How a river town relocated, with climate lessons for today

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A residential street is filled with single-story homes all built around the same time in Valmeyer, Illinois. This small town was overwhelmed by a 100-year flood event in 1993. Townspeople wanted to stay together and decided to move their town 2 miles away and about 400 feet up. The land for the new town was purchased from a dairy farm.

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When floods overtopped the levees in August 1993, half of Valmeyer was plunged under 14 feet of water. The other half on sloped terrain left houses holding a foot to 8 feet of water. 

As residents of this small Illinois town waited and the receding river revealed its damage, the concept of moving the whole town took shape. Nearly 70% of the people said yes. “They didn’t want to see the town go away,” says Dennis Knobloch, an investment and insurance broker who was mayor at the time.

Why We Wrote This

This Illinois town up and moved after devastating floods. Now perched 400 feet higher, it’s a model of perseverance – but with cautionary lessons – as the idea of forced retreat becomes more common worldwide.

Just a few years later, with help from state and federal funds, the residents were living on higher ground about 2 miles away. The new Valmeyer is neat and orderly, yet there are only a few retail businesses and no recognizable “heart” of the place – a challenge that’s typical in such relocations.

Increasingly, say researchers, the lessons here are relevant as many communities around the world face existential threats of climate change: higher seas, floods from supercharged storms, or furnace heat waves. Experts call the expected pullbacks “managed retreat.”

“I’ll never forget it,” resident Susie Dillenberger says of the smell of rotting debris after the flood. But “we never lost hope.”

It was 1:30 a.m. Dennis Knobloch stood at the top of a hillside cemetery – “that cemetery right there,” he says, pointing over his shoulder. The water was coming. He and others from the town had worked for weeks, sandbagging levees, bulldozing rock and rubble, to try to hold the swelling river. They had failed. His radio crackled: The last levee was gone.

“It’s your call, mayor,” the utility chief said. 

Mr. Knobloch gave the order: Cut the power. He watched as the town below him – his town – flickered to dark, street by street, engulfed by the night and the Mississippi River.

Why We Wrote This

This Illinois town up and moved after devastating floods. Now perched 400 feet higher, it’s a model of perseverance – but with cautionary lessons – as the idea of forced retreat becomes more common worldwide.

“It was the hardest thing I did in my life,” the former mayor says now. 

Hundreds of small Midwest towns like Valmeyer were caught in the Great Flood of 1993. Unlike most of the others, the survival of Valmeyer – born anew, 2 miles away in a cornfield about 400 feet higher – is getting renewed interest 28 years later. 

Increasingly, say researchers, Valmeyer may be a model for communities facing existential threats of climate change: higher seas that flood coastal communities, more frequent floods from supercharged storms, or furnace heat waves that make their accustomed homes unlivable.

The planners look at the trends and say a pullback from vulnerable areas is inevitable. Call it “managed retreat.” Last year in the United States, 1.7 million people had to flee natural disasters, and many found they could not return to their homes. The trends are expected to accelerate.

“Valmeyer remains the poster child of managed retreat in the U.S. up to the present,” says Nicholas Pinter, a professor and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California, Davis.

There have been dozens of complete or partial relocations of towns in American history, Dr. Pinter writes in the journal Issues in Science and Technology. Many were of Native American or Alaskan Inuit communities that were in vulnerable locations to start. Other towns have repeatedly fled rivers – Niobrara, Nebraska, hauled its houses by horse and wagon away from flooding in the Missouri River in 1881 and moved again in 1971.

“We never lost hope”

But many proposed relocations did not succeed. Valmeyer did, with a few asterisks. 

“They made it happen. It wasn’t a bunch of ivory tower or Washington, D.C., experts,” says Dr. Pinter.

When the floods overtopped the levees in August 1993, half of Valmeyer, 30 miles south of St. Louis, was plunged under 14 feet of water. The other half on the sloped terrain left houses holding a foot to 8 feet of water. 

The town had flooded three times before in the 1940s, cleaned up, and survived. This was different. The floodwaters stayed long enough to become fetid, the houses full of rotting debris and mold. A second crest hit a month later.

“The smell. I can’t describe the smell. I’ll never forget it,” says Susie Dillenberger, who lived by one of the levees. She recalls barges bringing rock and rubble up the river to try to reinforce the barrier as the water rose. She worked with other volunteers to fill sandbags. She slept with her family in one room in case they had to flee suddenly.

“We never lost hope,” she recalls. Teams rushed to fill “sand boils,” wet spots where the river snuck under the levees. They labored until a mandatory evacuation was declared and the river rose in their vacated houses.

Doug Struck
Residents of Valmeyer sit in front of the vacant lots of their old houses to watch the annual July Fourth parade, which winds along the mostly abandoned Main Street of old Valmeyer.

As the townsfolk waited they stayed with friends or relatives – and eventually in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, quickly nicknamed “FEMAville.” And they met in the school gyms of nearby towns to begin to think of what to do. As the receding river revealed its damage, the concept of moving the whole town took shape.

How to replant a town

“We took the idea to the residents,” recalls Mr. Knobloch, an investment and insurance broker who four months earlier had been reelected mayor. “We said we have no idea how to do this, and no idea if it’s going to work. We’re not even sure yet what’s involved. But if we try it, will you be willing to be a part of it?” 

Nearly 70% of the people said yes. Many had grown up in Valmeyer, and had families there for two or three generations. “They didn’t want to see the town go away,” he says.

Soon they focused on a 500-acre cornfield on a bluff 2 miles away. Residents split into a bevy of committees to work with planners, engineers, and architects. Within two months, Mr. Knobloch went to Washington with printed plans drawn up by the townsfolk, and asked for money. The politicians were impressed.

Eventually, state and federal governments pledged about 80% of the $33 million cost. The town bought the land on the bluff, pulled numbers from a hat to lottery off lots, and began construction. Mr. Knobloch quit his job – his wife, a microbiologist, supported the family – and worked full time through all the permits, planning, and problems of creating a town from nothing. They dealt with 22 agencies, unexpected limestone sinkholes, protected bat species, and a hurried archaeological excavation when Native American artifacts were found.

“It was gruesome. You know, I don’t really know how my kids remembered what I looked like,” he recalls. “But looking back on it now, with what we were able to achieve, to keep the community together and keep the people together – definitely, it was well worth the time and effort.”

It took three to four years before 700 residents were in homes in the new Valmeyer. Government officials had predicted it would take 10 years. 

Homes, but few businesses

“It’s a success,” says Lyle Schwarze. He had helped fill sandbags to try to save old Valmeyer. But he admits that moving has given the town more life. Because of the flood plain restrictions, he says, “You couldn’t grow in the old place.” 

The town has slowly climbed to 1,300 residents. The new Valmeyer is neat and orderly, with manicured and still-new looking homes. The roads loop and curl into cul-de-sacs, with names like Falcon Pointe, Cedar Bluff Drive, and Hunter’s Ridge. There are cars in every driveway, and few people on the sidewalks. There is no Main Street, no grocery store, and only a few retail businesses – a gas station, a convenience store, a new Dollar General store. There is no recognizable “heart” of the place.

“It’s a bedroom community,” acknowledges Gertie Eshom, who grew up in Valmeyer and now lives in the new town. Other residents say it looks like a suburban housing development. Even the present mayor, Howard Heavner, acknowledges its flaws.

“The commercial part never developed like they hoped it would,” says Mr. Heavner, who taught in the Valmeyer high school for 33 years. “People just shop in St. Louis. They stop on their way back from work.” 

The UC researcher, Dr. Pinter, says that is a common problem. Traditionally, FEMA has “pointedly neglected” giving money to businesses to relocate, he said. 

The town’s proximity to St. Louis – it’s a half-hour drive – has both added to Valmeyer’s appeal and detracted from its rebirth as a self-sufficient town. It is drawing younger residents with its lower housing prices and a small school.

Preserving a sense of community

“Valmeyer is a good small-town community and I knew I wanted to stay here,” says Kyle Kipping, a 29-year-old financial broker who shunned the big city to stay in Valmeyer.

But if there’s no common place to stroll or chat, Valmeyer has found other ways to make a community. The Jaycees, Lions Club, Knights of Columbus, Chamber of Commerce, and school clubs are fervently ambitious. As in many small towns, school events are central to a civic agenda. There are three churches. The Jaycees organize an annual July Fourth Midsummer Celebration that draws thousands of people from the surrounding county. 

The three-day event is not held in new Valmeyer; instead, townsfolk wind their way down the hill to return to a park and baseball field on the old town’s site. 

“We’ve always chosen to keep this event as it was, as kind of a tribute to what we had here before,” says Mr. Knobloch.

Doug Struck
Kevin and Betty Dickineite were among about a dozen families who rejected offers to move and still live in old Valmeyer. "It's peaceful down here," says Mr. Dickineite.

They return to old roads that have faded to gravel beside tilting street signs and a rusted stop sign. Soy fields inch toward the ballpark. Trains still rumble past day and night, hauling chemicals and cars, cargo and cows, to and from St. Louis. The train engineers always salute ghosts of the former town with a loud whistle as they near the empty crossing. 

“It’s peaceful down here,” says Kevin Dickineite, sitting with his wife, Betty, in the yard of their white frame home. They are among about a dozen families who chose not to move. They had just bought their house in Valmeyer before the flood, after living for 10 years in a double-wide trailer in a corn field, and they liked it. 

“The house has four bedrooms, and each of our kids had their own room for the first time,” says Mr. Dickineite. 

“I can understand some of the older people didn’t want to deal with the water again,” adds Betty Dickineite. “But there are younger people who said they wished they had not moved away.”

They watch as former neighbors set up blankets in front of the now-empty lots that once held their homes. The three-day event douses maudlin memories with an extravaganza: an 11-game baseball tourney of impressively skilled amateur teams, bands that crank out rock and country music until past midnight, a parade with fire trucks and tractors that follows the Main Street while clowns throw candy to the kids and pass out drinks. And the fireworks – a main fundraising effort of the Jaycees – light the July 4 night with a close-up sound and fury to rival any big-city show.

Bobbie Klinkhardt whose family owned the town’s largest business, Mar Graphics, watches the parade. Her family determinedly reopened the business in the new town – they only recently sold it to new owners – but she remains wistful for old Valmeyer. “I don’t know why we thought we could ever replace it the way that it was. Do I wish I had stayed? Yes.”

“It’s a community,” she concedes of the new Valmeyer. “It’s just not my community.” 

Even Mr. Knobloch, the architect and indefatigable executor of the move, who has a street named after him in the new town in appreciation for his work, acknowledges what was lost in the relocation. He’s a precise, straightforward man, and his eyes rim red when he talks of his old home. 

Does the new Valmeyer seem like home to him? “No,” he answers quickly, without hesitation. His family will sit on a blanket where they used to live.

“It’s home,” he says. “It’s home.” 

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