July 4th 1969 Flood

1969 Flood Rainfall Est.

Rainfall estimates across northern Ohio during the 1969 July 4-5 storm.

It’s been 43 years since the flash flood of 1969 that affected so many peoples lives in Wayne County. Now there are whole generations of folks who don’t know anything about it except the stories they’ve heard from their parents or grandparents. For those that lived through the 1969 flood many can recall the event with vivid and emotional detail much like they can remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot, the space shuttle Challenger blew up, or when the September 11th attacks took place.

There were no early warning systems in place or widespread weather radars like we depend upon today. The people of Wayne County and all across northern Ohio were unprepared for the impending disaster. What many thought was going to be a relaxing holiday weekend turned, literally overnight, into a nightmare and for 22 Wayne Countians the raging flood waters ended their life.

Ominous clouds rolled into the area around 9PM on July 4, 1969. Many fireworks displays were cancelled as heavy raindrops began to fall around 9:30PM. Most people simply returned to their homes and went to bed thinking it was just another passing summer thunderstorm that would blow out of town quickly. They simply fell asleep to the pounding rain on their rooftops and crackling thunder. But as they slept the rain continued to pound down and did not stop. It rained continuously for almost 13 hours with intense lightening and thunder in Wayne County. By 2:00AM local police and fire departments began getting frantic calls from residents seeking help as rising flood waters began to surround their homes. The storm affected practically every portion of Wayne County, but perhaps the worst hit was the Bauer Rd. area, also known as “Soaptown”, in Wooster, Ohio. Located in an area where the Little Apple Creek tributary passes on it’s way to join the main Apple Creek the water rose so quickly and with such force that residents in permanent home structures were forced to flee to the highest floors of their house where they helplessly watched the trailer-type homes in the area get washed away or smashed with floating debris.

1969 Bauer Rd. Flooding

Smashed buildings show the damage caused by flood water from the Little Apple Creek that swamped the area around Bauer Rd. in Wooster, OH. Photo courtesy of Vicki Slater.

One of the Bauer Rd. residents that suffered great losses during the storm of 1969 was Paul Taylor. He lived on Bauer Rd. along with his wife, Lovina, and 9-year-old son Dale in a trailer home. For the holiday the family had made plans to visit Taylor’s sister in Zanesville and watch the Zanesville fireworks display. Mr. Taylor invited his eldest daughter, Doris Wirth and her children: a 6-week-old welfare infant Doris was caring for at the time named Anthony, 4-year-old Sharon Wirth, and a family friend, 12-year-old Patricia Lovett, to all make the trip to Zanesville for a day of family fun. They made the trip to Zanesville in a car driven by Paul Taylor and returned to Wooster around midnight. When they reached the Bauer Rd. neighborhood they could see the water was already deep, but lights were on in nearby houses, so he continued on toward his home. At the time Taylor drove a semi-tractor transport truck for Ford Motor Co. and had left a fully loaded trailer of new cars in front of his mobile home and wanted to see if everything was OK. Driving into the flood water he could see that his home was already flooded and he decided not to try and go into the house and attempted to turn around. But the water was high enough that the car stalled-out and would not restart. Mr. Taylor got everybody out of the car and they slogged there way to the Henthorn house across the street where a number of the neighbors had already gathered to wait for the water to recede. However, the water kept rising as time passed. Members of the Wooster Police Department came by in boats a couple of times urging everybody in the area to evacuate. At first nobody wanted to go, but as the water kept coming down and the police came by again telling them to get out, the decision was made to send the women and children out first, but the small police boat could not hold everybody.

A resident of Pittsburg Ave., John Mann, had heard that there were people in the Bauer Rd. area that needed help and boats were needed to get to them. John Mann had a boat sitting on his property and did not think twice about taking it out in the dark during a storm on flood waters to go help. He picked up three Dowell Co. employees who had been stranded at the plant: Walter Campbell, John Baumgartner, and manager Basil Bright. At the time the Dowell Co. was a subsidiary chemical company of the Dow Chemical Corporation with their plant located on Bauer Rd. north of U.S. Rt. 30. The group of men travelled 100 yards south into the residential neighborhood and were flagged down to pick up the women and children at the Henthorn house. Climbing into Mann’s boat along with the Dowell employees, was Lovina Taylor, Doris Wirth holding the baby foster child, Sharon Wirth, Patricia Lovett, Dale Taylor, Roger Henthorn, and two dogs and a cat. The group pulled away from the Henthorn house and were heading for dry land on old U.S. 30 when halfway to safety disaster struck. Churning in the raging flood waters was a metal tank from a drilling company’s station that hit the boat with such force that it capsized the boat and threw everybody into the water. Hearing screams for help another small boat manned by Wooster City Police officers, Patrolman Robert Goodrich, along with his son Patrolman David Goodrich, and Sargent Paul Knisely, swung into action and attempted to rescue the people fighting for their lives in the fast moving water. However, the boat spun out of control in the swift current and the same fate that struck the Mann boat hit the police boat. Debris bouncing and careening through the tumultuous water struck Goodrich’s boat and all three policemen were thrown into the water too. One of the survivors recalled that as the torrent of water carried them over a steep embankment into the Little Apple Creek waterbed where it narrowed under the highway bridge the water exploded with speed and waves as it reached the opposite side of the highway. It was a miracle that anybody from those capsized boats survived. Out of the 14 people that were in the two boats that capsized that night only three survived. Dowell Co. employee Walter Campbell was able to grab onto a tree and wait to be rescued the next morning. He thought he saw Doris Wirth and Dale Taylor grab onto the boat that was floating upside down before they got swept farther downstream. Dale Taylor reported that he got caught up in fence after getting sucked into the torrent of water on the opposite side of the bridge. He heard Doris scream but never saw her again. The raging water eventually tore the 9-year-old from the fence but he was able to grab onto a tree which was swirling downstream. Riding the waves three-quarters of mile south he was thrown against a tree still standing firm against the flood water.

I hung on to a low branch, swung my feet up higher and grabbed the tree around the trunk.

Little Dale Taylor held on to that tree until about 9:30AM the next morning when someone heard him calling for help and directed firemen to his rescue. Patrolman David Goodrich after being swept downstream was able to tie himself to a tree along the bank of the creek with his belt and was rescued at daybreak by fellow police officers looking for survivors.

Flooded Wa. Co. Fairgrounds

The area of the Wayne County fairgrounds was nearly completely flooded during the July 4th 1969 flood. File photo of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Wooster was not the only area in Wayne County where people lost their lives. In Millersburg, Ginger Hinkle (8), was drowned in the first surge of flood waters that struck Hickory Lake where she had been camping with her family. Kathy Schonauer (10) was drowned when she was swept into Newman Creek while attempting to cross the Clermont Ave. bridge in North Lawrence with her brother Roland Schonauer (14), and friends Robert Moser (12), and Ted Myers (8). The children were walking along the Penn Central railroad tracks by the Clermont Ave. bridge about 2:30PM July 5, 1969. A woman who lived nearby reported that she saw the children try twice to cross the bridge covered with water but backed away because the current was too swift. The four then joined hands and started across again but midway across were knocked over by the rushing water. Robert Moser was able to cling to the bridge’s railing and had a hold of Kathy’s hand but she was ripped away from his hold. The Meyers boy managed to get out of the water himself and the other two boys held onto the bridge or debris until rescued by firemen. Kathy’s body was not found until days later.

In the Jeromesville area, Smith Dairy truck driver, Homer Hostetler of Dalton, was drowned after his semi-truck went off the highway likely due to water on the road. It is believed he was swept away in flood waters when he attempted to exit his disabled truck. In Killbuck, John McMillan (86) was found dead in his flooded house trailer. Paul O’Donnel watched his Killbuck valley neighbors Earl and Ada Elliott disappear in flood waters that surrounded their house. The elderly couple had parked their car in O’Donnel’s driveway after returning from the grocery store and saw that the lane to their house had flooded. They told Paul O’Donnel, “We’ll be right back, as soon as we take the first load in, and get our dog.”

They walked across the highway and started down their lane with groceries in hand. O’Donnel watched the couple from his driveway. The water became higher and higher as the Elliott’s waded in trying to reach their house. He noted that the groceries they carried went from their arms, to their shoulders, to the top of their heads. O’Donnel began to count the fence posts that lined their lane as the couple passed them; thinking surely they should be emerging into more shallow water soon. But on the count of four, he saw the groceries fly into the air and the two heads disappear beneath muddied water. With the phone service out he was unable to call anybody to bring help. Later that night he learned that they never made it to their house and had drowned.

In Burbank, the Dickens brothers, Robert Dickens Jr. (16) and his 12-year-old brother attempted to assist a young girl who had stepped into hole where she was wading in shallow water from the overflow near their family’s farm along Interstate 71 and got swept into deeper water. All three got into trouble in the high water running in the ditch and Robert Dickens Sr. (40) brought a rope and attempted to rescue the group. Somehow the girl was pulled-out safely and the younger 12-year-old Dickens boy was rescued by a passing helicopter that saw the trouble and dropped down and lowered a rope to pluck the boy out of the ditch. However, the father and older 16-year-old Dickens boy disappeared underneath the water and later their bodies were found less than a quarter mile from the farm home; the father’s hands said to be still clutching the rope.

Mabel Frantz who was well-known in the Orrville and Kidron areas worked at the Apple Creek Development Center (ACDC). Despite hearing many of the area roads were flooded and travel was dangerous she got in her car to make the drive to work at ACDC. She got as far as the road over Kidron Creek. She attempted to cross the flooded road and her car was quickly swamped by the water and disabled. When she exited the vehicle she was swept away and became another victim of the flood waters of the July 4-5, 1969 flood.

1969 Flood Line

It was Governor Rhodes while touring the area after the devastation who suggested that the high water marks left by flood waters at the Wayne County fairgrounds be painted white. He said it would help you remember how high the water went and hope it will never happen again. The 1969 Flood lines are still marked to this day on the Colesium and Racehorse Barn 21.

In total there were 22 Wayne Countians that lost their lives during the 1969 Flood:

John Baumgartner (34) – Wooster
Basil Bright (38) – Wooster
Patrolman Robert Goodrich (56) – Wooster
Roger Henthron (6) – Wooster
Patrolman Sargent Paul Knisely (30) – Wooster
Patricia Lovett (12) – Wooster
John Mann (37) – Wooster
Lovina Taylor (34) – Wooster
Doris Wirth (26) – Wooster
Sharon Wirth (4) – Wooster
baby Anthony (6 weeks) – Wooster
Shirley Morris (31) – Ashland Rd. area
Robert Dickens Sr. (48) – Burbank
Robert Dickens Jr. (16) – Burbank
Homer Hostetler (57) – Dalton
Ada Elliott (56) – Killbuck
Earl Elliott (57) – Killbuck
John McMillin (86) – Killbuck
Mabel Frantz (53) – Kidron/Orrville
Ginger Hinkle (7) – Millersburg
Kathy Schonauer (9) – N. Lawrence

Body Recovery

After the flood waters receded the grim task of recovering drowning victims bodies had to be done. Pictured carrying a body from the fields near Schellin Park and the U.S.30 expressway are (cameraside l to r) volunteer Jon Zerrer, and fireman Richard Landis, followed by Richard “Red” Drabenstott behind the main group.

It took days and in some cases over a week to recover the bodies of those lost. It was unclear if the bodies of little baby Anthony and toddler Sharon Wirth were ever found. Most of the remaining family members and friends of those that died during the flood kept asking themselves “what if?”. What if they had made a different decision, what if they hadn’t gone that way? What if they hadn’t tried to do that? Paul Taylor asked what if everybody had just stayed in the Henthorn house? Wouldn’t they all still be alive? After John Mann’s boat had picked up the women and children from the Henthorn house on Bauer Rd. and later capsized no other boat could navigate the angry flood waters that surrounded the house. The remaining men retreated to the second floor of the house as the water rose to the top of the stairs of the second floor but the house stood firm. They were all rescued the next morning by a much larger boat than the ones used the night before. While some of the deaths were unescapable, a number of the deaths could have been avoided if the people would have simply followed the old adage of “Turn around don’t drown” when faced with a torrent of muddy flood waters.

Note: This article would not have been possible without the assistance and references provided by the librarians in the Genealogy Dept. at the Wayne County Public Library. Thanks for all your help!

Comments

  1. I had just received my first 35mm camera and was going to shoot the fireworks that night. Living a block north of the campus a friend and I started walking to the stadium area. We had only gone one block when it started raining, and what a storm! The rain was so heavy that by the time we got back to the house we were both soaked. I have never experienced rain that heavy until I came to live here in Singapore, where it rains like that every day! There are some pictures that I took in Wayne County posted to my web site. I will make a category for the flood, so I can get those pictures up in the near future.

    • Garrett Scott says:

      On July 3 or fourth, 1969 my parents and my brother and I (the four of us) ventured from Creston Ohio to stay at our camper/trailer situated on the Huron River several miles in land from Lake Erie. By the afternoon we got to the park entrance, the road descending down to the trailer park was already flooded and blocked. We sat in the car waiting for the storm to pass, thinking maybe the water would recede. Just before dark, the one side of our car was illuminated as if by a large floodlight. At first I thought a police officer was shining a light into our car. I remember my mother’s face being strongly illuminated from the side. The intense light lasted several seconds during which you couldn’t look directly at it. As it faded away, we could see that it originated from the top of a power pole about 100 yards away across the field. The intense light had emanated from the top of the power pole. It remained glowing with embers and smoking after the light went away. As near as we can tell, it was what is called “ball lightning” – something I had never seen before and have not seen again since that night in my 67 years. But that wasn’t the only riveting experience.
      Thanking the storm had passed, but realizing that we could not enter the trailer park, we attempted to drive toward downtown Huron. We were on a road paralleling the Huron River on the crest of the hill when the wind and rain became so intense that my father could not see to drive. He pulled the car halfway off the road, put it in park, and set the emergency brake. The wind and rain became so intense that it started pushing water up inside the defroster vents. Then the car started inching backwards on the road with the tires crumbling on the gravel with each gust. My father put his foot on the brakes attempting to hold the sliding with much effect. The wind let up enough after about a minute that the car quit sliding. We ultimately resumed hitting for downtown Huron looking for accommodations. We spent at least one night in a high school gymnasium sleeping on cots.
      We were not able to return to Creston until a day or two later due to road to being blocked by trees and water. We found the basement of our house flooded with about 2 feet of water, from the power having been out, and the sump pump not running. Also there was a hole punched in the roof of the house, but with no sign of what had caused the damage. We figured out later that the wind had removed the top 20 feet of a maple tree in our front yard. The big piece of tree was nowhere to be found but we figure the hole in the roof was created by the large piece of tree as it flew through the air on its way to oblivion.
      We went back to the trailer park some days later, after the waters had receded. The water had been up in the trees about 11 feet, meaning that total rise in the water was probably about 15 feet. Some of the camper trailers had been washed out into Lake Erie. The rest of them were strewn about and trapped amongst the trees. I think our trailer was stacked on top of another up against some trees. I have a picture showing the trailers being pulled around and sorted out with a tractor.

  2. Karen Osburn says:

    It will be 45 years this July since my father drowned in the 69 flood. I often wonder what it would have been like with him in my life.

  3. Kelly Hoffman says:

    I remember this very well. I was on the ferris wheel in Orrville when the storm hit us. I had gotten back from my duty with the U.S. Navy in Viet Nam. I was working for Smith Dairy at the time. I was asked to try and get food, milk, dairy products to the residents of Millersburg, Killbuck, Fredricksburg area of Ohio. I knew all the back roads through Wayne County and Sugarcreek counties. I also helped within Orrville in helping people cope with what had happened there. Orrville was without electricity for a lon time. I believe it was pushing 7 to 10 days if I remember correctly. My father was a volunteer fireman for Orrville and also a electrical contractor in Orrville. He had Hoffman Electric Company and I remember him having his electricans and himself working very long hours throughout the town trying to make safety and power concerns available to businesses and health services.

  4. I was three months shy of my 5th birthday when the flood stranded my family and i on a rented farmhouse about one quarter mile from the near by creek . we did well have all we needed but fresh water until the locale react club came in a small boat .We took some fresh water and stayed until the water returned to the creek.It was something i for one will never forget .

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Historical Society article about the 1969 flood: http://waynehistoricalohio.org/2012/07/06/july-4th-1969-flood/ [...]

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