Moving to Higher Ground, School Will Still Be Town's Center

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Valmeyer, Ill.

Defining home and community has become a game of connect the dots for this tiny farm town.

Built 90 years ago in a fertile valley along the Mississippi River, Valmeyer was uprooted last year by the Midwest floods that left nearly 70,000 people homeless. Now, the entire town is packing up and moving to higher ground as part of a federal disaster-relief experiment.

Ground was broken on a new site in June, but the town's churches, stores, and other landmarks exist only as numbered dots on a hand-drawn map of what will become Valmeyer.

The town's school will be built on dot number 25, in the center of the new town.

A Sense of Community

The location is symbolic. In the aftermath of the flood, the school, which serves all grades, was the only antidote to the uncertainty and isolation that troubled many of the town's 900 residents.

Now, as the town faces a new beginning, the school may become the point where Valmeyer's past fuses with its future.

Earlier this month, as Harold R. Baum drove through the 20-mile Mississippi River flood plain known as "The Bottom," combines were making their first pass of the season through the cornfields.

A little more than a year ago, in August 1993, Mr. Baum, the Valmeyer schools superintendent, had traveled over these same roads in a Coast Guard boat. Flood waters were so high then that "you had to duck the tree branches and the electrical wires," he said.

Mr. Baum, 64, had taken a similar ride many years ago. At age 13, he was on the town's levee when flood waters topped its walls one night in 1943. The river eventually rose enough to strand him there until a Coast Guard crew could fetch him the next morning.

Both that flood and another in 1947 lasted only a few days. But the floods of last year--now known as the "Great Flood of 1993"--covered much of Valmeyer for the better part of three months.

A few days after the flood began, Valmeyer residents met to weigh three options for their children: split them up and send them to schools in other districts, hold classes in the afternoon and evening at nearby schools, or build a temporary site for the school.

By an overwhelming majority, the town voted to move the school to a temporary site on the county fairgrounds.

"The people did not want to give up the school," Mr. Baum said. "They felt that they had already given up more than they could stand to lose."

The town rallied around the notion that they had to keep their children together, and volunteers came out by the dozens to erect portable classrooms. On Sept. 8 of last year, a little more than a month after the flood, the school opened.

"That's what held everybody together--school starting," said Mary E. Niebruegge, the director of the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program at the school.

The fairgrounds--the home to the county's tractor-pulls, demolition derbies, and cattle shows--were far from a conventional educational setting.

The staff and faculty worked hard to re-create the old school's atmosphere and sense of community. Small props--flagpoles and bells to change classes--were added to make the fairgrounds look and feel more like a school.

With so many families from the tightly knit community now scattered, a county map was hung that marked where each student lived. The sports teams patched together seasons, even if it meant going to extraordinary lengths. The Pirates boys' basketball team, for example, practiced before school each day at 6:30 A.M. in a gym miles away.

Perhaps the strongest signal of normalcy was the continued dominance of the school's Future Farmers of America club, its pride and joy, in state competitions. Last year, the club hung on the wall its 10th-straight first-place plaque in the soil-judging category.

Lives Set Adrift

As the children went back to school, adults who tried to plot the future found themselves powerless to set a new course.

For the first few months, waters were so high that many families could only inspect their damaged homes from afar and speculate about when they might return.

"My husband and I stood on the bluff and tried to see how high the water was around the house," said Jane M. McCarthy, a teacher at the school. "But there are so many trees around it that we couldn't tell."

The decision to build a new town settled some anxieties, but many families were left living in limbo.

Some moved in with relatives. Others moved into "FEMAville," the nickname for the trailer park set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Over the course of the year, however, the stability that the school offered to students began to touch their parents' lives.

Setting up the temporary school "was probably the best decision that we have made," said Dennis M. Knobloch, the Mayor of Valmeyer. "The school has been the only thing that we've had as a constant through all of this."

The school also kept many families in the area who had every reason to move.

"It's a very good school," said Shirley L. Stafford, whose daughter attends 1st grade. "I went there, and my husband went there. We had looked at other places to live, but they were always in the Valmeyer district."

"Unless the school had stayed together, there never would have been a new town," Mr. Baum said. "I'm convinced of that. The people who stayed here stayed because they wanted their kids in a small school with its own identity."

Rebuilding Experiment

Last month, school reopened for a second year at the fairgrounds. The town, meanwhile, continues to struggle to find its bearings.

What was left of Valmeyer when the waters receded and the mud dried has been abandoned. For months, houses and businesses along Main Street have stood empty, their doors hanging open to reveal gutted interiors.

The families who lived and worked there remain in FEMAville or other temporary arrangements.

This winter, families will begin to move into their new homes on higher ground. But whether they can turn a cluster of dots on a map into a town remains a question.

"Valmeyer is a brave and bold experiment--and, I stress, experiment," said Larry W. Zensinger, the FEMA coordinator of Midwest relocation programs.

When Congress passed $6.2 billion in relief for the Midwestern flood victims, it included more than $100 million to relocate victims.

Most families and businesses took the money and moved to other towns. Three towns--Valmeyer, Chelsea, Iowa, and Pattonsburg, Mo.--took the offer of federal help to relocate their entire communities.

Chelsea is waiting for approval of its funding. In Pattonsburg, federal officials ruled that the school and several other public buildings did not sustain enough damage to get money for relocation.

"It's just stupid to move the whole town and not the school," said Gene Walker, the superintendent of the Pattonsburg district.

In Valmeyer, the federal government eventually will spend $20 million to move the town. The makeup of the town will change, Mr. Zensinger said, as it will have to compete with other areas to bring in new people and businesses.

The new Valmeyer Community School that is slated to open by January 1996 will also be much different from its predecessor.

Preliminary designs for the $9 million project suggest that it will be a showcase school. It will cover 100,000 square feet, 20,000 more than the old school.

The library will also be a technology wonderland, with classroom computers tapped into a central server and the Internet.

And many of the faces in the hallways will be different. Seventy of the school's 550 students have moved away, Mr. Baum said.

But the school's past will not be forgotten. Walking the grounds of the old school this month, Mr. Baum pointed out the terra-cotta tiles that ring its exterior.

Each tile depicts an Egyptian pyramid. Southern Illinois is sometimes called "Little Egypt" after the country that also sits alongside a big river. Designers of the school in 1938 chose an Egyptian theme, according to Mr. Baum.

"I don't see why you can't take a good tile cutter and cut that out," he said. "We might just do that."

Vol. 14, Issue 03

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