by Yvonne (Riskey) Green
In the spring of 1950, the Red River Valley of the North vented its fury on the people who lived on its banks. It was the worst flood in history, since 1887.
My parents, Richard and Stephie Riskey, had a farm on the North Dakota side of the Red River. Our farm buildings were just a stone’s throw from the river. Normally, it was a peaceful and enjoyable neighbor. My dad had several horses, pigs, chickens, sheep, milk cows, and pets as well.
I was ten and my sister Darline was thirteen at the time. We attended a small country school two miles away from our farm. There was no school transportation back then, so all children had to get to school on their own. Dad took us by car when the roads permitted. However, many times especially in the spring, the road was muddy. Then he took us to school with a team of horses and an old fashion buggy. The buggy had only one seat. I was the youngest so I had to sit in the middle which I remember was quite tight. In the winter, the same two horses took us by sleigh. There was straw on the floor and many blankets to keep us warm. Our parents never failed to pick us up at the end of the school day. There were times when they were unable to be on time so we did start to walk. However, as I recall, we never had to go the whole two miles.
I’m sure children today would think it would be great fun getting rides by horse and buggy. Also, being pulled in a sleigh by two large horses named Bill and Diamond. But back then, it was our only transportation when the weather did not permit driving a car.
The spring of 1950 was quite different. We were watching the Red River as it began to rise and we listened to reports about possible flooding on the Grand Forks radio. Since the river flows north, it often remained frozen, making it difficult for the water to flow downstream. This caused potential flooding upstream. We soon realized that our farm was going to be totally flooded. My folks then began to make plans to ride out the flood. They had to provide for the animals and our family. The barn was high enough for the cows, horses, and chickens to be safe. However, our sheep had to be moved to the road which was way above flood levels. Also on the road was our car and the brand new Massey Harris tractor. Dad was so proud of this tractor that he had purchased earlier that spring.
We were able to stay in our home, but the water level was only 3 inches below the floor. As we opened our cellar trap door in the kitchen, the water was right at the top. It was frightening to see the water so high. Fortunately there was a Red Cross stationed in Oslo, MN. In addition, a National Guard unit with an army duck that delivered hay for the cattle. They also delivered food for those in need. Mom had canned many quarts of meat, fruit, and vegetables from the garden so we never suffered for lack of food. The quarts were stored in the cellar so we brought them all up before the flood arrived. Another blessing was that we did not lose electricity. Therefore we were able to keep our milk, cream, and eggs, in our refrigerator. We received our water supply from neighbors. Their home stayed dry as it was on higher land. They also had an artesian well. We would take our cream cans on a hayrack pulled by the tractor to get them filled with water.
Our regular daily routine changed to a flood routine. For Dad, this meant rowing the boat to the barn to care for the animals and chickens. He rowed back to the house with the milk to be separated and to the road to feed the sheep. We learned to play many games during this time. One that I remember well was pinochle, which we would play with the neighbors. My mom didn’t play but Dad and I enjoyed the game. We also read books and listened to the radio. Fibber McGee & Molly, Amos & Andy, Abbott and Costello, Hit Parade, and Ma Perkins were all programs we enjoyed.
Also, I remember playing with my pet lamb, Buster. I would put Buster in the row boat to give a ride around the yard. This was an extremely hard time for our Mother as she had a dreadful fear of water. Fortunately, no mishaps ever occurred.
During this time, our little one room school house was closed for the rest of the school year. Since my sister was in the 8th grade, she was required to take state board exams before she could enter high school. Some arrangements had to be made so we could resume our education. The only students in the school were my sister Darline who was in 8th grade, our cousin Phyllis Duray, and myself, both in sixth grade. Our elderly teacher, Mrs. Dow, lived on the banks of the Marais River. She lived 6 miles from our farm. She had a lovely, large home and kindly offered to have Darline, Phyllis, and myself move in with her for the remainder of the school year. We packed our belongings and a neighbor came by with a motor boat to take us to Mrs. Dow’s.
Our mother had a hard time seeing us go by boat from our door to our teacher’s, but we arrived safely. On the weekend, Phyllis’s dad came by boat to pick us up and stay with her family. We stayed two weeks with Mrs. Dow and Darline was able to take her state boards to move on to high school. Our school year was then completed and we were able to go back home.
After a long six weeks that we were held prisoners by the flood waters, the Red River started to recede. Next, it was time to clean up. Wood from our wood pile floated around and tree branches and debris covered the yard. Our cows must have been happy when they were able to get outdoors again to green pastures.
Looking back, my sister and I often realize what an emotional and physically distressing journey it must have been for our parents. However, they always kept a positive attitude in front of us and told us that things would be better soon.
The Red River flood of 1950 was finally over. It was one of the worst of the century. Our family sometimes wonders how we came through it all. My personal thought and belief is that it was with the help of neighbors and friends. But most of all the strength of our parents and faith in God.