Marion Post Wolcott caption: FSA (Farm Security Administration) borrower and two of his children. Laredo, Montana, August, 1941.
On June 23, 1938, according to National Weather Service records: “More than five inches of rain fell in the Gravelly Coulee watershed in one hour, creating a wall of water which rushed out of the foothills, traveled 10 miles and still managed to erode two miles of Great Northern Railroad track near Laredo (Montana). Farther east, nearly $500,000 damage occurred in Havre as the normally dry Bull Hook Creek spread a half mile wide on its route through the center of town.”
The next day, the Helena Independent reported that nine persons were drowned and a baby was missing in the flood waters. One had washed 10 miles down the coulee. The article also stated: “Twenty-two persons who lived in the Gravelly coulee are homeless. They are members of the D. E. Couch, Frank Earl and Wilfrid Tow families.”
In August 1941, photographer Marion Post Wolcott traveled through Laredo, Montana, on an assignment for the Farm Security Administration, a federal government agency. Her mission was to take pictures of farm families who were receiving loans from the FSA, and others who were experiencing financial hardship. One of those families was the Wilfrid Tow family, who had been left homeless by the 1938 flood. She took about a half-dozen photos of the family, but did not identify them in the captions, nor did she make any mention of the disaster that had befallen them three years earlier.
When I saw the photos of this family on the Library of Congress website, I was struck by the father’s strong, rugged looks. He reminded me of actor Gary Cooper. I wanted to know more. So, as I have done before, I got the local paper, in this case the Havre Daily News, to publish the photo above and a short article about my search. Within 48 hours after it rolled off the presses, I had talked to two relatives of the family. They had seen one of the pictures before, in a book of historic Montana photographs, again with no names given.
I interviewed Agnes Cook, the oldest daughter, and that’s when I learned about the flood. Among those who died in the flood were neighbors of the Tows: Emil De Haan, his wife and three daughters, ages two, five and eight; and Charles Pratt.
Marion Post Wolcott caption: FSA (Farm Security Administration) borrower and his children, Laredo, Montana, August 1941.
Edited interview with Agnes Cook (AC), daughter of Wilfred and Margaret Tow, conducted by Joe Manning (JM), March 17, 2008.
JM: How did you know about these photos?
AC: About five years ago, there was a book called Hope in Hard Times, and that picture of our family was in there. The author (Mary Murphy) didn’t know who they were, so my sister and I went to one of the author’s lectures and told her who we were. I don’t know why the information was never followed up on.
JM: Do you remember being photographed?
AC: No. It was just a year after the flood, and I don’t suppose I was paying much attention.
JM: What flood are you talking about?
AC: I think it was in 1938. There was a heavy rainstorm in the mountains, and there were two creek beds that flooded. All that water came down around where our home was and took the house, the barns, and everything. It sent our big old tractors down the river a ways. Our farm was about three miles out of Laredo.
JM: Did you have to get out real fast?
AC: Yes. Dad saw it coming. He made everybody get out right away. Mom put the baby chicks on the kitchen table so they wouldn’t get wet. That didn’t help any. There were two other families living nearby. I wasn’t there at the time of the flood. I was staying at a friend’s house, with their daughter – their house was about 10 miles from where we were living at the time. And their son was staying at my parents’ home, with my brother.
Dad took most of family by horseback over to the Cooks, who lived higher up on the hill, and left them there. A few of them walked. I married Edward Cook, one of their sons, six years later. Then Dad went back and swam the horse across the creek far enough so that he could get members of the other two families, the Earls and the Couches, and take them up there also. There were over 20 people that the Cooks had to bed down. Some of them slept in cars, some in garages, some in the house.
The Red Cross and the Salvation Army helped us. They got us into an abandoned section house right away. The section house was a large, two-story home that had once housed the depot agent and his family. After the flood, the Red Cross bought the house for us. We had to move it because it was on railroad property. Dad bought a little piece of land a few hundred feet away, and moved the house there. The Couches and the Earls lived with us temporarily until they found homes to move into. We had been in the new house several years when the photographs were taken.
JM: You look pretty happy in the picture. Would your family have been in a happy situation at that time?
AC: I think so. It was just before my youngest brother was born. That was Charles. So he was the only child in the family that wasn’t photographed. I think that’s why Mom wasn’t in it, because she was eight months pregnant and was having an awful time with it. She may have been staying with friends in Havre.
JM: According to the caption, your family apparently got a loan from the Farm Security Administration.
AC: I’m sure they did. I remember that none of Dad’s neighbors wanted to take a loan. They figured that they would just get into debt. But Dad could see that with what he had, he could probably make it alright, and that hard times wouldn’t last forever.
JM: Did the Farm Security Administration loan benefit your family?
AC: It must have. They seemed to do quite well after that.
JM: What kind of farm was it?
AC: It was a Duke’s mixture.
JM: What’s a Duke’s mixture? I‘ve never heard of that term.
AC: That means a little bit of everything. Dad had all kinds of animals, and he did some farming.
JM: Were there any other houses around there then?
AC: There would have been a few. And there was a little grocery store.
JM: When people look at these FSA photographs, they often assume that the subjects were needy. That was part of the purpose of taking them, to get support for farm programs. Were you in dire need at that time?
AC: Not at the time the pictures were taken. Before that, we sure were.
JM: So at the time of the photos, you would have recovered and had a fairly successful farm?
AC: I would say that, although prices were not high. We got about $2.00 a bushel for grain.
JM: The photos were taken about five months before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Did the war have an impact on your family?
AC: The boys were too young to fight, and Dad had too big a family, so we weren’t affected in that way.
JM: Did the war have an impact on farm prices?
AC: Yes, they went up.
JM: Did you parents continue to maintain the farm at the same level?
AC: I would say so. Dad bought some other land that he put the boys on. Each one of them got a piece of the land.
JM: Did all of them farm the land?
AC: No. Richard did. Charles went to Glasgow (Montana) and worked in a grocery store, but he still had his land.
JM: When did you graduate from high school?
AC: In 1944. I got married to Edward Cook in 1945. My husband was about 34. He was a teacher. I stayed home. We had five children.
JM: Did you stay in Laredo?
AC: We bought a house in Havre. My husband had saved money from the farm and from his teaching job, and we spent $2,000 of that to buy the house. And the next year, we put $2,000 more into it.
JM: Did you have a job at any point in your life?
AC: I taught school for 15 years. My husband retired after teaching 35 years, and then I went into teaching.
JM: What prepared you to teach?
AC: I had gone to college in Havre. It was called Northern Montana College then. It’s now called Montana State University-Northern. I went for two years. At that time, they only required us to go two years in order to teach.
JM: Are all the children still alive?
AC: Yes. Lillian lives in California. Raymond lives in Idaho. Charles lives in Glasgow. Rachel lives in Hobson (Montana). Richard, Alice, and I live here. Richard lives with me.
JM: What did Lillian do when she grew up?
AC: She taught school one year here. Then after she was married and moved to California, she taught fifth grade. She went to Montana State in Bozeman.
JM: And Rachel?
AC: She went into nursing and then worked for the bloodmobile for a long time. She married a farmer. They’re going to be moving soon into Hobson, and turn over the farm to their son.
JM: What about Alice?
AC: She taught school for a long time.
JM: And Richard continued to be a farmer?
JM: Did any of the boys go to college?
JM: Did your parents stay in their house the rest of their lives?
AC: Up until Dad died in 1973, at the age of 75. Then Mom turned the house over to my brother Raymond, and she moved to a trailer house nearby. She died in 1993, at about the age of 90.
JM: Do any family members still live at the farm?
AC: No. We sold it. There’s a family living there, but they’re not related.
JM: Where did your father’s family come from?
AC: His folks came over to Canada from England and then migrated down to the United States. His father did all sorts of things. He was a depot agent and a shepherd. He finally got some farmland. Dad was born just outside of Laredo. He attended Montana Agricultural College (now Montana State University) in Bozeman, but I don’t know how long.
JM: What was your father like?
AC: He was a fun-loving guy. He always liked a joke. And he did one thing I could never figure. He would go out to gather the cattle, and he’d never take lunch with him. He would be gone all day long, come home, eat his meal, and everything was fine. If I went with him, I had to bring my lunch.
*Story published in 2008.