What would you grab first if you became aware of a disaster that threatened to take your home? I've participated in conversations on that topic now and again, and almost always the answer is that the most important thing you'd want to salvage would be family memorabilia.
When the Teton Dam on the Teton River in Idaho burst on June 5, 1976, sending a wall of water 305 feet high at its crest and as wide as 10 football fields thundering downriver, Reba Bauer faced that awful decision. When she was alerted to the disaster and warned to flee immediately from her home in Wilford, Idaho, her first thoughts were for her family history, thousands of bits of information about ancestors stored in many books and loose papers all over her house.
Her story is told in "Links of Forever," a collection of "Inspirational Stories of Lineage and Love" published in 1977 by Bookcraft. The stories, recounting many instances in which genealogy has been miraculously found or preserved, were compiled by Connie Rector and Diane Deputy.
When Bauer received her first frantic warning, no water was in sight. She grabbed her granddaughter Cassie and headed for a car that was less than reliable. Then she remembered her lower denture was still in the kitchen. She had Cassie run back for it. The car sputtered but kept idling until the little girl returned. Bauer started out again. Then the enormity of the potential loss of her family records struck her, and she again went back to the house to see what she could retrieve quickly.
As the flood relentlessly raced down the valley, she grabbed several volumes of records and hurried back to the car, which was threatening to die at any moment. Two precious books family members had been going through on a recent visit were left behind, books containing the many family connections she had found as genealogist for the James Farrimond Family Organization. In many instances, she had the only copies of the records, but there wasn't time to go back again.
Hoping to find her husband on a section of dry-farm acreage, she pressed the old car to do the best it could. It died just as she arrived at the dry farm, where she found that her husband, alerted to the pending flood, had left to rescue her at their home. Somehow, they had passed each other without knowing it. Unable to find her husband, she and Cassie "walked and rested and walked and rested" for three to four hours.
As she walked, she thought of the family records that at that moment were likely being drowned in an unprecedented flood. In that brief time, a half-dozen small farming communities literally disappeared while significant portions of others, including Rexburg, home to then-Ricks College, suffered serious damage. Over five hours, the contents of the dam, some 251,000 acre-feet of water, poured over the Snake River Plain with no regard for the residents or their properties, including genealogy. Eleven people died, according to a report prepared by the Idaho Office of Emergency Management.
On the day after the flood, the Bauers were moved into the home of a cousin in St. Anthony, Idaho. The cousin was working in Utah and the home was vacant. "We were thankful to be alone in a house and together as a family," Bauer later wrote.
A few days later, a dear friend, Vera Young, called to say that a relative in Salem, Idaho, had found amid the flood debris on his property a genealogical record book that belonged to a Bauer. It proved to be one of several Books of Remembrance that Bauer had created for her children. It belonged to her oldest son. It was muddy and warped, but no pages were missing. "It seemed good to have something — anything — that had belonged to us before the flood," Bauer wrote.
Another of the Bauers' record books was found by a former neighbor by the Sugar City, Idaho, overpass. This particular book belonged to their daughter Debbie. Though the outside of the book was beyond repair, they were able to salvage vital information to put into a new book.
For a long time after the flood had been relegated to history, the Bauer family continued to look for the genealogy, as well as any other vestiges of their home.
"I still had hopes that someone would call and say the table and my genealogy books were found somewhere high in a tree, on top of someone's roof, on top of someone's barn, on top of some bridge, on top of the American Falls Dam," Bauer wrote. It didn't happen, but she was able to reconstruct much of her family history from the books she had grabbed when she left home and the two that were found by others.
She even found blessings in the disaster: "As tragic and disastrous as the Teton Dam break was, I am grateful to my Father in Heaven that I was one of the thousands involved. The blessings that have come to me spiritually have compensated many times over for our losses. While on the dry farm that day, I realized of what little value our worldly possessions really are. How quickly they can all be taken from us. How important it is that we strive for things of eternal value."
Lesson learned: If possible, keep your family history records where they can be quickly retrieved if necessary.