One hundred years ago today, it started raining in Peru, Indiana. My hometown. Not so uncommon for March. But this time, it didn’t stop.
The ground was already rain-swollen, and so the Wabash River rose and rose. Five days later, two thirds of the town was underwater—including the winter quarters of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which sat on the outskirts of town on the banks of the Mississinewa.
Trust me on this: you don’t really want to know what a flood will do to a circus.
Yes, eleven people in my hometown died, but the images and stories that haunt me the most came from the winter quarters. Tigers and lions drowned in their locked cages. Llamas and kangaroos. Eight horses. Three elephants.
You can read the whole story here. Prepare yourself. It will break your heart.
My great grandparents, Charles and Gertrude Shrock, survived the flood in the second story of their little house in town. They’d just had a baby, my great-uncle John. Luckily they survived so that a few years later, my grandmother could be born, and thus my mother, and thus, me.
Before she died, my great grandmother told her story about surviving the Flood of 1913. My aunt recorded and then transcribed it. My great grandmother (who died short after I was born) said:
“A big beam, from Stuber’s house, I guess, had come in through the front door and kept crashing into the walls…Then the beam started on the old piano. I thought it would drive me crazy. Bang. Bang. Bang. All day. All night. Charles said he was glad he finally got to hear some music out of that piano…The men came and took us out in a little rowboat. They came the morning after the piano finally broke apart.”
Because it’s too confusing to explain that there are two rivers in Peru, I combined their names into one. The Wabash and Mississinewa became the “Winnesaw,” and that’s what I’d eventually title the story I wrote during the summer of 1993. I was living in Alabama, but the Midwest was experiencing record flooding at the time. I saw the images on TV and read my great grandmother’s words and looked at the old photographs and wrote this:
“That night, the animals screamed. Lions and tigers were roaring to be let out of their cages. The elephants blew their high-pitched cry through their trunks. Over the pounding of the rain, I heard water lapping against the house, as if we were on a boat going down the Congo River, and in the jungle on either side of us animals were clawing each other’s backs in the darkness. We heard men yelling, and although we could not make out the words, the tone of their fear and their frantic trying to get the animals free echoed in the night. I got out of bed and opened the window to pitch black and saw jewels in the trees, the yellows and greens of squirrel eyes and possum eyes and snakes, too, blinking into the river that wouldn’t stop coming.”
Years later, I’d realize that I unconsciously swiped the image of “jewels in the trees” from Mark Richard’s “On the Rope,” a flood story from his sadly underappreciated 1991 collection, The Ice at the Bottom of the World.
And I quite consciously swiped another image—an elephant slowly drowning outside a bedroom window, clamoring for its keeper rather than heading for high ground—that one I took from the eye-witness testimony of circus employees. When I give readings from The Circus in Winter, I often read “Winnesaw.” Sometimes people write to me afterwards and tell me they can’t forget the image of the elephant dying outside the window.
Me, too, people. Me, too.
And this imagery was consciously swiped yet again when the book was adapted into a musical, The Circus in Winter, which keeps winning awards and was just workshopped at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, CT, en route (maybe) to Broadway.
The flood informs the music that Ben Clark wrote for the musical. I still remember the first time I heard this song, “Elephants Find Their Way Home.” That’s when I knew that I’d done the right thing allowing a group of students at Ball State University to adapt my book. They took my flood story, which was based on a true flood story, and turned it into a flood story all their own.
Isn’t it amazing that something that happened a hundred years ago—in a little town in the middle of nowhere—just keeps happening? That people are still experiencing it—in fiction and in music and on a stage?
In 2010, I got to be the narrator during a concert reading of the musical. We were under a big top at the Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, which sits on the grounds of the original circus winter quarters property. Half way into the performance, the sky opened up, and it started raining so hard we had to stop the show.
Ironically, we hadn’t even gotten to the flood sequence in the script yet.
The tent flaps were up that afternoon, and through the rain, I could see the same animal barns, the same river. An elephant ambled by, heading for the barn, and for a second, I felt time fold in on itself. Once this place was home to a real American circus—and to a real calamity—and here we were, re-enacting those events on the very same ground.
Then I looked up and saw my 90-year-old grandmother, sitting there in her wheelchair, waiting for the rain to stop and the show to go on so that her mother’s story and scenes from her childhood could be dramatized before her eyes.
What a strange and wonderful day that was.
The narrator of “Winnesaw” says, “I don’t think that we live just once. We live when things first happen and every time we remember that first time, we live it again.”
If that’s true—and I think it is—then by now thousands of people have lived through the Flood of 1913.
Between March 23 and May 25, the Miami County Museum at 56 North Broadway in Peru is hosting an exhibit, “Submerged: The Great 1913 Flood in Peru, Indiana.”
The exhibit will include objects and archival material from the museum’s collections and will highlight stories about what caused the flood and the destruction it caused. There will also be live readings from letters the people of Peru wrote to friends and loved ones about how they survived the Flood of 1913.
Stories just like the one my great grandmother told—and which is still being retold.
My story is fiction, but you should go to Peru and see where it all really happened.
A hundred years ago today.
Cathy Day is the author of two books: Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love (Free Press, 2008) and The Circus in Winter (Harcourt, 2004), a fictional history of her hometown. She teaches creative writing at Ball State University.
You can read Josh Flynn’s story about the musical here.