Thursday, March 6, 1997
Tough little town
drenched but still alive

The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEWTOWN - At the intersection where Newtown Road becomes Church Street and Ohio 32 turns into Main sits a little place called Main Street Cafe. Three years ago, it was called Newtown Yacht Club. That was supposed to be a joke.

But now you can see the water's edge from the window, and people from CNN and NBC news are munching owner Pauline Murrie's sweet potato fries. A red canoe floats nearby, at the shoreline that was formerly Peggy Gardner's front yard. She awoke at dawn Wednesday to ''a sight I'll never forget.''

Firefighters, knee-deep in the flood water outside her house, stood in a circle around two Wave Runners. Praying.

Sad, not deadly

Peggy's daughter, Amber, 17, fled, packing up as much as she could stow in her dad's car - two suitcases and 15 grocery bags. Peggy, a teacher at Northern Kentucky University, paces on the porch of her Main Street house.

''I'm 29 inches away from losing the first floor,'' she says of the water lapping at her feet. Two men in orange slickers check to make sure the gas is off. Geez, I sure hope so. Everybody seems to be smoking. ''Don't mention my name,'' says one, ''my mom thinks I quit.''

''Nerves,'' Peggy says, pointing to blotches on her neck. It's not like Falmouth or in New Richmond, where people had little warning and the water raced in with deadly swiftness. People here had some time, some warning. They're worried, not scared.

Jeani Ross spent all night clearing out her basement. Branches of an artificial Christmas tree, stereo speakers and cans are stacked in her dining room. She's trying to coax her cat, Mr. Mickey, to leave the house. He thinks he'll stay.

An old story

Across the street is Arnold's BP, where Mike Arnold placidly pumps gasoline. He has seen it all before. In fact, it's kind of a family tradition.

His grandfather bought this property in 1903. It was a hotel and livery stable. People drove livestock here from Batavia, stayed overnight, then went on to the stockyards in Cincinnati.

A faded photo from 1937 shows Grandpa Arnold's straw hat floating down Church Street. ''The women and children went to high ground,'' he says, ''and the men stayed here in town at the Methodist church.'' They climbed a ladder every night to sleep in the sanctuary.

Mike, who lives behind his gas station, was born the year of the 1937 flood. The next time the water really rolled into Newtown was 1964. ''My dad built the house up high. I'll get about 8 inches of water in my basement.''

Under a glass top on his battered desk, he keeps a running tally of high water. The Little Miami River frequently has been a troublesome neighbor.

Somebody else, a relative, started the list in 1832. Mike keeps it up with some notes to himself. The river crested Jan. 26, 1937, just under 80 feet. On March 11, 1964, the river crested at 66.2 feet. Flood stage is 52 feet at Cincinnati. ''It takes,'' Mike says with authority, ''63 feet to get Newtown.''

Ever think of moving? His handsome face crinkles with amusement, and he shrugs, pointing to the list with a mechanic's hand, cracked and blackened with oil. ''We've only really gotten wet here three times in the past 60 years.''

This tough little town has survived high water and may even survive the yuppie upstarts in Ivy Hills. A Dairy Queen, a good one, already had the edge over a neighboring UDF during ice cream season. Wait until next summer. Wednesday morning, the United Dairy Farmers store had an inhospitable sign advising flood victims to park elsewhere. People here don't forget things like that.

They'd rather spend money with folks they like. They get their gas from Mike Arnold and have their pictures made by Dave Massie, who owns the photo studio on Main. They like the Calypso Dip at Main Street Cafe and buy fresh millet for their birds and kibble for their dogs at Newtown Feed & Supply.

As you drive into town from the east, down a road that surely was a cattle path from Batavia when Mike's grandfather ran the old hotel, there's a sign: ''Newtown. Village founded 1792.''

Some residents are gone, scattered to relatives' homes and shelters. But it's only temporary. They'll be back.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.