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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

Thomas Hart Benton Documents the 1937 Flood in the Bootheel

Benton work Flood 1937.jpg
Collection of The State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia.
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Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). Flood, 1937. Lithograph, edition of 196. “Many farms and farm homes were underwater. The two women are looking over their own home as the muddy water rushes by.”

A devastating flood struck the Missouri Bootheel in 1937. In late December 1936, heavy rains began falling in the Ohio Valley. By January 5, the Ohio River rose, and authorities issued flood warnings in mid-January. The Ohio spilled out of its banks, and flooded riverside towns to its mouth at Cairo, Illinois. Unprotected land in the Bootheel began flooding, forcing people out of their homes.

The threat to Cairo, largest town in the region, triggered the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. This is a 130,000-acre region of Mississippi and New Madrid counties designed to divert water from the Mississippi River during major floods and lower flood stages upstream, notably at Cairo. Workers breached the north end of the enclosing levee and diverted water into the floodway. The breach displaced five thousand sharecroppers, and three people drowned in the incoming floodwaters. A barge carrying levee workers also overturned, drowning twenty-eight men. The 1937 flood on the Ohio River caused $500 million in damage and killed an estimated four hundred people.

Hundreds of people in the floodway and elsewhere in the Bootheel were made homeless or displaced by the flood. Flooding on the St. Francis River only made the situation worse. Some moved to refugee camps, while flooding displaced others to Cape Girardeau and other high ground.

The Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wished to document the flood devastation and chose to do so in a unique way. They hired the distinguished Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton to sketch the scenes of the floods and their effects on the residents of the area.

At the time, Benton was the head of the department of painting and drawing at the Kansas City Art Institute. He had recently completed the murals in the House Lounge in the Missouri State Capitol entitled, “A Social History of Missouri.” The murals were quite controversial because Benton pulled no punches in depicting social aspects of Missouri history. The controversy overshadowed his work in the Bootheel.

Benton traveled to the scenes of flooding and to the refugee camps. He noted that “the roads of the flood country were full of movers . . . Wagons, trucks, and Model T Fords loaded with household goods, beds, stoves, etc., even with chicken coops full of chickens, even with pigs, wandered slowly away from the waters. Lord knows where they were going …. Every once in a while, seepage from under the levee would force evacuation of a house and you would see a great struggle to get animals and goods out of the rising water.”

Benton further noted, “I talked with the members of one such retreating family of six. They were tenants occupying a two-room shack and were leaving ‘this here place for good’…Towns in the flood area… had much the appearance of the deserted mining camps of the West. The windows of stores were boarded up and in some stores that were still open the goods were set on high platforms near the ceiling. The river side of New Madrid was made of little islands of mud sticking out of lakes of seeped water.”

Benton’s sketches are a powerful documentation of the human misery of the flood. Several were the basis for paintings. One of the best-known, “Spring on the Missouri” (1946) was purchased by art collector and comedian Arthur “Harpo” Marx and today is in the North Carolina Museum of Art collection.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.