Thursday, January 21, 2016

Good Night, Marija (Part II)

Marie Kulisich Webb
April 28, 1930-December 19, 2015

If you came calling in Govert recently, you know Marie Kulisich joined her friend Lorraine Jensen, a voice in the wind blowing through the prairie grass ... returning to the weathered planks of the small house that saw her birth 85 years ago, returning to the prairie she wandered barefoot as a girl, an eyewitness to the history of Govert Township in Harding County, South Dakota.

Marie's roots meander deep in her family's history, as deep as the roots of the grass blowing on the prairie, that dense tangle gripping the soil in defense of the legendary Harding County wind.* Her roots claim Marie as a daughter of the prairie, but her roots also frame her as the daughter of immigrants. Marie's parents were born a world away from the Kulisich homestead in Govert, South Dakota.

Miko Kulisich chose America in 1903, and Nike Miljas set out on the same ocean journey in 1914, as "Austrians" from that part of the world today again called Croatia. In South Dakota, Mitchell and Nikla both filed for homestead and naturalization papers in quick succession, so relinquishing the label of "Austrian" and becoming "Yugoslavian" after World War I had less meaning for them than for their families who remained in Dubrovnik. Neither Mitch nor Nikla knew a free and independent Croatia, not when they were born, not at any time before their deaths. Freedom was what they found in South Dakota, what they gave to their children.

Nevertheless, with Croatia in her blood, Marie never tired of pictures of rocky ridges leaning into the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea, nor did she tire of baking her mother's strudio or propping up Croatian cookbooks for inspiration. Marie marveled over images of large rosemary bushes growing wild, but the Croatian influence did not end in the kitchen or along the shore where the sea began.

Mitch and Nikla were Catholic, as was everyone they knew in their homeland. Nikla's Catholic traditions were easily transported with the few possessions she carried aboard the four funnel ocean liner called the SS France, a ship hauntingly reminiscent of the SS Titanic. Two years later on July 8, 1916, Mitch and Nikla were married at Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Lead, South Dakota. Nikla became the custodian of the faith on the Kulisich homestead, as Mitch preferred shepherding his sheep to praying the Rosary. Without even a circuit priest to rely on, Nikla did what she could to assure her children would never lose the reminder of their Catholic origins, no matter where their faith would take them as adults.

Mass was the order of the day when the Kulisich family traveled to Lead, to visit family and friends in Slav Alley. Nikla's children were baptized in the same church where she and Mitch were married. Nikla saw to that. Nikla also assured her children were named according to Catholic tradition.

The uninitiated might dismiss the names Nikla chose for her children as simple, old-fashioned, unimaginative: Ann, John, Tony, Marie. Not only were these names not simple, they were complicated with meaning. All of Nikla's children had saints' names. Nikla saw to that. Nikla made sure each of her children was branded with a name carrying expectation, giving each child a personal role model. In her home, Nikla raised children named for Saint Ann, Saint John, Saint Anthony, and Mary the Holy Mother.

Catholics have a strong devotion to the Holy Mother, so naming a daughter Mary, Marie, or Marija is no middling matter. Bearing the name of Marie would be both blessing and increased obligation, as the Holy Mother loves with a perfect love. For those who have lost their own mothers, and those who have been unloved, under-loved, or loved imperfectly, the Holy Mother becomes just that, the perfect mother. How could this little girl, born to the prairie, be expected to live up to the model set by the Holy Mother?

Nikla was at her strongest, at her very best, when protecting her children. Nikla oriented her daughter, teaching Marie the compassionate arts by example. In her turn, young Marie practiced tenderness on the bum lambs, babies themselves abandoned by their mothers. And she befriended the dogs and the cats, the saddle horse, the goats, especially the goat Marie described in later years as "that silly goat who ran with the band of sheep". Nikla's lessons were reinforced by young Marie's playmates, the West sisters, and their kind and loving mother.

Marie and "that silly goat"

When all grown up, Marie married widower Warren Webb and together they raised two sons, the first son left motherless when his father was widowed, followed by a second son, both sons loved as deeply as a mother could love. The devotion Brant and David Webb have shown their mother as adults is ample testimony that Marie loved well.

Marie was not one to draw attention to herself. She was not loud, not flashy. She was not proud, not demanding. Marie tended to what needed tending, wasting nothing ... nothing, including time. She tended to her husband and sons, her home, the family business. And when that was done, Marie tended to her muse - orange paint transformed into graceful loping poppies on china, paint dabbed on porcelain breathing life into dolls with wistful eyes and tentative smiles. Marie pieced colorful fabrics into whimsical figures on quilts, embroidered flowers on scraps of fabric, fired glass capturing bubbles perfectly adrift. Marie's art also surprised and pleased in the prose poems she wrote for her family. She created all these out of love, adding beauty to the lives of the people she loved.

Marie's family grew beyond her sons and daughters-in-law, beyond her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, extended further, reaching out to friends who needed her encouragement. Then followed the years when her excursions from the cottage by the pond became increasingly infrequent. But even then Marie had a mission and a ministry ... Marie had a telephone ministry and a ministry of prayer until the day she breathed her last breath. Marie listened. Marie observed. Marie comforted. She was a master of the compassionate arts. Her mother would be proud.

How did this little girl, born to the prairie, measure up to the model set by the Holy Mother? After a lifetime of meeting each day with the desire to serve, what better legacy can Marie Kulisich Webb leave than "She Loved Well".
Morning star, so strong and bright,
Gentle Mother, peaceful dove,
Teach us wisdom, teach us love.

Good night, my dear friend, good night.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

*The root system of prairie grass furls, and loops, and twists deep below the surface of the soil to depths reaching 10 feet and more, creating a thick mat of root-snarled soil. These naturally occurring grasses are perfectly suited to prairie land subject to drought, like Harding County - at these depths the roots tap sufficient moisture to maintain life and growth. Although plowing an acreage of land was required for ownership under the Homestead Act, widespread crop systems were not successful in the area of Govert Township, and those who remained on the land reverted to grazing cattle and sheep, largely returning cultivated land to natural prairie by the middle of the 1930's.

[Written with appreciation for the friendship of Marie Kulisich Webb, for her memories, and her companionship as I recorded the history of Govert, South Dakota. I delight in the choice Marie made to become computer literate. Without our computers, exchanging information would have been slower, as would building the foundation for our friendship. Without her taking this leap in her 70s, my finding Marie would have been harder, although I'm convinced we would have met. A year after we first made contact, Skip Wiest, whose sister married Marie's son, David, wrote to tell me that I needed to talk to his sister's mother-in-law. Skip was another who loved the history of Harding County and he is gone now, too. Those historians who remain continue to preserve their history in memory of those who have passed, so as to give another generation the strength of deeper roots. And an equal desire to continue where we left off.]

[Photo credit Marie Kulisich Webb. Used with permission] 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Good Night, Marija (Part I)

What fun we've had, Marija, exchanging morning emails for almost eight years. That's how the deepest of friendships are made, two like-minded people exchanging ideas day after day. Two people rejoicing when the dawn bloomed bright in the eastern sky and in our hearts. One cheer-leading the other the mornings you preferred an after breakfast nap, or the matters of the world interfered with my writing. Every morning was a good morning.

Our friendship was foretold when you posted a note on the RootsWeb Internet message board in 2005, an inquiry about the Govert School. Then the snow of three winters fell on your cottage by the pond before I stumbled upon your message. I found you 10 days before your 78th birthday. "What a nice surprise!" you responded to my email, "Thank you for writing!"

After that, you shared your memories, a tomboy growing up in Govert, and I shared my research. You gifted me with answers to nagging questions and details long elusive. Our friendship started out as a long interview, a digital visit over coffee each morning.

Memories that good begged to be recorded, and not many months passed before I surprised you again, this time with your written family history, my first Govert publication. Later, when I began publishing "Thru Prairie Grass", you were the best of boosters, just like Govert Van der Boom and Charles Laflin were the best of boosters for Govert Township. Everything I wrote was, in your opinion, "the best yet".

"Good morning, Marija!", I'd write at the beginning of each day.

The good mornings we shared were many, but no more.

Good night, my dear friend, good night.

Marie Kulisich Webb
April 28, 1930-December 19, 2015

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Who in the World Reads Thru Prairie Grass?

The first post to Thru Prairie Grass was published August 15, 2013, more than a hundred years after Govert Van der Boom proudly distributed the first edition of the Govert Advance at the Govert Post Office inside the Govert Store. From 1911 until 1943, the Govert Advance was the people's choice for news of Govert, South Dakota. People who lived there read the Govert Advance, as did people who used to live there, and others distant who followed the activities of a son or daughter, brother or sister. A century later, in 2013, I wondered if anyone would read my stories about Govert.

Who in the world would be interested in Govert, South Dakota, I wondered. Would anyone read the blog? And, if they did, how would they react to what they found on Thru Prairie Grass? Would readers in Harding County be disturbed either because the blog missed details, or because the detail felt intrusive? Would they be suspicious of me as an outsider? All this I wondered.

I knew Marie Kulisich would read the blog every single time I published, but that's like cracking open eggs and baking a cake for the owner of a bakery. Marie and I already had a wampum exchange for five years before the blog saw light of day - Marie shared her memories and I shared my research. Marie shared with you, too, through my stories and then through her own - do you remember Sheep Ranching in Govert, SD?

Certainly the West sisters would read the blog, and Saundra Laflin, too - all four had connections with Govert that included waking up to the Slim Buttes each morning. And, I thought, maybe Howard Jensen's children and grandchildren would read the blog. After all, the Jensens still own prairie in Govert Township. And, sure enough, Evaline, Alice Mae, Shirley Jean, Saundra, and Doug Jensen read the blog, and now Doug's sister, LuAnn Schroeder, reads the blog, too.

I figured Saundra Laflin's daughter, LaDelle, and LaDelle's husband, Derek Brink, might catch up on the blog from time-to-time ... when they weren't calving, and working the cattle, and rodeoing and running Govert Powerline Services, and raising a family, and when Derek didn't have School Board commitments ... after all, they live just down the road from the old Govert Townsite. So maybe, I thought, they would catch up from time-to-time. And they do.

My Dutch cousin, Hans van der Boom, and his wife, Marjon, read the blog, because this is "geschiedenis Amerikaanse tak" or "history of the American branch". You might remember Hans from Vrolijk Kerstfeest! where Hans was our guide, helping us understand the Christmases Govert Van der Boom would have experienced with his Dutch family in The Hague and then in Platte, South Dakota, before Govert homesteaded in that corner of Harding County that would become known as Govert Township. Another cousin, granddaughter to Goverite Peter Rosenthal, reads the blog; Pat Dreesen and I are American cousins because Govert Van der Boom and Peter Rosenthal were Dutch cousins.

My Canadian cousins, Sharon Frizell, Elaine Fleck, and Gloria Gifford follow the blog because they descend from the Tobolt line, the same line as Goverites Emma Vogt Van der Boom, Lydia Vogt Gee, Theodore Vogt, Ernest Vogt, and Gus Toble. Wayne Grantz, the grandson of Theodore Vogt, reads the blog, too, as does Theodore's great-granddaughter Susan Marco.

Trent Van der Boom and his wife, Ann, are interested in what happens in Thru Prairie Grass. Ann is intent on assuring that her children know about their South Dakota roots and their Dutch heritage. Cousin Trent's wife was one of the very first subscribers to Thru Prairie Grass.

Frank Goodell, a Springer descendant, follows the goings-on of this prairie town where his Grandmother Dabu's life played out. Frank added to our knowledge of his family and prairie values in The Coat Exchange. The blog has been a good resource for Herman West's granddaughter, Arie, who learned more about the man who raised her grandfather in The Soul of Forrester West.

Donna Rose Walker Banning is on board; she's the daughter of Anzley Walker and Rose Helen Kapsa. Don Phillips and the rest of that Phillips bunch are listening, too; they descend from Chester Phillips and Leah Vroman who homesteaded north of the Buttes near Gill.

Gary Lehman, Howard Jacobs's grandson, reads and learns along with the rest of us. For Gary, as for many descendants of homesteaders, the stories of this character-building and character-testing prairie adventure were not passed down through the generations.

Paula M. Nelson, author of two of my favorite books, "After The West Was Won" and "The Prairie Winnows Out Its Own", commented on the blog and promised to check back regularly. Jean Simons, retired West River newspaper columnist, but always an historian, found me through the blog, and our correspondence is rich with her memories about life in historical West River South Dakota, the subject of her columns. Then there's Mary Buchholz, who had such a prominent role in the collection and publication of local history for the Harding County History Book. And Pat Engebretson, who encourages and safeguards West River history from her sentinel post at the Belle Fourche Public Library in Butte County. They all read the blog.

Another reader of Thru Prairie Grass is South Dakota State Senator Betty Olson. Besides representing a broad expanse of northwestern South Dakota, overlapping county boundaries, Senator Olson is a rancher with historical roots deep in Harding County. She has already established a legacy for preserving West River history as president of the Harding County Historical Society, chairman of the board of directors of the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish, Trailboss (chairman) of the South Dakota Great Western Cattle Trail Association, and Senator Olson also serves on the State-Tribal Relations Legislative Committee.

Longtime friends with no connection to Govert read Thru Prairie Grass to be supportive, like Sharon in Wyoming, and Helen in Washington State. My family is supportive, too. My mother and my husband read the blog because they have to ... although, in his comments to the blog, Russ may lead you to believe that he likes what I write. My brothers have been known to say a thing or two about the blog, when a thing or two is called for. My mother reads the blog to my sister on the phone, because my sister has always liked the way Mom tells a story. 

But who else is reading Thru Prairie Grass? 

When Thru Prairie Grass passed the landmark of 10,000 pageviews, I figured more people must be reading the blog than I thought. Unless, that is, my mother sits at her computer day and night, continually left-clicking links with her mouse to watch the number mount up. Me, most days I add words to draft posts or document ideas for new stories, but I pushed the buttons on the administrative panel to assure that the counter does not see me.

Nearly 10,400 pageviews now. I sure am suspicious of numbers that high. How can it be possible that Thru Prairie Grass has been viewed that many times?  What does that number mean? What is, and what isn't, a pageview? The common answer is that one pageview is added to the counter each time a web page is loaded in a browser. So, if you go to the blog at and read the most recent post, that is one pageview. If you click on a link in the post you are reading, that is a second pageview. Then, if you go to the Govert Roll Call on the right panel of the blog to see what is going on there, that is a third pageview. On the other hand, if you subscribe to Thru Prairie Grass and read each new posting on the email you receive in your inbox, you don't count toward the 10,400 pageviews. Where, then, do all these thousands of pageviews come from?

Maybe the "web crawlers" are generating pageviews ... the "spiders", the "bots" crawling around in the background, technical whatsits scanning for important words, allowing you to do a Google search to find "Govert SD". That still begs the question of who is reading the blog, because even the most friendly of bots, the most dedicated, those bots curious about the homesteading history of South Dakota, can't account for all those pageviews, or can they?

I'd write Thru Prairie Grass even if no one was listening, just so the homesteading history of small prairie towns like Govert, South Dakota, will not cease to have meaning. We are visiting on the Internet because this is a place where the stories can be found when someone is ready to listen.

Wouldn't Govert Van der Boom, having emigrated from Holland as a child in 1890, be amused by all this? The computer, the Internet, the blog, the bots, all of it?

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[If you are following changes to the Govert Roll Call, see Lottie Lyons and the following families: Donohue, Hallan, Jarvi, Jensen, Lale, Limpert, Livingston, Phillips, Vroman, White.]