RUSHFORD, Minn. — It was the biggest weekend of the year at Cushon’s Peak Campground, even if the rain kept the crowd smaller than usual.
Still, about 1,000 people — about 600 of them camping — filled the campground, surrounded on two sides by the Root River, located on Hwy. 16 between Houston and Rushford. It was the 15th annual Southeast Minnesota Bluegrass Association festival, and for proprietors Tom and Judy Vix, the weekend of Aug. 16-20, 2007, promised to be a busy one.
And then, Saturday night, the rains came.
“It was for a long period of time,” Judy said. “We kept looking at the radar and would say ‘There’s another wave coming.’”
Tom went to check the river at 1 a.m., and it was still well below its banks. The parking lot was starting to fill up with water, however, and the rain kept coming, so he set an alarm for 4 a.m., just to be safe.
“I went down at 4 a.m., and it was like a train,” Tom said. “The trees were crashing. You could see huge trees coming through. You could hear them. The water was up to the banks.
“I got a sick feeling to my stomach. I was just sick.”
Tom knew he wasn’t going back to bed that night. He knew he needed to evacuate the campground and tow as many of the campers as he could.
What he didn’t know, however, was the extent of the damage in the region, especially down the road in Rushford, where he and Judy taught at the high school and he coached the boys basketball team, state champions the year before.
He didn’t know that seven people had died, including a friend who liked to fish on their land and help with repairs around the property.
He didn’t know that his campground was one of the few places in the area that had electricity, which meant it had refrigeration. He didn’t know his pickup truck was going to be used to haul food and supplies into Rushford for the next four days as the city was under martial law.
And he didn’t know what was awaiting him when he knocked on the first camper to tow it to higher ground.
‘OK, we have a problem’
After looking at the river, Tom called friend Tim Erickson.
“I said ‘OK, we have a problem,’” Vix said. “‘I need you to help me evacuate the people closest to the river. And you’re probably going to have to pull them. The ground is so saturated.’”
That meant he had to wake up the people dozing in the campers. That can be a dicey situation for any campground owner, not to mention one who is hosting a largely senior-citizen crowd.
“The first door I knocked on, the guy came to the door naked,” Tom said. “I go to the next camper, I knock on the door, lady comes in just her underwear.
“I’m thinking ‘Oh, boy, this is going to be a long morning.’”
In a stressful situation, the brief moment of levity was welcomed.
There was no panic, but there was purpose. The trucks that could haul the campers did so, otherwise the Vixes and Erickson started hauling them away.
“We called the highway department to say ‘Hey, can we park these campers up there (on Highway 16)?’” Judy said. “They said, ‘Sure!’”
They lined the bike trail. They lined the highway. Any open piece of high ground nearby had a camper or car parked on it.
When it was done — it took about eight hours — 70 campers were hauled.
“We just stayed ahead of the flood,” Tom said. “We were always about 50 feet ahead of it. The water kept coming, but we kept moving campers.”
The last one was dicey. Erickson had to hydroplane it over four feet of water.
“It was just skiing,” Tom said.
Only one camper remained. The occupant, Tom said, went through a flood in Rapid City and didn’t want to do it again. The water, however, only went up to the wheels. Another camper pulled out in the middle of the night but mistakenly went to Rushford. The people ended up being OK, but the camper was destroyed.
“We would have lost some campers,” Tom said when asked what would have happened if he hadn’t set his alarm for 4 a.m. “I don’t think we would have lost any people. Water doesn’t come tearing through this place. It still has current. It would have made it more difficult.
“But I give the people here credit. They were very calm. They were organized. I had people jumping in and helping. People put their stuff away and were ready to go. It was steady. We didn’t waste a minute.”
The damage was minimal, save for a couple hundred trees on the property. Tom spent the next few hours wading out to collect picnic tables. The national guard came through to make sure everyone was accounted for.
Most people stayed put, because they weren’t sure what roads were open. At some point, the music resumed.
“But then our work really began here,” Tom said.
‘What can we do?’
Over in Rushford, the dike system had failed and Rush Creek erupted, and most of the town was under water. There was no electricity. Phones were down. People were being saved by canoes and rowboats. The national guard had assumed control.
Tom and Judy got a call from their old boss, former Rushford-Peterson superintendent Dave U’Ren. Food was needed for workers and for volunteers.
“Can you help?” they were asked. “What can we do?” was the response.
They had electricity, so they had refrigeration. Donations started pouring in. Tom called Phil Costigan, who worked at a powerful radio station in the region, to get the word out that churches and groups could drop off clothes and food at Cushon’s Peak.
“We made one phone call to a radio station, and boom, the whole area just came to the rescue,” Tom said.
A church in Spring Grove sent food. Another in Mabel sent clothes. A nursing home in Caledonia sent what they had in the kitchen.
The national guard gave Tom a pass to enter the city to drop off supplies. Cushon’s Peak Campground, which began the weekend as the site of a bluegrass festival, was all of a sudden turned into a lifeline for those working around the clock 9 miles down the road.
“There was nobody else around that could help them,” Judy said.
They hauled water. They hauled ice. They hauled food. They hauled clothes. Then they did it again. And again. And again.
In a stroke of luck one afternoon, Tom was in Rochester, with his pickup truck, when he got a call that food was needed for 500 volunteers. He went to Hy-Vee, found a manager, and explained the situation.
“He was just awesome,” Tom said. “They decided tacos was going to be it. They donated all this taco meat, then he said ‘Hey, the Tostitos guy is here, let’s go see him.’ And they donate the chips and shells. We loaded my pickup all the way to the top.”
It was like that, Tom said, everywhere he went. He’d get food for free, or deeply discounted.
He brought it to Montini Hall in Rushford, where “the amazing church women,” who Tom said could “turn cardboard into delicious food,” served it all day long to volunteers.
Tom and Judy operated this way for four days.
“As soon as they had refrigeration going, everything went direct,” he said.
The Vixes closed the campground for the rest of the year to the general public, but opened it up for volunteers and their families to camp for free.
‘One big family’
The work didn’t stop when Cushon’s Peak no longer became a staging area.
Like many people in the area, Tom and Judy helped out when and where they could. Tom would take group of college kids and started cleaning homes, businesses, the school.
It was hard not to get emotional. One of the hardest areas hit was an area that Tom and Judy used to live in.
“People were just sitting there not knowing what to do,” Tom said. “They were just overwhelmed. One guy was crying; he had just moved to Rushford. He had everything in the basement. Everything he owned. He collected baseball cards. Tens of thousands, just destroyed. He had collected them his whole life.”
There were groups everywhere, from all over the state. From all over the region. From all over the country.
Judy stayed at the campsite to help with the volunteers and their families who were camping.
“I remember all these days he’d come home at 8, 9 o’clock at night,” she said. “‘OK, where did you go?’ The stories. We should have written them down. But you’re so exhausted.’”
That went on for weeks. School started — miraculously — on time. They would come home from school; Tom would go into town and Judy would help the campers. For weeks.
“Everybody did this,” Tom said.
As much as it was heartbreaking, it was rewarding. Tom said he will never forget the generosity of those who volunteered to help out people they’ve never met in a town they probably couldn’t pin on a map.
He won’t forget coming home after a long day of cleaning out houses, businesses, the grocery store — the smell was overpowering from the rotted food, Tom said, and they had to empty it by hand using shopping carts until they cleared enough debris to get a Bobcat inside — and sitting with the volunteers and their families at the campground.
Ten years later, that’s what Tom and Judy choose to remember. The donations from churches. The heroism of the firefighters and other emergency personnel. The outpouring of support. The warmth of the volunteers.
“You really got a good feeling,” said Tom, who, along with Judy, is busy hosting the bluegrass festival again. “We see a lot of bad stuff in the news, but this is the good stuff. This is why we’re in this area and why we have the opportunity here. It’s one big family.
“This was a disaster for Rushford. And it’s going to happen in another town. It might not be a flood. It could be a tornado or a fire. Bad things happen. But it’s how you react to it. Around here, we have great people who react to these things well.”