Saturday, June 26, 2021

Aunt Evie's Outhouse And The Flood of '41

A few days ago, while going through a box of family keepsakes that had been buried for years in the back of a closet, I ran across the above photo of my father’s store in Davis, Missouri, taken sometime in the mid-1930s. 

I grew up listening to stories about that store, the first of two my father would own in tiny Missouri towns, but had never seen a picture of it. I don’t believe anyone in the family knew the photo existed; otherwise it would have been framed and proudly displayed. I have it because it was in a box of mementos dug out from the crawl space under the staircase in my mother's house where it had resided for decades.  My brother, sister and I found the box ten years ago as we were preparing mom's house for an estate sale. I took it home to Connecticut, moved it to Florida and stashed it away but always knew it was there. I had been intending to go through that box for years. 

The photo pictures (from left) my grandfather Gilbert Dryden, my father Bud (also a Gilbert), and my grandmother, Virgie. Knowing my family, it was almost definitely taken on a Sunday. Grandpa ran his own general store in High Hill, about 30 miles to the Southwest, and Sunday was the only day both stores were closed. I'm also certain the picture was taken by dad's sister, Emily, the only member of our family to own a camera back then. My mother, Ruby, must have been in the house next door, cooking Sunday dinner. Otherwise she would have been in it, too. 

In this era of big box stores, Dryden's General Store looks right out of a Steinbeck novel but it was, as the photo proves, real. 

This morning I decided I'd share the photo on my blog and write a bit about the store and Davis. Then I remembered I had already written the story I wanted to tell, back in the summer of 2000 for my weekly newspaper column in Connecticut. I entitled it:

Aunt Evie's Outhouse And The Flood of '41

On a recent visit to Missouri, I drove my 87-year-old mother, Ruby, halfway across the state to Davis, the tiny town to which she and my father had moved in 1933. She hadn’t been back in 20 years. Ruby said she had been thinking about Davis a lot for the last few months, as she has been writing her memoirs, which she intends to present to her children and grandchildren for Christmas, on her Mac computer.

Because I write for a living, Ruby showed me the first draft of what she had written and asked my opinion. I told her the truth. It was good work.

And it was clear to me as I read that, despite all the hardships she described during her 11 years in Davis, those years were the happiest of her life.

When we arrived in Davis, we found that not only had the town changed, it was gone. 

Though seven or eight buildings were still standing, not a soul was living there. Apparently the flood of 1993 that devastated much of the Midwest killed Davis once and for all.

Truth be told there wasn’t much to Davis to begin with. At its peak, it had a population of only 100 or so. Ruby said that on the day she arrived, the train tracks were being taken up by a railroad crew — hardly a good sign.

My parents were newlyweds when they moved to Davis. Like most young people caught up in the vortex of the Great Depression, they had high hopes, but no money and no prospects. My grandfather bought the store for them and paid $500 for it.

Theirs was the only store in town, and for miles around. The newlyweds moved into a house next door, so the young wife could bring meals she prepared on a wood-burning stove to her husband, who kept his store open 14 hours a day

Davis didn’t have electricity. Nor was there indoor plumbing, residents had to use outhouses, built behind their homes.

As we drove toward Davis, Ruby told me the story of Aunt Evie, a devout elderly woman who, one night while entertaining the minister, looked out her window to see her outhouse in flames. The minister had excused himself to use the facilities, but had decided to sneak a smoke, which he failed to properly extinguish. Evie’s outhouse burned to the ground. 

Shortly thereafter, during the flood of 1941 that inundated the entire town, her replacement outhouse was carried away. 

“I don’t think the good Lord intends for me to have one,” Evie told people in all seriousness.

Ruby was in high spirits, and told many other stories about Davis during our two-hour drive. I had heard many of them before, but they are always entertaining.

“I want to take pictures so I can scan them into my memoirs,” she announced suddenly, as we were halfway there. We pulled into a truck stop and bought a disposable camera.

I had only been to Davis once before. My parents (thank you, God) had left in 1944, years before I was born. Remembering my one visit when I was 10 or so, I knew it was unlikely there would be much to see or that Ruby would find anyone she knew. But neither of us had any idea the town would be gone.

Davis is nestled in a valley. We arrived from the west, descending the steep hill to which Ruby said she had fled in the middle of the night with my brother Jerry during the ’41 flood. My father, she said, stayed behind to try and save the store, and was found on its roof the next day by rescuers in a rowboat. She directed me to the store.

We pulled up in front of a pile of corrugated tin and lumber that had once been the store, but which had been bulldozed sometime in the last few years, probably after the ’93 flood. Next to the store where the house was supposed to be — the house in which she had lived and loved and given birth to two of her three children — there was nothing. Only the well from which she used to draw water.

“Oh my,” she exclaimed, gasping for air as old people with iffy hearts do when they are startled. “It’s gone. Even the sidewalk your father poured between the house and the store. It’s all … gone.”

My eyes saw a pile of rubble in the center of a weed-covered lot. But hers, I could tell, saw a store with farmers on the porch playing checkers, a strong young husband working inside, a house with a fence, and tow-headed toddlers riding tricycles on a sidewalk.

I opened the car door and asked if she wanted to get out and follow me. “No,” she said, softly but firmly.

I walked to the pile of rubble, hoping to find something — anything — I  might take back to the car and present to her, something she would recognize. But there was nothing.

When I turned around, Ruby had gotten out of the car, and was standing in the road. Her eyes were misty, her chin was quivering.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“I don’t want any pictures after all,” she said.

We drove slowly out of town, past the empty lots where she said the Baptist and Christian churches had stood and past the abandoned houses of long-deceased people she thought of as family because they were to her, a young bride stuck in the middle of nowhere, far from home. 

We crossed over the Cuivre River. “That’s where I brought our bedsprings to clean the mud out of them after the flood,” she said.

Ruby was quiet, and didn’t look back as the car climbed the steep hill and left Davis with its vacant houses behind forever.

As soon as the town was out of sight, she was herself again, talking about the new sofa she plans to buy, how she’s teaching herself Microsoft Word for Mac, and how she is looking forward to attending her granddaughter’s college graduation in New York next spring, if her heart holds out.

She said she will be sure to bring the camera and maybe we can use it then.