom of the motor hit the tops of cars of the people who had driven to the school to get to the upper story.”

At one point, they had five children in two fishing boats. One of the boats got hung up in a row of trees in the dark, but they were saved by another boat passing by.

In the days after the flood, Ling helped clean houses. She’s never forgotten that smell, or the sight of all the animals floating down the river.

“It seemed like it rained every day, and then all at once, we got 7 inches.”

By The Numbers

Statistics from the historical society:

• The Neosho River at Iola crested at 33.4 feet on July 13, 1951 (flood stage is 15 feet).

• The river was out of its banks for 10 days.

• At its highest point, the flood was 7 miles wide, a few miles north of Iola.

• The flood covered 21,646 acres of crop land and 7,632 acres of pasture land.

• 930 houses in Iola were flooded.

• Flood loss was estimated at $6,331,000 in Allen County. That includes $3.6 million to farms and crops. It includes $1 million to Iola city dwellings.

• Iola was without electricity and running water for five days.

• There were no fatalities.

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