Written by: Dr. Donna L. Burgraff
Dr. Burgraff is an Associate Professor at Ohio University. She currently resides in Chillicothe, Ohio. Dr. Burgraff has shared her proud Appalachian Heritage around world during her leadership fellowship through the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.
It was still dark outside and I was sound asleep when my bedroom light flipped on. It has been over 40 years now, so I cannot remember exactly what my mom said but her intentions were clear. I was still groggy, for we had been out until after midnight the night before helping our friends and neighbors. I can remember thinking as I got dressed, “What did she say was happening? Where did she go?” It was the morning of April 4, 1977.
I walked out on our front porch where my dad was sitting. He was clearly in a state of shock. As I looked down the street the sun was just rising and I could see it. A wall of water about six feet high was steadily moving down our street. I knew two things. The Tug Fork River was going to invade our home, and at the rate it was moving we had about an hour before it did.
Appalachian Value # 1: Help others whenever you can.
It had rained like “cats and dogs” the day before. So, the entire Tug Valley Area knew that flooding in the low lying areas was going to happen. That is why we had been out past midnight. Two relatively young parents with two teenagers and their friends could definitely help, especially a single mother with young children or an elderly widow. It is just what you do for, as the Good Book says, to whom much is given much is required. After all, we lived well above the flood plain, at least until then.
What we did not know was that 15 ½ inches of rain had fallen in 30 hours in a place we had never heard of—Jolo, West Virginia. This little town sits at the headwaters of the Tug River. The Tug would end up, when it was all over, putting over 20 feet of water into the towns in Mingo County, West Virginia and Pike County, Kentucky. We were, in effect, doomed even as we helped others. We just did not know it.
Appalachian Value # 2: When life gets tough, so do you.
I left the front porch and went back into the house. Mom was coming in the back door. She had taken our car “up on the hill” as we called it. We lived at the foot of Slater Street in Williamson, WV. Slater Street climbs directly up the side of an Appalachian mountain. About ¾ of the way up the mountain sits the city’s cemetery. As the water moved in, the entire neighborhood had taken their cars and parked them one behind the other in the road that ran through the cemetery. Mom’s quick action had saved our car just in time.
I met her in the kitchen and tears welled up in my eyes. I still remember her exact words, “No time for crying now. We’ll cry later.” That was enough to stop the tears and get to work. Mom got out the garbage bags, and she handed me one and said to fill it full of clothes. Someone also went out back and got our metal garbage cans and dumped the garbage out.
My Mem-maw lived in a house just as you entered the cemetery. Mom’s intent was clear.
We were going to save what we could.
Appalachian Value # 3: Do not let others stop you (even those you love) from doing what needs to be done.
We got right to work. As we did, Dad kept walking around like what is probably best described as a zombie. He kept saying that there was no need to pack things up. The water was not going to get into the house.
I remember thinking that I did not know what he was looking at because it was clear the water was going to flood the house. He would say, “If it gets up one more step.” Well, it more than did.
Mom did not let Dad’s state of shock stop her. She told him to just go sit down that “me and the girls got this.” So back out on the porch he went while we continued throwing things into garbage bags and cans.
Appalachian Value # 4: Things that mean the most really are those that money cannot buy.
Once we got a load ready, Mom said “Take this to Mem-maw’s”. So, there we went my sister and me on each side of that metal garbage can. We had the handle in one hand and a garbage bag in the other carrying our family’s belongings up on the hill. We were 14 and 16 at the time.
As soon as we got there, we dropped the load on Mem-maw’s porch and headed back down the hill to get another. We carried as many loads as we could before the water overtook the house. Through Mom’s efforts that day we saved most of our clothes, what food we had in the cabinets and refrigerator, and our most precious belongs. In those garbage cans were yearbooks, baby photos, family albums. When you only have an hour, those are the things you save.
The water eventually stopped rising later that day but not before 33 inches were in the house destroying pretty much everything. Very little was spared that day in our neighborhood: one church; the homes on Slater Street hill, luckily my Mem-maw’s being one of them; and the grade school.
Appalachian Value # 5: No matter how bad it is, someone is always worse off.
We were cut off from the rest of the world. The entire valley was flooded. We had no electricity, no water, no heat and the temperature had dropped and it started to snow. Someone had opened the grade school for shelter and offered up its kitchen contents for the neighborhood. My family members went down and came back with lots of those little milk cartons. There were over 25 people seeking refuge at Mem-Maw’s. We needed a lot of that milk, but we did not need it all. Dad and Mom took a blanket put those milks in the center and sent my sister and me around the cemetery.
We may not have had a bed at Mem-maw’s, but at least we had a roof over our heads. Many of our neighbors were taking refuge in their cars. There we went, each holding two corners of that blanket with little grade school milks in the center. We went car to car through the cemetery knocking on car windows offering milk to those less fortunate on what was, for us, the worst day of our lives.
Appalachian Value #6: There comes a time to sit down and cry; then you get back up.
Once the water went down, the clean-up began. Flood mud was a new term I learned. And, oh the smell! Words cannot describe the smell.
Dad eventually got back to his usual self almost as soon as the house was flooded. He led our family’s clean-up effort
One day, a couple of weeks after the water went down, I was in the house alone working on cleaning up our living room paneling—a chore my mom and dad left me with. We had a good sized living room with dark brown paneling. I was on my hands and knees cleaning from the waterline down. I scrubbed and scrubbed until all of that flood mud was gone.
When I finished the entire room, I stood up and admired my work. Then I saw it. Slowly at first and then it worked its way around the room like dominos falling. The flood mud was seeping back onto the paneling. Pretty soon it looked like I had not even done a thing.
It was at that moment I just sat down on the plywood that was now our living room floor and just cried my eyes out. I felt if anyone had a right to feel sorry for herself it was my sixteen-year-old self who had just worked so hard and had nothing to show for it. After a few minutes passed, I picked myself up off the floor, took the bucket outside and got some fresh water and started again.
That paneling had to be cleaned four times before the mud stopped seeping out. Even though I have not lived in that house for over twenty-five years now, I could walk up to the wall in that living room and put my hand on it exactly where the flood line started.
Appalachian Value # 7: Find humor in all things
Five days after the flood was Easter Sunday. The only church that had not been flooded in the neighborhood invited everyone to services, come as you are. Mom decreed we were going to church. “Church!?” I thought. What in the world was she thinking? We had been cleaning up flood mud for three days with no water to clean ourselves up. Mom insisted. She said that Calvary Baptist was going to allow women into the sanctuary in pants and that was something we were not going to miss. (In 1977 this was earthshattering for sure). I guess we would take a stand for women’s equality
As we were getting ready, Mom came out of the bedroom flipping a yellow bandanna singing at the top of her lungs, “Put on Your Easter Bonnet. With All the Frills Upon It. You’ll Be the Grandest Lady in the Easter Parade.”
Appalachian Value # 8: Always take time to Praise the Lord!
Down the hill we went. Each of us in a different colored bandanna over hair that had not been washed in almost a week, in clothes we had dug out of garbage bags. Dare I say we had an Easter parade like no other. We worshiped together with our neighbors, even in our pants. Somehow I know the Lord did not mind. We celebrated Easter, mourned all we had lost, and praised God who had spared our lives but not our homes.
Appalachian Value # 9: Love will see you through
I left my Appalachian home two years after the “Great Flood of ‘77” to go to college. I went out into a world that made fun of the way I talked and let me know that where I was from was a place that people in the world found no value in. “Poor, Dumb Hillbilly” is the stereotype. I have often had the opportunity to speak to groups all across the country and I tell them, “Yep, that’s me.”
Every stereotype that you can think of, I am it. My bloodline traces back to one of the defendants of the Matewan Massacre and to the McCoys, yes the ones of Hatfields and McCoys fame. While others not from these mountains cannot understand it, I know that the values I learned, quite literally on the Tug River, are good values, solid values.
During the flood’s aftermath, I saw a few examples of the worst of humankind, but they really were very few. Mostly, I saw neighbors helping neighbors. I saw strangers become instant friends. I saw families, like mine, that stuck together and got through an awful time. Mostly, I saw the love of a people for each other and the good Lord above. This love was certainly put to a test when that river left its banks, but it never faltered.
I do not talk about the spring/summer of 1977 much. I do not really like to think about it. When I do, I think about all the things my mother taught me during those dark days. These were values Mem-maw had taught her and Mommy before her. Values borne out of hardship in a region often maligned in this country, these are Appalachian values, and I do thank God every day that I have them and do my best to personify them.
Share this article with your friends on Facebook: