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Monday, June 6, 2016

1932 Flood: Trapped in a Tree

The tree to which young Howell Priour clung
for 23 hours during the 1932 Kerr County flood
On July 2, 1932, the skies opened as they'd never opened here before, and the Guadalupe River threw off its mask of green calm and became a charging, swirling bull of mud and debris.
When a big event happens in a community, it's noted in stories, photographs, and occasionally song, and while the facts of the stories don't always exactly coordinate, the theme, the stronger message, comes through loud and clear. The story of July 2, 1932 is a story of warning, and a story with heroes.
This is the story of Howell Priour, a 17 year old boy who was trapped in a cypress tree near where the dam in Louise Hays Park stands today. I remember the tree -- it was often pointed out to me when I was a boy -- and it was a huge thing, although later it was struck by lightning and left a hollow spot near the base of its trunk. I believe it was finally washed away in the floods of the late 1970's. I found the following story in the "Kerr County Album," in an article written by the late Clarabelle Snodgrass.
"Howell's family," reports Snodgrass, "lived where the Rio Robles Mobile Home Park is now. He had gone down to the river area in search of livestock to get out and on to higher ground before the river washed them away.
"The death dealing waters rose so swiftly that it caught him in the fast current and washed him downstream. He was able to catch onto a limb and go as high as he could in a large cypress just across from where the Blue Bonnet Hotel stood and is now where One Schreiner Center has been built.
"The young man was stranded there for twenty three hours and on account of the high swift water the attempts at rescue were practically an impossible thing to accomplish."
Remember, that this was before the Louise Hays Park had been built in a day (1950), and the river bank there was a tumble of trees. The old mill dam was still there, but it was completely submerged beneath the rolling Guadalupe.
The rescue of Howell Priour was costly.
"Two men," Snodgrass writes "lost their lives in the rescue efforts. Mike Odell, 24, of Houston, and Charles H. Greenleaf, 50, of Chicago both drowned in the efforts at trying to reach Howell.
"Ben Calderon was the first to try to brave the waters . . . The swift water carried him downstream more than a mile before he grasped a tree and later made his way out to safety. Then B. P. Roberts, a former sea captain, crossed in a small boat, but his frail craft was swamped just as he reached the goal and he landed in a small tree 50 feet away from Priour. Next was Homer Vivian, who was traveling from California to his home in Florida . . . He swam the river in a valiant effort, but was swept past the . . . tree, landing in another small tree near Roberts."
It was a young Kerrville resident who finally reached the boy.
"Cooper Fletcher, 19, . . . strapped food and medicine in a watertight box to his shoulders, was the first to reach the Priour boy. He gave food and coffee to Priour and . . . three hours later he helped Howell from the big tree and assisted by Roberts and Vivian the three men took the exhausted young man out across the river and to his home on the other side.
"This was a fearful time as people in town gathered on the bank back of the Blue Bonnet Hotel and watched all through the night. The fire department came and kept lights on Howell in the tree. People called and sang and prayed and watched the young man they feared might fall asleep and drown in the raging waters below."
I often wondered what happened to young Mr. Priour, and looked up the rest of the story this week. I found his obituary in the Kerrville Daily Times issue of January 25, 1990. He lived to be 75 years old, and was a retired carpenter.
And even though decades had passed, his obituary included the story of his spending the night in the tree, of the two men who died trying to save him, and of the heroism of Cooper Fletcher.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who remembers that lonely cypress tree, and the silent warning it offered. This week's storms have certainly reminded him of that warning.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times June 4, 2016.


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