Big Emory – our river used for swimming, providing water for a multitude of steam engines, used as the source of ground water for the drilled wells for the homes and businesses. Emory was truly our lifeline. Ordinarily, she calmly flowed down past everything, often hitting shoals that made cascading ripples as she danced merrily along her way, but she was shallow enough to wade in and enjoy the coolness on our feet and legs.
Emory also had “turning holes” that swiftly spun into a vortex of danger for anyone or any thing that fell into its swift rotating energy. Nevertheless, the Emory was a little river that nourished a whole community, flowing into the Clinch River, then into the Great Tennessee River.
In the later part of March 1929, the rains started, continuing for days on end. The hills and mountain streams poured forth to swell the Emory River far beyond its normal boundary. It was March 23, and nothing in the path of rising Emory River was safe.
Railroad tracks were gone. The big steam engines lay on their sides at the bottom of the river. All railroad business ceased. The 1905 bridge across the river crumbled into huge metal and concrete masses. All the homes built near the Little Tunnel and extending up to the bridge on the west side of the tracks were washed away.
Along the main street in the middle of Oakdale, part of the extended building on the Drug Store washed away. The newly built theater and meeting hall upstairs held its ground, along with Bullard’s Store and the brick Dr. Carr building. Any homes on the side of the street next to the river were lost. The homes on the right of the road were saved.
Right on the corner—as the main road from town started to curve at the intersection up the hill towards the Kries, Snyder, Moore, and Carr homes—my Grandmother Oakley and Aunt Bertha lost their home. A few feet to the next curve going to the bottoms, stood a two-story store on the left, and it survived.
The homes on the right side were spared, including my Uncle Sam and Laura Oakley. However, the homes on the left side of the road next to the river were not spared. My family, Ed and Eula Oakley, sons, Edgar, Junior (Speed Hound), and me – Barbara Nell – had just moved into the row of houses located after the second curve to the bottoms, on the river side.
My dad had been out west as an oil well driller. Junior was born in New Mexico, and I was born in Texas. Our Uncle Sam came to Oakdale around 1925, to work in the new bank built over by the railroad station. He married Laura Holliday. First he brought his mother and sister from Kentucky and built the little house on the corner behind his home.
In the fall of 1928, Uncle Sam sent for my family to come to Oakdale, as the Southern Railway needed workers. We had moved into one of the houses next to the river and lost everything we had except the car. Ed lost a gallon jar of marbles that he had won playing boys all across the country.
My mother took Junior, who was 5, and me, who was 2, up into Mrs. Snyder’s yard. I truly can remember seeing my grandmother’s home wash away. I am sure my grandmother and aunt were there with us, but I have only a few mental snapshots to call upon. One is of Mrs. Snyder’s rolling her apron up and down around her arms. Another is of my mother holding me in her arms and crying with Junior hanging close.
My friend Jo Moore was also 2 years old at the time. Their home was up the street near town somewhere behind Dr. Carr’s building. Jo remembers her dad Bill holding her on his shoulders as they watched a house float down the river with a rooster on the rooftop.
I have no idea where we went, or how we survived after the flood – possibly with Uncle Sam, but for some reason, I think the Methodist Church was a refuge.
By the summer of ’29, the Emory River was back where it was supposed to be, except for a slight shift up behind Bullard’s Store. The Red Cross rebuilt my grandmother’s home – right back on the same corner and in the same style. My family moved two houses up the street across from Mr. and Mrs. Frank Arp, Margaret, Chicken, and Doris Ann.
Barbara Oakley Hayes
Oakdale High School, Class of 1945
The Oakdale Express, Vol 1, No. 4, Spring 2008