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Rising Above the Big Flood
Julius Villaume had kept a journal for years, jotting down weather and other information in it. On the fourteenth of April 1952, he made an unusual entry. It read: "temperature 38, skies overcast, plant flooded, came to work by rowboat." There had been floods on the Mississippi before, but the 1952 deluge was much more severe. On the ninth of April, water began to back up into the basement of the Villaume factory. Workers built wood and sand dikes around the main building, but the adjacent lumberyard was soon swamped by several feet of water. On Easter Sunday, April 13, the swollen Mississippi broke through the makeshift dikes and flooded the basement and some of the first floor. At nine that night the fire department showed up. There was no blaze, but the flood had set off the automatic fire sprinkler system. Investigators determined that the sprinkler system's shut-off valve was located under nine feet of water and a professional diver had to be brought in to turn it off.
The company decided to open on Monday. For several days, employees were met by truck at the nearest dry street and driven through low water toward the plant. They then transferred to a rowboat and were taken to an outside stairway leading to the second floor. Special power lines were sent into the plant's upper floors and the millwork department continued to function. Other lumber firms actually came to the aid of the Villaume Company. One of them offered space and a special phone line was installed between their switchboard and the West Side. They even allowed deliveries to be made from their own stocks in loaned trucks. The clean up began on April 21st, after the flood had receded. Scores of saws, joiners, sanders, and motors were out of commission. Lumber had to be cleaned up and restacked. Business had been lost, there were major stock and property damages to address, and 125 workers had been laid off for a week.
By the mid 1950s the box division at Villaume had become the largest consumer of native- grown lumber in Minnesota other than the lumber that was used in home construction. Millwrights at Villaume had developed some new types of custom-designed wooden containers for clients' specialized requirements for packaging everything from South St. Paul meats to delicate electronic assemblies for 3M. Consequently production had nearly quadrupled. The building boom of the 1950s and '60s, spurred by the rapid development of the suburbs, helped the company's lumber business.