Thirteen-year-old Thelma Elizabeth McCawley had been in bed with the measles when the St. Francis Dam Disaster hit Fillmore at 2 a.m. Against her mother's wishes, she got up, ran out out of the house,
fell in the water and was swept 10 miles downriver to Santa Paula, holding her breath every time the torrent would pull her under.
Thelma lived to tell about it. The rest of her family was not so lucky.
Following a prolonged recovery at the home of a kindly nurse in Santa Paula, Thelma went to live with distant cousins, the Anlaugh family, in Bardsdale (across the river from Fillmore). The Anlaughs
eventually received a $15,000 settlement from the city of Los Angeles for the wrongful deaths of Milford S. McCawley, 46, Helen Mae McCawley, 36, and Stanton E. McCawley, 17. (Anlaugh is spelled "Anlauf" in the city's list of claimants.)
This is Thelma's story as she told it March 12, 2010, to Susan Cuttriss of the Fillmore Historical Museum. The setting is Thelma's home in Bardsale where she is accompanied by her son, Doug Shaw, and friend Marge Labarge.
Thelma McCawley Shaw was 99 when she died at home on Oct. 13, 2014. She was laid to rest in Bardsdale Cemetery, joining the rest of her family.
[Download higher-resolution version] [Original Dolby video version]
Questions appear in italics. Most questions are shortened or paraphrased.
When were you born?
I was born December 19th, 1914, in Fairmead, California. It's up in the San Joaquin Valley, above Madera, California.
What brought you to Fillmore?
My family used to live here and moved up in the [San Joaquin] valley before I was born. It didn't work out. It was a ranch, 80 acres, and it was all hardpan, like rock. My dad couldn't — he had to have a drilling thing to come in and drill holes to plant a tree, as I recall as a little one.
What was your family name?
Where there McCawleys here in the Bardsdale area?
No. My mother lived here when she was a young girl. I have a picture of her in front of the Bardsdale church, on a bicycle.
What was her last name?
Her name was Helen Mae Chadsey.
Did she meet your father in this area?
Yes. He came here with his brother from Tennessee. They worked on a ranch on South Mountain Road for — I can't remember the name of who he worked for now.
How old were you when the family returned to the Fillmore area?
Thirteen. We came down just before March 13th , because I was in school — whenever school started, September — seventh grade [at Fillmore Junior High].
Where did you settle here?
We went on the other side of the river, on the Fillmore side of the river. My dad was going to work on a cousin's ranch there. That's where we were when the flood hit us.
Can you tell us about that experience?
Yes I can. I know all about it. I was in it. Mother woke me up. I was home with the measles, at the time, from school, and she woke me up and put a coat on me. She thought that it was raining hard, because it was making a noise in the trees. She dressed me, and I said I'm going to get out. She said, "Oh, you foolish child. You can't." And I emphatically said, "I am going to get out." I went out the back door of the house and went right with the flow of the water, over to the main channel — we were across the river [Fillmore side] — and went right into the main channel. And my family, which consisted of my father and brother, 17, and my dad, they went out the other door right into the flow of the water that pushed them, I'm sure, right into the tumbling house. And that's what happened with them. But why I went out the other door, I'll never know. But I — that's what I did.
When you decided to go outside at 2 a.m., could you see the water outside?
Oh, yes. I was in it and washed clear down to Santa Paula. 10 miles. It was just this side of the old Willard crossing that used to be there in Santa Paula.
Were you hanging onto something that kept you afloat?
No. The water was going this way [indicates]. With that volume of water all at once — I've had me [i.e., people have said I was] floating on a mattress and everything else. I don't think a mattress would ever float when it got soaked with water. And besides that, no. I didn't have anything. And when the water would go down like that [indicates] and up, when it went down I'd hold my breath, and then I was all right. When I came up and it would go down again, it was in like that [indicates] quite a bit. Anyway, it piled me up on top of some debris when it went down. You can tell how fast it went because it washed me just 10 miles and deposited me up on top of a pile of debris. With two logs across my legs. And I worked all day long from early morning until 4 o'clock in the afternoon, trying to get the logs off my legs. And I got one off and I couldn't get the other one off. Then about 4 o'clock, I noticed to the east of me, I saw two figures way up east in the river. And I yelled and yelled, "Help!" just as loud as I could. And they were quitting for the day, I found out. They'd been from Fillmore, and I happened to know who they were when they reached me. They kept coming and took me to — there was farmhouse down the old road on the other side of the river. They carried me there, and I told them I had the measles, and I don't know if they contracted the measles or not. But anyway. They took me into Santa Paula, in the car, the family there. That's where I met Mrs. Celinda Potter, who was a practical nurse in Santa Paula for years. All the doctors — apparently at that time they didn't have too many doctors or too many nurses. But they carried me in, and I told her I had the measles. She had them put me on a cot and carry me across the street to her home, fortunately. She bathed me and made a flannel shirt, top, jacket for me. I don't know how she did it that quick. But anyway, she did, and saturated me with hot, camphorated oil on my chest and back. That was long before the doctor ever got there. Fortunately, today, she did. I was there for almost two months with her. She was nursing me back to health. She knew I needed care right away, with the measles and everything. And [being] in the water that long. Well, I wasn't in the water that long, but I was wet all day, up on that pile of debris. She was a loving person. A dear, sweet lady. I can't even explain it. Really, she was just — I've never seen anyone just so dear and so sweet.
Did you stay in contact with her?
Yes, I did. After I graduated from high school, I had a car, and I took her to Yosemite. She had never been there. In the summertime, we drove up to Yosemite and we stayed a few nights and rented a little sort of a cabin deal outside. She enjoyed that very much.
I've heard or read that lost your some of your clothing on the trip down, and you didn't let the rescuers rescue you until they brought you a coat or something?
[Shakes head, no.] I don't know where read that. Oh, no. I'm telling you the truth. I don't care what you say [...] A teacher over in Fillmore — I won't mention the name — told me I had ridden down the river on a mattress. And I looked at him and I said that I was always under the understanding that if you soaked a mattress with water, that it would sink. I said no way.
You said you recognized the people who rescued you—
Yes. They were two young men from Fillmore. They both had worked in that market over in town, over in Fillmore at that time. No, I don't remember where they are [now].
After your recovery, you returned to Fillmore?
I came back and lived with my distant, distant cousins. They already had a family of six children, but two of them were married.
What was their name?
Anlaugh. [Spells it out.]
And then you went back into eighth grade here in town?
Seventh grade I had started here.
Where was the Anlaughs' house?
It's where Beulah Palmer lives, down on Bardsdale Avenue. [...] Mother owned that corner there, right by the church, across from where the Palmers' house is now, right on the corner.
This was your mother's side of the family?
My mother. I have a picture somewhere of my mother and father and baby brother in front of the house.
What do you remember about Fillmore High School?
Well, that's where I fell in love with my husband [Don]. Oh, I don't know. One wintertime, there were about four or five of we girls ditched school. It had snowed, so we drove — somebody had a car, and we drove up to the snow. We ditched school and drove up to the snow. It was a lot of fun.
Your husband also grew up in the Bardsale area?
Yes. Right here [in this house].
Esther is his mother—
[Yes.] She was a Robertson.
What was your mother-in-law like?
Well, she was quite cold, if you know what I mean. I never really — maybe it was me, I don't know. But anyway, I really felt badly that I didn't know her more, and it was up to me to do it.
And her husband had died about the same time you lost your father, in March of 1928?
Oh — he may have. He died from poisoning. He had oil wells up on the hill. He had cut himself with rusty barbed wire, and at that time that they didn't know what to do for [tetanus]. He only lived a short while.
What do you remember about the town of Fillmore?
There used to be a real nice yardage place there — well there were two. Stocker was on the east side of the road going through town, but there was another one on the other side, across from Stocker's. Because I bought some material there to make a dress. It was in the middle of town, on the west side. Smith's were down on the other side.
Smith's grocery store?
No, it was a dress shop and yardage and whatever in there. I think they had a little bit of everything. I know I came up — after I was married, came up from wherever we were, Glendale or Burbank or somewhere, and went in there to buy two wool blankets. And he was upset. He says, "You're taking my last two blankets!" I don't know why. That's what they were in there for.
So you moved away for a while after you were married?
Yes. Don answered an ad, and he went down south to work in the aircraft [industry]. That's what he studied for when he was in college, and then he went to work.
Were you married while he was in college?
No, we weren't married until he was finished. We were married in 1936.
Where did he go to college?
He started at UCLA and didn't like it. So then he went into drafting [at an aeronautical engineering school at Lockheed]. What was it, two years and no vacation or anything. It was a two-year deal, and you were guaranteed a job when you finished.
So he stayed and worked at Lockheed his whole career?
No. His mother wasn't well, and he decided we should come up here. We had two little boys, and down in the town, living in town wasn't for two little boys. She needed help here, so we moved back to Fillmore.
We're sitting in the house she was living in, as well?
They built this house, she and her husband.
I remember reading about their wedding. I guess it was a really rainy night, and they said they were going to come up to — perhaps this house?
No, they lived up on the hill over there [indicating], before they built this one. He worked in the oil fields, her husband. Esther's husband.
He was Tom Shaw, and her brother was Tom Robinson, and Emily's husband was Tom Wildman—
Yeah. They were all Toms. I hadn't thought of that.
What year did you graduate from high school?
Did you continue to have class reunions?
Up until a point. Then we haven't had any in a long, long time. It takes somebody to head it. And I think most all of them have passed away, to tell you the truth.
Do you remember your first car?
No, not too well. I know we went down to Los Angeles to pick it up, to look for one. [No,] it wasn't a new car. I don't even remember what kind it was.
Did you feel the effects of the Great Depression?
Not too much. I don't recall.
Any special memories of World War II?
Well my husband tried to get into World War II, but they wouldn't take him because he had polio when he was little. It affected one arm. So when he was in high school he threw the discus. He could do that.
Did you know about segregation here? Did you know Mexicans had to sit on one side of the theater and whites on the other?
I think we only had two Mexicans in school at the time. There weren't very many. There was one real nice looking one. What in the heck did we call him? Not Pretty Boy, but something [like that].
What did you do for fun?
My brother, who was four years older than I, used to build things. He'd build a wagon, and we played with the wagon. All kinds of stuff like that. ... I had a collie dog that I say he taught me how to roller skate. ... We were living up in the San Joaquin Valley and our road was hard. It wasn't paved ... I'd take hold of the fur on the back of [the dog's] haunches, and he'd run down the road and pull me — I was squatted down — so I could gain confidence to be able to stand up. And that's how I learned to roller skate.
What were some of your favorite toys as a child?
Well, I had a nice sleepy-eyed doll. And a cradle and a chest to put her clothes in. And — Mother was artistic, and when we'd do things, it would be like, for Valentine's, she'd do Valentine's hearts with lace doilies and stuff. It was fun. I loved to do that, which I did a lot of, not being able to go anywhere or do anything.
Did you join any of the dance clubs in town?
No, my husband didn't like to dance. I tried. I love dancing. I tried, but it didn't take.
What kind of social activities did you participate in?
The church. We did a lot in [Bardsdale Methodist] church. ... It was a fun time anyway. My husband and I were in the kitchen down at the church. We fixed it or had it fixed. And the bathroom there. They complained that it was so dull; well, we put some bright colors in there. And now I think it was too bright. ... We had some plays that we did for a fun night at the church, in the basement.
What happened to Bardsdale School after the flood? Did it have to close for a couple of years?
Well, Fillmore always wanted the school money. They were pushing [unification] all the time; that's what I understood.
[The Bardsdale school was condemned after the flood; it later reopened. Today it is closed.]
[Dismissively] It has gone through all kinds of earthquakes, and look at it. ... The schoolhouse is still there in good shape.
Video courtesy of the Fillmore Historical Museum.