Thursday, January 30, 2014

Alas! Govert is Blowing in the Wind ...

Seventy-one years after the last issue of the Govert Advance was published, re-constructing Govert, South Dakota, is more a matter of words and memories, than a matter of boards and nails.

In the late 1940s, Govert Van der Boom pulled down the last of the planks from what was once the Govert Store where, for nearly 20 years he stood proudly behind the counter serving the Govert community. With the planking stacked in the back of his truck, Govert toted his load south to Newell, South Dakota; or maybe his sons did this for him. And there the wood sat behind the offices of the Newell Implement Company until Govert Van der Boom was motivated to create something else, and he built an addition to the rear of his implement business.

What thoughts went through Govert Van der Boom's mind as the townsite was restored to the level of the prairie grass? Govert always spoke with fondness about the prairie town named after him, and we can be confident that, as the town was disassembled, Govert gave in to a yearning for what once was. This is where he tended the store and the post office, where he visited with his neighbors, where he and his Emma raised three boys from babies to walking, talking, reasoning boys and young men.

Govert Van der Boom must have reflected on the church services that united the community, on all the newcomers he pointed toward the best land in the township and how he and Emma helped them settle into the community. Too many memories ... the PTA meetings, receiving postal deliveries and sorting mail for neighbors to pick up at the store ... all the trips to Newell and Belle Fourche to provision the store, and trips to Buffalo to take care of legal matters at the county seat. He must have smiled at the memory of reading the Govert Advance every Thursday, a practice he continued in Newell until that very last issue was published in 1943.

Govert must have remembered all the changes, beginning when he and Howard Jacobs claimed homesteads in 1909, continuing through the years of building up a town, a community, until the time when nothing was left. All that modernization, all that change. He might remember when he added the windmill to the well, or when the telephone was strung under Mr. Laflin's guidance. Without Mr. Laflin's experience in the telephone business before arriving in the township, Goverites might never have had a telephone connection with each other or with the outside. Those were heady times.

I expect my grandfather stood on his townsite the last time, just like I did my first time, turning a slow circle from the Slim Buttes on the north, toward Sheep Mountain to the east, south to the breaks, over the open prairie to the west ... and then, Granddad and I, together, completed our circle back to the Slim Buttes. The Slim Buttes would have been what lifted Emma's eyes from the dishes in the kitchen sink.

The first time I made that slow motion survey of the horizon from my grandfather's homestead, I knew to sigh ... even though I was still quite unconscious of why I was sighing. When my grandfather stood there on his land, he must have sighed for remembering. I sighed because I had no memories, which may have been the greater loss.

Not many people remain on that corner of the prairie today. You might be surprised any of the families held tight to the land. But land pulls people, and that land in Govert township claimed the allegiance of many families. Some people left because it was time. Others never shook off that connection to the land and to their piece of the prairie; they couldn't leave. The descendants of Charles Laflin, the editor of the Govert Advance are there; including the Brinks. The Martys are still there, the Jensens, the Donohues. The Lales still own land there.

Perhaps, because Govert is now a memory, words have become our best tools. Still, tangible "shards" of memory in the form of "artifacts" prove to the doubting that this town of Govert existed in time and space. For that reason, I'm adding a page to this blog to catalog Govert artifacts. You can access this page on the right panel of the blog under "PAGES". The Govert Archive page will change from time to time, so you might want to check back ... from time to time.

Words are a great tool, but what you can see and touch adds another dimension to the story.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Temperance", Thy Name Be Mrs. Coffield

"FORMER SLIM BUTTES LADY PASSES." On 5 December 1940 the Govert Advance reported the death of a neighbor:

"H.L. Coffield received the sad news on Monday of the death of his mother, which occurred at the home of her daughter, [Marietta Catherine Coffield Cozine], who resides near Rapid City. Deceased was well known in the Reva community, as she made her home with her sons for many years. She was active in W.C.T.U. work for many years, and did a lot of work along that line including writing articles for newspapers. Her other son, Edgar, has been located near Hill City since leaving the Slim Buttes country. The funeral was held at Rapid City on Tuesday and the body brought to Buffalo for burial on Wednesday. [Buffalo] Times-Herald."

The name of the "Slim Buttes Lady" does not appear in the notice of her own death, other than the assumption that she would have been Mrs. Coffield, mother of two sons, H.L. Coffield and Edgar Coffield, and a daughter, Marietta Coffield. Referring to Mrs. Coffield as the "Slim Buttes lady" was not out of disrespect, or neglect. We can fairly judge that mother Elma Emmaline Perkins Coffield was well known in Reva, where she lived, and in Buffalo, where the Times-Herald was published, and in Govert, where the article was re-published. Mrs. Coffield was familiar in her own right to those farming and ranching in the Slim Buttes, but also because her son, Hubert Leroy Coffield, was the Harding County Commissioner for the Slim Buttes, including Govert. No further identification was necessary from the viewpoint of the journalist, or the editor of the Govert Advance.

Mrs. Coffield must have been a firebrand in her day, perhaps stoked by two years immersion in progressive advanced schooling in the northeast. She graduated from Oswego Normal School in New York, probably by 1875. There she embraced the innovative Pestalozzian teaching techniques, using objects to teach instead of relying on recitation and memorization. She married Flemon Augustus Coffield in 1887 when she was about 32.

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, to which Mrs. Coffield owed her allegiance, was organized in 1873, probably while Mrs. Coffield was developing her perspective of the world at Oswego. Although an early proponent of temperance, Mrs. Coffield apparently did not see eye-to-eye with Carry A. Nation and did not adopt Mrs. Nation's dramatic bar-smashing interventions as the 19th century turned into the 20th. From the early years of its organization, the majority of WCTU members, even those considered activists, channeled their passion into education, warning of the dangers of alcohol and tobacco, just as Mrs. Coffield did in her newspaper articles. Mrs. Coffield may not have been entirely popular among Harding County men who appreciated their brew, but Elma Coffield had an audience who supported her views.

For one ... Emma Van der Boom of Govert, South Dakota, was a like-minded woman. The two women lived on opposite sides of the Slim Buttes, Emma living 23 miles south down the road from Reva. From a distance of more than 75 years, we can only wish to have heard the waves these women created. I am very familiar with Emma Van der Boom's views on alcohol (and tobacco). Gram and I never talked about organized efforts at social change. Still, when I was about eight years old, Gram gave me a box, made of a soft wood, bearing a design she burned into the wood many years preceding. The importance of the box in this story is not the design, not what was in the box, not even the box itself, but what appears on the bottom of the wooden box.

On that visit to our house, Gram recited a sort of poem I scribbled on the bottom of the box in pencil. Catchy ... one of those simple, sing-song jumble of words you can never un-memorize, even after the passing of more than half a century.

The words are already fading into the wood. An "artifact" I had a hand in creating has almost been lost to time during my own life. Here are the words on the bottom of the wooden box given to me by my grandmother:

Never drink liquor,
Never drink beer.
Always drink water,
And keep your head clear.

Does education work? This little bit of education works well if your audience sees the value of keeping a clear head. As a young woman, whenever I found myself in a social situation requiring clarity of mind, my grandmother's voice repeated the words to me. And, thereafter, I repeated the words to myself.

The opportunities for Elma Coffield and Emma Van der Boom to have shared tea and social concerns ... and perhaps even a sage little sing-song verse ... would have been considerable. Emma moved to Govert in 1912 after her marriage to Govert Van der Boom and she remained in Govert township until the Van der Booms moved to Spearfish in 1929. Mrs. Coffield also was living in Harding County before 1920, and remained in the Slim Buttes until into the 1930s. Their age difference ... in 1920 Elma would have been 65 and Emma was 35 ... was inconsequential, as Emma never saw age as an impediment to ideology. Spirited women like Elma and Emma tend to be ageless.

If time travel were possible, tea with Elma and Emma in the Slim Buttes would have been a pleasant, if not an illuminating, destination today.

The next time you're in Harding County, South Dakota, stop by the Buffalo Cemetery to honor Elma Emmaline Perkins Coffield, a prairie woman with the courage to take a moral stand. I will.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Based on Mrs. Coffield's death notice in the 5 December 1940 edition of the Govert Advance, 1920 United States Census, 1925 South Dakota Census. Should I ever discover a WCTU article written by Mrs. Coffield, I'll be sure to share it with you.]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mr. Laflin's Date with Thursday

Did Charles Laflin, owner, publisher, and editor of the Govert Advance, ever take a week off? Every Thursday Goverites expected to pick up their copies of the local newspaper along with their mail at the Govert store. A week without the latest news from Govert township and the surrounding area would have been a week too dismal to imagine.

Mind you, Mr. Laflin did not turn out a newspaper every week quite alone. Mr. Laflin may have been the editor of the Govert Advance, but his wife set the type. Perhaps she did more than that. Wives tend to, don't they, even if their contributions aren't recorded on the masthead. Both of the Laflins were well-educated for their day. High school diplomas, practical experience, and a bit of the derring-do were all they needed to create a local newspaper legend. Both were deeply invested in the Govert community, both were personable and popular, the perfect newspaper team for Govert township.

The Laflins turned out a newspaper every week from what must have been about 1916 to the last edition in 1943. Roughly that's 1400 editions. Seriously? Maybe you should check my math. Vacations were few, being sick a luxury, and writer's block an indulgence.

Maybe Mr. Laflin did get some time off. Homesteading in the early 1900s quickened the imagination, just like reporting the news appealed to men of imagination. Mr. Laflin wasn't the only one in this sparsely populated corner of Harding County with newspaper experience. The Scott brothers came from a newspaper family and brought their skills with them when they took up West River homesteads. F.F. Fuller filed a homestead claim between newspapers. Harry Devereaux worked on a paper in Panama while other men of adventure were building the Canal. Mr. Devereaux became an early editor of the Govert Advance, perhaps the first, and remained in the area, living a few miles south of Govert. Certainly newspaper talent was available if the Laflins ever needed to return to Iowa to tend to family business.

Spirited men, men of intelligence, adventure-seeking men. What conversations these newspaper men must have had! Renaissance men, men of more talents and skills than we dare look for in the 21st century. Men of vision, unafraid of ventures new and daring. Their conversations must have been electric. Do not discount women of imagination, Renaissance women. In these early years of the 20th century, a woman dared engage in the work of a "newspaper man", too. We can imagine the conversations of these men and women. Recreating such an interchange is another matter.

Such were the people who reliably produced small town newspapers week after week, year after year. In my absences from Thru Prairie Grass, I hope you will miss reading the stories of Govert township half as much as every subscriber of Govert township would have missed the Govert Advance ... should Thursday ever have passed without the flurry of newspaper distribution at the Govert store.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate