Edythe Lee Billman on Chautauqua

Edythe Lee Billman

"July 4, 1919 that was the year of the great disaster on Lake Madison when the boat, the Reliance, sank taking with it 9 lives. Among those whose lives were lost was my dearest friend with whom I had gone to school with for 8 years, her brother, and the neighbor girl. Three of the nine were from a small farming community north of Colman.

It was a terrible tragedy.It was a beautiful day in July, July 4th in fact, and my parents and my brother and I who lived in Rutland came down to celebrate the Fourth of July at Lake Madison during the Chautauqua. We made plans for it for a long time. My friend Pearl, the friend who died in the tragedy, Pearl Winkelplex and her family were also there to spend the day. What a happy time we had. There were ice cream cones galore, there were all the things we loved so much. And so we decided that we'd go on that boat, the Reliance, across the lake and watch the fireworks from the lake. Oh, we could hardly wait! So when the boat came and was loaded, they lined us up. I think about 2 at a time and they bought the tickets. I don't remember much about that part, but my friend and her brother and sister were just ahead of us, so we were next in line. But just then, they lowered the gate and said "no more passengers". Of course we didn't realize it then, but we knew later that the boat was overloaded and they shouldn't have taken as many as they did. How disappointed we were that we couldn't go on that boat ride. It spoiled the whole day for us, but we had to find something else to occupy our time.

It didn't seem very long until there became a lot of commotion down by the lake. Voices calling so we went down and heard that the boat had sunk. Well, when you're 14 years old, that is a major tragedy, especially when your best friend is on that boat. We waited and we gained news of one body being found, or someone being found alive. But finally, as I recall, it was about midnight when my parents persuaded us to go home because they told us that in all likelihood, Pearl and her brother had been found on the other side of the lake to satisfy us so we would go home. But early the next morning, mother came into my room and told me that there had been 9 people drowned. The bodies had all been found and my dear friend Pearl and her brother were among those who had drowned. It was the kind of a tragedy that one never forgets. And then of course, later we found there not enough life preservers and that the only reason her sister had been saved was because someone who had a life preserver had taken a hold of her and held her head up until they were rescued. It might have been prevented, the whole tragedy, in the first place if the boat hadn't been overloaded, and if there would have been enough life vests to go around."