Died In Raging
In Breathitt Co. In 1939
Accounts Of The Cloudburst That
Everything In Its Path In The Small
Of Wilhurst And Vancleve
Vancleve Bible School on Frozen Creek in Breathitt County before
the flood on July 5, 1939. On the left is the Myers' cottage
which included rooms used as a boys' dormitory. The large building,
originally a commissary for a coal company, housed five young
women at the time of the flood. The school was on property donated
by the Pelfrey family and lay beside a normally peaceful little
creek which flowed down a narrow gorge and into the North Fork
of the Kentucky River.
(Photo courtesy of Kentucky Mountain Bible College.)
Judy Centers - 2006
At 3:30 a.m. on July 5, 1939, a cloudburst on Frozen Creek in
Breathitt County, Kentucky, caused a 20-foot wall of water to
sweep down the narrow valley through Wilhurst and Vancleve. The
flood erased everything in its path. Forty-four houses, 60 barns,
outbuildings, and livestock all became part of the muddy torrent.
In a matter of minutes 54 men, women, and children were dead.
Lou Pelfrey's Account
The phone rang in the middle of the night and 23-year-old Mary
Lou Pelfrey got out of bed and climbed down the stairs to answer
it. Just as she lifted the receiver muddy water swirled around
her bare feet. Her brother, Nathan, who lived further up the
valley, was calling to warn the family of the wall of water which
was just now rushing toward them. Mary Lou ran upstairs to wake
the family. Will Henry Pelfrey, his wife, Angeline Back Pelfrey,
and Mary Lou's little brother climbed out onto the roof of the
porch. The view outside was unreal. It was as light as day, and
lightning flickered as if someone was turning a light switch
on and off.
Will Henry tied a telephone wire around the waist of the little
boy, and the boy and Mary Lou stepped off into the muddy waters
and swam toward the hillside. He then tied another piece of line
around his wife, Angeline, and she too made it safely to shore.
Will Henry refused to leave. The 20-foot-high wall of water barreling
down Frozen Creek knocked his two-story house off its foundation,
but it did not wash it away. Will Henry Pelfrey survived. His
family swam to the side of the mountain and climbed until they
reached shelter at Jim Banks' house.
In the meantime the oldest Pelfrey boy, Nathan; his wife, Garnet
Miller, and their two-year-old baby boy clung to a mattress and
each other as they were swept past his father's house and down
the valley toward the Kentucky River. The rushing torrent of
water poured into the river, dashed against the opposite river
bank, and splashed 100 feet or more into the air. Debris tore
the baby out of Nathan's arms, and he disappeared beneath the
muddy water. The body of little Gary Nathan Pelfrey was found
five days later in Beattyville.
Horace and Nettie Myers and their three small children lived
in the boys' cottage on the Bible School campus at Vancleve.
Horace taught some courses and served as Dean of Men. Nettie
looked after their children: Titus, Phillip, and the baby, Lela
Grace. On the fourth of July the Myers entertained teenage cousins,
Glenys and Betty Mae, who had arrived from Indiana that afternoon.
That night, after homemade ice cream and devotions, they all
went to bed and slept soundly until awakened suddenly by the
When Horace opened the door muddy water rushed in. He grabbed
his son, Phillip, intending to head for higher ground behind
the house. Nettie and Glenys, holding the baby and Betty Mae,
huddled together on the porch. Suddenly a 20-foot-high wall of
muddy water and debris slammed into the house. The house was
knocked off its foundation and the Myers were floating in the
darkness. Horace, with five-year-old Phillip clinging to his
back, began swimming for the hillside and called back to his
family to hold onto the eaves of the house. Nettie started to
climb up onto the roof, but before she could turn and reach for
the baby she was separated from the girls by the moving house.
Fifteen-year-old Glenys held the baby and stood beside 15-year-old
Betty Mae as the porch collapsed, and they all went down together.
Titus was still asleep in his bed.
site of the Vancleve Bible School as it appeared on July 5, 1939.
As one can see everything in the path of the raging water was
erased. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky Mountain Bible College.)
From atop the roof Nettie saw something large hit her husband
and youngest son and take them under just before they reached
safety. She then was knocked off the roof and swept away from
her loved ones forever.
Nettie Myers was washed down the creek and up the river for three
miles. A man in a fishing boat heard her cries and rescued her.
She walked to the Mt. Carmel campus fully expecting to see her
husband and three children. By late afternoon all hope was gone.
The two cousins and Nettie's own children: Titus, age six; Philip,
age five; and Lela Grace, five months all perished. The last
body recovered was that of Nettie's husband, Rev. Horace P. Myers.
Earl Howard's house was high up on the hillside. Earl and his
wife had two boys, Ray and Forest, and a newborn baby girl. One
of Earl's neighbors went to his house and told him that the creek
was rising, and he should get out. Earl said, "Oh, it will
never get this far," and went back to bed. At 3:30 a.m.
that morning the house was swept away. Only Ray, the eldest son,
survived. The next morning Ray was found sitting on top of Big
Rock crying. Ray said that the last time he saw his father, his
arms were outstretched as far as he could holding the baby girl's
head above water.
In the midst of tragedy miracles happened. In Vancleve Mollie
Hatton was awakened by the sound of furniture bumping around
the room. She arose from her bed and stepped into the water that
floated first the furniture and then the house. She woke her
children and told them to climb up the stairs to the third floor.
The children made it safely up the stairs, but as Mollie followed
them the staircase broke loose and dropped her back down to the
first floor where she struggled amid the floating furniture.
She managed to shove a tall bureau over to the broken staircase
and climb on top of it. Reaching their hands to her the children
pulled her up. What was left of her 11-room house floated down
the creek and got caught on the remnants of the Frozen Creek
Bridge and held there long enough for the family to make their
escape. Molly and her three children, Don, J. C., and Louise
climbed safely through a third-floor window.
A one-room house was rushing down the stream with a little boy
on the roof crying out for help. No one had anyway to reach him.
An elderly lady at the scene fell to her knees and started praying.
The house struck a tree and stopped long enough for the boy to
climb to safety on a tree limb.
Mary Bradley, with her children and sister, Verna, lived just
across the road from the river. The water got up so high in their
house that they had to climb on top of the roof. Several men
climbed the hill behind the house with ropes and got them off
the roof and to safety.
Eighty-one-year-old Gilly Ann Prater lived with her daughter,
Lona Tolson, and son, Amos Malone. When the deluge came it was
clear that their only hope was to abandon the house before it
was washed away. Gilly Ann insisted that she was too old to fight
the current and that Amos must save his own life and not worry
about her. Unwilling to leave her, but knowing that she was right,
finally, he jumped into the water and was washed down the creek
and to safety. Gilly Ann lit a lantern and held it up so he could
see where he was going, and he made it. Later, he said that his
last sight of his mother was of her holding the lantern aloft
as the muddy water swirled about her. Moments later the house,
his sister, and mother were swept away. Mrs. Prater's body was
found at Lock No. 13 near Beattyville. She and Lona lie buried
together at the Puckett Cemetery in Vancleve.
Walter Rose operated a big general store at Wilhurst. Walter
managed to swim to safety but his wife, Evelyn, and daughter,
Ola Ruth, vanished in the swirling, muddy water. All he owned
and everything he cared for was swept away in an instant.
Curt Childers lived in Jackson. Curt didn't know that his wife
had given permission for their 14-year-old daughter, Irene, to
spend the night with her cousin who lived on Frozen. Irene Childers,
age 14, and her cousin, Irene Spicer, age 12, had spent the July
Fourth holiday visiting Natural Bridge at Slade, Kentucky, and
now the two girls were spending the night together. The Spicer
family lived on the J. C. Hurst farm. A creek ran behind the
house and Frozen Creek ran in front of the house. They never
had a chance.
The next day 14-year-old Woodrow Spicer stood at the coffins
of his father, Richard; mother, Esther; sisters: Arlene, Irene,
and Roxie; Roxie's baby; and little eight-year-old brother, Sherman.
Woodrow remembered the last words he heard his father speak,
"Lord be with us."
Meanwhile, over in Jackson, Curt Childers and his wife didn't
know there had been a flood until someone hauled their daughter's
body home in the back of a pickup truck.
Blanche Perry, a 22-year-old college student, had returned to
the Kentucky Bible School at Vancleve only the day before to
spend the summer doing missionary work. The following is her
account of that terrible night.
"There were five of us girls in the dormitory: Mildred Drake,
Lorene Hartley, Christine Holman, Elsie Booth, and I. We were
awakened by a crashing of timbers, and we rushed into the hall.
There was a deafening roar, and the gas lights flickered and
then went out. The building lurched and was swept off its foundation.
The water rose 20 feet in five minutes. The building shook violently,
the windows crashed, and the ceiling began dropping at our feet.
Pictures fell off the walls, dishes tumbled across the floor
while trunks, pianos, chairs, and girls were lashed from one
side of the hall to the other. The floor opened and furniture
began dropping through.
"The water kept rising. We rushed to the attic and behind
us the steps disappeared immediately. The water was soon knee-deep
in the attic. In less than ten minutes we had floated a mile
or more. The lightning flashed and lit up the attic. Elsie Booth
stood by the window crying. She said, 'If we really belong to
God and He loves us, why didn't we have any warning?' I said,
'Elsie we've trusted God to save us and to take us through school,
can't you trust Him now?' Heaven was all over her face as she
smiled through her tears and cried, 'Of course, I can trust Him.
I don't know why I hadn't thought of that before, in a few minutes
we will all be with Jesus.'
"By this time the building was too dangerous to remain in
any longer, and we decided to jump out. Elsie went first. I saw
her swim a few feet in that awful current, then she went down.
Christine Holman sat in the window. I can still see her big,
blue eyes and face as white as snow. 'Are you going?' I asked.
'I can swim but not in that current,' she replied. 'If you'll
move back I'll go,' I told her, 'We have only a few seconds left.'
She moved back, and I jumped into the swirling, muddy water.
Christine followed right behind me.
"Since I could not swim I expected to be with Jesus very
soon. I knew the current was too strong for me, and there was
no use fighting it. I gave myself to the current which sent me
to the bottom. I held my breath, relaxed, came to the top, caught
my breath then went down again. I repeated this process for two
or three miles. Finally, I crawled onto a very small piece of
building and lay there exhausted. My ten-mile journey ended when
I picked up a 2x4 and pushed away the trunks, mattresses, chairs,
and boards and drifted toward the bank. I caught hold of a willow
limb and pulled myself out.
"Daylight dawned and it was still raining. I followed a
path which led to a house. A mother and several children stared
at me with horror. I explained as best I could what had happened.
Then the mother asked ,'Ain't ye scared to death?' I said, 'No,
I'm a Christian, and I was ready to go.' She gave me some dry
clothes, and I walked barefoot two miles across a hill where
I was met by the Mt. Carmel workers and taken to the high school."
The body of teacher Christine Holman was recovered 15 miles away.
The body of Elsie Booth was found three days later about 50 miles
Richard Rudd and his neighbors worked for weeks recovering bodies.
A temporary morgue was set up in the Blanton/Vancleve area. One
neighbor, 74-year-old George Banks, was found dead lying on a
mattress in an open field. Roscoe Riley was one of the many men
who worked around the clock making coffins. The women sewed shrouds.
The Dean of the Kentucky Mountain Bible Institute, Miss Martha
Archer, remembered: "As the bodies were brought in, coffins
were made, and we had burial services. God was so near and heaven
was all over the place. We were covered with a cloud of glory
even in the midst of such suffering. We could almost feel the
angels' wings as they moved among us."
Mary Lou Pelfrey and Blanche Perry are still living and were
happy to share their story with the stipulation that God be given
the glory for their miraculous survival. Mr. Woodrow Spicer was
also very gracious in sharing his painful story and has lived
his life in the belief that God saved him for a purpose. I would
like to thank The Kentucky Explorer readers for the stories and
details they shared. Also, special thanks to Allan Booth, Joseph
Dalton, Doug Reisner, Charlie Turner, Maudie Adams, the Elmer
Riley family, Hilda Goff Rudd, Robert G. Rudd, Louise Spencer,
Ethel Vance, Patsy Woodring, and the Kentucky Mountain Bible
College for assistance in research and for photographs.
Centers, 1918 Yancey Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36107, shares this
article with our readers.