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Klinkenbeard’s Flood, 1840

Jefferson county, Iowa

In January 1839, Jefferson County was created by splitting up Henry County. By 1840, 110 Individuals populated the county’s seat, Fairfield. One of those individuals was Joseph Klinkenbeard, who was “rough and uncouth, and very fond of whiskey,” according to Jefferson’s County History. Klinkenbeard, a miller, built his family’s cabin along the banks of Cedar Creek.

In August, the creek flooded, and with it, so did the Klinkenbeard’s cabin. The county’s history recounts the event: “The family were awakened from their sweet dreams of peace by a sudden heavy blow against the side of the house from some object that struck it with all the violence of a battering-ram, causing the very logs to creak in their ‘notches’ and ‘saddles.’ This afterward proved to be an immense log of driftwood carried before the flood. ‘Klink’ sprang out of bed into water that had silently stolen into the cabin to the depth of three feet.”

To escape the rising water, the family climbed into the cabin’s loft. The water, however, kept rising. Soon, Klinkenbeard had no option but to tear off the boards of the roof and hoist his family through the newly fashioned hole. He tried to look around “but it was pitch dark, and he could see nothing, until, for a second, a flash of lightning revealed to his terrified gaze, the extent of the ocean of water that surrounded his cabin.”

The tale continues with the cabin being torn from the ground and flowing downstream. “As the flood surged madly on, the doomed cabin quivered for an instant, loosened itself from the earth, swung around, and was swept onward with the tide, à la Noah’s ark, while the unwilling voyagers clung to the clapboards ‘tooth and toe-nail.’”

Finally, the man prayed. “O, Lord! Old Klinkenbeard has been a very wicked man in his time, but he sees the folly of that wickedness now. He has used up a mighty sight of ‘corn juice,’ too, but it is all washed out now. But, Lord, You promised You would never again destroy the world with water, but with fire. Old ‘Klink’ can stand heat, but neither he nor his family can swim; and here You come in the night, when we are all asleep, with another … flood. If You can’t have mercy on old ‘Klink,’ have mercy on his family.”
A neighbor discovered Klinkenbeard and his family. Quickly, he approached in a canoe and whisked the family to dry land.

No other accounts exist of the flood of 1840; seemingly only Klinkenbeard was affected by the rising water. However, in 1851 a terrible flood impacted much of Jefferson County and surrounding areas. Today, the flood of 1851 is generally known as the largest flood of the Iowa and Cedar River basins. However, limited recorded information allows for little evaluation of the flood’s actual damages.

Sources: “Klinkenbeard’s Flood,” The History of Jefferson County, Iowa, 1879; “Floods of May 30 to June 15, 2008, in the Iowa River and Cedar River Basins, Eastern Iowa, U.S. Geological Survey, 2010; “History of Jefferson County,” Jefferson County Supervisors; “Fairfield, Iowa Community Quick Reference,” Fairfield Economic Development Association, 2009.