Thursday, August 29, 2013

Govert, South Dakota, on the Move with Thrall Academy

Gus Toble's life was marked by change, more change than most of us are prepared to face. Gus was born in 1878 in West Prussia and, at the age of four, he sailed to America with his family where they made a home in rural Minnesota. The immigrant family seemed little suited to farming, as if having origins in the trades, some have said the father held a government position in Prussia.

Nevertheless, as an adult, Gus settled into farming in Minnesota, even had his own farm for a while. Then, sometime before 1920, Gus turned his back on the barn and the haystacks and moved his family to the lake town of Bemidji where Gus sold "Travelers Auto Assurance". In 1929 Gus turned around again, packed his car with his wife, two youngest children, and every possession he could wedge around them, and drove to Govert, South Dakota. This was April, before the Stock Market crashed in October, almost as if Gus knew what the future had in store for America.

Gus was old in terms of starting over yet again; he was already 51 when the Tobles left Minnesota. His three older daughters chose not to join this family exodus; life in rural America held no appeal for them. Maybe son Eugene who was 17, and daughter Evelyn who was 15, would have stayed in Minnesota, too, had they been given the choice.

Gus Toble's greatest talent was not farming, although he had some farming skills, and his greatest talent was not ranching, even though he was seen working on ranches in the Govert area. His greatest talent was picking up the necessary "know-how" to persevere, and to find a measure of success in any environment.

What does any of this have to do with the Thrall Academy in Sorum, Perkins County, South Dakota? After I tell you about Thrall Academy, I'll restore Gus to his rightful place in the history of the Academy.

Thrall Academy was a high school, a missionary project of the Congregational Church. The Academy was organized in 1913 at Sorum, maybe 28 miles from Govert, assuming you conscientiously followed the roads. Young men and young women throughout northwestern South Dakota attended Thrall Academy, some returning to their family homes at night if the distance and weather allowed, while other students boarded at the school. Perkins County hosted Thrall Academy, not Harding County, but Thrall Academy had Harding County connections in the community of Govert.

One of the Govert connections was Katie Lale (pronounced with a short "a" and long "e"), a boarding student at Thrall Academy. Katie climbed through every grade the Govert country school offered ... but for high school, Katie would have to leave her family behind on their Govert homestead. Fortunately for the Lales, Thrall Academy wasn't far away. When recently set to the task, cousins Katie Lale and Marie Kulisich, whose fathers both homesteaded at Govert, came up with the names of near a dozen neighbors who attended Thrall Academy: Alva Bekken, Amanda Bekken, Signey Adela Bekken, Dixie Blomberg, Mirelda Grandpre, Chris Lale, Katie Lale, Ralph Meyers, Edward Meyers, Herman West, and Richard West.

Herman and Richard West were the adopted sons of Forrester West, a Govert rancher. With his sons boarding at the Academy, Forrester spent the school year alone on his Govert ranch more often than not. His wife, Louise, was the Academy cook and housemother. Their three-year-old, Evaline, and her wee baby sister, Alice Mae, had their own jobs at the Academy as favorites among the Thrall Academy students. Today Alice Mae and Evaline rave about their mother's cooking, as if only yesterday their mother urged them to play quietly so the cake in the oven would not fall. These two grown women, together with the youngest West daughter, Shirley Jean, make the strongest among us yearn for even a whiff of one of Louise's cakes.

Thrall Academy has another Govert connection as well. Linda Shelton brings Gus Toble back into the story. Linda has a picture taken in about 2009 of a house near Bison, Perkins County, South Dakota. This was Gus Toble's last house in South Dakota. Little more than two years after the Tobles unpacked their car at Govert, Amy Birdie Hinton Toble, the woman who loved Gus enough to follow him from Minnesota to South Dakota, was killed when their Govert home burned. That was 1931. The entire town of Govert was horrified by poor Amy Birdie's death. Gus was devastated and mourned Amy Birdie without ceasing. After four years, Gus was given another chance at marriage when he wed the Widow Byers, who was Linda Shelton's Grandmother Elizabeth ... Amanda Elizabeth Williams Byers.

When I saw Linda's picture, something about the house was familiar but, I knew with absolute certainty, I had never visited this place where Gus Toble, formerly a resident of Govert, lived with his second wife, the Widow Byers.

According to Linda, her Grandfather Byers moved two dormitory buildings to the home site outside of Bison using logs and two teams of horses. These buildings he joined together to make a home for Elizabeth. "Dormitories" was a good clue, fully substantiated by an article about Thrall Academy in my files. In the picture below, the girls' dormitory is on the left and the Academy building on the right, with the boys' dormitory on the upper floor of the Academy building.

Thrall Academy circa 1915 (The American Missionary, January 1916, page 623)
Rearrange the buildings, placing the Academy building on the left and the girls' dormitory on the right and you have the Byers house outside of Bison, South Dakota, where Gus Toble and Elizabeth Byers lived after their marriage.

Toble-Byers House circa 2009 (Photo used with permission of Linda Shelton)
Match up the windows and doors and you may agree with Linda and me that Gus and Elizabeth passed the years with both the laughter and the angst of South Dakota teenagers ringing in the rafters. Gus Toble died in 1957 at the age of 79. Amanda Elizabeth Williams Byers Toble died in 1969 at the age of 80.

You'll see a perhaps surprising fringe of trees in the picture of the Toble-Byers house. The prairie is not known for an abundance of trees. Pretty much, if you wanted a tree, you had to plant it. Linda's Grandfather Byers planted a hundred cottonwood trees ... not 10 or even 50 trees, but a hundred trees ... making the home a soft green oasis to a visitor driving up the lane.

Linda was disappointed her grandmother's house had completely disappeared before she drove by in spring 2013. So am I. But I'm grateful someone took one last picture of the Thrall Academy ... just in time.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Marie Kulisich, Katie Lale, Linda Shelton, and Evaline, Alice Mae and Shirley Jean West]

Thursday, August 22, 2013

If Govert, South Dakota, Doesn't Exist, Why Blog?

Meet me Sunday at the Govert Marina and we'll spend the afternoon browsing open houses in town. Real estate is booming in Govert, South Dakota, with beachfront property at a premium. This South Dakota prairie town is thriving ... just ask Google.

Govert, South Dakota, offers campgrounds, fishing charters and kayaking, jet ski rentals and golf resorts. What happens when winter rolls around, as it tends to do in Harding County every year, and the blasts of cold air send you inside? Seek the warmth of the Govert public library, movie theater, hobby shop, day spa, and ... Govert Van der Boom would most heartily appreciate this frosty weather option for Goverites ... brush up on your Dutch with the Dutch tutor located in Govert, South Dakota.

Pet store, dog park, country club, casino, express flower delivery, senior housing and elder care. Everything a Harding County rancher could ever want or need is found in Govert, South Dakota. If any doubt remains, google "Govert, South Dakota".

Doubt remains. Derek and LaDelle Brink, ranching just down the road from the Govert townsite, may be surprised to learn about this economic boom and the competition for business dollars. The traffic along their country road is as quiet as it has always been.

Make no mistake about it, Govert, South Dakota, does not exist in 2013 as a viable town. So why would I write about Govert, if the town doesn't exist? Why would I turn over rocks on the prairie in search of an ancestral hearth?

Why? Govert Van der Boom never shared what it was like to weave prairie grass into a community. Maybe he thought his six-year-old granddaughter would not care for his stories of the prairie. Emma Van der Boom never told me that a glimpse of the Slim Buttes, framed by her kitchen window, made up for the five varieties of cockle burrs clinging to the hem of her long skirt on a sweltering day in late summer 1913. My otherwise no-nonsense grandmother would have told me this with a slight smile and a hint of yearning. But I didn't ask.

I can still ask the children of the prairie, like Marie Kulisich. Marie was born upon her own ancestral hearth in 1930 two miles south of the Govert store. As a little girl, Marie wandered through the prairie grass turning over rocks in wonderment at what was underneath. Her Croatian father, Mitchell Kulisich, homesteaded in 1911, her Croatian mother, Nikla Miljas, in 1916. A heap of years and living later, Marie and I met on an Internet bulletin board. She was my first companion in the search for my own ancestral hearth. Allow me to introduce you to my friend Marie:

Marie Kulisich in her lush South Dakota garden [Photo by Kathleen VanderBoom, 2012]
I have met a bushel full of Goverites, former Goverites, and Goverite descendants since I started my search for Govert, South Dakota, and so many more people who today call Harding County home, preserving that still strong connection to the land. First-hand and second-hand memories of small prairie towns tie them together, just like that first generation of Goverites was tied to the land and to each other.

What I've learned from my search for an ancestral hearth is that my family's story is one dimensional without the story of Govert, South Dakota. And the story of Govert, South Dakota, is the story of a community ... and a community is people, a whole lot more people than the five Van der Booms who lived next door to the Govert store. Maybe I can focus due recognition on all the folks who struggled and all the folks who thrived on the prairie, all the men, women and children who called Govert ... or some other small prairie town ... home. Maybe I can create a "memory" of Govert for those who don't have their own memories of what once was. Maybe I should have called this project "Re-Constructing Govert". Is such a thing possible?

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Marie Kulisich]

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Welcome to Govert, South Dakota, Home of the Govert Advance!

Thursdays are banner days for Linda and Wally Stephens in Buffalo, South Dakota, but any celebration slips under the radar. The Nation's Center News is on the street and this duo is deeply immersed in the next edition of their newspaper. This is a real ink and paper publication. A treasure.

Tonight a Harding County rancher will hunch over the kitchen table exhausted from a long day of haying. If the haying is finished, ranching always offers some task to keep a rancher out until after dark. The object of this rancher's attention is a late meal, beef is a good guess, the best hamburger, roasts and steaks known to mankind, locally raised and locally dressed ... and the Nation's Center News. Not so different from 100 years ago when each Thursday the Govert Advance reported the news of southeastern Harding County, except the early prairie homesteader's meal may have had more resemblance to a can of beans.

I live 550 miles from where Linda Stephens edits the Nation's Center News in Buffalo, South Dakota. The newspaper hits my mailbox by Monday most weeks. Not so different from 100 years ago when the Govert Advance was exported to the friends and relatives of the small community of Govert just north of the Butte County line, all of whom were eager to follow their loved ones in the news.

The Nation's Center News is always welcome in my house. The small-town newspaper falls open, and the noise of houses built too close to each other recedes. I think of my grandmother snapping open her Govert Advance 100 years ago in Govert, South Dakota, the evening quiet after a day of baking bread and cleaning a weathered frame house that would never completely succumb to broom or mere soap and water. Together once again, Gram and I catch up on the activity of the town, activity rotating in spiraling circles around the country store. I cheer on the Brink daughters and their rodeo exploits. Chat with South Dakota Representative Betty Olson, who writes the Grand River Roundup for the Nation's Center News, sharing her love of the people of Harding County and of the County's history. Not long ago Delbert Blume reminded me how painful a "snoot full of [porcupine] quills" must be. And, when I read reprints of the Old Inkslinger's column, I am conscious of how confusing the world can be without him.

I mention these three journalists because, in one sense or another, we've met. Betty Olson introduced me to researching Harding County in an exchange of emails a few years ago. Delbert Blume told me stories one hot summer day over lunch at the senior center in Buffalo, where everyone who is anyone gathered each week. I once wrote a fan letter to the Old Inkslinger, whom I consider to be a rockstar among historians. I feel a kinship with Alice Holcomb, but we've never met, except on the pages of the Nation's Center News. The mere mention of peach bread in her column one week will always be associated with her name.

So here's to you, Linda and Wally, and all of your journalists. Thank you for giving us the gift of the Nation's Center News. Yes, I received my renewal notice. I feel certain you don't need a large paper bag of zucchini during the zucchini harvest, but would you take two chickens? The Govert Advance was a dollar a year and the editor, Charles Laflin, accepted food and fuel in payment. No worries ... the check is in the mail.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate