JEFFERSONVILLE — When Jeffersonville librarian Diane Stepro first saw the box of audio recordings, she had no idea what they were. Dust flew in her face when she opened the box, and most of the labels had fallen off the audio cassettes.
After listening to a few minutes of a couple tapes, she realized they were the voices of Jeffersonville residents who survived the Great Flood of 1937.
"Tears came to my eyes when I realized these were the voices of people who had passed," she said.
The Jeffersonville Township Public Library's new digitization project means that these voices will no long be hidden away in a box — the library will soon make the audio interviews with the flood survivors easily accessible online on the Indiana Memory digital archives by April 30, 2020. The interviews were recorded in the 1980s, and librarians recently rediscovered the box of cassettes while preparing for the library's renovations.
The library is completing the project with the support of a grant from the Institute for Library and Museum Services. Stepro, the library's genealogy and local history librarian, said her team will digitize about 38 to 40 interviews, and the project will likely consist of about 40 hours of interviews.
The project team also includes two digitization technicians who will transcribe the interviews, including Eden Kuhlenschmidt and Jen Weidner. They started work after receiving the grant money in September, and they have listened to four of the interviews so far. The grant covered $4,162 of the project's $4,924 budget.
The interviews tell the story of the historic flood that engulfed the city — 90 percent of Jeffersonville was flooded, according to the National Weather Service, and clips from the audio recordings were used in a 1984 library documentary project called "Mud, Sweat and Tears" about the flood. Some of the people featured in the tapes include Francis Beard, a local teacher, and Edwin Coots, coroner/funeral home director who was acting mayor in Jeffersonville at the time of the flood.
For Kuhlenschmidt, the resilience of these flood survivors is what stands out to her as she listens to the tapes. These residents stayed in Jeffersonville and tried to make lives better for themselves after the city was submerged in water.
"They were just starting to come out of the Great Depression," she said. "The flood could have totally wiped out the city...We did have quite a number of people who were older that left whose kids were in Indianapolis, Seattle and all over the country, and they insisted that their older parents come and live with them. But younger families, middle-aged families of all economic classes chose to stay here and make Jeffersonville work again. I think that resilience speaks strongly to people being able to survive. Probably a lot of them still had nightmares about rising flood waters, particularly when the '45 flood came along."
In addition to the interviews with flood survivors, they will be digitizing video interviews with employees of Quartermaster Depot, which the library has "had on the shelf for a long time," according to Stepro. The project also includes an interview about the concrete industry in Indiana.
"They just provide a lot of information about what went on at Quartermaster Depot, and that’s so important," she said. "One thing I’ve really learned since I’ve been here is that it’s important on a lot of different levels, not just only for knowledge of history and understanding of manufacturing, especially during wartime and the United States, but also because what went on in a place with that much manufacturing has environmental impacts on the community that are ongoing."
Kuhlenschmidt said it has been exciting to come across information she didn't know about the 1937 flood. She had previously assumed the post office had shut down in Jeffersonville during the flood, but while listening to one of the interviews, she learned otherwise.
"I did not know until listening to the first tape that they continued to operate — it moved out to the school at Port Fulton," she said. "[The school] was both the Red Cross health clinic for those who stayed down during the flood, and it was the post office. Now, they couldn't actually go out and deliver, because they didn't know who was still left in town or not, but you could go up, show ID and get your mail."
In the interviews, Francis Beard, a teacher at the Port Fulton school, discussed her memories of the American Red Cross setting up the clinic at the school building. She also recalled how inmates from the local jail set up sandbags during the 1937 flood, but during the 1945 flood, that duty fell to German prisoners of war.
George Bere, another of the flood survivors interviewed in the recordings, lived on Maple Street, and his house was high enough to escape flood damage. He moved his parents and his brother's family into the house, and when water reached his neighbors' first floor, he moved them in as well. At that point, there were 17 people staying at his home as the flood waters surrounded them.
The digitization of these interviews means that "history is no longer hidden and these people's stories are no longer hidden," Kuhlenschmidt said.
"Their descendants will be able to listen to them and know what their ancestors' voices sounded like, their speech patterns and the stories of what they lived through," she said.
Stepro said the digitization project will be beneficial for historians interested in the 1937 flood and those interested in learning more about their family histories.
"I think that my main focus as a librarian is on family history information, and it's going to provide context for the things when you look up when you're doing genealogy," she said. "I have a lot of things like census and tax lists and traffic tickets that I can offer people, but this is more backstory."
They are going to make the interviews accessible to anyone in the world, she said.
"I hope Ken Burns calls," she said.