Purchase photos

At home along the river

8/18/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

ALONG THE SMOKY HILL RIVER -- Despite its sometimes troublesome temperament, the Smoky Hill River is the only bride Thomas H. O'Toole ever has known.

It has an allure he can't resist.

Of course, he was born and raised on bluffs overlooking the Smoky Hill River in Trego County before moving to the river's south side.

O'Toole, a lifelong bachelor, has spent his 77 years along the Smoky farming and ranching.

As a result, he's long relied on the lifeblood offered by the Smoky, an intermittent river that sometimes is dry more than it's wet.

He marvels at the power of the river when heavy rains fall, such as those in June.

At the time, he said, he'd already recorded 11 inches of rain for the summer -- much of it coming in 1-, 2- and 3-inch rains, uncommon for the semi-arid High Plains.

"This last one was 4.5 inches," he said of a rain that pushed the Smoky out of its banks and covered the bridge leading to his home place on the north side of the river. "It just rained through the river here."

It did that two years ago as well, he said, pushing the river higher.

"It was 5 feet over the bridge two years ago," he said. "Maybe 3."

In his years, he's seen variable rainfalls and plenty of floods.

"We've had so many dry years out here," he said. "We had wet years back in the '70s," he said.

The 1950s, however, was a period of heavy rain.

"Forty-nine inches of rain in '51," he said.

The water was so high that year, O'Toole said, his father couldn't make it to WaKeeney because they couldn't cross the Smoky Hill bridge.

"So we went to Brownell," he said.

O'Tooles have lived along the Smoky Hill since 1881, when his grandfather homesteaded the area. His grandfather would walk to WaKeeney for food, carrying a sack of flour on his back.

"O'Tooles own 13 sections up and down the river," he said of his grandfather's descendants. "I've got about five sections."

Each section contains 640 acres.

O'Toole runs a cow herd on his grass.

"I've got 85 cows, 11 heifers and three horses," he said.

While O'Toole said he "grew up on horseback," he doesn't spend as much time there now as a result of bad knees.

"I was the only boy who wanted to stick around and work," O'Toole said of remaining close to the Smoky and farming. "It's the only thing I had to rely on.

"I was determined to stay here and save the place."