Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dateline Govert, South Dakota: Truth in Storytelling (Part 1)

History is a kit bag full of stories. Some stories are factual and some would be shredded in the courtroom of history. If genealogy or family history has any standards at all, perhaps that standard should be called "Truth in Storytelling". The family history stories we tell our children should not be confused with such creative bedtime greats as "Winnie the Poo and Tigger Too".

In family history we tell the stories of mostly everyday people. We gather the facts the best we can, we compose the story the best we can. We also adhere to the truth the best we can. Back in August, I wrote a story around Thrall Academy, a high school near Sorum, South Dakota. In winding my story, I re-wrote history. Not intentionally, mind you. Today we are going to set history straight.

In the posting for 29 August, I credited Gus Toble with moving the Thrall Academy buildings, joining them together to form an attractive home, and then planting a virtual forest of trees to create the perfect prairie abode for his wife, Elizabeth Byers Toble, near Bison, South Dakota. The man who accomplished this logistical feat was Elizabeth's first husband, Dyson Byers. Dyson died in 1927 after 20 years of marriage, leaving Elizabeth a 38-year-old widow. Dyson, himself, was only in his early 60s.

Dyson's story is good. We know where two of the Thrall Academy buildings ended their days and maybe the question was raised in your mind as to the simplicity (or the complexity) of the technology of moving them. What more do we know now? Thrall Academy closed its doors for the last time as a high school after the 1921 spring term. Financial support was always an issue, an issue that could no longer be overcome. Dyson Byers was at the auction sale on 10 September 1921. About three years later in 1924, and about 20 miles away, Dyson's youngest child, Dorothy, was born right there in that house Dyson built out of Thrall Academy.

Gus's story is good, too. He raised two families. Gus and his first wife, Amy Birdie Hinton, brought up four children together. Their youngest was 17 when Amy Birdie died in Govert, South Dakota. Then, a widower for almost four years, Gus married the Widow Byers. Elizabeth Byers already had the perfect prairie abode, so why should they live anywhere else? Together with Elizabeth, Gus parented his second family, Elizabeth and Dyson's youngest children, outside of Bison, South Dakota.

Dorothy, the youngest of the Byers children, was only two years old when Dyson died; she was nine when her mother married Gus in 1935. Dorothy, who will be 89 next month, remembers Gus with great fondness. Gus was kind to her and became the only father she really knew. Both of Dorothy's fathers were good men. Dyson and Gus never met and they were called to play different roles at different times in the lives of Elizabeth and her children.

Ralph, Dorothy, and Lloyd Byers (back); Florence Byers, Elizabeth Byers Toble, Gus Toble, Evelyn Byers (front) [Photo used with the permission of Linda Shelton]
Linda Shelton, who inspired the story, and who now assures the story will be preserved in the most correct form, also gives us additional information about her grandmother to fill in the story. Linda tells us that her Grandmother Elizabeth had a good mind for business and owned quite a bit of land. In fact, Elizabeth had at least two U.S. land patents dating to 1911, held along with additional land she purchased. Some men in the early 1900s must have appreciated an intelligent woman with good business sense, and her own land holdings. Dyson must have. Gus must have. Likewise, Govert Van der Boom of Govert, South Dakota, married a woman with a business degree and her own homestead. That would be Emma Vogt, who just happened to be Gus's niece.

The story gets even better. The Thrall Academy buildings that Dyson moved? They sat on Elizabeth's homestead. And that was where he planted 100 trees.

But wait. What about the people who have memories of attending Thrall Academy later in the 1920s, or the 1930s, or even 1940, 1941, and 1942? Some people may have a mental image of what the high school at Sorum looked like during these later years. Reconciling that mental image with the picture of the school before 1921 in my earlier posting may have left them biting the inside of their cheek. The only way the image can be reconciled is to realize the successor school looked much different than the original Thrall Academy.

What does Truth in Storytelling really mean in family history? Diligence and integrity would be a good baseline for any enterprise. That includes correcting a story where we can. Sometimes a family may have changed its narrative history on purpose, sometimes family history finds new words through the retelling, and sometimes, as in my story about Gus Toble, Elizabeth Byers and the Thrall Academy, the storyteller misunderstands the facts. This is now a story of Gus, Elizabeth, and the Thrall Academy ... and Dyson Byers ... and Dyson's daughter, Dorothy Byers, who was Gus's daughter, too. As for Truth in Storytelling, we represent the very best truth we can uncover.

Maybe in a future posting I'll tell you the story Emma Vogt Van der Boom's father created out of nothing more than fluff and air, which became a family truth for more than 100 years. No, I think I'll do that next week. Then the week after that I'll tell you another story that was true ... but no one believed it ... until the truth was revealed more than a decade after the death of the storyteller.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[The 29 August 2013 post is edited for new readers entering Thru the Prairie Grass on that post.]

[Written with gratitude to Linda Shelton and South Dakota State Historical Society Archives]


  1. Nicely done, and I can't wait for the next story! Like an expert writer you've left us all in suspense and wanting more.


  2. Very interesting reading, Kate! Now I'll be counting down the days until next Thursday!


  3. Sweetheart,

    This is another excellent blog entry. Thanks, dear. You set the record straight regarding the Thrall-morphed-Bison house, and you make clear why it was necessary to give that explanation. Very interesting...and, as usual, you also provide us with wonderful background information about the people involved and the ties to Govert.

    By the way, that's a lovely picture of Gus, Elizabeth, and family. The photos you include in your blog entries are fascinating, and give a nice added dimension to your writing and the stories you tell (the ones that are the "best truth" you can uncover).

    I too look forward to your next two postings!

  4. Hmm, wrote my comment but seemed to have "lost it in transit" when I "beamed it up". Ah well, I just wanted to say that I enjoyed this immensely. Family history I did not even know about! Wonderful, and with a picture which, the old adagium keeps true, is worth a thousand words.
    Thank you for this interesting and lovely glimps into a "side trail" of our family's history, and I mean that with the utmost respect.

    Hans van der Boom

  5. Thank you for the last blog, enjoyed it as usual, as did Marilyn, when I read it to her over the phone. Love, from your mother, Mamacita



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