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During the recent Kaskaskia River flooding, Pauline Weaver Tackett was reminded of her childhood days, when families lived in the river bottom south of Vandalia.
There were several houses in the area, which now is devoted to farmland, as much of it was then.
The river bottom ground has always been known to be rich and yielding … if the river stays within its banks.
However, when the levee breaks, it often means the destruction of the farmers’ crops, just as often happens now.
There were also roads back to the river, as many fished in it back then to supplement their food supplies. Family reunions and get-togethers were also held on the Okaw banks.
Some of the roads also led to the houses. These roads, including the highway, U.S. Route 51, would also be under the floodwaters.
Some of the rent houses were equipped with a rowboat, which stayed with the house when the renters moved out, as kind of an unwritten law.
Pauline Tackett’s family lived in one of the houses on the west side of Route 51. She and her late sisters, Ruby Weaver Martin and Mary Ann Weaver, actually counted the floodwaters as part of their playground as the water swirled around their home.
She shared some of those memories, which today seem frightening, but was then just a way of life for many. Pauline’s parents were the late George and Julia Weaver, and her siblings are Dora, Ray and the late Ruby and Mary Ann.
Living (and Playing) in the Kaskaskia River Bottom
“We lived a two-story house,” Pauline said, “and when the river flooded, we would move upstairs.
“I remember one time when the water got so deep in the kitchen that you couldn’t wade in it with hip boots on. Dad (George Weaver) would take a downstairs window out and nail a plank from the window sill running over to the stair steps, and tie the boat outside the window,” she said.
“We would come downstairs and walk that plank over to the window to get to and from the boat. We had a woodstove in the kitchen, and Dad turned the table on the stove and piled stuff up on it as much as he could.
“Us kids used to play out there in that rowboat, Ruby and I. It’s a wonder we didn’t drown,” she said, laughing at the memory. “We didn’t know how to swim.
“We had a great big maple tree, and Ruby and I would row out to it. We would stand on each end of the boat and would hold on to the limbs of that tree and rock that boat until it was full of water and ready to sink, and then we would dip it out and do it all over again.
“One time it sank on us, and there we were, hanging on that tree limb, and that water was deep,” she said.
“Mary (younger sister) was mad because we wouldn’t take her out there with us, because she was a little squirt and we were afraid she would fall out of the boat,” Pauline said.
“Mary saw us hanging on the tree limb, but she just started playing and didn’t say anything. When Dad missed us, he asked Mary, ‘Where are Pauline and Ruby?’ and she said, ‘Oh, hanging out on the tree.’”
Fortunately, they had two boats, and George went out and rescued them, then got the other boat out.
Rowing to Woodyard School
Shobonier’s Woodyard School was located several miles down south on Route 51 (just down from the Weaver sawmill and stone house). Pauline and Ruby would row the boat back and forth to the school.
“Ruby and I would take the boat and go down, and there was a railroad track and the levee over in back of the school.
“We would tie the boat over on the other side of the levee or track and walk across the railroad track and levee over to the school, then when school was over, we would row that boat back home.
“Ruby and I were both good at rowing that boat,” she said, chuckling. “We were the only ones who rowed to school. The other kids, the Chathams and the Oldhams, lived the other way (away from the river),” she said.
Woodyard School Field Trip
The family provided the subject for a Woodyard School field trip one time, Pauline explained.
“This was the year the flood waters were so deep in the kitchen,” she said. “Uncle Walter (Weaver) lived south on (Route) 51 in Woodyard (at the sawmill and the stone house), and he would come to help Dad build a platform to put the hogs on, up out of the water.
“But this time, the waters had broke through the levee up north by Ramsey. Uncle Walter said, ‘Forget about that – get your stuff over on the levee, because it’s going to come down, and you won’t have time to get that platform built (for the hogs).
“Mom opened the door, and the water just poured in. Ruby and I were already at Uncle Walter’s, going to school. He told us that Dad was going to bring Mom, Mary, Dora and Ray out.
“Uncle Walter told us about what time they would be coming out. We told them at school, and the teacher let all the kids walk down to the sawmill and watch them come in on the boats,” she said.
“Uncle Clarence (Weaver) was rowing one of the boats with Dora in it and he rowed right down the middle of highway 51. Dad wasn’t happy about that, because the water was running swift across the road. The hogs were safe, because Dad had got them on top of the levee,” she said.
Another Riverbottom Adventure
The flood waters would recede, the mud dry up and once again, Pauline, Ruby, and Mary could play in a safer environment … usually.
Pauline told the story of a day when the girls were playing house on the levee. “There were a lot of leaves, and we had made an outline of our ‘house’ with doors and windows and rooms,” she said.
“As we were playing, a man walked up to us and asked, ‘Where is your door? I don’t want to just walk through your house.’ We showed him the door and he walked ‘through it’ and went on. He was pleasant to us.
“A while later, some men came by and asked Dad to help them look for an escaped prisoner from the correctional center. I think they were from the prison, and they figured dad would know the area,” Pauline said.
“They found him hiding up in a tree. It was the same man, but he was pleasant to us kids.”
Pauline’s later family moved from the river bottom to Hagarstown, where her Dad started a gravel pit. Pauline had grown up and moved away when they eventually moved to a home on Ill. Route 185, where they raised and sold top-of-the-line strawberries.
Pauline married, went to Michigan, remarried and moved out west. She had two children. Her daughter, Pat, still lives in Colorado, and her son, Tommy, is deceased.
While out west, she enjoyed and excelled at different occupations. When her husband died, she moved back to Vandalia to help with her brother and sister.
Looking back on those Kaskaskia River floods of her youth, she said, “I never really thought about all this when I was growing up.”
And she did finally learn to swim, “a little bit.”