Just south of the town of Atlantic, Iowa, is a roadside attraction called the Plow in the Tree, within sight of the Nishnabotna River. It delivers exactly what the name says – it’s a plow in a tree.
The story is that in the 1860’s, a young man was plowing a field when he heard news that the Civil War had started. Burning with patriotic fervor, he leaned his plow against a tree and ran off to join the battle. Unfortunately, he, like so many men during that conflict, never returned.
The plow rested as he had left it, and eventually the tree grew around it.
Is the story true? Maybe. Either way, it’s an old plow and it takes a long time for a tree to grow around an object.
For years it’s rested, locked inside of its organic tomb, bearing silent witness to the land around itself. If it could speak and share those observations, not all of them would be pleasant.
It began to rain on July 2nd, 1958. Thunderstorms blossomed across the landscape, violent and angry. Lightning flashed, and thunder boomed.
Several of these storms lumbered across the skies, lingering longer than usual. Strong winds slowed their progress even more, and the angry, dark thunderheads poured tremendous amounts of water down on western Iowa. Before long the ground could hold no more, saturated beyond its limit. With nowhere else to go, the water began to rise.
Low spots in the ground filled quickly. Puddles became ponds, and then lakes. Streams and creeks began to swell, reaching their crest as they flowed into the Nishnabotna River.
Soon, the river itself crested and began to overflow its banks. The water began to move faster, naturally seeking to level itself out. It’s immense volume quickly gained momentum, its enormous weight lending it speed and power as it went.
The normally placid waterways through the region became a raging torrent, slamming into everything in its path with a primal brutality.
Word about the rising flood waters spread quickly. In the town of Exira, a night watchman named Claude Greene began to sound the fire alarm in effort to warn residents. In the low-lying areas of the Nishnabotna, fireman ran from door to door, waking and warning as many residents as they could.
The flood was coming.
Jerry Lauritsen was only eighteen years old in 1958. The 4th of July holiday was only two days away, and he and his three companions could almost feel the excitement in the air. They had spent the day in Atlantic, Iowa, and were now travelling back home to Audubon, almost thirty miles to the north.
Night had fallen, and Jerry watched the slow ribbon of concrete stretch out before him in the soft glow of his headlights. As they approached Brayton, he knew they weren’t that far away from home.
Rain began to fall then, heavy and hard. Jerry had driven through rain before, so he wasn’t concerned. He turned on the wipers, slowed his speed, and stared hard through the thick sheets of rain at the road.
Just on the other side of town, Jerry’s car cut out. He got the vehicle started again, and kept going. This process was repeated and again as the group of friends drove haltingly through the blinding rain toward Audubon.
As they approached an intersection a few miles south of Audubon, the car ahead of them stopped. Without warning, it was wrenched sideways across the road, blocking the way through. The water was rushing across the highway, deep enough to reach the floorboards of their car and soak their feet.
The car vibrated as something slammed against it outside. Scared now, the boys looked out the window just in time to see a large tree branch float away, borne by the rushing torrent of water. They were caught in the tide, and there was nowhere to go.
Around midnight, night watchman Claude Greene began to sound the Exira fire alarm in an effort to warn residents. Several volunteer firemen drove a truck through town, also trying to awaken and warn the locals.
The flood slammed into the small farming community with a vengeance, ripping the local dance hall from its moorings and hurling it out into the street. Houses and even bridges were torn away.
Nearly 350 people in the southwest portion of Exira were trapped by the flood.
Desperately, the firemen tried to reach them by boat, but they could not navigate the raging waters. Unable to act, they were forced to listen to the cries of the trapped townspeople as they desperately tried to escape the flood by climbing onto their roofs or up into trees.
In Exira, Lee Thompson sat up in bed. Sound asleep, he had been awoken by the town fire alarm. Curious, he got up and looked out of his bedroom window to find out what was going on. To his utter amazement, a bridge was floating across his driveway!
Without thinking, he woke up his wife, then grabbed his two children, one under each arm. They couldn’t stay in the house. They had to get out and away from the flood. He opened the front door and waded out into the water.
Elsewhere in Exira, Russell Smith was sitting at home when he heard a loud popping sound. To him, it sounded almost as if something had exploded. He got up from his chair and went to investigate. Suddenly, he began to shout to his wife Elsie and their 19-year-old son, Jim, that the house was filling with water.
Russell grabbed their little dog and the family ran out into the front yard. The water was rising quickly, so Russell and Elsie climbed onto one of the family cars. Jim, a former high school athlete, ran to a neighbor’s tree and climbed as high and as fast as he could.
To their dismay, the water soon began to engulf the car they were standing on. Unable to withstand the force of the water, the Smiths were knocked from their refuge and into the angry floodwaters. For one split second, Elsie saw Jim staring at them in horror before she went under the water.
On the highway south of Audubon, Jerry Lauristen and his friends watched the water streaming past the car. One of them, Darwin Kuntzweiler, was terrified. He couldn’t swim, and didn’t want to get swept away.
Ahead of them, two men got out of the car blocking the road. The boys recognized them as the Wiges brothers, Harry and Frank. They both lived locally, and the boys knew them. Frank was custodian of the city auditorium in Audubon, and Harry ran a grocery store.
As they watched, the men braced themselves against the racing water and began wading toward a gas station a few hundred yards away. Darwin got out of the car and waded through the water to walk with the brothers.
Jerry and his other two friends knew that they couldn’t wait in the car. Together, they exited the vehicle and prepared to follow their friends. They grabbed on tight to one another and began to move through the water toward the gas station.
Making headway was almost impossible. The flowing water kept trying to knock them off their feet, and they constantly fought to maintain their balance.
Suddenly, the water began to turn Jerry. As he tried to resist and adjust, he felt his feet slip out from underneath him. Jerry instinctually tried to hold tighter to his friends, but it was too late. Almost before he knew what was happening, he was torn away from them and ripped downstream.
Outside of his home in Exira, Lee Thompson waded through chest high flood water with a child under each arm. His wife clung to him, trying her best to maintain her balance as the rushing water threatened to sweep her away.
The Thompsons lived next to a service station, and there was a large gravel truck parked outside. Lee began to make his way toward it when he saw a semi parked closer to him. He could see the driver inside, and immediately took a gamble.
Summoning his strength, Lee moved to the semi and handed his children to the driver and helped his wife to get in. The driver, who had pulled over for a nap and had been caught unaware by the flood, started his semi and used the large vehicle to power through the water and to higher ground. As he saw them leave, Lee hoped that the driver could get his family out of the water and on to safety.
Satisfied that he had given them a fighting chance, Lee now turned his attention to his own survival. He made his way to the gravel truck, where almost a dozen other people clung to the side, including several children.
In the water, Elsie Smith had been able to grab onto a tree branch. She was at the mercy of the flood, swept along by the rushing tide. Elsie struggled to get her head above the water. Finally, she did, sucking in great breaths of air.
When a log came floating by, Elsie let go of the one she had and grabbed on to the new one. Several more times, she was pushed under water and fought to rise above the surface. She clung to the log she was on with all her strength.
At one point, Elsie’s clothing snagged on a barbed wire fence. She immediately began to struggle, fighting for her survival. Eventually the material gave way and she continued, swept along by the floodwaters.
Jerry Lauritsen was being pulled along by the powerful flood tide. Desperately, he tried his best to swim along with the current. Suddenly, he felt something bump against him. It was a log!
He climbed on top of it and rode it downstream for nearly a mile. It drifted into a group of trees that were tall enough to stand out of the water.
Sensing an opportunity, Jerry climbed one of the nearest trees as high as he could, far out of the flood water. Terrified, he clung fiercely to his perch and waited for his ordeal to come to an end.
Lee Thompson and several others held onto the side of a gravel truck parked at a local service station. The adults took the children in the group and held them up out of the water as high as they could. All the while, the deep water buffeted them, threatening to tear them from their refuge.
Over the next several hours, Thompson and the others used a rake to keep flood debris from collecting around the truck. They were afraid that if enough of it accumulated, then the gravel truck would be tipped over and throw them off into the water.
Finally, morning came. The angry waters began to recede, and rescuers could get to stranded victims.
Lee Thompson and his companions were among them. They had clung to the gravel truck for nearly six hours, with only the light of dim flashlights and flashes of lightning to see by. The entire time, Lee didn’t know if his family had survived or not. To his tremendous relief, they had. They were happily reunited later
When dawn broke, Jerry Lauritsen began to call for help. To both his surprise and his relief, he heard two others answering from nearby, stranded in their own trees. Soon, they were all rescued by a group of volunteers and policeman in a boat who saw them while searching for survivors.
All three of Jerry’s friends, as well as the two Wiges brothers, had drowned in the flood, leaving him the only survivor.
Elsie Smith floated down the river on her log, praying. She was picked up by rescuers almost fifty miles downstream.
She was taken to a hospital in Atlantic, Iowa, where she was reunited with her son, Jim, who had also survived, safe in the neighbor’s tree. Unfortunately, her husband Russell, who had warned them of the rising water, had died.
Altogether, 19 people had met their end in the flooding around the Audubon-Exira-Hamlin area. Bridges had been washed away, as well as parts of roads. Thousands of various kinds of livestock had been killed.
Almost all the homes in Exira had been washed off their foundations, and crops throughout the region were ruined. Cars were strewn everywhere, water-logged and covered in debris.
The damage estimates quickly ran into the millions.
Nearly 13 inches of rain had fallen virtually overnight on southwest Iowa.
A week later, a meeting was held at Atlantic High School to inform flood victims about state and federal aid.
Through it all, the towns and their people persevered. They buried their loved ones, mourned their losses, and began to clean up. Soon enough, homes were rebuilt and crops replanted. Livestock was replaced and roads repaired.
By the following year, life had mostly returned to its normal pace. But the events of that night had left scars upon the land and its residents. In Exira, Audubon, and the surrounding area, they may be invisible on the surface, but their presence is undeniable.
Even though the memories have faded, there are still many who remember the terrible night the waters rose and swept so many good people away.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please stop over and have a seat at the table every week or so to hear new stories of true crime, disasters, the paranormal, and other weird and dark stories from America’s Heartland.
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“Flood Victims Told of Aid Offered by Iowa and U.S.” Des Moines Register, 7/10/1958