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Feature Article on the Canal and 1913 Flood.  TOPIC:  CANAL, EVENTS
By Lew Diehl in December, 1999

1913 Flood
Memories of Early 20th Century Shelby County, Ohio

Gene Rees was part of a transition generation, once riding in a canal boat, but later a member of the Farm Bureau engaged in building a modern grain marketing and hauling system. He once farmed with horses and ran a threshing rig, but later served on a production credit board helping farmers adopt modern machinery such as tractors. On Sept. 12, 1983, Society member Lew Diehl interviewed Gene and Zada Rees in their retirement home in Bellefontaine. The late Mr. Rees was a longtime Shelby County farmer and leader in farm organizations. In this taped interview, the 89-year old Mr. Rees, born Oct. 11, 1894, in Washington township, gives a special view of the Lockington area at the turn of the century.

How far back you can remember?

About as far as I can go back is when I went to school at Lockington. I was six years old, in the first grade. My teacher, Minnie Flinn, was a wonderful teacher. I went to school there one year. I used to ride to Lockington, I expect a dozen or fifteen times, on an old canal boat owned by Mr. Joe Avery. We lived down on the side of the bank. I'd know he was parked up there in the old Weis (Wise?) Pond. They put up there at night. I knew he was going down, so I'd make it my business to be up there on the towpath.

He'd see me, and he'd motion for me, and snub the boat over to the bank, and reach down and take me by the hand and pull me up on the boat, and let me ride along to school. We were at the old Althoff celery farm. That's about a mile and a half northeast from Lockington, on the Miami River. [I went to the] same school that they [recently] tore down. The school I went to was just west of that big brick [school]house. They had a little frame building they used for first grade.

What did Lockington look like then?

Lockington had five locks there, it was the highest point on the Miami-Erie Canal. They had a big elevator there. I never dreamt, when I was a boy going to school there, that I'd work for the elevator one time. And I did. I worked for Mr. Adler. He owned the elevator. And when I was real young I saw them load grain at this big elevator, that's gone now, and ship it to Cincinnati in a big canal boat.

And the way they done that [was] they had a big elevator. They ran it with water power. They'd take this grain up about 50 feet high, and it would go down a trough and scatter in the canal boat. That's the way they put it on. That was right in Lockington. Now it's all level down there. You couldn't tell there was ever anything there. And down below Lockington, if you wonder how the canal got across the Loramie River, there was a box there, an aqueduct, and that was full of water. The big flood affected that some too and broke it, but they got it fixed.

At Landman's Mill they had a feeder, a millrace. It went through a big water wheel. It was a big tall thing. That's where they got the power to grind the flour, and grind the feed. My grandfather, I used to go with him, he'd take corn down there to the Landman Mill. They had a big stone grist mill there, and that was run with water power. It had the big wheel outside, and the shaft went into the mill. They put belts on it, and that's the way they ran it. After I grew up, I worked for the elevator, and we had to take our grain to Piqua, and put it on a train. They didn't ship it on the canal any more.

Lockington was a busy place. Two blacksmith shops, about three groceries, and seven saloons. They had a lumber mill there, and two churches, and the brick school and the primary school. They had electricity that was brought down on the old Western Ohio Railroad, when that first went in. They furnished the electricity for Lockington. I was about 25 years old when they were selling to Johnny Adler. We ran the elevator on electricity then. He turned it all over from water power to electric.

Did they use steam at the sawmills back then, or was it water?

In earlier years, it was water power. Then, they changed to steam. That was a great experience for me.

In our first grade, Minnie Flinn took us over, I think it was about fifteen boys, or girls and boys, and Mr. Avery let us get on the canal boat. And he took us down through the locks. He’d shut the south end gate, and open the north end and let the water fill up, and then your boat went in on it. And you’d open the lower one and shut the top one, and let your boat go down, and right out.

Lockington was a tough place in the early days. They had a jail and seven saloons in Lockington, because that was a junction where the canal boats came. They come up north and they’d have places they could go off in a pond, and the boats could get past them. The canal boats never traveled at night.

There was quite a business house at Newbern too. Newbern was one of the busiest places in Shelby County. They had a little elevator there and a big supply house, and they had a big platform built out where they’d unload. If I wanted to get something from Cincinnati, I’d have it shipped to Newbern. There was a station there, and a man that took care of that. There was a big platform there, as big as this house. They’d unload it out of the canal boat and you’d have to go over there and pick it up, just like you do on a train today.

Wasn’t that basin at Lockington used for working on boats?

Yeah. They had a little lock, a gate on that, and you’d run the canal boat in on that. Then you’d shut the gate and let the water out. Then you could get under there and work on that canal boat, underneath, to caulk it. I’ve seen them caulk the boats. I remember when the canal boats went through Sidney. They had a bridge they would raise up and let the canal boat go through, then they’d let it back down.

Most of the biggest boats had four mules, right in line. There was a man always walked with them, and ordered them. You could talk to them like you’d talk to a person. They’d mind you. They changed teams every eight hours. They had a stable on the boat. [If six mules,] three of them would be hitched up and pulling the boat, the other three would be on the boat riding, and they’d feed them and take care of them.

Joe Avery was quite a canal man. And his wife. If you’ve seen a picture of a canal boat, there was a rudder behind, where you steered it. I remember that old lady moving that thing back and forth. He went from Port Jefferson to Dayton. They’d put up at night. They had different docks along different ponds, where they’d put up.

About a dozen boats a day would pass. They were big; some bigger than others. They had a state boat, the Ohio state boat. That was the boat that done all the repairing on the canal. If anything went wrong, why, they was out there to repair it.

Remember the turnbridge on Bunker Hill across the canal?

That was taken out shortly after the Western Ohio was built, because they did away with the traffic on the canal. I remember well, in Sidney, when they had the bridge that they lifted up. Had big weights on it, and a man would turn a thing that would raise the highway up, and the canal boats would go under, and they’d let it back down. That was right there close to where the Sexauer bakery used to be.

Mrs. Rees: On the corner of the same square that the police station is in, there used to be a great big red elevator there, and the canal went right past that, on the west side of it. That’s all filled in now. There aren’t any houses there.

Mr. Rees: When they built the Western Ohio, that took a lot of the canal business. They ran freight cars. That ’13 flood really cleaned out about everything along the canal. You can’t believe what a distressed place Piqua was after that flood. Business houses on Main Street, it just flooded and washed them out. It came fast.

What was the flood like in 1913?

I left the farm one night, and I walked out of our driveway up on the highway, and walked up to some neighbors. And I went home that night at midnight, and I walked off the highway right into water clear up to my waist. I had no idea it was raining like that. And it was two days after that, everything was wiped out. The big bridge was taken out of Lockington on the Western Ohio. In Piqua, I don't know how many people drowned, but I went with a friend of mine and we took our teams into Piqua and helped to clean up after the flood. We also helped rebuild the bridge and fill on the Western Ohio. (It crossed the canal at the firehouse.)

There were sad things. Last time I talked to Harley Jones, we mentioned it. We had our teams there, hauling stuff from where it flooded houses, trying to get the town straightened up. He said, "I got a bunch of clothes here." He was digging behind a house. There was clothes, but there was a woman in them. It just flooded people terrible.

I and my uncle, when it was flooded, walked down the old railroad through Kirkwood, then down to Piqua. On the other side of that big railroad bridge that goes east and west, we saw a house start to float. It just floated out houses, dozens of them. We saw a man, his wife and little girl on top of one. They was crying for help but they couldn’t get to them. And that house began to move, and hit the bridge. They just went under. It was a lot of sadness at that time.

I helped to rebuild the Western Ohio. One thing was kind of nice. I lived down at Lindsey Station. That was on the Western Ohio. I would get on there in the morning, and ride to Sidney on the local, and catch a limited and go to Wapak. There was several bridges up there [to work on], this flood was every place, and I would get off at Sidney. I had a ten-minute layover there, and I’d go over to the Spot Restaurant, owned by a man by the name of Miller (Spot Miller). I’d get a ham sandwich for five cents. You can’t believe that, can you? But I didn’t get much for working; I only got two dollars a day, ten hours.

I helped build the Lockington Dam. They had about a hundred people. It was all done with hydraulic; that dirt was pumped up in there with water, and when it settled it was solid. I was one of the men out at the end, where I kept the water dammed up and kept the dirt going off smooth, kept it so it wouldn't pile up in one place. We had a hose, from the water power, and that's the way we spread the water out. They had a steam shovel there, and they'd dig that dirt, and keep it loose. And then they'd wash it and make a slop out of it, and it would go up on the dam and it would settle, and you had to see to it that it didn't wash back down off the dam. They had a big pump that ran with steam power.

There was a lot of doin's around there when they built that. My uncle was caretaker on the dam many years. He kept it cleaned out above where the aqueduct went under. Now the farm that we owned, if the water came up and they had a big flood and they had to shut the dam, I couldn't get damage. It was in the deed that you couldn't get damage.

What was life around home like, the work and chores?

When we wanted to take the weeds out of the corn we used a hoe. We didn't have anything else. We didn't have anything but horses to plow corn with. Young as I was I could use a hoe pretty good, and I had to hoe the corn.

Most farms had only about a hundred acres. Some farmers came up there and they'd homestead maybe 1,000 acres, and they'd deal it out to families in 100-acre farms. In them days, if you farmed a 100 acres, you was busy! If a man would live like they did then, not try to have everything in the world, he could still live on a 100 acres. But he couldn't have a $50,000 tractor and a $100,000 combine. He'd have a small tractor or a team of team of horses and he could farm it -- raise all of his own meat, and lard, and butter and milk and vegetables. But they don't do that today.

So many years I was on the loan committee for the Production Credit Association, and if a man came into our office and wanted to borrow a thousand dollars, they'd say, "Gene, you'd better go out and see what he's got, because that's a lot of money." Today, if you don't want fifty or sixty or a hundred thousand, you’re not doing anything. We loaned it for four percent. So things surely have changed.

You mentioned that you lived on a celery farm.

In 1916, I farmed the celery farm with my uncle. It's the farm that I lived on when I was only six years old. There was six acres. Now you will think that's not very much land. But when you put twenty-five or thirty thousand stalks of celery on an acre, that's a lot of celery. We employed men, had to pay them a dollar and a half a day for labor. We'd sell three stalks of celery for a dime, attended market in the city on Saturday.

This celery farm was swamp ground. It was black ground, just black as it could be. When you'd dig down, it was soggy, and it would rot on top. It was peat. We had to put what they called swamp shoes on the horses. You couldn't [otherwise] take a horse across that, 'cause he'd sink right down. If you’d ask a person today about a swamp shoe, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. They had little holes in them where you’d set the cleats of the horseshoes, and you’d clamp them together and that’s the way they walked. Now, you didn’t put them on their front feet, you put them on their hind feet where they pulled, you know.

We got our irrigation out of the canal. We had a big pipe up there and we drawed the water out to irrigate the celery. Dry weather didn't bother us any. The state charged us $25 a year to draw water out of that canal for irrigation.

What are your memories of steam engines?

I owned a steam engine and a threshing machine one time. I had an uncle, name of Lee Steenrod, and I was only nineteen years old and he wanted me to go threshing with him. And I went with him and hauled water. They had to haul water for the steam engine. I was the water hauler.

Down on the farm where I lived at one time, he was leaning over the engine doing something and it caught him and threw his shoulder out of place. And he said, "I’m done," and he couldn’t do much of anything after that. So the next year he said, "I don’t want to sell the threshing machine, but will you take it and run it? I’ll sell you half interest in it." I didn’t have any money, but he sold it to me anyway. And I threshed for a good many years for him with that old steam engine. We had a water hauler, a big tank.

We didn’t happen to have a sleeping car. Now most threshers had a sleeping car, but we didn’t have one. We slept in the haymows. They’d hook the sleeping car on behind the separator. We had a water tank that you pulled behind the engine, then the separator behind that, and the sleeping car would go behind that. It was just a little car and it had bunks in it, and that’s the way they slept.

How far would you go?

We’d have a radius of three to four miles. Now that takes in a lot of land, don’t think it don’t. I was about twenty years old. I remember one time, we got done threshing there at our home, our neighborhood, and we went up to Anna, to Chris Grau’s.

Mrs. Rees: They lived south of Swanders.

That would be a pretty good trip for a steam engine.

Oh, boy! We went all night. We had a lantern out on the front, didn’t have electric lights like we have today.

What did you burn mostly back then, wood or coal?

Coal. Well I won’t say altogether we did, but we’d try to get a farmer, when we were going to thresh, he’d go and get a ton and a half of coal, and he’d have it there in a pile right up there where we was to set. And then some of them, they had wood for us to burn, but you couldn’t keep up steam with wood like you could coal. We got three cents a bushel for threshing wheat. Can you imagine that? And we got two cents a bushel for threshing oats. When the threshing was over, you’d put the threshing machine away and put the engine in the barn, and that would be it ‘til the next year.

What was it like having electric for the first time?

We had electric there in Lockington. That came off of the Western Ohio. We were the first people in Shelby County, Washington Township, to have inside toilets and electric in the house, from the Pioneer Electric. I was on the Shelby County board of the Pioneer Electric, and when we bought that farm up there they put it in. That was in 1939.

Mrs. Rees: Electric was there, but that was all. It was just a little short thing hanging out of the ceiling, and little twenty, thirty, or forty-watt bulbs. We had an electric refrigerator in Lockington, but for a long time we didn’t. When Sam was a baby, and we had to have bottles, we had to get some electricity to keep them cold.

How did you get started in the creamery business?

I was living in Miami County and wasn’t making enough on my cows to buy groceries. I started making butter. I had some milk cows. I hired a boy to work for me. I only paid him eighteen dollars a month. Can you imagine? I couldn’t make enough to pay him. So I made up my mind to start making butter. I had a little 150-pound churn, churned 150 pounds at a time. The first churning was 15 pounds.

Then I went in on another farm east of Lockington, then I went in to Lockington and built the creamery, and just kept growing that way. Then we started buying cream. I made butter about seven years before I went into Lockington. On the farm, I got to trying to supply my trade, and I got up to about a 1,000 pounds a week, and then I just couldn’t farm. So I bought property and built the creamery. Then we were making 5 tons a week. That was in 1931. You couldn’t buy that much cream in the United States today, cream separator cream. I doubt that a whole lot of young farmers today even know what a cream separator is.

You’ve heard of the Sexauer bakery. That was a great place. When I and my uncle farmed the celery farm, Sexauer was our wholesale man in Sidney. We never sold to groceries, he done all that. We’d take him up maybe 500 dozen, and he delivered to all the groceries in Sidney. And I used to come home with a loaf of bread or two, 5 cents a loaf. I tell you, it was good. Karl Sexauer was from the old country. He sure could make bread.

On the south side of the square, they had a market. People attended market there, along where the Montgomery-Ward store was, and Wright’s candy store. We had suckers on the celery. One time I gave them to people. They were little things on the side of celery, round like a pencil. This Mr. Wright came out. I had a big bunch of them, and I asked if he liked them, and I told him I’d bring him some. I brought him a big bunch. After a while he came out and said, "I got something for you." He gave me a box of candy. Every Saturday he’d get his bunch of suckers.

Did you find over the years that it took more and more expense and technology to raise crops?

People think that the farmer makes a lot of money, but he’s got to have a pretty good head to make money today, ‘cause it’s just a terrible expense. You have funny things in this business. At one time when we bottled milk too, and had ice cream, and cottage cheese, we had a milk route in Sidney. And the White Mountain Creamery came into the city and put on a milk war. They put milk down to five cents a quart. We couldn’t stand it. I had to call my producers in and tell them that there’s just no way I could pay the price I was paying for milk and settle for five cents a quart, because I was paying more than that for a quart. And I had a man by the name of Ed Carpenter. He lived west of Lockington, a fine man. I had so many of my grade A producers, and I had grade C milk too, that you used to make cottage cheese, and it didn’t have to have inspections. It was good milk, but they didn’t have a license to sell grade A milk. This Ed Carpenter called the producers into the creamery. He said, "They took a vote, and said as long as White Mountain had a war in Sidney, they’d give me that milk." Can you imagine? I said, no, I wouldn’t ask that, but if they would trust me with it. And it went on for 5 or 6 weeks, and they came back up with a price of 10 cents a quart. 

Money was a sideline then. Most people worked to live. Today, I don’t know how much money you’d have to have to live, but in them days, not everything was based on how much money you got. It was what you could do.

geneandzadarees.gif (30511 bytes)
Gene and Zada Rees, subjects of this interview, were Shelby County farm leaders.  
Rees photos courtesy of Sam and
Kathryn Rees. 

 

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