Flooding can't chase river lovers away

2001-06-03T00:00:00Z Flooding can't chase river lovers away La Crosse Tribune
June 03, 2001 12:00 am

By BETSY BLOOM of the Tribune staff

About 100 miles of road and Mississippi River separate Fountain City from Prairie du Chien. Yet residents of both Wisconsin communities have the same impressions in the wake of the flood of 2001.

It might not have been the highest the water has ever been. But it will go down in their memories as the longest time the river has spent out of its banks and on their properties.

"In '97, it was up and down in seven to 10 days," said Kenneth Withey of Lynxville, a small community about 10 miles north of Prairie du Chien. "This one, it was up, and it was better than a month."

Still, none said the latest flood - for some, the third "100-year" event in a decade - convinced them to seek a life on higher, drier ground.

"We live here because we want to," declared Gary Bunders of Prairie du Chien, whose North Main Street property still has a pond for a back yard, "not because we have to."

When the sun's shining and the wind is still, the Mississippi River can look remarkably innocent. Outwardly, Fountain City today bears little resemblance to the waterlogged Buffalo County town where, at the flood's height in mid-April, a boat was mandatory to travel Hwy. 35.

A stack of used sandbags sits in the grass by the car wash on the town's south edge. Some unoccupied buildings in the heart of town bear a hazy film of mud around the base.

When the Mississippi River came under the train trestle next to Fountain City Ford on April 9, David Schaffner's business ended up with 30 inches of standing water inside. Now, the office has not even a whiff of dankness.

New wainscoting covers the watermarks in the shop, though a gray line can still be seen, like the ring around a bathtub, behind the parts counter.

The appearance of business as usual is a bit deceptive, said Schaf-fner. They've only been back in the building since May 14, after operating out of a bank on higher ground for 29 days.

They had some damage, lost some business. Yet the blow wasn't as hard as it could have been for such a natural disaster. "The Mississippi is not like a flash flood," Schaffner said. "We could prepare for it. You don't lose nothing, except time and business.

"It wasn't bad. Let's just hope it doesn't happen for another 20 years."

Across Hwy. 35 from the Ford dealership, Fountain City Mutual Insurance still is closed. The business put sandbags and a plastic barrier at the door, only to have a foot of water boil up from below, through a forgotten hole in the floor, manager Dale Mann said.

It took a month to get the water out. Like the Ford dealership, it had to set up a temporary office at the bank.

"We've had water in here before, but it usually receded quite quickly," Mann said, picking his way carefully around the stacked furniture and stripped floor. New carpet was to be put down this weekend, and staff could move back within the week.

It's the third time in the last decade that the river has lapped at the company's door. Yet when asked if they would ever move the business to a less flood-prone location, Mann shook his head. Fountain City Mutual has been on Hwy. 35 since the 1880s. Even the collapse of the building's third floor - from heavy snow, not flooding - didn't drive the company out.

"Hopefully, if there's a next time, the water won't get in as easily," Mann said.

When the river invaded Lynxville in late April, it put 55 inches of rank water in Kenneth Withey's basement and drowned his water heater. Gas had to be cut off at his son's home next to the Withey motel, leaving them unable to cook.

So for almost a month, they shuttled family between the homes. "They had the only electric stove, so they were the cafe and mess hall," said son Mark Withey. "We had the only hot water, so we were the shower house."

Six inches of water also checked into all six rooms at Mark Withey's motel. It cost him sev-eral weeks of business during the spring turkey hunt, normally his busiest time of the year.

The motel reopened the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. They were scrubbing and painting the last room Saturday afternoon. By night, the "no vacancy" sign was on.

"We worked our butts off to get reopened," Mark Withey said. "But we couldn't afford to lose another big weekend."

While the Withey motel has been in his family for three generations, Mark Withey was raised in Milwaukee and had to come back to take over the business. He still talks like a Lynxville native when asked about the river's bad habits.

"This is a river town, and we're used to high water," Mark Withey said. "You can grumble and (complain) all you want, but things could be a lot worse."

"And," added his mother, Dianne Withey, "could you think of a more beautiful place to live?"

The river invited itself into the lower level of Grace Belscamper's home, in the Frenchtown area along Hwy. K north of Prairie du Chien, by popping out a triple-pane window in her basement.

The water warped the walls of her garage and reached all but the top step of her basement stairs.

"This made (the flood of) '65," said Belscamper, showing where the water reached the basement ceiling beams, "look like a Sunday school picnic."

A month went by before she could finally go down the basement stairs again. When she did, she found a tree that took three men to carry out. Everything was black - the river mud, the debris, bits of vegetation "like black straw."

Two fish, both very dead, were tucked behind the canning jars in an elevated back corner that Belscamper thought would be out of reach of any flood. "They smelled horrible," she said.

Two weeks of work, the help of a daughter and son, and lots of bleach and a cleanser have removed the dirt and most of the odor, but not the dampness. The maple trees in her backyard still are half submerged.

Her family has suggested that she's perhaps too old to deal with the whims of a river that seems to be trespassing more often. Belscamper thinks of her grandchildren, who love being able to boat from her backyard.

"It's so beautiful," Belscamper sighed, looking out her living room window. "I have the best view of anybody along here."

Farther north on Hwy. K, water still bordered both sides of the only route into isolated Ambrough Slough. With the river on the rise again, locals predicted that by Friday the road would be impassable.

The backwater area normally is lined with summer cabins, but anything that could be towed was moved out before the flood. What remains is a neighborhood on stilts, with houses elevated about 14 feet off the ground.

Merlin Doland has had a home on Ambro Road since 1956. When the road went under water April 13, he took a boat. When they shut off electricity and telephone, he lived without, then brought in a generator.

At the height of the flood, only 18 inches separated the floor of his cabin, perched on 14-foot posts, from the river. "Muddy. God almighty, it was bad," Doland said.

But he never spent a night elsewhere. "Nothing's ever deterred me from coming back here," Doland said.

"Everyone says when the water's high, they wouldn't live out here for nothing," he said. "When it goes down and the sun's shining and the grass is green, then they all want to live on the river."

Betsy can be reached at (608) 791-8236 or bbloom@lacrossetribune.com.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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