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The Flood of 1938 turned deadly in Laredo


Last updated 6/20/2013 at 9:27am

Courtesy photo

This photos shows some of the damage caused by the Flood of 1938 in Havre.

The Flood of 1938 caused a great deal of property damage in the areas it affected.

Homes, businesses, government buildings, crops, and personal property such as automobiles and furnishings were damaged or destroyed in the flood. One estimate stated a half a million dollars. However, this flood should be remembered as the Deadly Flood of 1938.

As the Havre Daily stated in its June 24, 1938 edition, these losses “sink to insignificance” — and for good reason.

In an area around Laredo about 12 miles south of Havre, there is a place called Gravelly Coulee. Here, several families homesteaded and were doing their normal daily chores of farming, cooking and taking care of children or the household.

The cloudburst that had drenched the Bear Paw Mountains was sending water down the path of least resistance, headed right for the coulee where several homes were located.

The leased homes of D. A. Couch, Frank Earl and the home of Wilfred Tow were destroyed, along with the homes of the Emil DeHaan family, Charles Pratt, Herman Wendt and hired man James Brown, who was a newcomer to the area looking for work. The rain had started about 4 p.m., and notice had been received of possible flooding, but apparently not all received the warning. According to Wilfred Tow, “the family first considered eating supper” but thought better of it and headed to a neighbor’s home on higher ground, barefoot with only the clothes on their back. The family watched their home swept away by the flood waters, as did Frank Earl. Both had been fixing fence on higher ground when the flood waters burst through the coulee.

The D. A. Couch family also considered staying, thinking that the water would go down, but at the urging of one of the children, they got up to safety just in time. They watched their home be destroyed by the waters and watched the nearby Cook schoolhouse float down the river of water about four miles.

Emil DeHaan was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Sytze Marten DeHaan, who were from Holland. The senior DeHaans had a homestead in the area. Their son Emil, born in 1902, married a Havre girl, Mildred Thibedeau, born in 1906. Together they had four girls: Donna, aged 7; Emily, aged 5; Elaine Lois, aged 3; and Flora Catherina, aged 19 months. It was believed by Wilfred Tow and neighbors the DeHaan family never saw the flood coming, nor did they believe Charles Pratt, James Brown or Herman Wendt knew either.

Charles Pratt’s wife was spared from the same fate as her husband. She had been visiting the senior DeHaan family when the flood waters came.

The first story published in the Havre Daily News on June 23, 1938, did not mention the flood had turned deadly. The news broke the following day of the tragedy that had occurred in the little town of Laredo only a few miles away.

Rail and road traffic were impossible. The water had hit the tracks with such force it dislodged the tracks and the road was under several feet of water. Despite that, it didn’t take long for a search party to be organized as soon as possible. Family members, neighbors and people from Havre, including Sheriff Roscoe "Doc" Timmons, searched for the victims of the flood. Emil and Mildred DeHaan and three daughters were found, as were James Brown, Herman Wendt and Charles Pratt, within a day’s search. They were found seven to 10 miles away from their homes — that was how strong the current was. Pratt’s wife had been hysterically and frantically searching for her husband. Witnesses said she became quite calm after she had seen her husband’s body, and was taken to Deaconess Hospital to be treated for “shock and exposure” and “was resting nicely and much improved” by the following evening.

Initial reports that the DeHaan baby was the one still missing. It was really little Elaine Lois. While they were searching for her, family members began planning funerals for the victims.

Because James Brown was new to the area, little was known about him. Charles Pratt had befriended Brown, who was sitting on the curb in front of the Pioneer Grocery in Havre and asked if he wanted work. Brown enthusiastically accepted. He had been employed at a steel mill in Gary, Ind., and was one of 9,000 laid off during the throes of the Great Depression. Pratt’s stressed that Brown “was no bum." It wasn’t until June 30, that Brown was identified by a letter sent to Havre Police Chief Leon Davidson with a description of Brown. She had offered to send a picture, but “please return it as it is the only one I have of him.” The description in the letter was sufficient enough to make a positive identification.

Herman Wendt had no relatives in Montana, and was sent back to Green Bay, Wis., for burial, as that is where he was from originally and had cousins living in the area.

Interment of the victims started on June 28, when Emil, Mildred, Flora, Donna and Emily DeHaan were buried close together, and where relatives were already resting. Donna and Emily were interred together. Little Elaine Lois remained missing at the time.

Charles Pratt and James Brown were to be interred on the following day, but due to the letter received regarding James Brown, his burial would wait until July 2. He must have been a handsome man, as the Havre Daily printed: “Those who viewed the body, exclaimed at the strong beauty of the young man’s face, which combined with his splendid physique, bore out her words.” “Her” was referring to Pratt’s wife, who spoke very highly of him, and she and her husband had come to find the young man hard working and trustworthy. Brown’s wife could not afford to make the trip, nor could she afford to have her beloved returned to her, and felt that arrangements in Havre would be best.

In the meantime, Elaine had been found June 30 after eight days. To curb those with a morbid sense of curiosity, the newspaper printed that she “may not be seen by anyone.” Elaine was buried along side her parents and sisters the following day, July 1, 1938.

The DeHaans’ site is located on a little hill in Highland Cemetery and is not difficult to find if one knows where to go; their upright headstones are among only a few in that section of the cemetery. Charles Pratt and James Brown are a little more difficult to find, but they are just to the south of the DeHaans. Pratt has a flat marble headstone, but at this time Brown has none, giving credence to the financial situation of the time.

The Deadly Flood of 1938 would claim a tenth victim, Fred Tilghman of Hogeland, who drowned when Fifteen Mile Creek flooded due to the cloudburst. He had been “batching” with Swanson Moore and both were running for higher ground when Tilghman lost his footing and was swept away in the flood.

The Deadly Flood of 1938 should always be remembered. Floods can, and do, happen here and they can be fatal. The victims should also not be forgotten in history, either, for they did nothing to be forgotten.

Courtesy photo

Charles Pratt's headstone tells of his early demise. He was killed in the Flood of 1938.

For all of the bad, there were stories of good. People rallied to help the survivors of the flood. The survivors took out an advertisement in the Havre Daily thanking everyone for their kindness and generosity during their time of need. Serious discussion on diverting Bullhook also began, but due to the Depression and entry into the Pacific and European theatres of World War II, it would take another disastrous, but not deadly, flood for that goal to be achieved. Sept. 17, 1953, the Bullhook Diversion Project broke ground with several dignitaries present.

The people of Havre and Hill County are a strong and resilient people, but we, too, can be vulnerable to the effects of the weather. One of our greatest assets is the ability to come together during times of strife, to help our neighbors for the greater good. Someone once told me — I don’t remember who — that “you are only forgotten when no one visits your grave.” Next time you visit Highland Cemetery, consider stopping by these gravesites — and others, too, that look forgotten — and take a moment to pause and remember.


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