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Mr. Bucketlist: Remembering the deadline Santa Ana River flood 80 years ago

As someone who loves local history and first-hand accounts of historic events, I’m happy to turn over today’s column to my father, Don Jerome.
In March, 1938, my dad was just a few months shy of being 5 years old.  His family owned a 15-acre orange grove in South Placentia near the intersection of what is now Miraloma Avneue and Miller Street.
Eighty years ago this week, the Jeromes found themselves in the middle of the biggest flood in Orange County history.
Don Jerome at the corner of Miller Road and Miraloma Avenue in south Placentia where his family’s ranch house once stood. Jerome brought a map of the house he had drawn showing where the house, barn, pump house, bunk house, cistern would have been. A gas station now occupies the property. (Courtesy of David Jerome)The Jeromes ranch home that was washed off of it’s foundation and stacked up with two other houses across the street in South Placentia, March, 1938. (Courtesy of Don Jerome)South Placentia completely flooded, telephone poles halfway submerged. (Courtesy of Don Jerome)Don Jerome almost 5 years old riding “the ol’ grey mare” with his 82-year old grandfather, Henry Jerome spotting him. February, 1938, just one month before both would be involved in the flood. (Courtesy of Don Jerome)Show Caption of Expand
The Santa Ana River flood did more than a billion dollars worth of damage (in today’s dollars), and more than 100 people lost their lives.
My dad is now just a few months shy of 85 years old, and a life-long resident of Orange County.  A few years ago, he wrote down his story for the future benefit of his grandchildren, but I found it too good not to share with everyone:
“The Santa Ana River Flood of 1938,” by Don Jerome
My parents told me it had been raining for several days, more than normal rain amounts for that time of the year.  There was no Prado Dam or any dam further up in the mountains.  People had been piling old junk cars and other debris around the bridge to try to slow the Santa Ana River and hold back the water.
Sometime before midnight, the pressure behind the bridge gave way.
My mother said she could hear the roar of the water before all the lights suddenly went out.
My 82-year-old grandfather and I shared a bedroom.  My sister, Bobbie, was staying overnight in Placentia with a girlfriend and my mother and father were at home that night.
Soon, the water was running through our entire house.  When my parents woke Grandpa Henry and told him that the dam had broken and we were being flooded, he thought they were playing another practical joke on him.
Not until they made him sit up on the edge of the bed and put his feet down on the floor did he believe we were in trouble.
We had a one-legged handyman named Lyle Culp living outside in the bunkhouse.
There was a loud yell at the back of the house.  Lyle had climbed to the top of my swing, which was made from old oil casting pipe, and had a very high cross bar. As soon as he saw my mother come to the kitchen to see what the noise was, he jumped into the swirling water, attempting to make it to the back porch.
My mother grabbed a broom and extended it in his direction. My dad held onto my mother’s waist and they dragged Lyle into the kitchen where the water was already knee-high.
The water in our house eventually reached the height of the keyboard on our upright piano.
Back then, houses weren’t anchored down, and the rising flood waters lifted our house right off of its foundation.
At first, I don’t believe that my parents realized that our house had started to float away.  Imagine their surprise when they discovered their house was actually moving!
Our house floated across the orange grove, onto the country road called Miller Street, and bumped into our neighbor’s house.  Our house dislodged the second house, which belonged to my cousin, Darrell Holloway.
The two floating homes eventually settled next to a third ranch home.  The three houses had come together in a triangle.  The distance we had floated while inside the house was about two city blocks.
The other families were all on the roofs of their homes.  As soon as we stopped, we could hear a neighbor yelling, “Jeromes!  Are you in there?”
My father grabbed onto a bedroom window, gave a big, quick jerk and the whole window came out frame and all.  We were passed through the window hole on to the roof.
Some bedding had been passed through the window before the last man came up.  Just as we were getting settled-in on top of our pea-gravel roof, it began to rain.  The last thing I remember that night was my mother holding a blanket over my head as I fell  asleep.
The next day, the Placentia School District sent a boat for us.  A lady in the boat dropped a watch overboard and someone was able to pick it out of the water.  Then, Lyle Culps’ wooden peg leg came floating by and someone was able to retrieve it.
I remember everyone in the boat being so happy.
The boat took us to dry land at Orangethorpe Avenue and Miller.  There were many people and friends from Placentia waiting for us as we got off the boat.  We had just what we were wearing, but I am sure my parents felt very blessed to be all together on dry land.
Our home in downtown Placentia had been leased to the principal of Valencia High School, so we had to wait for it until school was out.
My father had a grocery store in the Placentia business district. My parents and I moved into the back storage room of the store.
We lived there about four months, with my mother doing all the cooking on a small gas plate. My sister stayed with our friends the Christensens, and Grandpa Henry stayed with other relatives.
After the water went down and my father could get back out to the ranch, he said the first thing he saw was one of our large sow pigs piled up on our living room couch, which had been under water.
Many ranch hands and animals had drowned or were found days later clinging to the branches up in the orange trees.
Our church friends and neighbors from downtown Placentia were all good to help us get back on our feet.  Ida Brumett washed and dried many loads of clothes for us.  Important papers and pictures were dried in the Christensen’s barn on onion drying shelves.
A short time before the flood, we had acquired a German Shepherd dog from a family that lived in Anaheim.  The dog had been tied to our house to keep him from running away.  When the house washed off the foundation, the dog was freed.
The distance from our ranch to where the dog had lived before in Anaheim was four miles.  Three days after the flood, the man we got the dog from called my dad and said the dog had appeared on his front porch that morning.  The dog was wet, dirty and extremely tired.
My dad did not know how he got from our ranch back to his old home in Anaheim.  The entire distance had been under water.  The man wanted us to come pick the dog up.  My father told him that if the dog was that attached to his old home, he better just keep him there.
My parents had our ranch house moved back to it’s original location.  They cleaned up the house into the best shape they could, and sold it.  I am sure someone got a good deal, but my parents were done with ranch living.
My father had owned the grove for three years.  The first year, the crop of oranges was ready to pick and a bad freeze came and froze the oranges.  The next year, the Santa Ana winds came and blew all the fruit off the trees.  Then the third year, the flood destroyed everything.
I don’t believe he gave it a second thought when he sold our ranch home and moved back to downtown Placentia.
David Jerome, better known as Mr. Bucketlist, is an author and resident of Fullerton. Follow more of his adventures at Email him at
Source: Oc Register

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