Thursday, December 25, 2014

Oh That Strudio!

Think back ... think back to 1941. Back to December 25, 1941 ... to Christmas day 73 years ago today.

Now picture Christmas dinner, the meal your mother, your grandmother, your great-grandmother, or maybe even your great-great-grandmother labored so lovingly to prepare.

And now, picture dessert. Even if dessert did not follow most meals in your house, today was Christmas day, and surely, oh surely, your meal would end with a sweet treat and a contented smile. Yes, Christmas day was special for many reasons, and a fancy dessert was one of them.

Now, tell me, what was the dessert served in your home or your grandmother's home December 25, 1941? Was it an angel food cake or a cherry pie? Did you eat plum pudding? Did this detail of Christmas dinner slide into the silence of lost memories?

Marie remembers. Marie, called by her Croatian name, Marija, was eleven years old by Christmastime in 1941. Marie remembers because Mother, referred to by the rest of the Govert community as Mrs. Kulisich or as Nikla, baked a Croatian dessert on special occasions. And Christmas was a special occasion everywhere, including the Kulisich Ranch two miles south of Govert, South Dakota.

On Christmas Eve in 1941, Mitch Kulisich woke at 5 o'clock in the morning, the same as every morning. Mitch braced himself against the cold as he lit the kindling in the cook stove in the kitchen, the same as every morning. Today was special though, this he knew. After 25 years of marriage, Mitch and Nikla had no secrets. Today was Christmas Eve and Mitch knew Nikla was in a baking mood.

Nikla felt the mattress shift and then she sensed Mitch's absence. She lifted her arms and stretched in bed, smiling as she followed the familiar early morning noises ... the soft thud of Mitch's feet against the wood planks as he moved about the house, the groan of the door to the firebox as Mitch added wood to the stove, a scraping as Mitch lifted the bucket to fill the kettle with water, and then a firm thunk as the heavy kettle of water was seated on the cast iron stove to heat.

How Nikla loved this house! One big room where they all slept, an attic, plus a kitchen added as a sort of lean-to. The house was built four feet into an earthen bank and so was warmer in winter and cooler in summer. She was content here.

For the first 19 years of their marriage, they lived in what had been Mitch's homestead shack, a mile to the west. That house had grown into a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen by the 1920s, but burned to the basement in the summer of 1935. Marie remembers her father sitting in the doorway of the granary after the fire, wiping his eyes with a big red handkerchief. They lost everything and then lived out the Depression cooking and sleeping in the cramped granary. Five years they lived in the granary.

Then, in June 1940, Mitch and Nikla moved their family to the old Kinney place, where this very day Nikla was stretching in bed. And now Nikla was just where she wanted to be, with a big kitchen about 12 foot by 20 foot, large enough for a work space and a separate area for a table and chairs where the family could sit together for meals, and where they could entertain neighbors who came calling.

Nikla came to America from Croatia in 1914, a teenager, traveling alone, speaking not a single word of English. She worked at a cousin's house in a Slav neighborhood in Lead, South Dakota, to pay off her fare from the old country. Two years after she arrived in a country foreign to her in every way, Nikla married this Slav man whose soft thudding footsteps now comforted her in the early morning hours. She moved from poverty in Croatia, to poverty in Lead, to poverty in Govert.

Their life was not without luxuries. Living in this house was one of them. And another was waking to a wash basin of hot water. Nikla had to wonder whether the husband of any other woman in Govert gave his wife, morning after morning, year after year, the gift of hot water in which she could dip her wash cloth. She knew she was among the very fortunate to have married a man who was so strong and capable, yet protective and gentle to her and their children.

Mitch was confident his favorite breakfast would be on the table this Christmas Eve morning. He just knew. Special days were like that - the surprise that no longer surprises, but still pleases. His eyes rested on Nikla where she stood over the wash basin of hot water, brushing a towel over her wet face, his gaze uninterrupted as she lifted her apron from the back of the chair where she left it the evening before. Nikla adjusted the apron, knotting the ties around her waist, as she moved toward the stove, and Mitch's eyes turned with her as she added coffee grounds to the open pot and put on cereal to cook. Corn meal mush. Mitch smiled, his confidence rewarded. Corn meal mush, bread and butter, and coffee. His favorite breakfast. This was indeed a special day.

After breakfast, Mitch hefted his heavy coat over his shoulders, fastening it close around him and, taking a deep breath, he plunged into the cold Harding County air. While Mitch checked the sheep, Nikla opened the door to the firebox to evaluate the wood still burning there. She nodded with approval at the extra wood piled by the stove where her son, Tony, left it the night before. Then Nikla pulled out her cutting board and her knife and set to roughly chopping dried prunes and dried apricots.

Nikla welcomed the familiar chopping rhythm. As she reduced the dusky prunes and nectar-colored apricots to chunks, Nikla gave thanks for the two men who sent the dried fruit to this place so far away. Mike Sentovich, the corner grocer in Slav Alley in Lead, deputized the mailman for his delivery, and Mitch's brother, Anton, sent sacks of prunes from California, big sacks weighed by the tens of pounds. Without the dried fruit, the Kulisiches would have had no fruit at all. Fresh fruit was not easily or inexpensively available to them.

Nikla piled the chunks of dried prunes and apricots in her big sauce pan and threw in a handful of raisins. She carried the sauce pan to the stove and added water from the kettle Mitch had set to boil on the stove earlier that morning. The dried fruit, now simmering in water, re-hydrated, plumping up by the minute.

While the texture of the dried prunes and apricots was transformed to a silky softness, Nikla finished her morning chores. She washed and dried the breakfast dishes and stacked them in the tall, free-standing cupboard. Feeling the satisfaction of a job well done, Nikla swept the wide wooden planks in the floor, and proudly put her house in order. And all the while, Nikla kept her eye on the simmering fruit so the pan would not boil dry.

When the fruit had softened and the sauce had thickened, Nikla removed the pan from the stove to the table. With her hands, Nikla smoothed the bibbed apron protecting her cotton dress. Nikla always wore a dress; trousers, jeans, and overalls were for men, and for her young tomboy daughter, Marija. Nikla's dress was a print, either yellow or green, her favorite colors. Nikla's apron was also a print, either yellow or green ... and, print against print, apron against dress, the effect was just right.

While the fruit cooled, Nikla paused from her housekeeping, paused from her baking, paused from the sights and sounds that made her life here on the ranch near Govert so comfortable and, for a moment, the peace in her domain cracked. The Pearl Harbor attack, now 18 days past, still gnawed uncertainly on her world. Nikla was sure Pearl Harbor was far away, maybe even as far away as her home in Croatia where she had not returned, and now would never return. Safety comes with distance, but a mother knows the distance can never be far enough when she has sons. Tony was 22, and John was 20. But it was Christmas Eve, and Nikla tended to the preparations in front of her, the same way she approached everything in her life.

With the fruit still cooling, Nikla entered into the great mystery of creating strudio. She pulled her mixing bowl and big mixing spoon from the cupboard, her rolling pin, and her baking pan, and set out the bag of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and the small tin of ground cinnamon. And the can of nuts. And a muslin towel. Nikla was ready.

The towel was the key, and Nikla prepared that first. She spread the towel on the table and sprinkled the towel with flour. Then Nikla broke two eggs into her mixing bowl. She beat them well, until the color was lemony, the color of the yellow in her dress. She added flour to the beaten eggs, the amount depending on the eggs, as Nikla never used measuring cups. When the eggs and the flour clumped into a ball and was no longer tacky to the touch, Nikla patted the ball flat and, placing the disk on the floured towel, she picked up her rolling pin.

Nikla rolled the dough thin, into a circle. Then she spread the fruit over the surface of the dough, followed by what must have been a cup of chopped nuts. She dotted the entire surface with butter, and followed that with a sprinkling of sugar and of cinnamon.

And then Nikla rolled her strudio. Lifting the edge of the floured towel, Nikla gave the towel a quick tug and an upward jerk and the edge of the dough closest to her flipped over. Another tug and jerk of the towel, and then another, and the fruit covered dough turned upon itself again and again until one layer, then a second layer, and then a third layer of the dough formed a roll. The rolling is the mystery of the creation of what would be a stunning strudio.

All that was left now was to spread butter on the strudio and to bake her pastry creation in a medium oven, a temperature Nikla would judge by her senses - which we would describe as 350 degrees. When the strudio was lightly browned, after an hour in the oven, Nikla's dessert was ready for her Christmas table the following day.

Today 11-year-old Marija is 84, and her mother's strudio remains a favorite memory of childhood. She remembers Nikla's dough, when baked, had a crunchy texture, almost like noodle dough. As an adult, grown-up Marie baked her own version of strudio for her children, adding shortening to Nikla's recipe to make the crust more like pie dough. In this way the tradition of Nikla's Christmas strudio was passed to another generation.

The story about making Christmas strudio was to have ended here. You were to have scrolled down to a photo of a stunning strudio, a long, well-turned roll of fruit-filled pastry, browned to perfection, with a slice on a plate to show the symmetry of the spiral of pastry and fruit. With that in mind, my research plan for the story included baking both a strudel and a strudio. As it turns out, writing Marie's story about her mother's strudio was a lesson not to count my strudio before they are baked.

The first thing I learned in this culinary research is that strudio and strudel are not the same thing at all. Although both appear as rolled pastry, the strudel has a fruit-filled center with layers of pastry on the outside. In a strudio, the fruit is dispersed throughout the layers of pastry. In publishing Nikla's recipe, the St. Mary's Catholic Altar Society cookbook functionally translated "strudio" as "fruit roll".

You probably won't find the word "strudio" in a Croatian cookbook; Marie and I didn't. Still, Nikla was not the only Croatian woman to bake strudio. The Lales, another Croatian family with Govert ties, also celebrated special occasions with strudio. Whether the word originated in a community in Croatia or whether it originated in Govert, whether the inspiration was that of Nikla Kulisich or Pauline Lale, whether the word was recorded by history as strudio because of Nikla's Croatian accent or Marie's American ears, "strudio" is the word that survived.

Strudio and strudel are not the same, but similarities do exist. The same floured towel technique is used for rolling both a strudio and a strudel. The filling is the same. But for slicing the rolled pastry, not even Mitch would be able to tell the difference because, straight out of the oven, a strudio and a strudel appear identical. Had I not dipped my hands in the flour like Nikla did, had I not used the floured cloth to coax the dough into roll, I might have missed the probable answer to the origin of the word "strudio". Maybe the word really is the invention of immigrants. Not a strudel, but something like a strudel, so a strudio. Or, as my husband said, having cheerfully assumed responsibility as taste tester, "strudel-ish".

My research strudel turned out quite well. Nicely shaped, golden brown, an enviable result, perhaps beginner's luck. The appearance of my research strudio was, well, not so nice, certainly not stunning like Nikla's strudio. Russ, as official taste tester, reported to me, "I agree the strudio is not as pretty as the strudel, but the flavor is much better". I was surprised. And my taste tester continued sampling the strudio.

Like Russ, Mitch would have happily eaten the strudio I baked but, without a picture of a stunning strudio, my preconceived ending to the story fell into doubt. I could not in good conscience pass off a picture of the successful strudel as strudio. This was, after all, a story about strudio. So I did what any author with a rigid plan would have done: I considered making a second strudio.

And then the muse who is inside of each of us, if only we listen, nudged me. And, for once, I listened. Sometimes we have to be reminded that things are not always what they appear to be. The image of the strudio I had labored over so hopefully was not one I was willing to commit to the public eye, but the flavor was better than that of the more attractive strudel cousin. The strudio was not what it appeared to be. First, it wasn't a strudel at all and, second, my sad little strudio was a happy mash of pie dough and fruit. My muse smiled and went back to sleep.

Things are not always what they appear to be. And, just as my muse repeated to me ... things are not always what they appear to be.

Maybe this story isn't what it appears to be.

Consider this. Applying an economic standard, Nikla and Mitch appear to be poor.

But were they poor? Things are not always what they appear to be.

Maybe this story is not about strudio after all. Maybe this is a story about Nikla and Mitch.


MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM GOVERT, SOUTH DAKOTA!

This story is dedicated to Marie's great-grandchildren.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Marie Kulisich for her memories.

The photograph in this blog post is used with the permission of Marie Kulisich. In the back row are John, Ann, and Tony. In the front are Marie, Mitch and Nikla.

Gratitude is owed to Robert Jerin, who has been kind to entertain my questions on all things Slavic since 2010. Robert has long been associated with the Croatian Heritage Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and is the moderator of the Croatian Heritage and Genealogy page on Facebook. Robert was not familiar with a Croatian word like "strudio". Robert advised that the Croatian word for strudel is strudla (pronounced like shroodlah). He suggested the possibility that "strudio" may derive from dialect or family tradition.

The natural concerns of a mother for her sons following December 7, 1941 were to become very real for Nikla. The son she and Mitch named John Govert Kulisich joined the Marine Corp in 1942. John served as a Corsair pilot, and remained in the Marine Corps until he retired as a Master Sergeant in 1962. Tony (formally named Anton after his uncle) was deferred from service in World War II because his labor was necessary to maintain ranch operations.

Marie tells me that wood produces a faster, hotter fire. Wood was preferred in the kitchen for cooking and baking. The stove in the second room was fired with coal. Coal was good for banking the fire at night as the coal did not burn as fast. Paul Ellis operated a coal mine near the Slim Buttes, and he provided coal to most of the Govert community. The wood the Kulisich family burned in the cook stove came from the Slim Buttes, with Mitch and his sons collecting the wood in the fall. If wood were ever in short supply, a Govert family would use whatever fuel was available. Nikla might have baked her strudio in an oven fired by coal this Christmas Eve in 1941.

The cookbook published by the St. Mary's Catholic Altar Society in Newell, South Dakota, is undated, but Marie believes publication preceded 1973.]

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Echoes of Govert, South Dakota

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Another of God's children lovingly tucked into bed, one last time. Good night, Gordon.

Gordon was the last of the Van der Booms to once have lived on the townsite known as Govert, South Dakota. The bell tolling for Uncle Gordon ended this Van der Boom family connection to the feisty little town founded by his father, my grandfather, on the South Dakota prairie.

On September 7, 1918 the population of Govert, South Dakota, grew by one precious baby boy, a birth that would be celebrated by the entire community. On that September day 96 years ago, 33-year-old Emma Van der Boom gave birth to her second child, a son Emma and Govert named Gordon. This was not a family name, but neither was Virgil, the name they gave their first son, or Roger, the name they would give their third son. Homesteading in West River was a new life, calling for new beginnings. None of their sons would be called Govert. But, with a twinkle in his eye, Govert Luther Joseph Marion Van der Boom, the founder of the town of Govert, named his children Virgil Marion, Gordon Luther, and Roger Joseph.

All three brothers were handsome men. Their lives took them along different paths but they also held in common a sense of wonder and curiosity as to the world surrounding them. They each also inherited their father's twinkle - right there in the corner of their eye. Maybe their father's father charmed women and children with that same alternately merry and mischievous twinkle, too, but the elder Govert died in 1895 two weeks before the younger Govert's 12th birthday, and these last decades have left no one to remember such things as twinkles.

Gordon started his childhood in Govert, South Dakota, finished those years in Newell and then, in 1937, armed with little more than his handsome looks and the twinkle in his eye, Gordon headed for California, leaving the prairie behind. He was 19, a young man in search of opportunity and adventure. Gordon's motivation differed little from that of his mother and father before him when they chose to change their lives by claiming homesteads west of the Missouri River. Young Gordon must have overheard the men talking in his father's mercantile store at Govert and later at the implement company in Newell - if any destination still held magic in the 1930s, that destination was California. The images that fired Gordon's soul at the age of 19 were probably similar to the romantic images his nieces and nephews carried for him, the stories told to them by their parents.

The earliest memory of Gordon, created for me by my father, was that of my swashbuckling uncle seeking fame in Hollywood as a tap dancer, which made me admire this mysterious uncle all the more. The birth of twins, uncommon in the Van der Boom family, made the California Van der Booms more exotic than ever. Then came my father's story of an invention by my clever uncle, then the modern house with the white carpet, swimming pool and tennis courts, and even a sophisticated sort of clover for a lawn. Then there was the time Gordon rescued my brother from drowning in the pool. All part of the star package, mostly true, all believed. As you can see here, Uncle Gordon could have been a 1940s movie star, and that's not just his eight-year-old, awe-struck niece speaking.


Govert Van der Boom must have been puzzled, but he also must have understood what drove his middle son to reject the known for the unknown. So in 1937 when Gordon left South Dakota for California, Govert accompanied his son to the train station in Newell, the last stop on the spur from Belle Fourche. Gordon climbed aboard the caboose attached behind two cars and an engine. What does a father say in his reluctance to part with one of his sons for the first time? In the awkwardness of accepting this farewell, the Dutchman - in his heavy accent - cautioned Gordon to "stay away from bad girls." And then Govert watched his son fade with the train against the horizon.

Gordon took his father's well-meant advice and, in California, Gordon fell in love with a beautiful and talented woman, a promising young author, Marjorie Jean Nichols. Their daughter, Linda, was born in 1942, followed by the twins, Gordie and Sherry, in 1945. And then came the gift of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Gordon could not have muted the fast forward that drove him to California, and there he made his own magic.

Watching his grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow older, Gordon began to reflect, the kind of reflection in which we can engage only after our life experiences mature us. Gordon's "what once was" arose from that piece of land in southeastern Harding County where he spent his earliest years, and Newell where he passed the years of teenaged introspection. In his 80s, Gordon harbored a sort of wonder about the life his parents chose in a small community that was both close and supportive.

I know this because Gordon told me so. He told me in 2004 when he traveled to Oregon to join my mother, my sister, my brothers and me in memorializing my father, Roger. I know because Gordon made a pilgrimage back to Govert, South Dakota, that same year. I know because of the close bond Gordon formed on that pilgrimage with his great-nephew who lives in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. I know because Gordon followed my research with a sense of wonder, that same sense of wonder he shared with his brothers. My Uncle Gordon was a romantic image all my life, but I didn't know him until 2004 when Gordon was 86 and I was 52.

They grew where they were planted, these Van der Boom boys, or they grew where they were transplanted. All three of Govert's and Emma's sons flourished, each with his once-and-forever wife, just like their parents. Govert died in 1957 and, in 1968, Emma joined him at Rose Hill Cemetery in Spearfish, South Dakota, 81 miles from the homestead life they shared with their three sons earlier in the century. The youngest son, Roger, was the first of the sons to die and he was buried as a soldier, a veteran of World War II, at the National Cemetery outside of Sturgis, South Dakota. The oldest son, Virgil, was the second to die, two years later in 2006. You can find Virgil and his beloved wife, Mildred, in the small cemetery adjacent to Newell, South Dakota. And now the middle son, Gordon, has died. September 24, 2014 was not a good day for all the people who loved him. Gordon and his wife, Marge, are interred in a columbarium in the western state Gordon adopted as his own.

And now, no Govert, South Dakota, Van der Booms remain. Not a single one. The prairie wind dispersed Govert Township and the memories of the town, leaving Govert, Emma, Roger, and Virgil ... and now Gordon, too ... as echos of Gordon's "what once was".

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude for having known Gordon. Some of the stories my father told me about Gordon may or may not be completely true; Gordon himself declined to comment. My father admired his older brother, and my father was fond of telling stories, a dangerous combination for recording family history with accuracy. Join me here soon for Gordon's memories of life on the prairie, which I believe to be based in truth, like nearly crushing the Dutchman's car in the 1930s. The 18th Century "lay me down to sleep" children's prayer is the formula I followed at bedtime every night of my childhood, and Emma Van der Boom most likely supervised the repetition of this prayer as recited by Virgil, Gordon, and Roger kneeling by their beds in the attic of the frame house next to Govert Mercantile in the 1920s. The photograph of Gordon comes from my archive.] 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Postscript: Reflections Sitting Alone in the Root Cellar

On November 10, 1910 the Valley Irrigator in Newell, South Dakota, published these words which earlier appeared in the Spearfish Mail about conditions further north in Harding County.
While out in the Camp Crook country last week Fred Nash took Dr. Sherrill of Camp Crook to see some patients who were reported sick at their ranch about twenty-six miles northeast from that place. The family consists of father, mother and two little children, and all were bed-fast and literally starving to death, having nothing in the house except rice. They are newcomers and are so destitute that the county will be compelled to care for them for some months to come. They live in a sod house, are two miles from water, have no fuel, and are in a bad way generally. Dr. Sherrill carried the little boy, about four years old, to Camp Crook and placed him in the hospital. The child was nothing but skin and bones, and his chances for recovery were considered rather dubious. Doubtless there are others in that region in the same fix.
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reflections Sitting Alone in the Root Cellar

For two years and two months home was a shack on the prairie, one small room, four permeable plank walls, living a simple life. Two growing seasons, two harvests, and two months. Meditation comes easy in the root cellar, your perch an empty wooden crate, upturned on the packed dirt floor. Meditation comes easy when you have no distractions, when the space around you is empty. When you realize the time for panic is past.

Come to Jesus time. You can wish all you want, but wishes never filled a root cellar. You can regret until the tears fall, but will your tears ease the hunger cramping your belly when the snow sifts through the cracks between the planks of your shack? An empty root cellar is nothing more than a hole in the ground.

The time for panic is past.

Facts are facts. You are meditating in your root cellar, a colorful October turning into a grey November, with only the tardy realization for company that you are not surrounded by a boastful surplus put by for winter. Your root cellar should be lined by glass jars filled to the brim with jewel-like red tomatoes and beets, green peas and beans, orange carrots, and the yellow nibs of corn reminding you of the glory of summertime corn on the cob. You should be stumbling over crates and baskets piled high with potatoes layered with the early issues of the Govert Advance that I wish I had available to read today.* Looking past the potatoes, your eyes should fall on the crates of turnips, and crates of the excess carrots and beets all layered with sand. And winter squash piled here and piled there, filling every last available space. Without this kind of preparation in the early decades of the twentieth century, winter in Govert, South Dakota, could be terrifying.

That the drifting snow and icy winds of Harding County will soon overtake you is a certainty. That you may suffer this freezing winter in hunger becomes increasingly apparent without the bounty of a well-stocked root cellar. Panic may have been useful two months ago, but now all that remains is to calculate what you are going to do next. Is wintering over in Govert even an option?

How did this happen anyway? What happened to make your situation so desperate? Were you one of those homesteaders whose enthusiasm was underscored by an unfortunate lack of knowledge about farming or livestock? So what was it? Not enough rain? Plant too early? Too late? Hail? Pests? Prairie fire? Didn't have the tools you needed? A bad plan? Brutal working conditions? When was it that you realized Govert, South Dakota, was not Waldon Pond?

Face facts. Come to Jesus. When do you give up the dream and face a different kind of reality?

How many homesteaders are lost in the fringes of history? How many once hopeful men and optimistic women abandoned their quarter section of prairie before shaking the hand of the census taker? How many never told their children of this amazing adventure upon which they once embarked?

Men and women sought out 160 acres of prairie for as many reasons as you can imagine, and they left for reasons, as many and as varied as you have yet to consider. Remembering those who were just passing through ... the homesteaders who relinquished their claims, the hired hands who stopped for a season or two, the families seeking a safe place to be between here and there ... remembering, not judging them ... is our responsibility as prairie historians. For a while they called Govert home.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

*Mr. Laflin's archive of the early issues of the Govert Advance were lost in a flue fire in his attic in the late 1920s. Later editions are available on microfilm at the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre, South Dakota, and also at the public library in Belle Fourche. Fragile paper copies may be viewed at the School House Museum in Buffalo, South Dakota.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sheep Ranching in Govert, South Dakota, by Marie Kulisich

After writing about calving [Ain't She Sweet ... Calving in Harding County, South Dakota], I read the Nation's Center News with my pen, marking every mention of calving. Week after week my edition of the newspaper was so marked up, I could have connected the marks to fill in a picture of a calf. Then, a couple of editions ago, I saw the first mention of lambing along with the calving. Lambing continues now as the calving activity slows down. Marie Kulisich, the daughter of Mitch and Nikla Kulisich, told me about her experiences with lambing and sheep ranching in the 1930s and 1940s. Marie was born in Govert, South Dakota, and that is where she spent her childhood, attending school, and as a valued young ranch hand on the Kulisich Ranch. I am introducing Marie as a guest blogger.

SHEEP RANCHING IN GOVERT, SOUTH DAKOTA, by Guest Blogger, Marie Kulisich

I remember watching a program on TV about a veterinarian helping a cow give birth when she was having trouble, and I was reminded of how my dad did that with sheep, going in and turning the lamb so the ewe could birth her lamb easier. How did my dad know how to do that? Somehow whatever knowledge is needed comes to a sheep rancher intent on saving his sheep!

All the homesteaders in the Govert area first tried to farm, but the land was not good for farming. Then they tried cattle, but the grass was not good for cattle. Then they tried sheep. The sheep could eat the short grass that was close to the ground. The ranchers could make a better living from sheep, because they had two checks per year, one for each of two harvests: wool in the spring and the lambs in the fall. Cattle ranchers just had one check a year that being for the calves.

Lambing time was the first part of May, when the weather was warmer for those new babies. The lambs suckled soon after birth, and got by outside pretty well if it was dry. We did not have shed room for all the sheep and their lambs. We had "tepees" which were canvas, waterproof, small tent affairs with rods running through and around, with four sides that anchored into the ground and were big enough to cover a ewe and her new born lamb out on the prairie.

This tepee shelter kept the sheep and lambs dry if the day was cold and raining, and then you went out and brought the sheep and new lambs home before the day was over. Even today when I see rain and some snow in the air, I'm reminded of what a miserable day we'd have on the prairie at Govert herding sheep, maybe even a few first lambs arriving, and would have to use the little tepees to keep the newborns dry. The rest of the herd raced across the prairie, they too hated the wind!

Marie Kulisich on "Pony" carrying a new lamb in front of her.
I was often sent out to herd the "drop" bunch, the ewes that hadn't had their lambs yet. And one time I watched helplessly while an eagle swooped down across the draw from me, and took the new lamb up and away into the sky and its doom! I felt so bad!

My schoolmate, Evaline West, told me they once had a black ewe and she had black triplets. This is quite unusual and would make the news today. The sheep mother could only tend one lamb and the two other lambs became pets for Evaline and her sisters, Alice Mae and Shirley Jean. What was so cute were the names the girls gave their black lambs, something like Midnight and Lignite. They were ewes so were kept. We kept the black sheep as 'markers' within the herd. Like one black sheep for every 25 or 50 sheep so that when you brought the herd in at night you counted the black ones to get an estimate if you had them all.

The lambs without a sheep mother were called "bum lambs". Some ewes had twins but didn't have enough milk to feed two lambs, so one was taken away to be raised as a "bum" on a bottle. We used a pop bottle, with a store bought nipple and cow’s milk. I was supposed to feed the bums but my soft-hearted dad didn't want to wake me at five in the morning and would do it himself! I was fond of the bum lambs. They were my playmates, along with the dog, the cats, the saddle horse, and later that silly goat.

Dad had another option in dealing with bum lambs and that was to bond a bum lamb to a foster mother. If a ewe's lamb died, Dad would skin the dead lamb and tie the pelt on a bum lamb and shut the foster mother and foster lamb in together for a day or two until the ewe accepted the new baby. Sheep recognize their lambs by smell. Thus there was one more lamb for fall harvest! 

Then towards the end of May came "docking" time when lambs had their tails and testicles, called "wethers", cut off. Sheep were brought into the corral, and then my job was to catch the lambs and put them in the pen. Dad held the lamb in the pen and my brother, Tony, did the rest, not a pleasant job to be sure. I always held back the black lambs or black spotted ones until last, thinking I was giving them a reprieve.

Then next came shearing time, probably June. My memory of this was all the bleating as ewes and lambs were separated. The lambs were left outside the corral while ewes were run inside to pens by each shearer. When the shearing was done, the ewes were turned outside to find their bleating babies.

Outside the barn where the shearers were, a big scaffold was set up to hold the huge wool sacks. Tony was in the sack, tramping down the fleeces of wool to make a very tight sack. These sacks for wool were maybe 10 or 12 feet long, and they also had "ears", two on the bottom and two on top, so there was a way to handle them, loading on the truck at the ranch, and off again at the wool house at Newell.

Right after the sheep were sheared, we branded them. Our brand for the sheep was a "K". The branding tool - I think it was made from wood - was dipped in paint and then on the back of the sheep. Each rancher had a different color. I seem to remember that the Lale's brand was black, the Wests used green, and ours was red.

Then in September came the time to truck the lambs to market in Newell. Dad hired truckers to come in and haul lambs in the fall, and the big sacks of sheared wool in the spring, to Newell by truck. Leonard West was one of the truckers, no relation to Evaline. Leonard later married my sister, Ann. Frank Wald was one of the truckers when he was still living in Newell; later he moved to Govert.

Highway 79 was pretty good, but the couple of miles from the Govert store to the ranch was a country road, no more than a trail, no problem for the truckers as long as conditions were dry. The trail we used went across the Gee property to our place. Back then no one had much concern about trespassing, although you were expected to always shut gates, which was very important so the livestock didn't get out. The trucks used this trail across the Gee place when they came to get the lambs in the fall to ship to market, and the huge sacks of wool in the spring for the same reason. The truck had to ford the Moreau River as well, no bridges there for just one family!

I was amazed how my mother cooked for and served so many people when the truckers were out at the ranch, and that was when we lived in the granary after our house burned down, so we had little room. I think it was in the fall of 1937 when Leonard West and his brother, Bud, and Lee Post from Newell were there for supper. They were the truckers that came to haul the lamb crop to Newell for sale, and I'm sure a couple other men were there to help with the loading. What did my Mother feed all those people? I do realize it was a much simpler time then and I would guess she had a big roast or fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, homemade bread and butter, coffee and perhaps pie and that was it, but my mother served ample amounts and men like that! In the fall she might have had some garden stuff. And I am amazed at all the social interaction there was. These days were events!

We did not eat mutton or lamb. Mutton is not a very desirable meat, has a tallow taste and must be served very, very hot and spiced up like with rosemary. Besides, ewes produced the lambs and the wool which were our two cash crops per year and likewise, we would never kill a lamb.

We were grateful for the two incomes a year, the one in the spring for the wool and the other in the fall for the lambs. Many ranchers had a charge account at the Govert store and also at Brattons general store in Newell, and they paid up in spring when they sold the wool and in the fall when they sold the lambs. I'm more appreciative now of my parents and how they made it through the Depression when many of the ranchers were unable to pay even their real estate taxes. My parents were very conservative and carefully planned how to use the money from the wool and the lambs. Even during the Depression, we always had plenty to eat with our own milk, cream, homemade bread and butter, chickens and eggs, and Dad's garden.

My parents were both born in what is now Croatia. My dad had no ranching experience before he homesteaded near Govert. I'm so often going back in my thoughts to my dad's sheep raising operation, and wonder how did my dad know how to do all of this, how many sheep the land would feed, lambing time, docking time, shearing time, trucks coming in to haul out the big sacks of wool in the spring and when to have them come again in the fall to take out the lambs!

After the spring harvest of wool and the fall harvest of lambs, another year passes for the sheep rancher. As for me, I loved school and could hardly wait for school to start in the fall. Winter time for the rancher was slower, just herding sheep every day and battling the snowy, windy days of the winter ... 

... and listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Marie and Kate

[Shared with gratitude to Marie Kulisich for recording her memories.]

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Get Together, Pull Together, Stick Together (Part III: A Novel P.T.A. Program)

What was so fascinating about the P.T.A. program in February 1935? This long ago evening in Govert, South Dakota, was so novel and so innovative, you will be distracted from your otherwise natural expectations for a tedious and oftentimes contentious meeting between parents and teachers. You see, the entire Govert community was in agreement over the conduct of the school, so their energies were not dissipated in discord but were channeled into creating a program calculated to be people pleasing ... and please the people it did. Goverites created the entertainment, and Goverites were their own entertainment. With such joy in the planning, and in the execution of the program, no possibility existed for any person in that schoolhouse, that night, to be a passive observer. This was to be a night of surprises.

The program was entertaining and appealing ...
      amusing ...
           interactive ...
                 personal ...
                      spirited ...

The program committee tailored original readings ...
      for unsuspecting attendees ...
           to present sight unseen ...
                bringing the community together to laugh ...
                     and play and socialize ...

The authors of the vignettes
      mined the depths of their imaginations and literary skills ...
           and their knowledge of their friends and neighbors ...
                their neighbors who were their friends ...
                     their friends who were their neighbors ...

Once they identified their performers, what did the P.T.A. program committee use for material? The committee of three was well-positioned to know everyone's business in Govert. Secrets have a short expiration date in a small town; they just won't stay secret. Adelaide Calkins, Mrs. Wesley Horton, and Fredric Laflin were the perfect playwrights to compose each part of this carefully choreographed evening. Adelaide was the 36-year-old schoolmarm of the Govert country school. Ida Wendt Horton, 33 years old, was a local girl, born just down the road in Castle Rock. Ida had two children attending Govert School, Evelyn Marie and Dale Vernon.

The last member of the program triumvirate was a young man, only 21 years old. You might think that being both young and unmarried, Frederic Laflin might disdain dipping his toe in his neighbor's business, but no one was immune in Govert. Besides, Frederic was the son of the editor of the Govert Advance, the local newspaper whose success was based on reporting the activities of the community. Yes, that Frederic Laflin. Frederic was Govert-born and well-versed in the ways of his community. Frederic was absolutely perfect for this job.

The evening planned by Adelaide, Ida, and Frederic started with upbeat music, songs in which everyone joined, intended to generate enthusiasm and unity. According to Mr. Laflin's coverage in the Govert Advance, "The first four songs on the program in which the peppy musicians were joined by Mr. and Mrs. Wesley Horton and Frederic Laflin most assuredly welcomed one and all to the P.T.A. that evening." The songs were Come In, Hello, The More We Get Together, and Smile Awhile.

Come In might have been the song that goes something like this: "Enter, rejoice, and come in. Enter, rejoice, and come in. Today will be a joyful day; enter, rejoice, and come in." Never you mind that this may have been sung Sundays in church. The folks up there, in those times, didn't have to segregate their faith life to the realms of private rumination. They played out their faith and wouldn't have thought twice about singing a song with hymn overtones at a P.T.A. meeting in the schoolhouse ... which was also their church on any Sunday a pastor was in the neighborhood.

But Hello? What were the lyrics to Hello, and to what melody were the lyrics sung? Some details are lost to history. Fortunately, the remaining two introductory songs from that night might ring more familiarly in your mind.

The More We Get Together  
The more we get together
Together, together
The more we get together
The happier we'll be
Cause your friends are my friends
And my friends are your friends
The more we get together
The happier we'll be

The more we play together
Together, together
The more we play together
The happier we'll be
Cause your friends are my friends
And my friends are your friends
The more we play together
The happier we'll be

The more we dance together
Together, together
The more we dance together
The happier we'll be
Cause your friends are my friends;
And my friends are your friends
The more we dance together
The happier we'll be

The more we get together
Together, together
The more we get together
The happier we'll be
Cause your friends are my friends
And my friends are your friends
The more we get together
The happier we'll be
The more we get together
The happier we'll be
The more we get together
The happier we'll be

Smile Awhile
Smile awhile and give your face a rest
Raise your hands to the One you love the best
Then shake hands with those nearby
And greet them with a smile
[Repeat]

We are not blessed with a copy of the program script for the vignettes performed by our Govert neighbors that night, so we don't know exactly what the words of the original compositions were. Nevertheless, the title of each vignette was printed in the Govert Advance. The titles suggest the individual readings were based on recent, perhaps even "notorious" events, or a widely-noted personality feature unique to that person.

In the Govert Advance, Charles Laflin set the stage. "Miss Adelaide Calkins was at the piano. Seated and facing the audience were Dale Horton, Billy Lale, Evelyn Horton, Waldo Jergenson, Elsie Lale, John and Anton Kulisich. [...] With a world of pep in music and songs, and a happy smile of anticipation this lively group introduced and invited to the platform each surprised person to whom a reading or song was handed. All responded and it was, indeed, a severe test for some - but everyone did splendid, that's why we're so proud of them."

How did this play out in real time? With the piano accompaniment of Adelaide Calkins, the choir of her school children sang an "invitation song", specially composed to identify the next unsuspecting performer. Fifteen Goverites in succession were called to the front of the single room of the schoolhouse, and they responded just as if they were again nervous schoolchildren called upon to recite their lessons.

The invitation song was based on a common melody. For example, "Herbert's a Jolly Good Fellow" as a come forth song would have followed the tune of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" to bring Herbert Scofield to the front of the class. We can easily imagine this as some variation of:

For Herbert's a jolly good fellow,
For Herbert's a jolly good fellow,
For Herbert's a jolly good fell---ow
Who gives us jolly advice.

With the invitation song ringing in his ears, now burning bright red, Herbert Scofield, and everyone else called forward in this manner, found his or her way to the front of the room through laughing and jostling neighbors. Each accepted the proffered script and each, in the spirit of community cooperation, made a performance that, even if not eligible for an Emmy, brought good humor to that corner of the Depression era prairie.

So here we go. What follows are the title of the invitation song and the title of the assigned reading for each of our 15 Govert neighbors who performed that night ... along with what might possibly have been the program committee's inspiration.

1. Invitation by the choir: "Howdy Do Joseph Grandpre"
Response performed by J.L. Grandpre: "Howdy Do Kind Friends"
Joseph Leo Grandpre was a respected, longtime Govert resident having arrived before 1920. He knew everyone, was always glad to see everyone, was friendly with everyone. He was a welcoming man, so would be the perfect person to open the program and set the stage for the acts to come. Mr. Grandpre is remembered by then 6-year-old Evaline West as a short Frenchman ... the influence of his French Canadian parents ... very neat in his appearance, dark eyes flashing with energy. He was not a loud man, but was a lively and energetic little man, outgoing, and jovial. You couldn't help but like Joseph Grandpre.

2. Invitation by the choir: "Cheer Up Ida"
Response performed by Ida Wendt Horton: "He Wasn't Necessary"
Ida was blonde, blue-eyed, nice-looking, maybe a little thin to be as attractive as she could have been. It’s not that Ida wasn’t cheerful. Ida was friendly and outgoing, but Ida was a bundle of nerves, as if she wasn’t quite comfortable in her own skin. Some thought her nervousness was connected to her worry over her son Dale’s heart problems. Then, too was the fact that Ida was a go-getter and her husband Wesley could never get anywhere on time; he was laid back like his brother, Rayford. Anyone who had to deal with a spouse like that would sympathize with Ida. She was a good person, not negative, just had thin nerves. But what about the second part, the title of her reading? Who or what wasn't necessary? The author of Ida's reading would hardly have disregarded a person as unnecessary, so "he" must have been something as uncomplicated as a turkey or a chicken who escaped the coop. Remember, Ida was on the program committee. And so was Frederic, whose reading came next. You might notice that no reading was prepared for Adelaide, leading us to suspect that our much loved schoolmarm playfully wrote the readings for Ida and Frederic.

3. Invitation by the choir: "Frederic Will Shine Tonight"
Response performed by Frederic Laflin: "Afeard of a Girl"
Twenty-one was an awkward age for Frederic Laflin. He would soon be considered a ladies' man, but the ladies had yet to encourage him. Frederic's father, Charles Laflin, was short and his mother, Mary Zee Campbell, was considered a bit tall for a woman. Frederic himself was the anomaly standing over 6 foot tall, maybe even six foot three. His nickname was “Broom Laflin” because he was so tall and thin. Frederic may have been afeard of all girls, or maybe he was afeard of one particular girl ... and that might have been Inez James. Another two years would pass before Frederic and Inez married. Frederic would have been much more confident in 1935 had he known that he and Inez would have a beautiful and spirited daughter, Saundra, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to preserve the Laflin foothold in Govert Township. Yes, that Frederic Laflin.

4. Invitation by the choir: "Herbert's a Jolly Good Fellow"
Response performed by H.L. Scofield: "Hints for Him"
Herbert and his wife, Signey, were a good-looking couple. All the Scofields were well-groomed including children, Dorothy and LeRoy. Herbert himself may have been a font of grooming advice, counseling young men on the importance of good grooming and how best to maintain a good appearance.

5. Invitation by the choir: "What's the Matter with Waldon" [The coming forth song may have been based on What’s the Matter with Father.]
Response performed by Waldon Lemm: "Teachers"
Come now, Waldon, you really didn't think it was a secret you were paying court to the schoolmarm? Remember that 6-year-old girl who stayed with Adelaide at the teacherage during the school year? Well, that little girl still remembers your coming to visit, sometimes staying for dinner, and everyone else in Govert knew about you and Adelaide, too. Truth be told, Adelaide's divorce remained fresh in memory, Waldon was a younger man, and maybe the timing just wasn't right for Adelaide. Waldon found another love and married in 1943, but Adelaide and Waldon remained forever friends.

6. Invitation by the choir: "Sing a Ling, Ling, Mr. Laflin"
Response performed by Charles E. Laflin: "No Salesmen Allowed"
Without Charles Laflin's experience stringing telephone lines prior to taking up a homestead in the township to the north, Govert may never have enjoyed the ding a'ling a'ling of that new-fangled telephone device. Was the dawn of the telephone in Govert also the dawn of telephone solicitation? Or was Mr. Laflin impatient with the many peddlers who found their way into his otherwise quiet corner of the prairie? Transients selling brushes or clothing or encyclopedias; or buying pelts or bones; or speculators in land. Mr. Laflin was a very good person with only the best of intentions, and he might have been surprised to learn how powerful and influential people thought he was. One thing for sure, Mr. Laflin assumed a lot of responsibilities and, understandably, he would have had no time for anyone intent on wasting his time.

7. Invitation by the choir: "Are You with Us Lillian Hafner"
Response performed by Lillian Gudmunson Hafner: "Too Promising"
Lillian Gudmunson was an outsider, arriving in the Govert area first as a schoolteacher and remaining to marry rancher George Hafner. Of the two, Lillian was the more reserved. George was outgoing and personable, a grownup who stopped to play with the children in the schoolyard. With her daughter, Mercedes, ready to start school, Lillian may have had conflicting loyalties. Which would prevail, the Govert community she adopted as her own, first as teacher and later as a rancher's wife, or her own desire for her children to have the best educational opportunities available ... a desire which might have seemed traitorous had it taken them away from Govert and to a larger town.

8. Invitation by the choir: "In Style All the While"
Response performed by Lydia Vogt Gee: "Babies"
Lydia Gee was a well-dressed woman, in a modest, middle class kind of way. She may have had interest in fashion but, as for most women at the time, Lydia was challenged by the economy and fashion looked more like a housedress. She was a competent woman, very involved in the Govert community, with special status as a longtime resident and a former schoolteacher. To young Govert mothers, Lydia was the older, wiser woman, caring and gracious, a respected adviser. Now at 48, with her two sons finishing high school in Newell, soon to embark on their own lives, Lydia had reason to sit back and smile about babies, doting on and fussing over the babies in the Govert community and dreaming of her own grandchildren, the first of which would not be born for another 15 years. If the issue was fretting mothers yearning for stylish baby clothes in the middle of the Depression, I can imagine my great-aunt offering the wise counsel that "Babies are always stylish".

9. Invitation by the choir: "Hello Delore"
Response performed by Delore Grandpre: "Trouble Brewing"
What kind of trouble could be brewing for this 16-year-old boy? Delore and both of his parents were part of this collection of vignettes. All three were chosen to participate because the program committee knew they would do so in good humor. Delore could not have been a troublemaker. So what trouble was around the corner for Delore? Or any 16-year-old boy, for that matter. Must have been something to do with abundant testosterone reserves.

10. Invitation by the choir: "O Mrs. Grandpre"
Response performed by Amanda Bekken Grandpre: "Nothing to It"
"Oh, Mrs. Grandpre" sounds like a plea for assistance by a young neighbor desperately seeking advice. "Nothing to it" is the response of someone with superior experience born of overcoming challenges by force of an indomitable, can-do spirit. "Just do it this way. Nothing to it!" Both Mr. and Mrs. Grandpre were outgoing, and were blessed with a strong, positive attitude. They were relaxed and fun to be around. Nothing to it.

11. Invitation by the choir: "Give John Donohue a Hand"
Response performed by John Donohue: "When Hog Meets Hog"
Twenty-five-year-old John Donohue was a rancher, son of a rancher, brother of a rancher. Young stallions like John have been known to tell a tale or two. The re-telling of his story about competing hogs may have been even better than the original.

12. Invitation by the choir: "Signey Went Over the Mountain" [This come forth song may have been based on The Bear Went Over the Mountain, sung to the tune of For He's a Jolly Good Fellow.]
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see.

Response performed by Signey Bekken Scofield: "Advertise"
Maybe Signey was developing entrepreneurial ideas. After all, ranch wives brought in reliable income with their cream and butter products and with the eggs they collected. They also tended the turkeys and the chickens offered for sale to townspeople who didn't raise their own. Maybe Signey had ambitions.

13. Invitation by the choir: "O Mr. Toble"
Response performed by G.H. Toble: "Kissing Neath a Mustache"
"Oh," she said coyly, "Mr. Toble, your mustache tickles." Those are words Gus Toble probably never thought he would ever hear again. His wife, Amy, died four years earlier after being terribly burned in a fire that began in the stove flue and consumed their Govert home. Gus was struck senseless by the tragedy, but he got a second chance at love with the charming Widow Byers who lived up by Cash. The Govert community closed ranks around Gus and he kept his ties to northwestern South Dakota for the remainder of his life. Lydia Vogt Gee called Gus uncle, as did Emma Vogt Van der Boom, the wife of the founder of Govert. Everyone liked Gus, including children and dogs. At the P.T.A. business meeting this very night, Dale Horton couldn't hold back his enthusiasm for Gus ... this 10-year-old boy jumped up in that large group of adults to nominate Gus for the next program committee. Dale's burst of fondness reflects the community's support for Gus and his new companion. Writing a playful "Kissing Neath a Mustache" vignette just for him and his generous mustache tells us the same thing. The Widow Byers became Mrs. Gus Toble on March 19, 1935, nearly a month after Gus performed his part in the P.T.A. program.

14. Invitation by the choir: "My Name is Bert Ellis"
Response performed by Bert Ellis: "Proper Length of a Man's Legs"
Bert Ellis had very strong opinions about politics, about the senselessness of Prohibition, about nearly everything subject to judgment. This went hand-in-hand with a propensity toward giving advice. Both opinions and advice were framed by his sense of humor and a reputation for being something of a tease. If asked to opine on an appropriate height for a man, he might very well have said something profound and a little flippant like, "The proper length of a man's leg is from his hip all the way to the ground."

15. Invitation by the choir: "Willie Boy"
Response performed by Wm. Donohue: "The Wild Cow"
Oh, where have you been Willie Boy, Willie Boy; oh, where have you been charming Willie? Like his older brother, John, William Donohue had something of a rough and tumble cowboy reputation to protect and perpetuate, and the tales of valor to go with it ... here, probably a tale of derring-do and a wild cow.

In addition to the 15 vignettes, the P.T.A. program offered three other acts. The first provided a break in the action after eight Goverites performed their surprise readings. This was when Dorothy and Rayford Horton sang Good Ship Lollipop to the accompaniment of harmonicas played by their cousins, Evelyn and Dale Horton. After the 15th, and final, vignette, Adelaide Calkins led the entire assembly in singing We Won't Go Home Until Morning. By then it appeared unlikely that anyone would go home before morning. So say we all of us ...

[Sung to "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow"]
We won't go home until morning
We won't go home until morning
We won't go home until morning
Till day-light doth appear
Till day-light doth appear
Till day-light doth appear
We won't go home until morning
We won't go home until morning
We won't go home until morning
Till day-light doth appear

The very last act was A Radio Program, performed by Mr. and Mrs. Wesley Horton, together with their children, Evelyn and Dale, with Frederic Laflin as the radio announcer. Huddling together around a radio was wonderful entertainment for those with the good fortune to have a radio in their home. Mimicking the vocal affectations of the actors and the sound effects, as well as static and echoes in reception would have made a clever skit. As Charles Laflin wrote in the Govert Advance, this last act "produced a peck of fun and completed a splendid program of interesting, wholesome fun."

Adelaide may have correctly gauged the evening by leading the group in We Won't Go Home Until Morning. After the program starring our Govert neighbors, which easily passed the two hour mark and may have crept up on the third, Charles Laflin, the P.T.A. President, presided over the business meeting [see the minutes at Get Together, Pull Together, Stick Together Part I]. By the time Mr. Laflin adjourned the business meeting, his Govert neighbors were more than ready for their bona fide oyster stew supper [for more on the food that night see Get Together, Pull Together, Stick Together Part II]. Only after the last oyster was slurped down did anyone consider leaving for home.

All that remains is one last quote from Charles Laflin in the Govert Advance: "If loyalty and happiness spells fragrance and beauty, then we think the beautiful blossom was a wonderful one and feel sure pleasant memories will survive its fading away." Getting together, pulling together, sticking together was never more fun.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Evaline West, the six-year-old first grader living with Adelaide Calkins when Waldon Lemm came to court, now a charming eighty-something woman with a remarkable memory of her neighbors while growing up in Govert Township; and with reference to the 14 March 1935 edition of the Govert Advance.]

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Get Together, Pull Together, Stick Together (Part II: Bona Fide Oyster Stew)

First things first. The next time we meet, we will revisit the Govert, South Dakota, P.T.A. program performed on the evening of February 22, 1935. The readers of this blog are more excited about the food served that night after the program. Oysters? Oysters? Really? For a rural South Dakota prairie community to bond together over oysters in the middle of the Depression raised questions of availability, affordability, and refrigeration.

Lydia Gee was excited about the oyster supper. So was Mr. Laflin. Everyone was excited. The Kulisiches, the Lales, the Hortons, the Hafners, the Jorgensons, the Grandpres, the Scofields, the Calkins family, the Ellises, the Donohue brothers, Waldon Lemm, Gus Toble, Margaret Wammen, and the mysterious Howard Nichols were all excited about the oyster supper. And, as it seems, the followers of Thru Prairie Grass are, too. So let's talk about the P.T.A. menu everyone is so excited about.

Was this just the excitement of getting together, pulling together, sticking together? Gathering with friends and neighbors as an antidote to prairie isolation? Was an evening of social interaction with neighbors who might live more than two miles distant, chatting up the news, and sharing laughter over fanciful entertainments, the source of this excitement? Would this same zeal have swirled over a menu of sandwiches? Well, yes, but ... the upsurge in enthusiasm over the menu that night in February 1935 was genuine and, yes, the oyster meal was special enough to merit attention and provoke this enthusiasm.

With coastal oyster beds more than a thousand miles distant west and east, how would oysters find their way onto a menu in Harding County, South Dakota? Could Mrs. Gee's bona-fide oyster supper have been shipped from the coast, each morsel still protected by its shell; enclosed in barrels, layers of oysters alternating with layers of sawdust and ice, transported by railroad to Newell, by auto to Govert? Could the oysters have been shelled, but shipped fresh and refrigerated, transported by train and auto and stored on ice in Govert? Were the oysters shelled and frozen, with a similar path to Govert? Did the food committee purchase canned oysters at the Govert store, or a store in Newell or Belle Fourche?

That's not the half of it. What recipe did the food committee use? Steamed oysters? Deep fried oysters? Oyster fricassee? Oysters on the half shell? Oyster cocktails? Oyster patties? What version of oysters was taunting the taste buds of Goverites in February 1935? Where is your imagination taking you?

Mrs. Gee's wonder at the "bona fide oyster supper" is expanded upon in the Govert Advance in words by Mr. Laflin, the newspaper's editor (or his wife ... who never got a byline): "The jolly as well as interesting program and business meeting was followed by a supper that did full justice to the lunch committee headed by Herb Scofield and ably assisted by Wesley Horton and Waldon Lemm. The oyster stew with crackers, cake and hot coffee filled the social hour with added zest." 1

Oyster stew! The bona fide oyster supper was oyster stew! Now you know more about that night in February 1935 than you did last week. But now you also may be under-whelmed by the promise of a bona fide oyster supper.

Stick around while I divert from the clear path between oysters and stew in order to explain the early 20th century use of the words "lunch" and "supper", and then I will return to that path to explore why oyster stew was so very special. As to "lunch" ... maybe in the middle of the day you have a peaceful bowl of soup at home, or maybe you poke your fork at mystery meat on a cafeteria tray at school, or maybe you wolf down a sandwich sitting in the saddle, whether that be your 4X4 wheeled vehicle or astride your horse. And you call that "lunch". For many in earlier years, the mid-day meal was "dinner". If you travel back in time as far as we are traveling, "lunch" was considered a meal very late in the day, maybe even consumed in the early morning hours as a party winds down. However, if not too late, like this P.T.A. meeting, "lunch" might even become a substitute for "supper", the common reference to an evening meal.

Meanwhile, returning to our original path ... what is oyster stew? Simple ingredients, simple preparation, really ... milk, oysters, butter, salt and pepper to the proportions that best suit you within the limitations of what you have available. Heat and, voila, you have oyster stew.

My mother, who was raised in northeastern South Dakota, made oyster stew when I was a child. She called it stew even though the result was like what today we would call soup, with the consistency more fluid and without the viscosity of gravy. 2 If the oysters were large, my mother cut each oyster into several pieces, the goal being at least two pieces sitting in the bottom of each bowl. We were a family of seven, five children and my parents, so count out 14 pieces, with the probability more than two pieces were concealed by the milk in my father's bowl.

First, my mother sauted the oysters in butter. When the edges of the oysters started to curl, she added the rest of ingredients: salt, pepper and a small amount of diced onion with the milk. My mother relied on butter to saute the oysters, otherwise the milk would curdle. Then she simmered her stew until the milk was hot. 3 For my large family this was a special meal eaten only on the Sundays of Advent. An unusual, modest soup, with ... what do you expect for the years following the 1950s ... cottage cheese encased in lime gelatin ... on the side.

Living in small towns in the mid-west, my mother became a savvy shopper. In provisioning her larder, she was continuously on the lookout for refrigerated oysters at the grocery store, and then froze them to use later. If she had not been able to put in a supply of oysters, her shopping list for oyster stew included canned oysters.

Maybe the Govert P.T.A. food committee used canned oysters. Maybe Mr. Calkins, then proprietor of the Govert Store, was able to make special arrangements for fresh or frozen oysters. Maybe a grocery store in Belle Fourche or Newell was offering a special purchase. Maybe fresh oysters was the source of excitement. A lot of maybes make for a lot of questions, questions that may remain questions. But we can look at what was available to our Govert community to better understand what their experience may have been.

Still puzzled by the excitement over a bowl of milk soup with oysters? Mrs. Gee's exclamation over a "bona fide oyster supper" in her P.T.A. minutes is what leads us to our answer. To understand why this community, of modest origins and modest means, may have been so excited over bona fide oyster stew, we're going to explore the wide world of "mock oyster stew". As it turns out, Goverites probably had been supplementing their Depression menu with a stew made, not with bona fide oysters, but most commonly with well-cooked vegetables served in a milk broth or, as an alternative to vegetables, dare I say it ... weeds.

After evaluating a heap of recipes dating back into the 1800s, the surprise conclusion is that mock oyster stew was nothing other than a milk or creamed soup, comparable even to our canned "cream of whatever" soups today, and made out of almost anything except oysters. Often the recipes included a thickening agent like a roux made with flour and butter. Come to think of it, the crock-pots at the 2014 Lenten pot-luck soup suppers at my church were full of vegetable cream soups which decades ago may have fallen under the definition of a mock oyster stew ... and not a one of them tasted like oysters, at least as I remember oysters. You personally might not be interested in oysters, whether they be bona fide or mock. As for the oyster part of this story, just accept the fact that oysters were once surprisingly popular, you might even say folks in America were passionate about their oysters. Today you might have to be a foodie to willingly suck down one of those critters.

Let's take a look at what was expected from a mock oyster stew back in the day. Sometimes the stew was very ... very ... modest, as this recipe from 1923. "Pour into a small soup bowl one cupful of boiling water, one half a cupful of milk or cream, butter sufficient to season, and a little salt and pepper. Place in this a few oyster crackers. This makes a delicious dish and something children like." 4

Maybe the soup or stew was made of celery. "Steam the celery leaves and stalk until all the flavor is cooked out, then drain the juice and when this comes to a boil add butter, salt and pepper and milk or cream. Next break cracker crumbs into the liquid and let boil about a minute." 5

Or cabbage. "Chop small cabbage, boil until tender, stirring often. Scald about three pints milk, season with butter, salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked cabbage and boil about five minutes. Serve with oyster crackers or split common crackers, and add when cabbage is put into the milk. This makes a good substitute for oyster stew and is easily made." 6

Or mashed potatoes. "To serve six people, use three pints of milk and three cups of mashed potatoes beaten until not even the shadow of a lump remains and salted to taste. Stir the potatoes into the cold milk, then bring slowly to a boil, stirring almost continuously; but "to a boil" means stop just short of boiling! Add three well-rounded tablespoons of butter, and you have a dish that will deceive the very elect if properly served in hot dishes, with crisp toast (which must not be scorched), and celery which has stood in cold water until the very last minute." 7

Or tomatoes. "Take one pint of tomatoes - canned or fresh - and put to boil in half gallon of milk, stir in one ounce of butter and half a teaspoon of soda. Let boil and skim. Break in pieces half a pound of crackers, throw in the soup and let boil up. Season with salt and pepper." 8

Or corn. "Grate the corn fine. To a dozen ears, add 1 quart of water. Boil 15 minutes; add 2/3 of a quart of milk and 1 tablespoon of cornstarch or flour, and boil 10 minutes, add 1/4 pound butter and season well with pepper and salt." 9

Weeds were substituted for oysters, too. How about mock oyster stew made out of dandelions. "A pint of skimmed milk, a thimble size of butter, salt and pepper, and stale bread; a dish of boiled dandelions (which are very healthful) and lentils." 10

Or salsify roots, also called oyster plant, which grows wild on the prairie in and around Govert. "Wash and scrape ten salsify roots, and as you work put them in cold water to keep the roots from turning black. When they are cleaned, cut in small pieces and cover with boiling water. Boil till tender which will be from thirty minutes to an hour. Put the salsify through a colander or sieve and return to the saucepan with three cups of milk, and the water in which the salsify cooked, which will be boiled away to about a cupful. Add a small onion minced, half a teaspoon of salt, and when the soup boils stir in a tablespoon and a half of flour blended with a tablespoon of butter. Serve after the soup thickens with the flour, adding a dash of cayenne." 11

Fish could be used to make mock oyster stew. Like salt fish. "Prepare one cup of salt fish by washing, shredding, and simmering until soft; when ready to serve, put it in a shallow dish with one pint of oyster crackers, or three butter crackers split and browned, and pour over it one pint of hot milk. Add a tablespoonful of butter and half a saltspoon of pepper and serve." 12

Or a can of salmon. "One can salmon, 1 cup water, 1 quart milk, 1 lump butter, salt and pepper to taste. Method: remove bones and skin from salmon. Break into small pieces. Put into kettle with 1 cup water and boil gently for five minutes. Add 1 quart milk, salt and pepper. Let get very hot but not boiling. Add butter and serve at once with crisp oyster crackers. A small onion may be diced and boiled with salmon if desired." 13

Or brains. Yes, brains or, as my mother calls them, sweetbreads. My mother remembers that sweetbreads were used as a substitute for oysters when oysters were not available. "Prepare the brains of either a hog or beef; and put on to stew in a cup of water with a little salt and pepper; put on one quart of milk to boil, add a lump of butter; when the milk comes to a boil pour in the already cooked brains, and serve hot with crackers. Some say it tastes precisely like oysters." 14

I found a version of mock oyster stew made of white beans and another concocted out of mushrooms,15 which brings us back to that popular brand of cream of mushroom soup you will find in most every grocery store today.

Some of the recipes raise the role played by the unassuming oyster cracker, of which little history has been written. Nevertheless, a survey of the early recipes reveals the practice of adding either common crackers or oyster crackers during the preparation of the stew. This timing would have the effect of adding bulk and texture, as the crackers would absorb the fluid, rendering the crackers a function all the world like that of an oyster. The crackers shaped like oysters added to this illusion of oysters in mock oyster stew, or the appearance of having additional oysters in bona fide oyster stew. As the years passed, some bright soul discovered that the little air lock in the middle of the oyster cracker not only could fill up with fluid but, if dropped on the surface just prior to serving, allowed the oyster cracker to float. That must have been when the unflattering term of "soggy" began to be applied to oyster crackers not eaten before sinking to the bottom of the bowl.

The women of Govert would have known about mock oyster stew, learning about it from their mothers in the early 1900s, just as I learned about oyster stew from my mother in the 1960s. If mock foods are the substitute when the original is not available to you, then mock oyster stew was tailored for hard times. In 1910 mock oyster stew was described as a part of a "good, tasty, appetizing hard times" menu for Christmas dinner.16 That was the version made of mashed potatoes. Mock oyster stew was probably always a useful menu on the prairie, where personal wealth was not part of the qualification for acceptance. The meatless days that accompanied World War I would restore popularity of mock foods across America. The housewives in Govert, South Dakota, would again dust off their mothers' recipes for the years of the Depression. The 1930s had been one heck of an economic downturn for the folks in Govert, and imagination replaced the real thing.

So maybe the excitement exhibited by Goverites over bona fide oyster stew signaled the difference between mock oyster stew and the bona fide variety. The next question though is this: did the supper committee of the P.T.A. make bona fide oyster stew with bona fide fresh oysters or bona fide canned oysters? Although canned oysters would be the normal alternative for small towns far from the west coast or east coast oyster beds, and would have made feeding oyster stew to a large crowd easier and cheaper, I would like to introduce the possibility the Govert P.T.A. food committee used fresh oysters, which might account for the added excitement over milk soup.

Canned oysters allowed anyone in America, refrigeration or not, to have oyster stew year round. This Govert oyster supper was in February, planned precisely during the season fresh oysters were readily available, even in South Dakota, due consideration being given to fast train transport and ice for refrigeration. Because the Govert store did not have refrigeration, and refrigeration was generally uncommon in Govert, but for the bucket down the well, this feast might have taken some coordination, but it could have been done and the results would have been something to be excited about. The oysters, as fresh as oysters could be traveling from the coast, were probably shucked and preserved on ice ... but wouldn't a future archaeologist be all agog over a cairn of oyster-shells discovered on the Govert townsite.

In February 1935 fresh oysters were advertised in the Aberdeen, South Dakota, newspaper and would have been available in other railroad towns as well nearer to Govert, like Belle Fourche, and even Newell which benefited from a railroad spur from Belle. At the Red Owl Market in Aberdeen, oysters went for 29 cents a pint. The price at the Arcola Grocery was competitive. This may not sound like an impressive investment, but compare this to the going rate for hamburger at 12 1/2 cents a pound, or roast beef at 15 cents a pound, or two dozen oranges for 29 cents, or six pounds of sweet potatoes for 25 cents ... or 5 ounce tins of oysters for about 12 cents. Still, sometimes a modest splurge to cheer hard times is worth the sacrifice. 17

Anyone reading the Govert Advance on Thursday, February 21, 1935, would have known what was in store. That was the day before the P.T.A. meeting on Friday, the one with the creative program we will revisit the next time we meet here. The words used in that addition of the newspaper give you an even better image of that evening. "Oyster Stew! Oyster Stew! Cake and hot coffee. How does that appeal to you? If you prefer to eat your oyster stew out of a dish please bring one and also a spoon, otherwise it will be served from the tin cups. That is the treat for each and everyone attending the PTA meeting Friday evening Feb. 22, 1935." 18

What was so special about Goverites sharing bona fide oyster stew that February night at the Govert school house? The stew was probably made with bona fide oysters, and not weeds. How nice to sit back, talk to your neighbor and savor oyster stew instead of, say, salsify cream soup. No doubt about it, bona fide oyster stew, whether concocted with fresh or canned oysters, would have been a meal over which this P.T.A. crowd could get together, pull together, and stick together.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[You may be surprised a reference in a 1935 edition of the Govert Advance to "bona fide" oyster stew could inspire a response this long; I was. Written with gratitude to those who asked, and with thankfulness for the resources I had available to me. With special gratitude to Doug Jensen, a Harding County rancher, who confirmed the presence of salsify growing wild on the prairie in the Govert area; and to my mother, Christy VanderBoom, for a lifetime of memories, and for wanting me to have two oysters in the bottom of my bowl. If you like to read cookbooks, you will find in the footnotes links to vintage cookbooks in Google Books, a free Internet library.]




1 Govert (South Dakota) Advance, 14 March 1935.

2 The terms "stew" and "soup" were used interchangeably in earlier years. As the years passed, recipes resulting in a product with a more fluid consistency were relegated into the category of "soup", while "stews" had more body. Our practice in 2014 has added little clarity to the issue with the addition to the market of "thick soups" that have a much smaller proportion of fluid. For the purposes of this posting I will use "stew" without distinction.

3 An alternate method is to heat the milk with butter and seasonings and then add the oysters without sauteing them first. "Oysters at the Soda Fountain," American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, March 1913, p. 54, col. 2; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014).

4 "Home Conditions and Care of Sick and Convalescent," The Daily News (Frederick, Maryland), 9 February 1923, p. 2, col, 2; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#8745382: accessed 5 April 5 2014).

5 The Springfield (Missouri) Leader, 20 February 1930, p. 15, col. 1; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#510|40283935: accessed 5 April 2014).

6 Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, 6 April 1922, p. 15, col. 4; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014). Or cabbage and potatoes. "In half gallon of cold water place one pint or less of finely-sliced fresh cabbage and two large potatoes cut in cubes. Boil gently three quarters of an hour, then add one pint of rich milk, with butter, salt and pepper to suit taste. Serve with oyster crackers as soon as it boils again." "Home, Farm, and Garden," Freeborn County Standard (Albert Lea, Minnesota), 14 March 1889, p. 2, col. 5; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#34785098: accessed April 5, 2014).

7 New York Observer, 15 December 1910, p. 783, col. 1; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014).

8 Arkansas City (Kansas) Daily Traveler, 18 October 1887, p. 4, col. 7; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#53214101: accessed 5 April 2014). The Manual for Army Cooks, published under the direction of the Commissary General of Subsistence by authority of the Secretary of War, included a similar recipe (Government Printing Office, 1896), 69; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014).

9 Woman's Centennial Association, Centennial Cookery Book (Marietta, Ohio: Times Print, 1888), 31; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). Or corn with the cob. "Mock Oyster Stew. Cut through lengthways four well filled out ears of green sweet corn, scrape out the pulp and break up the cobs, and put on in cold water to boil. When they are soft take out, as the goodness will then be out of them, and press all the water from them you can. Strain the water the cobs were boiled in, and add milk, butter, seasoning, and teaspoon of flour to thicken a bit, just as for real oyster stew. About five minutes before serving, add the corn pulp. Tastes and smells like the genuine article." The New North (Rhinelander, Wisconsin), 18 July 1907, p. 2, col. 8; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#8253723: accessed 5 April 2014).

10 "Going Through College On a Dime a Day," Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 5 January 1913, p. 7, col. 6; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014).

11 [author unattributed], The Home Cook Book: A Collection of Practical Receipts by Expert Cooks (New York: Collier and Sons, 1905), 31. Salsify roots may have been harvested from the prairie where they grew and stored in the root cellar
for winter use, the same way as carrots or other root vegetables. For more salsify recipes see also Helen Watkeys Moore, Camouflage Cookery: A Book of Mock Dishes (New York: Duffield and Company, 1918), 11, 12; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014) [includes salsify recipes for mock clam chowder, mock fried oysters, mock scalloped oysters, mock clam bouillon, mock oysters, mock fish pate ]. Lilla Pauline Frich, The Housewife's Cookbook (Minneapolis: Lilla Frich, 1917), 102; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). The Rural New Yorker, The Rural Cookbook, (New York: The Rural Publishing Company, 1907); digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014).

12 "From Day to Day," The American Kitchen Magazine, June 1898, p. 106, 110; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). Other similar recipes thicken the milk with "flour rubbed into a paste with butter". Luther Minter, The Compendium of Every Day Wants (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Minter Company, 1908), 275; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). Mary Johnson Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cookbook (Carlisle, Massachusetts: Applewood Books, 1883), 173; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014).

13 Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, 31 January 1935, p. 14, col. 7; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014).

14 The Kinsley (Kansas) Mercury, 17 April 1886, p. 4, col. 4; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#934|64213187 accessed 5 April 2014)

15 For white beans: "The mock oyster soup is a velvety cream made with a stock of white beans which resembles oyster soup in flavor. The oyster crackers heighten the illusion." The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 6 November 1910, p. 44 col. 1; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#34564743: accessed 5 April 2014).

16 New York Observer, 15 December 1910, p. 783, col. 1; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). When made with salsify, the stew has been called Poor Man's Oyster Stew.

17 Aberdeen (South Dakota) Evening News, 31 January 1935, p. 3, col. 1; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014); see also 20 February 1935, p. 10, col. 5; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014).

18 Govert (South Dakota) Advance, 21 February 1935. Tin cups were available to the children during school days for drinking water.