Neosho Falls was a boomtown like any other, oil was struck, the population surged and then the money ran out and people left. But unlike most other boomtowns Neosho Falls experienced a second surge in population when new oil was struck just south of the townsite in 1937. The town went through a revival, people started coming back and in preparing for the people moving in a new large joint high school and grade school was built two years later. In 1939 the large cement combination Neosho Falls School was part of the pride of the town, it was sturdy and built to last with Art-Deco features.
Unfortunately, the rebirth of the town wouldn’t last long, Neosho Falls would experience a devasting flood in 1951 that would destroy much of the town. July 13th, 1951, is forever etched into the heart of residents as “Black Friday,” the date of the worst flood to ever strike Neosho Falls. Though the town had faced previous flooding disasters – in 1948, water was nearly ten feet above the flood plane – this Friday the 13th would see the Neosho River rise and drown the town beneath ominous murky waters from which it was never quite able to return, by a torrent sixteen and a half feet above flood-level. Residents of the Falls had been warned a flood was coming but didn’t panic, as they were rather numb to occasional sharp rises in the river; but instead of one to two feet of water, they instead got between nine and ten. Swirling currents entered every business on Main Street, some up to seven feet deep.
A systematic relief effort was also enacted by the National Red Cross, headed by a field director by the name of R. Munn, who first set up a headquarters in Yates Center City Hall, then later moved into the swampy wreckage of Neosho Falls High School. Many residents of the Falls had taken refuge in the school, as well as on rooftops and the upper floors of various buildings. Those who’d managed to park their cars and trucks at the school watched in horrified awe as the floodwaters devoured their vehicles, swallowing them into the insatiable maw of the Neosho River. Given the vast scope of the disaster, human refugees were not the only ones to take shelter in the high school. Many pets and livestock hunkered down as well, and people’s cows and chickens were kept on the school auditorium stage, creating what must have looked like some terrible inverted re-imagining of the Biblical nativity. In contrast to a warm dry manger, at one point opaque water even crept up to immerse the auditorium stage’s floor. One resident remembered seeing a horse swimming by in front of the building, desperately fighting against the current, but it was too heavy and too far out of reach to be saved. On the third floor, somewhere in the school building’s southwest corner, was the “dog room,” where more than fifteen dogs were kept as they nervously paced and panted in the sticky wet summer night. Most humans and other creatures would weather another three to four nervous moons in those concrete rooms.
It is likely no exaggeration to say that the Flood of ’51, “Black Friday,” would traumatically suffocate the town beneath its waters, even long after the Neosho receded. What was once the cultural epicenter for all of Woodson County is today, sixty-eight years later, its economy reduced to the point where calls for disincorporation are not uncommon. Indeed, a place that once inspired 30,000-40,000 people to visit in 1879 during the Four-county Fair, including US President Rutherford B. Hayes, now is only home to about 137 people. The high school portion of the school was later closed in 1961 and the grade school portion in 1969 after such a massive decline in attendance.
Article by AKS Photojournalists Trevor Hoag and Emily Cowan.
Gallery Below of Neosho Falls School
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