Heading for Higher Ground

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

JUST AFTER 1 A.M. LAST AUG. 2, VALMEYER, Ill. (pop. 900), was virtually swept from the face of the earth when water from the rising Mississippi River tore away rocks and sandbags residents had piled atop a 20-mile-long levee. Mayor Dennis Knobloch's last act was to shut off Valmeyer's electricity. "I was numb," he says. "We just stood there as the town went black. We had been defeated."

But not for long. This month a new Valmeyer is beginning to rise, but not on its old site along the river some 25 miles south of St. Louis. The entire town—some 350 homes and businesses—is being rebuilt on higher ground, about 1½ miles away. Although three other flooded-out Mississippi River towns have also announced plans to move, Valmeyer is the first to break ground. "There is no other community that has got its act together as quickly," says Illinois flood-response coordinator Al Grosboll.

Virtually everyone credits Mayor Knobloch, 40, with saving the town. "If it wasn't for Dennis, we wouldn't have had any choice but to leave," says resident Jeff Berry, 39, a manager for the secretary of state's office. "Dennis's determination is unbelievable. When he sets his mind on something, he does it."

There was little in Knobloch's background to prepare him for the effort of relocating an entire town. The son of Manfred Knobloch and his wife, Leona, Dennis grew up in the countryside south of Valmeyer and never left except to attend Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, just 50 miles away. In 1975 he married Elaine Allgire, whom he had known since high school. At first he worked in his old high school job as a meat cutter at Schneider's grocery store. Then in 1980 he became a teller at Farmers State bank and eventually rose to chief executive officer. Elected to the $70-a-month part-time mayor's job in 1989, he left banking in 1992 to sell insurance for Metropolitan Life. Ironically, he says, "the one kind of insurance we didn't sell was flood insurance."

Following last year's flood, Knobloch decided against joining Elaine, now 40, a microbiologist, and their three children Brian, 14, Greg, 13, and Andrea, 11, who were temporarily staying in nearby Maeystown, where the family owns a small antique shop. Instead he took a leave from his insurance job and moved full-time into his 1988 Chevy pickup truck, which he parked on the outskirts of what remained of Valmeyer. Armed with a cellular phone, he spent the next several months pressing the idea of a mass relocation on Valmeyer's residents—most of whom have been living in "FEMA-ville," a temporary community of 130 white trailers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency located about 10 miles from old Valmeyer. It was an easy sell, considering the options: rebuilding the houses on stilts or moving away, family by family. "We knew we couldn't move," says Knobloch. "This was home."

The next step was to find a site for the new town. Knobloch and the town council decided on a 500-acre tract on a bluff so high that the Gateway Arch in St. Louis can sometimes be seen from it. At first the land's owner, dairy farmer Walter Stemler, 76, was reluctant to sell valuable grazing land that had been in his family for 122 years. But he gave up the property for $3 million. "It just got to me," he explains. "There's people there who are friends of ours who lost everything—their home, their business. How much can you lose?"

Step three was fund-raising. Money for new houses will come mainly from a federal buy-out program for flood-damaged homes, while $24 million for roads, utilities and a school is being drawn from state and federal funds. In December, Knobloch held a lottery to determine which family would get which lot; new home construction begins in August. Knobloch expects about 600 people, or two-thirds of the original town, to settle in Valmeyer II. Remarkably there have been few arguments, and one thing everyone seems to agree on is that there will be no fountain in the center of town.

Meanwhile the town's largest employer, MAR Graphics, has already moved into its new offices. Other businesses—such as the gas station, the bank, the post office and the corner tavern—are expected to follow. In many ways the new three-block commercial strip will resemble Valmeyer's old Main Street—except for one thing. The residents have already chosen a new name. It will be called Knobloch Boulevard.

JONI. H. BLACKMAN in Valmeyer

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