THE DAY LAKE CHARLES WAS LOST
BY LYLE PREHEIM
Five-year-old Shirley Preheim was just behind her father Felix when he opened the door and looked out toward the long driveway stretching down to the section line east of the farm. Lightning illuminated water covering the end of the driveway, and everything he could see to the north in the bottom of the valley.
On a warm June evening in 1942, Shirley, her parents Felix and Selma and her one-year-old sister, Patricia, as well as some close relatives, were enjoying a supper invitation at the Elmer and Edna Gering farm in the Turkey Ridge Valley of southeast South Dakota. After supper was finished, Felix had gone to the front door, uneasy about the heavy rainfall occurring, knowing that they needed to drive home later and that then the roads might be too muddy and impassable.
Felix gazed in disbelief, comprehending the magnitude of flooding water. He knew then that no one would get home that evening.
“Who will chore the animals?” was his first thought.
“Call the Rieses,” Felix called to his wife Selma who was helping clean up the supper dishes from one of Edna Gering’s great suppers. “Maybe they’ll know what is going on. Where is all the water coming from?”
The Ries family in the Turkey Valley lived upstream on the creek about a mile as the crow flies to the northwest of the Gerings. They lived just below the big dam and spillway of Lake Charles. Luckily, their house was on a hill above the typically placid flowing Turkey Creek.
“They would probably know what was happening,” thought Felix.
In 1942, and in the last couple of years, the rains had begun to return. After the drought years of the 30s, water was always welcome, but this amount of water was a whole different story. Earlier that evening the blowoff of forming thunderheads spread across the western sky. Soon came the distant rumble of thunder and flashes of lightning. The storm rapidly increased in intensity.
As is most often the case, summer thunderstorms move from west to east. On this June evening, the storm seemed to have stalled. Now, only a few miles away, the clouds just didn’t move. Lightning splayed out in the lowering clouds and strikes shook the farmhouse. In the incessant lightning, it was easy to see the white wall of rain in the west just hanging there. It was close. Finally, the storm moved across the Gering farm. Everyone was uneasy.
Young Shirley, sensing the uncertainty and unease of the adults, stayed close to her father as he entered the parlor where the men were seated. Selma had told him about the report from the Ries family. He paused for a second, and then with carefully chosen words, he said, “Der damm ist aus,” and then speaking with more emphasis, “Der grosze Lake Charles damm ist aus.” (The big Lake Charles dam is out!)”
The men looked at each other in disbelief. Now, it was no mystery where all that water had come from. Turkey Valley was flooding. A lot of people and animals would be affected.
The Turkey Ridge Creek watershed and Lake Charles 4 miles southeast of Freeman was a familiar place to people in 1942. The 600-foot-long dam creating Lake Charles had a spillway wall 2 to 3 ½ feet thick, 50 feet long, and 12 to 14 feet high. It was made of field stone, concrete and rebar. When the storm stalled and rain kept falling, Lake Charles rose higher and higher, and water began pouring over the spillway wall.
As the rising water washed over the top of the spillway and cascaded down in a roaring waterfall, the layered stones beneath the increasingly strong cascade of water began to move. Soon the underlying sand was exposed, and the torrent of water cut down deep. As a result, the sand base on the lakeside of the spillway had no buffered support from the outside and it started whooshing through, sand and water exploding from underneath the wall. Soon, with no underlying support, the massive spillway wall collapsed. All that remained were chunks of concrete, stones, tangled rebar, and an unbelievable amount of rushing water. The Lake Charles flood had begun.
While the long dam remained intact, with the spillway destroyed and the water gone, the dam was useless. From that day on when folks spoke of the flood of Lake Charles, they almost always referred to the dam having gone out. In reality, it was the spillway that collapsed. Whatever the case, the net effect was the same. Lake Charles was no more. Once again Turkey Creek could flow unimpeded down into the valley and on in its winding way to the southeast just as it has always done throughout the ages.
The dam and spillway creating Lake Charles was constructed in 1935 as part of the depression era WPA program under FDR. The new lake, when full, covered a large area of slough and cattails. Springs welled up in the marshy habitat. These springs were the source of water for Turkey Creek. When the first Mennonite settlers came in the early 1870’s to live along the Creek, the continually flowing water was very likely a primary influence in their decision to live in Turkey Valley. Once the dam was completed and the lake had filled, the underlying springs always kept the large body of water full.
Lake Charles became a pleasure spot for the people living in Turkey Valley. Especially during the drought years, when water did not come from the sky and crops were drying up, there was still the cool water of the lake.
On weekends, the East Freeman Band often played on the hillside above the lake. Through a loudspeaker came the familiar voice of Charles Flickinger, “This is the voice of Lake Charles. Welcome to all. Thanks for coming and have a good time!”
Sometimes, Charlie would offer comments or tell a joke. It all added to the festivity, and folks could laugh, sometimes for the first time all week. People had a good time. Kids played games and went swimming. With the sandy bottom of the lake, it was a great place to have fun. On special occasions, Fenns ice cream was served, dipped from two-gallon containers half buried in thick insulated canvas bags. Folks could talk to each other and share their concerns.
During this time in the 30s, the drought and depression were taking a toll on the community. Farms were lost and lives disrupted. Coming to Lake Charles helped. Folks didn’t feel so alone. It felt so good to be with others near the water, to see the kids play, and to be away from the unforgiving drought and uncertainty even if only for a little awhile. Then on a June evening in 1942, only seven years after Lake Charles was constructed, everything changed.
“We all need to stay here tonight,” Felix told Selma and the other ladies in the kitchen. “Maybe the water will be down in the morning.” But to himself, Felix thought, “The road may be washed out or certainly too muddy to drive home.” As the women planned where everyone could sleep, the men were brainstorming on how to deal with the next day. They were overwhelmed with the new reality. Shirley, however, was delighted to be able to sleep with her cousins sideways in the big bed. This visit to the Gerings had become a big adventure for her. For the adults, it was an adventure as well, but not one they anticipated or welcomed. At that point in time, no one could comprehend what the loss of Lake Charles would mean for the tight knit community living in Turkey Valley.
Editor’s Note: There is more on the history of Lake Charles to come, including a look back at a 3-part series published in 1987 on its history and a restoration project of 1994 that was a vast disappointment. Anybody with information about this part of the community’s history should email email@example.com or call 605-925-7033.
A PERSONAL NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
For those with knowledge about events surrounding Lake Charles, information has come about primarily through stories passed down from folks in a previous generation who were impacted but are now gone.
For Shirley Preheim Hofer, now living in Freeman with her husband Delmer, her perceptions as a 5-year-old girl were not passed down. Instead, Shirley was there in 1942 when Lake Charles went out. Her memory is sharp and illuminates a window to the past. Sharing her story with me has given me an opportunity to go back in real time to the fascinating events of Lake Charles.
To Shirley and her story, I am grateful.
In addition to the help from Shirley, the narrative for this piece has also relied on information from my article, “The Mysteries of Turkey Valley” which appeared in the 2021 Pacific Journal, a publication of Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California.