Surviving the Big Flood of 1921 - a Narrative
of Billie Ruth Russell
edited by Dr. Winnann Ewing
On September 8 and 9th, 1921, rains began to fall in Central Texas.
They continued through the 10th without stopping. It was the result of a hurricane that blew in from the Gulf. Tiny Thrall to the east of town recorded 38.21 inches in 24 hours; the most ever in the US at the time and still retains that record. The flood that resulted was the deadliest ever in the state of Texas and in Williamson County, the focal point of it all. Of the known 215 victims that died in Texas, 93 occurred in Williamson County alone. But this story is not about all that loss. It is about an unexpected survival tale as told by Billie Ruth Russell who lived through The Big Flood of 1921. This is the story she remembers:
When I was about 3 years old we were living on a farm just east of town. My Daddy had leased it from George and Helen Glascock. They were so sweet to Mother and Dad. They were really nice people. And we loved it there.
The farm was located east of Georgetown just off 971, the road that goes to Weir and Granger.
Our house was on fertile ground surrounded by 3 creeks. Berry’s creek ran to the south and east of it. The San Gabriel River ran on to the south. The little Pecan Creek branch ran on the west side. There were also two large pecan trees that grew next to the house. So when the flood came we were trapped, cut off everywhere.
As the rains came we started to leave. My Dad got the surrey out and hitched his favorite horse, but when we got to the branch, we couldn’t get across. So we had to come back and figure out what we were going to do next. And my Dad said “Well the only thing we can do is to get up in that tree”. So up the tree we went. The house was filling up with water and there was water all around us. The house finally floated off its blocks. The original house faced north before the water turned it. When the house settled it faced east.
My Dad had opened the barn up and all of our cattle and stock had swam off.
However he had tied his favorite horse to the well to save it. Because it was his favorite, he didn’t want it to swim away. It was one of those old fashioned wells that had a bucket at the top that went down. So the water kept climbing up and climbing up. Dad saw it was going to cover his favorite horse. He wanted to swim over there to cut his horse loose. My mother was afraid for him to do that because she saw whirlpools in the water and the water was moving very fast. Finally the water got so high that the house just mashed him – mashed that poor horse to death. And my Dad had to sit there and watch his favorite horse die.
By then the water got so close we had to move higher in the tree. There was quite a few of us, my 2 sisters and me and my little sister. That’s four of us. And there’s 2 of my Dad’s field hands and my mother and dad. The field hands had been in the next tree but when the water got high, that little tree wasn’t safe. So they crawled over. Luckily the branches overlapped and they could get into the big tree. So we stayed in that tree all day long.
Since I was little, I didn’t know a thing. I had 2 little puppies and I wanted those puppies with me. I worried about those puppies since they were in the house. Mama said I cried and cried for my puppies. Later when we finally got down and into the house, the puppies were running around! She said the puppies must have survived on my mattress that was floating. So the puppies floated on my mattress and they were all safe. But she said I kept crying for those puppies.
The water must have been 15 to 18 feet deep right in there, there was at least 9 feet in the house and the house was on blocks about 4 or 5 feet. So the depth of the water flowing through the house must have been around 15 feet from ground level and it was moving very swiftly. I remember the water got up so high that some of us had to go higher in that tree to avoid it.
Of course I was just a baby and my sister was younger than I.
My mother held her, she was about a year old. I was just 3 years old and my Daddy held me. We stayed up in that tree all day and all night. And the next morning the water began to go down. It was quite an ordeal. We finally got down about 3 o’clock the next afternoon.
Leon Perez lived about half a mile to the west of our house during the flood. He told me some of the story about how he tried to save my family. There was not only Leon trying to rescue us. There was a bunch of people – our grandmother’s brothers and all. No one knew what our fate was or anything like that. It was so interesting to hear Leon talk about how many people. I’d say 10 or 12 or 14 people were organized.
They tried several ways but the water was so widespread, they couldn’t get there.
He said that they tried to go down the railroad because the tracks were a little bit higher than the water right there. They got parallel to the house but the water was too deep. So they couldn’t get across to rescue my family. No one had a boat. He said there was probably 2 miles of water between there and where the house was. So they went back and tried again. This time they went way through town and doubled back and finally got to the north side of the creek. But the house was in the confluence of those 3 streams. And they just had no way of getting close.
My mother said she saw some people over by the railroad tracks toward Weir. Her niece lived in Weir and turned out that she and her family were on the tracks trying to see if they could gain any information. But the family was in that tree and no one saw them. Mama put a rag on a branch and she tried to raise it so they would see it. I don’t know if her niece ever saw it but Mama was trying to wave to them to say we were safe.
So we stayed all night in that tree.
The next morning the water began to come down. I think they told me – of course I was just a baby. And so we finally got down out of that tree about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
When the water finally got down we saw what the water had done. There was mud in our house and on everything in our house. The water did finally get out of our house so we could get back in. All was lost except my 2 little puppies who were dancing around. Mama said again that they must have survived on my mattress that floated. No one could believe it. Some of my mother’s folks came in as soon as they could get across the branch. They thought we were all gone. They didn’t think they would find us safe and they didn’t believe it. So it was quite an experience for us and we were lucky to get out.
Leon Perez was one of the first people to get to the house when the water came down. As soon as the water got low enough, they waded through to get over there. So they were still trying to rescue us. And of course we were ok when they got there! Funny but life has a way of going on just like those little puppies who danced.
Oral History of Billie Ruth Russell - as told to Winnann Ewing in March 2014