What happens to a summer resort community, full of generations of close-knit families, when the Mighty Mississippi floods? The disaster inspires unparalleled levels of support and brings neighbors even closer together.
A short drive outside of St. Louis, on the muddy banks of the Mississippi is Chautauqua, Illinois, a small community built by generations of families and named for the Navajo word for gathering, who spend the summer together. As a 16-year-old girl from Delaware, I have a unique perspective of this neighborly community.
My family tradition of visiting Chautauqua has taken me here for the third summer in as many years. Life moves slow on the banks of the Mississippi, and Chautauqua is no exception to the rule.
This summer in particular, after spring floods that devastated entire communities throughout the midwest, the easy, relaxed charm of this small town changed as many residents worked to restore water and mud stained structures. Recreational activities were also limited because of the flooding.
In the mid-morning sun, most folks go outside to find a friend to kill time with. There is no itinerary to the day and the boundaries between public and private matters are blurred. No conversation, regardless of the topic, is immune from interruption from a neighbor. The lack of privacy is ubiquitous and makes me aware of my east coast values where this behavior would be considered troubling.
The town hall’s precise chime, ringing out Onward Christian Soldiers, every day at high noon, let’s people know it’s time to congregate on porch swings to shoot the breeze with one another, a beloved common activity.
The floods in April and May this year were the third worst in the small town’s history. It has changed the nature of this resort community. Where families would boat on the Mississippi, children would swim in the pool, or people would go to church on Sundays, they have to alter their daily activities.
These activities were off limits this summer because the Mississippi flooded multiple times this past spring. Families were unable to boat because of the debris in the water, children couldn’t swim in the mud filled pool, and the Chapel was flooded to the custom stained-glass windows.
Despite the lack of the usual activities, people of Chautauqua – a town with only 100 cottages – still came together to enjoy each other’s company and support one another. People unable to use the river or other amenities would have long talks with their neighbors about how they would continue the cleanup momentum caused by the flood.
These discussions lead to action. Although the pool remained muddy all summer, the tennis courts were cleaned up, the roads were repaved, and cottage owners started to repair the damages done to their homes. By summer’s end, with most of the heavy construction and repair work done, house visits became en vogue again.
After dinner, most folks socialize by chatting with each other, a continuation of the day’s earlier activities, slow and unstructured. Children usually ride bicycles, supervised by the teenagers, until bedtime. We missed the sunset boat rides on the river this summer, which still aren’t possible.
Even without a summer program, Chautauqua’s core values of friendship, family, and summer fun still remain untouched by the tides of change and seem to get stronger. A lack of traditional recreation brought people together. People still talk face to face and neighbors still drop in on conversations.
This summer, I realized that while I am an East Coast girl at heart, I can appreciate and enjoy life that moves a bit slower on the banks of the Mississippi. When a river floods it can be both a burden and a blessing. Witnessing people coming together to support their neighbors, providing a measure of support for those whose homes and many belongings were wiped out by the flood is truly special.