When the railroads pushed into the American West in the 1800s, new towns and cities sprang up along the rail routes, drawing their lifeblood from the iron rail arteries of national commerce. The steam boilers of the great engines needed water in prodigious amounts, and some settlements really only existed to fill the boiler tanks of the passing locomotives.
Such a place on the far side of the Mississippi River was called, appropriately enough, Water Tank, or just Tank for short, being located along a smallish river, a mere stream really, that was impounded in a pond to serve the needs of the freight engines passing by several times a day. Tank was located near dead center in a long narrow valley that ran east-west with a gentle curve to the south.
A sturdy Irishman was employed to maintain the water tank and the windmills and pumps that lifted water up thirty feet into the water tank. The locomotives would stop at the tank and inch up under the boom, which the Irishman would swing out over the engine and open a valve that dispensed water into the holding tank. The whole operation would usually take thirty minutes.
The water tank operator had much time to kill, being the only white man in the valley at that time, and he grew crops in a small patch for his own consumption. Eventually his wife and children, twin girls, arrived to take up residence. A young orphan boy from Philadelphia was engaged to come out and assist. He eventually married one of the twins. These were the first homesteaders in the valley, and the first to grow beans, which seemed to thrive where other, thirstier plants would fail.
Not long after the Civil War and the Great Emancipation, a clan of Black farmers, having fled the stifling confines of the South, homesteaded on the far southern side of the valley. On the advice of the Irishman, they planted beans in clean straight rows. Soon enough, more homesteaders arrived from the crowded cities of the eastern seaboard
With the arrival of passenger service to the western provinces, small stores, suppliers, a post office, bank, and a hotel eventually appeared in Water Tank. The town was situated in a region of rolling forested hills, prime hunting grounds for the ever-increasing numbers of city-bred sportsmen who came to test their skills in the great outdoors. Several streets of houses paralleling Main Street and the railway spread out to the hills, and a permanent citizenry was established.
Water Tank was located at the point where rainfall patterns sufficient to support agriculture gave way to the arid dry regions of the West, but just enough moisture fell on the hill country around Water Tank to allow for beans and some corn to be profitably grown. The town proper was book-ended by fields of beans that straddled the railway corridor, but the narrow valley naturally limited the available area for farming. And a simple irrigation system gradually was built up by the farming community, which increased yields considerably in those late years of the 1800’s.
In the 1920’s, wealthy eastern investors purchased beautiful properties along the West Fork of South Creek, a perennial stream that flowed out of the hill country south of Water Tank. A small exclusive village of vacationers and summer residents was established along the West Fork by1928, mostly Bostonians of some distinction, not that social hierarchy meant much to the valley residents, who regarded the summer people as ‘SP’s’, or ‘Society People’.
Though the subject of much popular derision, the summer ‘aristocrats’ were appreciated for the money they brought into the community in the form of business, especially the construction and upkeep of their ‘cottages’, properties worth far more than the mostly humble homesteads of the working people in the valley proper.
Thus, Water Tank had just enough arable land, just enough cash flow, and just enough water to be a self-sufficient if small community, and from the founding just after the Civil War until the late 1920’s, Water Tank grew out to the limits of its farming potential. The steady stream of money that rolled into town via the railroad afforded a source of convenient steady capital for small ventures, and a prosperous Main Street arose. In 1920, the town boasted a population of several hundred hardy people. The early history of Water Tank was a microcosm of the history of the American West in the years of the late 19th and early 20th century.
The Great Depression wrecked the whole scheme. Freight commerce declined by half overnight, or so it seemed. Farm production suffered as well, with the few farmers in town unable to grow and sell at price points that didn’t lose money. The ‘leisure class’ in eastern cities tightened their belts and stopped coming out to hunt, which killed the hotel’s business. In a year or two, Water Tank devolved to a precarious state of economy, and many residents fled towards greater prospects on the sea coasts east and west.
By 1938, Water Tank was a sorry vestige of it’s previous self. Many abandoned houses of no marketable worth dotted the small community. The remaining citizens were, by a process of natural selection that the Great Depression wreaked on small towns all over the nation, a peculiar collection of rugged individualists, eccentrics, derelicts, oddballs, and just enough more-or-less normal people who hunkered down to let the winds of the Depression blow over them.
When the citizens of Tank awoke one morning to learn of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the people in Water Tank stood bolt upright and declared themselves ‘for war’. About thirty young men immediately enlisted, an equal number of young women volunteered for the American Red Cross or war nursing positions, and everyone in town looked impatiently for their chance to be a part of it all. And, as the war years 1941-45 slogged by, some town residents moved west, east, north, and south to find work in the war industries, where a person could earn more in day than they’d earned in a month during the depression years, if they’d earned anything at all. Government policies put in place during the war years encouraged farmers to stay on the farm, mostly by price supports and guaranteed markets.
Railroad traffic increased dramatically, as the nation moved resources to supply the workers in armaments industries all over the nation. And for Water Tank, the demand for lumber proved a boon, since the densely forested hill country around the small valley proved a valuable resource for government-funded wartime construction. A new group of residents arrived to cut, mill, and ship timber, so that the population grew again. Pearl Harbor brought Water Tank back to life after the sad years of poverty and decline, 1932-41.
Of the thirty or so young men who left Tank to serve in uniform, nine did not come back. Those who did come back, having left town as dewy-eyed kids, arrived home hard-nosed and somewhat jaundiced veterans of the global conflict. A few were mere shells of their former selves, combat veterans who’d somehow scraped through the fire zones of Italy, the Ardennes forest, and the jungle slaughter of the South Pacific.
Soldiers who’d served under continuous combat for several months or longer without break were often debilitated beyond easy recovery. These ruined souls would spend many years of their lives in a post-war stasis, never really able to get the war out of their heads.
Lyle ‘Sully’ Sullivan was one such casualty of war fatigue, but he had just enough initiative to set up a barroom one block north of Main Street. He, and later his wife Belle, herself a war widow, served up cold beer and stronger spirits to a regular clientele of veterans who found comfort, sympathy, and sandwiches at Sully’s bar. Lyle Sullivan always had baseball on the radio, always had a ready ear for any veteran who needed a place to unload his feelings, and in the early years, he let some vets sleep off the booze in the bar, curled up on the floor.
But other war veterans arrived home, shrugged off the darkness of the Second World War, and strode forward into the future with a determined, almost reckless abandon. One such was Leonard ‘Nard’ Buckney (the nickname was a relic of high school). He’d joined the Navy, eventually assigned to a SeaBees unit, and had spent two years driving a Caterpillar bulldozer, building airstrips in the South Pacific. Nard and his buddies often landed right behind the Marine units who’d stormed ashore, and on many occasions, he piloted his big Cat under direct fire, often firing right back.
It was told that after his first such experience, Nard had augmented his standard-issue Colt M45 sidearm with the legendary Browning Automatic Rifle, nearly a machine gun, which allowed him to pour fire on recalcitrant enemy soldiers still fighting hopelessly on as the great American war machine rolled over them. Even before Nard and the SeaBees had finished flattening out a usable airstrip, Marine fighter planes would be landing, fifty feet right over his head.
Nard had earned a Combat Service medal and a reprimand after jumping off the big Cat to chase down and eliminate a sniper who’d had the temerity to shoot into the radiator of Nard’s machine. Nard had left the machine grinding forward as he did this, and the Cat drove right off the airstrip and into a swamp, churning ahead until the engine drowned. The machine was recovered and restored to service in a few hours.
When he arrived back in Water Tank, Nard Buckney rigged up a plow on an old International Harvester FarmAll farm tractor, and went into business grading roads. Eventually, this small venture became NardCo, a major road construction business employing almost a hundred people in three states, many of them veterans. One aspect of NardCo’s success in the years after the war was the uncanny frequency with which it’s competitors in road building suffered disastrous losses of equipment to fire, sabotage, and outright theft. Nard Buckney’s competitors insisted that he was behind it all, but no one ever could prove such assertions.
When Kenneth ‘Pudge’ Wellworth (another high school nickname) got off the train in Tank in late 1945, he brought back with him a keen knowledge of bank lending and logistics, gained by his service in the US Army Quartermaster Corps in Europe. Pudge Wellworth had learned the advantages to be had by using ‘OPM’ (Other People’s Money) to fund his own enterprises. Residents soon would marvel about the fact that, having arrived back in town with all he owned in a duffel bag and one worn English suitcase, Pudge quickly founded three business enterprises.
Pudge’s ‘Tank Diner’, located right next to the train station on Main Street, served meals from six in the morning until nine o’clock at night, and excellent coffee and donuts at all hours. Pudge’s sisters and nieces staffed the place, always dressed to kill in skirts, heels, and makeup. The diner was a hit with railroad crews. Pudge’s ‘Work Wear’ store delivered Army surplus clothing, boots, and other essentials, much of it at suspiciously low prices. Pudge seemed to have an inside track with suppliers who had warehouses of Army surplus on the east coast. Soon after he started Work Wear, many folks in town could be seen adorned in Army green attire, whatever their activities required.
The diner and clothes store were immediate money-makers, albeit at a modest profit margin, but Pudge had the foresight to establish his ‘Victory Bank’, a savings and lending institution. He borrowed to buy the old town bank building (again, ‘Other People’s Money’), at that point a dusty and long-abandoned stone building on Main Street.
Pudge Wellworth knew that returning soldiers would need homes, and that the government was going to create a mortgage lending program whereby veterans could get home loans at nearly zero interest, generous terms that would eventually birth the greatest rates of home ownership ever seen anywhere at any time. As these loans passed through the Victory Bank, they of course generated a steady service rate of return for Pudge.
Essentially, Pudge Wellworth spent the war years in the Army Quartermaster Corps, providing food, clothing, and housing for the Army. When he got back to town, he went into business providing food, clothing, and housing for Water Tank and surrounding communities.
Another native son and veteran of the recently concluded world conflict was Albert ‘Bert’ Flatchey, a ramrod straight Marine Corps veteran of the near disaster at Peleliu. He’d waded ashore under fire to seize that accursed strip of sand and jungle to prevent the Japanese from using the airstrip to harass American warships passing by into the Philippine Sea. The USMC leadership expected the campaign to last four days; two months later, the fighting ended after Flatchey’s unit suffered horrific casualties, including 2000 fellow Marines dead.
Almost immediately, it became clear that the battle for Peleliu was an unnecessary and ill-conceived waste of men, resources, and time. As he recovered from combat fatigue in a naval hospital ship circling in the western pacific, Flatchey came to realize that fact, and it profoundly altered his thinking about war, leadership, and his own life ahead. Elevated to command rank after his recovery, he experienced a dark epiphany of sorts.
When he climbed out of his father’s car in Water Tank, and walked into the modest family house a couple streets south of Main Street, Bert Flatchey believed that, as Teddy Roosevelt had said, human life was ‘red in tooth and claw’. Society was ‘dog-eat-dog’. The best guide to living was ‘Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’.
Another veteran of the European theater who arrived back in town a changed man was Franklin Lambert. He’d always been the smartest kid in town, and serious. Folks said of him that he was never a kid. It was as if he’d been born serious. Pearl Harbor happened while serious young Lambert was midway through his serious studies in biology at the state university. He served as a combat medic in North Africa and then Italy, following the bloody trail of horrors up the spine of the Italian Peninsula. Combat Medic Lambert was awarded medals for his bravery under fire at the Battle of the Rapido River, another ill-conceived military debacle best forgotten now.
Those experiences jolted young Lambert into a reappraisal of his trajectory in life, and, with money from the GI bill, he went to study at a theological seminary in North Carolina. When he got off the train in 1946, Father Lambert walked right down the street to the first vacant storefront and rented it. For two years, he preached out of that space, until generous patrons put up money for a real church, two blocks south of Main. The only other church in town up until then was run by an elderly minister who eventually retired and urged his flock to join up with the new group overseen by Father Lambert. Franklin Lambert was a level-headed and reasonable preacher, spiritual but not fanatical. Town people soon came to him for advice and counsel, spiritual and otherwise.
Fire and brimstone came to Bean Centre one day in 1947 when a tall, gaunt fellow stepped off a Greyhound bus with a cardboard suitcase, wearing a threadbare blue linen suit one size too small for his gangling arms: the Reverend Hastis Slubbidge. ‘The Reverend’ was somewhat cagey about his origins, implying that he might or might not be a veteran, might or might not be a true theologian, might or might not be in direct commune with the Lord.
Almost immediately, Slubbidge began going door to door, handing out pamphlets and exhorting people to face up to their sins, avoid damnation, and make regular tithes to his new congregation. He suggested a percentage of five percent of their income, or ten if the exhortee in question seemed affluent, or gullible, or both. Gradually, some people whose thirst for salvation aligned neatly with Slubbidge’s brand of vigorous proselytizing made the commitment, and ‘The Reverend’ opened a house of worship in a small house at the west end of the valley.
In the beginning, Franklin Lambert welcomed The Reverend as a fellow shepherd of the faith. But soon enough, the fanatic’s style and activities alarmed the him, especially the emphasis on tithes, most of which were being paid by elderly women. Lambert assumed a policy of patient tolerance towards Hastis Slubbidge, but privately warned his close associates that he thought ‘The Reverend’ a crackpot, grifter, and charlatan.
Almost as soon as he’d hung his Marine uniform in the closet and changed into his old, now ill-fitting clothes, Bert Flatchey set to work on home improvement tasks, most of little consequence, but at which he attacked with USMC fervor. Soon, he redirected his energies to Water Tank as a whole. He attended meetings of the small town’s leadership council, who he soon pushed aside, and of which he was soon Chairman. The first thing Bert Flatchey did was attend to changing the town’s name.
During the Second World War, steam engines gave way to the diesel locomotive, powered by petroleum diesel. The railway water tanks became obsolete, and the tank stop in town was demolished by the railroad, replaced by a shiny new modern railway station for freight and commuter traffic.
For a long time, residents of Water Tank considered the name of their community as a joke and an embarrassment. ‘Water Tank’ was a holdover from the frontier days, when the railroad was pushed through the valley and on towards the Intermontane West of Colorado, Nebraska, and beyond. The name was an obsolete vestige of an earlier time, and Bert Flatchey felt the time had come to shuck off the past and charge boldly into the future.
Bert Flatchey lobbied for a new title for the town, and made some stirring suggestions towards that end. ‘Roosevelt’, in honor of the recently deceased president, gained some support. ‘Pacific’ appealed to Flatchey but few others in town. ‘Rolling Hills’ sounded kind of like a suburb of New York, and not very well received because so. Eventually Flatchey yielded to compromise, and accept the moniker most supported by long-established and still influential farm residents: Bean Centre.
During the war years, lumber and beans had been the town’s major resource contributions to the American war effort. Government policies through the Second World War were designed to keep farmers on the farm, and to increase food production wherever possible. So it had evolved quickly that beans grew to become the underlying agricultural basis of Water Tank, and the farm community saw in ‘Bean Centre’ a celebration of local horticulture that Flatchey eventually acquiesced to. In his view, anything was better than ‘Water Tank’.
With his town now re-branded for the prosperous future he felt was sure to come, Flatchey became a fervent promoter of the community. He hectored the town’s residents on civic improvement projects. He traveled to the State House to lobby for economic development, and was eventually elected to the legislature. Resident’s recollections of that era imply that Flatchey was elected, not because of his popularity, of which there is some doubt, but as a way to use his considerable energies and to get him out of town for long periods.
One of the more sensible and successful initiatives that Bean Centre’s people made was gravel mining. With the railroad at hand to haul gravel, and Nard Buckney’s growing contracting ventures a perfect local buyer for the product, and several convenient open spaces available for gravel mining, the concept made sense on several levels. But the scheme really took off because of the new Interstate Highway System, brought into existence during the era of the Eisenhower Administration.
In the 50s, America embarked on a vast program of highway construction, and road construction requires gravel, and railroads deliver gravel in large quantities. Nard Buckney borrowed from Pudge Wellworth’s Victory Bank to build gravel mining operations and support infrastructure. Buckney owned the gravel pits, had the road contracts, employed the labor force, and seemed to intimidate other contracting firms such that they wilted from competition when they learned ol’ Nard was in hot pursuit of the contract. And the railroad moved the gravel from where it was to where it ought to be. Bert Flatchey greased the skids at the state house to ‘facilitate’, as he frequently put it.
One notable scheme Flatchey ‘facilitated’ was a water diversion project to channel streams from canyons in the surrounding hill country into a central delivery channel, which was used primarily for irrigation. The old railroad water storage pond was expanded into a man-made lake, replete with swimming beach, mini-golf course, and stocked for fishing. Eventually a motel popped up, and a tourist industry was born where once had only been wild nature. Pudge Wellworth’s Victory Bank provided the financing, NardCo dug out the lake and paved the roads, and the road was named Flatchey Lake, to honor the ex-Marine who wrested development funds from state coffers by arm-twisting, political deal-making, and outright threats.
By 1960, the three veterans had transformed Water Tank into ‘Lake Flatchey at Bean Centre’, which they vigorously promoted to the public all over the Midwest. One could book rooms at the motel, ride in on the shiny modern train, or drive in on the shiny new State Highway to hunt, fish, sunbathe, and water ski on the Lake, and generally recreate the way Americans of the post-war years wanted to recreate. It was all a great structure of interlocking components that relied on each other to succeed, and for a time, until the mid-sixties, it did succeed.
By 1960, visitors to Main Street could do their shopping at an Osco Drug store, a shiny new air-conditioned Piggly Wiggly, Nelson’s Butcher & Quality Meats, a cigar store, and more. Western Auto sold car parts and had four service bays. Hunters and fishermen could stock up at The Outfitter; local kids would crowd in there after school to pore over the rifles, shotguns, and knives in stock. One street over, a sturdy health center was built. Dr Cohen attended to the daily medical issues of Bean Centre’s families, while across the hall, Dr Milton plied his trade as a dentist. Milton’s wife managed both offices. Both men railed against smoking and alcohol, pretty much to little effect.
There were two women’s clothing stores. Mildred ‘Millie’ Gorn rented tuxedos, wedding gowns, and prom dresses. She made sure every plain girl in Bean Centre went to prom looking like a princess. Betty Clark specialized in higher end couture. Betty kept her hand on the pulse of fashion in such far away places as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. A certain smoldering animosity marked the two women’s relation with each other; Millie thought Betty a snob. Betty thought Millie hopelessly quotidian.
In 1961, a bean farmer digging an irrigation trench with a backhoe turned up bones, really big bones. Father Lambert came to look, then called some friends at the state university with the news. Soon, a team of paleontology professors and students had dug out a half acre site of fossilized mastodon remains. The bean farmer fenced off the site, put up signs, and the Bean Centre Dinosaur Museum came into being.
When Father Lambert pointed out to him that mastodons weren’t dinosaurs, the new museum entrepreneur renamed his museum ‘Bean Centre Fossil Museum’. Then he paid the daughter of a neighbor, a young woman of great artistic talent, to paint several murals of dinosaurs and mastodons cavorting together in a primordial Eden. The well-meaning girl painted some other animals of dubious concept that were wholly the product of her imagination. For a long time after, every time a hole was dug, for septic tanks, house foundations, gravel, or what not, Father Lambert would stop by and look out for more mastodon bones, or whatever the excavations might turn up.
One dark night, a motorcyclist roared out of the hills west of the valley and flew at high speed past the bean fields and into the town itself. The unfortunate motorcyclist failed to negotiate a slight dog leg in the middle of Main Street, a vestige of the earlier days before the automobile. A tipsy, amorous couple who’d just left Sully’s Bar were the only witnesses as the airborne motorcycle and rider smashed into the side of the old feed store and blacksmith shop, long since converted to inexpensive office space. The bike and rider penetrated through two businesses, Mike’s Hoover Vacuum and the Office Supply, Inc. The motorcycle’s gas tank exploded in a fireball and ignited the ancient dry timbers of the old buildings, which in minutes were engulfed in fire.
When the fire was extinguished twelve hours later, an entire block on the south side of Main Street was a charred smoldering ruin. Only heroic efforts by townspeople and the fire department stopped what might have been a total wipeout of the Main Street commercial district. Even before bulldozers from NardCo had cleared away the site two weeks later, Bert Flatchey was promoting plans for a World War II Memorial Park, and generous citizens antied up the money to buy and landscape the site, and erected stone monoliths incised with the names of the town’s nine heroes of the conflict.
A bronze statue of an infantryman was acquired and bolted down to a granite stone, though some in town thought the likeness somewhat crudely sculpted, particularly the face. A year later, an art teacher at the high school sculpted a new head for the statue, and, though the new head’s scale was noticeably larger than the body, prompting much humor, the War Memorial became popular and a center for town celebrations of all types.
At the time, all the auguries of fortune seemed to portend a prosperous and secure future for Bean Centre and it’s citizens, now over eight hundred permanent households, and another hundred or so affluent summer residents, who built vacation homes up in the forested canyons along the water diversion canal. They could swim and fish in the several impoundments that Flatchey had gotten built along the narrow canyon bottom, and up some side canyons as well.
In hindsight, some long term economic and social developments had begun to build up, and the fortunes of Bean Centre started to wither away, though it was not realized at the time.
First, the highway system was pretty much built out, and as contracts to build roads tapered off, so did the demand for gravel. And, with a spacious and efficient highway system in place, freight and resources began to travel from where they were to where they ought to be by truck instead of rail, and the American railroad system began its long steady decline, going from predominance to near insolvency in twenty years time.
Agriculture in American life changed during the same time frame. Whereas up until the 1960’s, family farms predominated in food production, the nation’s farm economies transitioned to ‘agribusiness’: vast consolidations of farmland and capital to support farming. The little farm operations couldn’t sustain themselves against the cost-efficiency of the huge corporate farming interests. Bean Centre eventually lost it’s competitiveness in bean production, and, although some growers transitioned to truck farms, vending fresh homegrown produce to upscale markets, the little guys mostly lost out market share to the great agriculture combines, against which they had no leverage.
Scandal reared up and rattled Bean Centre one day when four state police officers arrived at dawn at the Reverend Hastis Slubbidge’s chapel just as the old preacher was cooking beans and bacon, and arrested him for fraud. He’d relentlessly coerced several elderly people to hand over more and more of their meager savings, even going so far as to accompany them to the Victory Bank, where they withdrew money as he loomed over them, muttering brimstone as the cashier counted out bills.
The bank staff alerted Pudge Wellworth when this became a pattern. The bank owner pored over the records and discovered that Slubbidge had bilked several people out of most of their savings, people who could least afford the loss.
Even more unseemly was the realization in some families that The Reverend had struck up romantic dalliances with some impressionable young girls in his congregation. It was whispered that one of these poor unfortunates had succumbed to carnality and sin with the old philanderer, and had traveled to a city to discreetly solve her predicament.
With the facts in hand, investigators soon unearthed a damning history of the con man’s activities long before he took up the Cross in Bean Centre. He was wanted in two southern states for fraud and grifting. It seemed that he’d left behind a string of bastard foundlings everywhere he’d preached. The Reverend would eventually be tried, convicted, and incarcerated in the Alabama State Penitentiary for crimes he’d committed, and from which he’d fled to Bean Centre to avoid prosecution.
In early 1962, while Americans thrilled to the grand adventures of Colonel John Glenn, who in February orbited the earth three times, steady snow storms were dropping an unusually large snowpack in the high hill country around Bean Centre. Snow fell especially heavy in late March, and in early April, unusually cold weather and a massive storm put record depths of snow on the heights. Then the cold weather passed, and in a day, weather unusually warm for the season set in. When a large rain storm passed over the entire area, bean farmers were elated.
No one was aware that the snow in the hills was melting rapidly from warm weather and rain. Investigators would later conclude that the narrow canyons up high had developed ice dams which impounded the ever growing water load. When one such ice dam at the top of the watershed finally collapsed, a wall of water roared down canyon, sweeping away other ice dams and releasing their water load, like dominoes in a line falling, one right after the other.
When the wall of water reached the impoundments that Bert Flatchey had raised funds from the state for, and that had been built on the cheap by Nard Buckney, following wholly inadequate engineering plans that Nard himself had drawn up, the flimsy earthen dams were swept away in an instant. The wall of ice melt, rainfall, and dam water became a wave ten and twenty feet high, and where it encountered constrictions in the narrow canyon, it tore out vast amounts of sand, gravel, boulders, and trees. It became a battering ram, hammering away at anything in its path.
Two carpenters working on a vacation home in the lower canyon were on a staging banging nails when they heard a roar, and felt a sudden rush of icy wind that nearly blew the staging down. They climbed up on the roof, and clung to the chimney while the water rose over the property, up the side of the house, and eventually tore the building right off its foundation. One of the men slid off the roof, never to be seen again. The other managed to hold on for over a mile, then leapt off the raft of lumber and grabbed hold of a tree. He stayed there for over a day, until an airplane pilot surveying the damage saw him waving his shirt, and rescuers found him.
Lower down, the sawmill was hit and demolished in a moment, killing two mechanics in the saw building. Several other mill workers survived by clawing up the steep canyon walls. They walked out of the forest into the valley two days later. A recently married couple were fishing and picnicking in the lowest dam impoundment when the water hit. In front of the wall of water and driven forward by it was a rolling battering ram of trees. The newlyweds survived but lost their car and picnic, and later described the experience to reporters.
When the flood and avalanche of rock roared out of the canyon, it made a roaring noise that caused the residents of Bean Centre to come out of their homes and businesses in town, looking quizzically around to identify the cacophony. Looking north, they saw a cloud of water vapor spread out into the valley. Farmers at work in the fields had to run for their lives as the water spread out and flooded the orderly rows of beans. Many people along the north side had to flee to high ground and became stranded on small islands. Some held on to trees as the water rose above their waists.
The flood carried a heavy load of sand and drove submerged rocks and even large boulders along, demolishing anything man made that happened to be in the path. In a matter of twenty minutes, a dirty deluge of sandy water and smashed trees formed that washed over the outer edges of the town proper. Over twenty homes were flooded, some collapsing before the owners knew what had hit them. Six more people died, some drowning right in their living rooms and kitchens.
The angry water rushed into Lake Flatchey and quickly overpowered the weak levees that had been built to create the artificial lake in the first place. Only the railway bed, built in the 1800’s and shored up haphazardly in years past, held its own against the biblical torrent of water, though the iron rails were dislodged in several places along a half mile stretch. The newly built interstate roadway held as well, but was submerged in places and silted over for about a quarter mile.
A young woman news photographer leaning out of a small plane with her bulky but reliable Speed Graphic camera, the preferred camera of news photographers of the era, documented the destruction. From high above, an alluvial fan of sand, gravel, rocks, and trees, three miles long and half a mile wide, had washed into the valley and outer edges of the town of Bean Centre. Houses and farm buildings that weren’t completely smashed stood forlornly in the water, several feet deep in low spots. People were on the roofs; they waved pleadingly at the photographer, who was moved by their plight, and she waved back, hoping to lift their spirits, and reassure the stunned folks that someone saw their predicament, and help would soon arrive.
Cows, horses, farm animals of all kinds had sought out high ground. Some stood dumbly in water up to their knees. The photographer took one shot of a horse in a field patiently standing in muddy water; a dozen chickens stood on the horse’s back. Another flock of chickens had found refuge on the metal structure of a wind mill. A single dog stood on the roof of a Buick sedan. The car was brand new. The owners had made only one payment on the vehicle. They’d saved for three years to get the down payment together. Two men in a canoe rescued the dog after a day.
News of the disaster at Bean Centre was buried deep in any newspapers that ran the story; the journey of John Glenn into space filled the pages of all newspapers in America. Even papers in the state capital made only small space on pages three or four to report on the event. The young woman photographer’s pictures of the disaster made the papers only a few days later. The misfortunes of a tiny town in a remote far Midwestern valley on the edge of the Great Plains interested city newspaper editors in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia not at all. It was all ‘John Glenn in Outer Space!’
Efforts were made to plow away the gravel that had buried streets and house lots, but the outer edges of northern Bean Centre were eventually abandoned. Those homeowners who’d been adequately insured recovered enough equity to build anew, but a lot of folks were ruined, and chose to abandon their now uninhabitable houses. A lot of farmland on the north side went out of production, buried under silt and gravel. For years afterwards, large tree trunks lay semi-buried in the fields, looking like corpses. It took several months before the railroad company repaired the tracks, and in fact, rail service was never restored to the level or frequency preceding the flood.
An investigation into the disaster at Bean Centre was mounted at the insistence of residents and insurance companies, and the mud on the ground crawled up into the reputations of some leading town citizens, figuratively speaking. The entire water impoundment scheme was called into question. Nard Buckney’s off-the-cuff hydrology and dam engineering was eventually found to be blameworthy, and some residents sued for redress from the owner of NardCo. After several years, some with the strongest claims would get some relief from the courts, but only after the lawsuits had crawled through the legal system at an agonizing snail’s pace.
Bert Flatchey had ‘facilitated’ the water projects, but an audit of the public funding he’d arranged for Bean Centre’s benefit revealed serious irregularities. Bert had prospered through a scheme of kickbacks and payoffs. Eventually, the pushy ex-Marine was forced from office, and moved to Florida, where he railed against his enemies, and those friends from Bean Centre who traveled down in the winters to visit found him embittered and disillusioned.
Most of the homeowners of Bean Centre had mortgages through Pudge Wellworth’s bank, now know as the Wellworth Savings and Loan. Pudge was too decent a man to foreclose on his ruined neighbors. His own creditors sued him, and he was forced to pay out of his own equity to cover the losses. Pudge’s net worth evaporated, but the clever financier muddled through the debacle and emerged solvent. His business ventures, the ever-popular Tank Diner, and the former work clothing store, which had grown into a true department store offering a broad selection of essentials, provided the trickle of revenue he needed to start anew.
Father Lambert replaced Bert Flatchey at the state house, though only reluctantly, but would prove in time an effective promoter of Bean Centre’s interests. The serious young man, a native son of the town, would in time rise high in state politics, a story better told in some future missive.
Lyle ‘Sully’ Sullivan, recovered from his war depression, spruced up his bar and added a kitchen. His daughter came home from Dallas, Texas, divorced and with two small children in tow. The woman had an angry attitude, particularly towards men, but she could really cook. She took over the kitchen, improved the food, and pushed some of the long-time losers out of Sully’s bar. She invented her own bean dip to serve to the bar’s regular patrons.
But ‘Sullivan’s Original Frontier Bean Dip’ is a story of another era, and must await telling in another history, though faithful readers who have followed the story of Bean Centre’s history thus far can be confident that a sequel and further explication of the town’s history is under way, and will be presented in due time, the vagaries of fate and fortune notwithstanding.