It was the worst day in the history of Milam County, that Sept. 9, 1921. And just like 2016’s will be, Sept. 9 was on a Friday.
Smart phones and 24-hour weather channels were far in the future so nobody in Milam County’s river and creek bottoms knew a dying hurricane had saved its final storm surge for Central Texas.
It began to rain around 11 a.m. in Rockdale and the precipitation was off and on throughout the day.
But after dark the heavens opened up and it rained like it never has before or since in our county.
By the time it was over, 63 people were dead, most of the animals in the Central Milam bottomlands perished and even the topography of the land was altered permanently.
It was the Great Flood of ‘21. Rainfall that Friday night was estimated at 12 to 18 inches in Rockdale, between 20 and 30 in the countryside.
The actual totals, outside of a few “official” gauges in other towns, will probably never be known.
Although only four of the 63 deaths were of Rockdale residents, it was pretty grim in town too.
Ham Branch was described as a “raging river.”
Every home along the branch was evacuated. Mayor H. C. Meyer and his family were in the thick of it. They lived in the big three-story house that still stands on Bell Avenue, in between the two forks of Ham Branch.
The mayor said he waded through waist deep water in a neighbor’s yard.
Since the Meyer home was one of the few residential structures in Rockdale taller than one story, many of the “refugees” ended up there, seeking shelter.
And spent the night.
Out in the bottomlands it was almost total devastation.
The 1913 flood — which most people still remembered eight years later — was thought to have been the ultimate for Milam County but the high water mark in 1921 was said to have surpassed it by an astonishing 10 to 15 feet.
The human cost was almost unfathomable.
Twenty-three migrant farm laborers perished at Laneport when their dwelling place was washed away.
I once interviewed a woman whose father heard their screams as they were washed downstream.
She said it affected him for the rest of his life. He knew what was happening but was unable to help. Nor was anyone else.
Many spent that night clinging to branches or housetops There were stories of herosim and not all ended well.
At the Redville Gin a mother and grown son perished, trying to hold onto a tree, apparently unable to maintain their strength any longer. The son’s wife was rescued from the same tree.
Imagine how she felt.
By Tuesday afternoon the water had gone down. Mayor Meyer ordered all Rockdale stores closed and 300 local men began the grim task of body recovery in bottomlands.
One rescuer said the stench of dead animals was overwhelming. “The only live things I saw were one cricket and one butterfly,” he reported.
But still Rockdale went on with its civic life. Saturday night—the day after the flood—with many rescues still to come — Rockdale’s legendary Matinee Musical Club met in the home of Miss Mary Alice Porter.
They reported: “Despite the bad weather, there was good attendance.”
Milam County Historical Commission
Milam County, Texas
95 Years Ago Friday — Milam’s Worst Disaster
Mike Brown - Rockdale Reporter