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]


  1. Another wonderful blog entry, dear!

    This week's installment makes for very interesting and entertaining reading. You've written a fascinating article about your work in sleuthing-out and weaving together the connections between Gus Toble, the town of Govert and some of its residents, and the Thrall Academy.

    You did a great job telling Gus's story, and explaining his connection to the Thrall Academy by way of eventually constructing a home with the Academy buildings he obtained and moved to Bison. It certainly can be seen from the pictures how he put the two buildings together to make the Bison house. Very interesting!

    You also make the history you tell relevant by bringing things up-to-date with tie-ins to current-day friends and acquaintances, like Marie, Katie, Alice Mae, Evaline, Shirley Jean, and Linda. It adds such a wonderful real-world dimension to the family history and the stories you write about.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog item this week. Thanks, dear, for making your Govert research so interesting and fun to read.

    1. I need to add a "post-script" to my comments. Apparently Gus didn't construct the Bison house, but he did live there with Elizabeth. In that way Gus is connected to the Thrall Academy. It is clear from the pictures that the house had its origins in buildings from the Academy.

  2. Great research, and great writing. It is indeed fun to read.

    Your cousin in the Great White North,

  3. I was just listening to a radio show from 1950 that featured a Gus Toble and his wife. I think this took place in 1950. I wondered if this couple could be your relatives.

    The wife mentioned she was from Lodgepole, SD and lived for 17 years in a sod house.

    Just wondering,
    Brian H.
    Irving, TX

    1. Thank you for reading Thru Prairie Grass, Brian, and thank you for "stepping up to the mike" yourself to make this inquiry and offer this information. The concurrence of the Perkins County location and family name say you have made the correct connection. Can you lead me to this radio show? What is your own connection to northwestern South Dakota?



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