Mean old river: Vassar was ground zero during flood of 1986

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Betty Jo Atkins, 82, of Vassar, points to a spot along the west side of the Cass River in Vassar where workers would measure the height of the Cass River, in background. Atkins’ husband, the last Bob Atkins, teamed with his brother, the late Fred Atkins, to run Atkins Hardware for decades. The business was hit hard by the flood of 1986. (Photo by John Cook)

Through the years, when the Cass River and Moore Drain overflowed in Vassar, Betty Jo Atkins could measure the water’s height inside her family business, Atkins Hardware, with a yardstick.

After skies unleashed torrential rain across mid-Michigan in September of 1986, she needed three of them.

“We had probably at least eight floods that we endured in Vassar, but the deepest would have been three feet at that time,” said Atkins, 82, of Vassar, who saw water rise eight feet high inside her business on Sept. 12, 1986.

Media descended upon the city of about 2,700 people, documenting the scene via reports and photographs sent out nationally and internationally.

“Usually during a flood, the water was one foot to a foot-and-a-half high in the store,” Atkins said. “But eight feet was disastrous. That was just a plain old washout. It was horrible.”

In the hardest-hit areas of mid-Michigan, the storm dumped about 12 inches of rain in 36 hours on Sept. 10 and Sept. 11. The deluge was blamed for a number of deaths, and caused several hundred millions of dollars of damage to homes, farms and businesses.

Tuscola, Bay, Saginaw and Midland counties were hit hardest by the flood, but Vassar – founded as a logging town nestled along the Cass River – was ground zero.

Al Denniston, a cook at Shoonie’s Restaurant in downtown Vassar who lived in a second-floor apartment above the business, was awakened early on the morning of Sept. 12 by the sound of a police officer yelling through a bullhorn.

“I thought I was in trouble,” said Denniston, now 57, of Vassar Township. “I was a misbehaver back in them days – we all have those times. That’s the first thought that went through my mind: ‘What did I do?’”

When Denniston walked up to his apartment the night before, water was about one foot high on the stairway leading up to the roof above the back end of the restaurant.

“I’m thinking ‘Well, I’ll get out of here in the morning,’” Denniston said. “About 6:45 in the morning, I hear (an officer announcing) ‘Is there anybody in the apartment? You need to leave.’

“It sounded like a loudspeaker and I hear ‘Is anybody in this apartment? You need to come out!’ I walked out the door and I’m looking at sheriff’s deputies in a boat, eye to eye. I was on the second floor of an apartment looking out at the parking lot behind the (downtown) businesses.

“He was deck level with me, because I stepped off my (rooftop) deck into their boat.”

Newspaper reports of the flood state 87 Vassar families were evacuated in what was called Vassar’s worst flood.

Scrambling to save merchandise as the flood water rose, workers inside Atkins Hardware rounded up 11 canoes, Atkins said.mainstreet

“We just tied all 11 canoes together and started floating them around and throwing (merchandise) into them, and just let ’em rise to the ceiling,” Atkins said. “We lost so much it was unbelievable, but we saved a lot, too.”

Volunteers filled 20,000 sandbags to try to save homes and hardware from the rising waters, but James McCann, Tuscola County emergency services director at the time, said “Some people lost just about everything.”

Officials estimated $323 million of damage across 22 counties. Atkins said the business recorded a loss of about $160,000 due to the 1986 flood. “Now for a small business, that’s a lot of money,” she said.

Denniston, who owns Vassar-based Al’s Property Maintenance – focusing on commercial and residential home repairs and remodeling work – said the flood kept him away from his apartment for about five days.

“The water didn’t get in my apartment, but I was burglarized after the flood,” Denniston said. “That was a heartbreaker. They took all my Army issue clothes – all my field dress, my coats, my pants, my boots, my money and the groceries.

“I was in the U.S. Army Reserves. We had those 36-inch (high) rucksacks. And they packed it full.”

Vassar is no stranger to floods. An exhibit at the Vassar Historical Society Museum, 450 S. West St., includes photos or newspaper articles chronicling Vassar floods in 1898, 1904, 1912, 1927, 1929, 1938, 1941, 1942, 1948 and other years.

Atkins, who began working at the hardware in the 1950s before her husband became co-owner of the business with his brother – the late Fred Atkins – said water rose three feet high in a flood in 1947 or 1948. But hardware workers – prior to 1986 – had been able to save merchandise from rising water, she said.

“We didn’t have flood insurance in 1986,” Atkins said, “because we had always been able to take care of items without damage during a flood. We would get our merchandise up, and clean up afterward and go back in.

“We didn’t have a loan on the building, so we weren’t required to have the flood insurance.” untitled shoot-3225-2

The damage in 1986 struck the business especially hard.

“After that we had to take out a loan … in order to get enough equity back into the business to open up, but we never (financially) recovered to where we were before,” Atkins said. “Never.”

After the 1986 flood receded, it left Cass Avenue and East Huron Avenue covered with black river silt and dead fish. Locals began referring to the locale as the “Combat Zone.”

“These people that have never gone through it will never realize what these people have been going through down South with all the flooding lately, and out East,” Atkins said. “It’s nightmarish. Every time I see it on TV, it puts you through a nightmare again. Nobody can describe the oil and grease, mud, crud – all the stuff that floated through.”

The cleanup effort, however, warmed her heart.

“We had tremendous volunteers – old people, young people,” Atkins said. “It was just unreal how many people came out to volunteer help, and I’ll be forever grateful to them.

“When they say people don’t care anymore, people do care. We had our dissenters, but basically, people care. As far as I’m concerned.”

Though several floods occurred in Vassar after 1986, a $5.6 million flood-control project took place in 2006, partially paid for by a federal grant though landowners in the Moore Drain watershed continue paying assessments through 2026.

“I think it’s deterred a lot,” Atkins said. “If they just keep (waterways) cleaned out, number one, at least the flow of water can get through and not be blocked up.”

“In my opinion, it’s doing what it’s designed to do,” Denniston said. “It’s keeping a lot of the water off the Moore Drain. In the spring, that drain has always come up, and always flooded, but I’ve only seen it flooded about four times since (2006).”

Sarah Pistro, the Tuscola County Drain Commissioner who was petitioned by county residents for flood control to protect Vassar, views the 2006 improvements as effective. untitled shoot-3231

“I haven’t watched (Vassar) on the news too much for flooding since then,” Pistro said.

Pistro said she’d be surprised to see waters reach the height they did in Vassar in 1986, and doesn’t believe such a flood could happen there again.

“But you’ve got to maintain – if the drains are not maintained, anything can happen, because you’re going to have all that sediment built up,” Pistro said.

Bob Mantey, current county drain commissioner, said the 2006 project has significantly reduced impacts of floods in Vassar. Mantey, however, won’t rule out another storm like the one in September of 1986.

“There’s always a chance,” Mantey said. “They call 1986 this ‘100-year storm.’ They talk about things in what constitutes a 100-year storm, and a lot of it’s just related to frequency. They call it a 100-year flood because that’s something easy for people to understand. But what people get caught in is they think it will only happen every 100 years and that’s not true.

“It just means that there’s a 1 percent chance. When you get a storm that lasts all day long, there’s a 1 percent chance that you might get a storm like that.”

Atkins was asked if Vassar could ever see water eight feet high on downtown businesses again.

“Anything could happen,” Atkins said. “We don’t have control of this. You can pray that it doesn’t happen, but anything can happen. Just look around the world. Look at the disasters around the world they haven’t been able to stop.”

Some Vassar stores have been demolished, and some homes razed or relocated, since the 1986 flood.untitled shoot-3232

This year, though, five new businesses have opened along East Huron Avenue (M-15) in what – in 1986 – was part of the “Combat Zone.”

“We have a lot of gaps in Vassar, but we’re coming back,” Atkins said. “I want you to put that in there – I feel so positive about Vassar right now with people having the courage to open up new businesses. I think we’re gonna come back.”

Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at

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