When JaneAnn Oldrup tells people her family’s Roswell home was swept under a bridge in a flood, people don’t believe her. After all, the lot at West Seventh Street and North Washington Avenue was empty for decades before becoming a city park.
But now, a plaque — installed just days before the 66th anniversary of the flood — commemorates the event, alongside a gazebo donated by Oldrup.
“No one believes our house washed away. That just doesn’t happen in Roswell,” Oldrup said in her home Wednesday on Highland Road, not too far west of the park.
Monday marked the 66th anniversary of that flood, and the city Parks and Recreation Department placed a plaque next to the gazebo on Friday that includes a photo of the destroyed house and a description of the flood.
It’s an addition to the park that’s been in the works for years, since Oldrup and her brother, Larry, donated the land to the city in 2008 after their mother’s death two years before.
After the flood swept away the house, her parents never did anything with the land, other than buying the lot next door. Their neighbors’ house was damaged in the flood and torn down.
“They just never would do anything with that lot,” Oldrup said.
Her mother even refused to have a dead tree cut down until the city sent a notice.
Oldrup was only 3 years old in 1954, so she doesn’t have many memories other than a life-long fear of heavy rainstorms and lightning. But over the years, her parents did share some of the events of that night, and Oldrup has a collection of newspaper clippings from the time.
It began raining just before 7 p.m. the night of May 17, 1954, according to an article in the next day’s Roswell Daily Record. The municipal airport recorded 2.5 inches and Walker Air Force Base 2.82 inches. Only 0.37 of an inch had fallen in Roswell up to that day for the year.
Oldrup’s father, Ole, told the Daily Record in 1954 he had kept an eye on the water levels throughout the night. The house sat about 70 feet from the river’s edge.
About 11:30 p.m., he and his wife, Jane, decided to go to bed. Just minutes later, their neighbor to the west, Swayze Clarke, called and said water was coming into their house.
“I went to look out the front door and saw the water beginning to come into our front yard. I called to Jane and told her to pick up JaneAnn and get her into the car,” he told the paper.
Her father grabbed a few items and her brother, then 5, and joined them in the car. By then it was 11:45 p.m. and the water was up to the hubcaps.
“I know the car wouldn’t start,” Oldrup remembered. “We got in mother’s Buick.”
Her mother’s car started and the family drove to a friend’s house on higher ground about 100 yards east on Seventh Street.
“When dad walked back down to the house, it was gone,” she said.
“Swayze saw the house go down. It caught on fire when it went down and it hit the bridge,” she said.
“So we got out in the nick of time,” she said.
“Family cheats death by minutes,” a headline in the next day’s paper read. Photos show the demolished house and the Clarkes’ car jammed up against the bridge.
“Everything we owned was gone. All we had on was our night clothes because we were in bed,” she said.
But the community responded. The Red Cross provided clothes and blankets, and people brought them donations as well, Oldrup said.
“We have a cabin at Ruidoso, and we still have blankets that somebody had given us. And they have their brand on them from their ranch. People really gave to us because we had nothing,” she said.
Among the family’s lost possessions were her parents’ wedding photos. That was what most upset her mother, Oldrup said.
“The only thing that bugged her was that her wedding pictures weren’t there. They called the photographer and he said he didn’t have them,” she said.
Years later, however, copies of the photos were found among the possessions of a recently deceased relative and given to her mother.
Oldrup’s father was building a house on South Michigan at the time of the flood, and the family lived with Oldrup’s grandmother until it was finished.
The family had already sold the house, but after the flood, the sale didn’t go through. Oldrup isn’t sure why her parents held onto the lot or purchased the neighboring lot, however. They still had the mortgage, though.
“I’ll never forget Dad when he finally paid off the house, he had a really big celebration,” she said.
“Larry and I couldn’t figure out why Mother and Dad were so funny about that lot,” she said.
After her mother’s death, she and her brother decided to sell the property, Oldrup said. Neighbors near the lot approached them and offered to buy half the property if they would donate the land to the city for a park. Oldrup and her brother, who died in 2016, agreed.
“Once the family donated the property, we cleaned it up, planted trees all the way around it, installed an irrigation system, planted grass. We’ve maintained it over the years,” said Jim Burress, Roswell Parks and Recreation director.
The Spring River Corridor Foundation contacted Oldrup several years ago to encourage her to place something there to commemorate the flood.
Oldrup decided she wanted a gazebo on the spot where the home used to be, and worked with the city to create the plaque. The Parks Department put together the gazebo and also installed a table, grill and a trash can.
“It’s a nice little park. With the new donation, that makes it more useful,” Burress said. “It’s a place to stay that’s peaceful and quiet, especially along the trail where you can take a minute.”
The park does not have a name, Burress said, but in the Parks and Recreation Department, it’s known as JaneAnn’s Park.
Oldrup, who is chairwoman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, said she’s happy to hear from the Parks Department the area is used quite a bit among people in the neighborhood. She said she sometimes goes there after church with coffee to enjoy the gazebo.
“It has turned out to be a neat little park,” she said.
City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or email@example.com.