It was May 1927. Floods were
claiming land in the Midwest and churning waters were threatening the levees all
along the Mississippi River. Rain kept falling.
Hundreds of workers battled to maintain the Bayou des Glaises levee from Bordelonville to Moreauville in Avoyelles Parish, just north of St. Landry Parish. They called for reinforcements as they were pelted in another day of downpours. The Southern Pacific Railroad rushed in 1,000 men from Abbeville, Geuydan and other towns in Vermilion Parish. Opelousas sent workers in boats. J. G. Lawler, head of the Opelousas Chamber of Commerce Flood Information Bureau, was making arrangements to ship 150 workers to the effort.
In Palmetto, a prosperous manufacturing and farming community, water was rising at a rate of six inches per day.
An Opelousas Clarion-Progress newspaper report stated that: "Workers by the hundreds were battling desperately with scant hope to bold the revetments against the steadily rising and rain-bashed waters when the late reports reached Opelousas."
Then, on May 13, 1927, the Bayou des Glaises levee broke.
The Opelousas Clarion-Progress reported: "Rain dooms six miles of levee. Bayou des Glaises bank, rain and river hammered, is now claimed to be lost."
Flood waters raged into Palmetto, Melville, Port Barre, Krotz Springs, Washington, Morrow, Rosa and all low areas between Simmesport and Henderson. On May 14, the levee broke on Bayou Courtableau between Port Barre and Washington and a new crevasse developed in the Bayou Rouge levee in Avoyelles Parish. Two days later, workers were moved from the Atchafalaya River levee in St. Landry and St. Martin parishes to higher ground when their work was considered futile. The next day, the Atchafalaya River levee broke at Melville.
Water claimed Palmetto. People escaped in boats to relatives or friends with homes on high land. Some people found refuge with the Slimans family, who had a two-story home, or with the Ben Anderson family, who had a one-and-a-half-story home. The top floors were above the water line.
"You hear about the flood, but until you see the pictures, you don't realize the impact that it had on the people," said Palmetto historian Cheryl Bihm Myers, who also is the principal of Palmetto Elementary School. Myers is the author of two books; a history of Palmetto and a history of Port Barre.
"The stories that some of the people told," Myers said, "about how some of them had to live in the attic for several weeks before the flood waters went down enough for them to begin cleaning up, are amazing. The mud was just atrocious. A lot of houses were just abandoned because there was too much to clean up. Then, after the flood was the (Great) Depression. A lot of businesses were damaged in the flood, then the Depression hit, so they just never opened again. This was the only road to get to Baton Rouge, there was no U.S. 190. You had to come through Palmetto and take the ferry over to Melville to get to Baton Rouge. So this town was booming before the flood. The state re-routed the road in the 1930s, so the town never recovered."
According to Myers, the official records for the Village of Palmetto begin on Jan. 26, 1925. At the time of the big flood, Railroad Avenue in Palmetto was a thriving, diverse row of commercial and community enterprise.
The Palmetto Mercantile Store, which housed the offices of the American Red Cross on the second floor during flood recovery efforts, was on Railroad, next to R.W. Clark's General Store. Just up the street, where it stills stands today, was the black Baptist Church, established 1899. Dr. Hawkins had his office and drugstore on Railroad, next to the PMG Moss Gin. Off Main Street were Charlie Joseph's store and rooming houses and Solomon Joseph's fruit stand. Back near Taylor Street was Max Budden's grocery store and the R.W. Clark residence. Across the street was the T&P Depot, some rent houses and the PMG Cotton Gin, V. A. Beard's grocery store, and Jambo Baldridge's butcher shop and meat market.
Also near Benhard Street was the first Sliman building, which housed the Star Drug Company, Genin Pool Room and Barber Shop, Bell Bargain Store, E.P. Carmouche and Company business, and the offices of Tony Sliman, brother to building owner Alexander Sliman.
The Sliman family had a new building on Main Street and a two-story boarding house in the middle of the same block. Next to the boarding house was the store and residence of Joe Antoon.
"Lilly Antoon's father, Charlie Joseph, had a store in town that was a two-story building," said Myers, "with the store at the bottom and a boarding house on top. They lived on top. The water was even with the railing on the second floor, so they would crawl over the railing to get in a boat so they could go from one place to the other."
As the waters continued to rise around Palmetto, some citizens gathered in a box car stationed at the Brewer Lumber Mills. When flood waters cut the line between Palmetto and Alexandria, nearly 100 people who sought refuge in the high and dry box car were stranded.
On May 20, the Clarion-Progress reported that the water was rising at a rate of two feet an hour as people waited for rescue in the box car that they had flocked to the previous Wednesday morning. A telegram was sent from Palmetto to flood control in Opelousas which read, "The water has risen four feet since one o'clock. For God's sake, do something."
The hapless hundred were rescued by government boats dispatched from Opelousas. Others were plucked from trees by rescuers.
As Palmetto citizens began to adjust to their conditions, the town's teen-agers made sport of the bad times. According to Myers, teens began to take boats to Melville to explore the flooded town. They donned swimming suits and played in dangerous and dirty waters, ignoring warnings of typhoid fever from health officials.
During the rebuilding stages, Act No. 5 E. S. of 1927 passed by the state Legislature allowed postponement of taxes for property owners in flooded areas, which saved homes and farms in Palmetto. The town citizens joined others in petitioning the T&P Railroad Company to build a bridge at Melville, which was ultimately rejected. However, the bridge at Krotz Springs was upgraded in 1928 to include vehicular traffic.
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