What has never been written ... and what has never been told ... will be forever lost. For those who want to know more about the past, too much has already been lost. What's to be done? Tell what you know and write what you've heard. Become a storyteller and a scribe.
Here, today, you will read much of what Lorraine Jensen Carlson shared of her recollections as the storekeeper's daughter in Sorum, South Dakota. Lorraine and I talked 23 June 2010 when I had near given up trying to find the true identity of Smokey Joe, the last person to live on the Govert townsite 28 miles from Sorum. Not only did Lorraine know Smokey Joe's real name, she met him when she was just a slip of a girl. And all this Lorraine told me matter of factly, as if she didn't realize she had just solved my mystery of the decade. "There never was a time when I didn't know Smokey Joe," said Lorraine. She gave me this gift, and then she gave me so much more. Lorraine shared her memories as the storekeeper's daughter.
The Sorum store was already up and running when Lorraine's parents arrived in 1921. Unlike the store in Govert, which was owned and operated as a partnership by Govert Van der Boom and Howard Jacobs, the store in Sorum was owned by a group of ranchers who hired Lorraine's parents, Otto Jensen and Beatrice Dearborn, to manage the business. Folks thereabouts knew the Jensens as “O.W.” and “Trix”. Eventually these storekeepers also became store owners when they succeeded in buying the shares of stock held by the ranchers.
The store tended by O.W. and Trix in Sorum was a wood frame building, at a time when wood buildings and heating technology existed in an uneasy balance. Fuel was coal, wood or kerosene and, with these fuels, fires were common. As in so many other prairie disasters, the Sorum store, too, became a statistic when the kerosene stove exploded and reduced the building and the inventory inside to ash and cinder and the oddly shaped debris of melted manufactured objects.
Even with this fire to discourage them, the Jensens wasted no time setting up a successor store, this time in an empty building across the street. There the Jensens continued to serve their customers, rebuilding the earlier store on the same spot, this time out of adobe brick. Members of the community worked hard to raise the adobe building. In normal years store customers would run a tab all year and then pay in the fall. This year they could exchange their labor to reduce their store debt.
Then, as fate would have it, the interim store burned, too, this time in a fire believed to have been started by bootleggers stealing sugar. Lorraine remembered many rural stores were robbed for sugar to make whiskey, naming the stores at Date, east down Rabbit Creek from Sorum, and Reva, to the west of Sorum and just north of the Slim Buttes. The common element to these robberies was the singular focus on sugar.
Just before the fire, the Jensens took possession of the Friday shipment at the Sorum store. Every Friday wholesalers sent the Sorum store a shipment of staples: 500 pounds of flour and 500 pounds of sugar, in addition to everything else the Jensens needed to keep their customers content. In the ruins of the store, O.W. and Trix found no burned sugar, no crystallized sugar, no melted sugar. The fire in Sorum was believed to be arson, a cover for the larceny of sugar.
With the nightmare of two fires, storekeepers with less persistence might have packed up their family and moved on, but the Jensens just moved back across the street. The store being built of adobe brick was only half complete. The Jensens served their customers from the basement until they could once again do business at street level.
Through all the moves from one side of the street to the other, the Sorum store continued to carry every imaginable staple, including the core staples of canned foods, flour, sugar, and salt. In later years, the store even offered ready-made white bread, a favorite for bachelors and busy housewives. Without reliable refrigeration, the store at Sorum did not sell raw meat. Canned sardines and salmon were in big demand, but raw meat would have to wait for refrigeration to come to town.
Before the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) brought electricity to the area in the late 1940s, Lorraine's father had a wind-charger and generator. When the wind didn’t blow, her father would start the generator, which was a long row of batteries in the basement. With the wind-charger and the generator, the Jensens could keep food cool, they just couldn’t refrigerate or freeze food. As to alternative power sources, Lorraine remarked that, in the years approaching the mid-century mark, more people had refrigerators and stoves that ran on bottled gas.
Then Lorraine talked about the connection between the store in Sorum and Sorum High School. The high school cafeteria, a critical feature of what amounted to a boarding school, was set up in the basement of the store. Living conditions there for the cook were primitive, as were the kitchen facilities. Lorraine wondered how the town ever convinced the cooks to stay. Still, the cooks were enthusiastic and the students well fed. The cooks were assisted by high school students who washed dishes and cleaned the cafeteria in exchange for tuition and room and board. The boys were the ones who, in the absence of plumbing, hauled clean water in from the well, and the dirty water back out.
Sorum High School was not Lorraine's alma mater, as the school closed the year her older brother, Reed, graduated, Lorraine says in 1941. Lorraine's sister Joan, who was three years older than Reed, and 10 years older than Lorraine, also went to Sorum High School. The high school was a blessing to Sorum and to the ranchers and farmers from the area, Lorraine said. The children would learn what they could in the local country schools, but many families couldn’t afford to send their children further than Sorum for the higher grades. However, with the school cafeteria in the basement of the store, and the boys’ dorm in an old flour mill, the high school was struggling and, finally, the high school closed.
Look at the hour! Smokey Joe's big "reveal" may have to wait for another time. Because everyone deserves the respect of a family name, I'll tell you that Joe was Josiah, also known as Joseph F. Ogden. You'll see Mr. Ogden's name again.
Joe Ogden will be remembered, thanks to Lorraine. Lorraine's detailed brush-work of Sorum will also survive her. Being Lorraine's scribe is an historian's pleasure. You might be surprised by how attached you can become to the people who have the answers to the questions you failed to ask.
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate
[Written with gratitude to Lorraine Jensen Carlson for sharing her memories of Sorum.]