Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ain't She Sweet ... Calving in Harding County, South Dakota

Flipping through the Nation's Center News ... reporting from Buffalo in Harding County, South Dakota ... an advertisement urged me to
Get Ready for Calving!

My response was near panic ... because in no way, shape, or form was I ready. Here I thought the prairie had been bred out of my family blood in the 85 years since Govert Van der Boom left his Govert, South Dakota, homestead. Maybe not.

I was surprised by my reaction. A big New York advertising firm would invest a billion dollars to provoke such a visceral reaction. Maybe more. Buffalo Hardware and Lumber knows New York style advertising is not necessary. Harding County ranchers would consider flashy advertising a waste of time, and a waste of good money. Norman Negaard, the owner, published this ad to encourage ranchers to buy their calving supplies locally. If Mr. Negaard was trying to create an effect, he may have gotten more than he expected when I inadvertently sucked in my breath, while both dread and excitement filled my gut.

What is going on here? I've never calved a night in my life. That's right ... night ... as in after the sun goes down and you can't see your finger in front of your nose, let alone the business end of a cow in labor. For those even more uninitiated than I am ... cows are not particularly considerate of their rancher's sleep. A Harding County rancher responds day and night for as many days and nights as it takes. Hardware Hank tells it like it is: spotlights, flashlights, lanterns, gloves, alarm clocks, feeder buckets and bottles. Oh my.

Your Harding County rancher was out mucking around during the coldest, the muddiest, the orneriest nights of the year to put that hamburger on your bun. The weather this time of year is unpredictable in the details, but overall the effect is cold and more cold. In February 2011 Myrna Giannonatti and Dean Wagner, who ranch up past Reva, were calving in double digits below zero, with the snow at 20 inches. Some years they see enough sunshine during the day to add mud to their freezing nights.

Myrna and Dean have, on occasion, invited me to pay a visit during calving and assume night watch at their ranch so they might finally get a full night's sleep. Could they be sincere? Would you trust me with your calves? I didn't think so. I have no illusions. I'm a town-girl and I will never know as much as a rancher knows even if a digital chip could be implanted in my brain. Come to think of it, from a rancher's perspective, turning over the night watch to me might have some entertainment value, as a rancher could be confident even cows know more than I do, and could well defend themselves against my ineptitude. I'm not sure what I would do when I saw that first small hoof appear from the birth canal. I might pray for reliable cell phone reception so I could wake up Myrna and Dean.

Artificial insemination has shortened the season of sleepless nights. But, even if a rancher has all the cows inseminated the same day, a cow can calve anywhere from 14 days before to 14 days after the gestation date, so yawning family members are still looking at 28 days of sleep deprivation, give or take. Add some ultrasound technology and calving can be more focused. Still, no shirking permitted here, those mama cows have to be checked every two hours, day and night. And what about Bessie who wants to go off and have her babies out of the limelight of the calving barn. Try finding her. Bessie? Bessie? Where are you Bessie?

I'm not inclined to ask anyone wearing a shoulder-length rubber glove the question you may be asking now: Why? If you think about it, you know why, and I don't want to appear disrespectful by asking this question of those who are the sworn guardians of their herds ... when, in fact, I respect them greatly. Simply put, on a ranch you do what needs doing, you do it because you want to. A rancher doesn't see calving as a bad deal, irrespective of the cold, the sucking muddy ground, the sleepless nights. Tell me if I'm wrong.

In the big picture, when you take on the commitment of ranching, calving becomes part of the annual ranch cycle. Part of the rhythm, part of the ranch culture, the lifestyle. Ranching is not something you do on weekends or between business deals; ranching is a life commitment. So what if you lose some sleep, wouldn't be the first time sleep was forfeit when ranching is your livelihood. If you don't put food on a table in the city, you don't put food on the table in the ranch house, or school shoes on your children's feet. These ranchers are people who appreciate the value of hard work and physical labor. They also appreciate the value of a community of ranchers with the same experiences. Shared experiences does create community ... I could only wish to be the spider on the wall at Buffalo Hardware and Lumber and overhear some of those ranching stories.

In the smaller picture ... or maybe this really is the bigger picture ... calving is part of the cycle of life. Who could deny the satisfaction of being so close ... rubber glove close ... to the advent of new life. Considering the ranch calf is not a pet, good ranching practice would be to deny attachment beyond regard, but a baby of any kind is a miracle. Miracles enrich the beholder, so no rancher can escape the magic of the initial sharing of life. Maybe within that capsule of time, a rancher is allowed to suppress the food chain image that later discourages attachments. Attachments do happen. Myrna wouldn't be the first rancher to name a bum calf or a handicapped calf and ladle on her special kind of attention.

As long as we are considering the big picture and the little picture, let's look at the really big picture. In theory at least, everyone contributes equally to an orderly society, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Maybe a Harding County rancher contributes a little bit more. You can do without jeans with a designer label ... heaven knows, a Harding County rancher wouldn't be seen in them ... but can you do without hamburger, or a post roast, or one of Myrna's good thick steaks?

Maybe your association with ranching is somehow limited to that non-committal space between the plastic wrap and rigid foam tray on the meat counter of your grocery store. Make no mistake about it, calving is up close and personal. If you think you have the fortitude, go to YouTube and search "calving a cow". You'll discover video cameras may have become a fixture in the calving barn. Then, when you are able to once again blink your eyes, remember that calving is just one step of the life cycle, one step in the annual ranch cycle, one month, give or take, of twelve. Feeding America is no simple task. 

The more that remains in me of the prairie, the better. My grandfather, Govert Van der Boom, looked forward to a nice roast, and maybe he passed that on to me, too.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Norman Negaard of Buffalo Hardware & Lumber in Buffalo, SD, for allowing me to re-print his advertisement, and to Myrna Giannonatti and Dean Wagner for indulging my curiosity about ranch operations.]

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mertle of Hoover, South Dakota

The two postcards on my desk, right there next to my computer, would catch your eye, one lying at an angle to the other, a sort of awkward sandwich of words. Old postcards, the edges worn soft. They date from the early 1900s, together with the last wave of homesteading on the South Dakota prairie that caught so many people in its wake, people like Govert Van der Boom. Two postcards of unknown origin. Govert Van der Boom of Govert, South Dakota, had nothing to do with these postcards. But, as you shall see, in their own way the postcards had something to do with Govert.

No picture of the Black Hills or the Corn Palace, or other boastful holiday destination. No fading sepia image of a family squinting into the camera in front of a soddy or a wood-framed claims shack, no image of a dear husband or wife carefully posed in a photographer's studio. On one, the crust of orange-red poppies, together with a sprig of one daisy ... two daisies ... three daisies, lies mute, without fragrance, on a gilded background.

On the other, a tangle of purple violets frames a hip-roofed building, the cupola piercing a heavy blanket of snow.

Someone, more than 100 years ago, put the tip of a forefinger on that one cent stamp, the green one, the one cent stamp with Benjamin Franklin in profile ... and slid the stamp to the edge of the table where she sat writing ... we do know both of our authors were of the female persuasion. She slid the stamp to the edge of the table so she could pick it up, her forefinger on Benjamin Franklin's cheek and her thumb against the dried glue backing. She lifted the stamp to her tongue and carefully, authoritatively, licked the stamp and then firmly applied it to the upper right hand corner of the back of the floral display. On one postcard, good ol' Ben stood on his head, the stamp carefully lined up with the corner, upside down, the custom to show affection for the recipient.

Two postcards. Two mysteries to be solved. But, as you shall see, the two mysteries became only one.

Both postcards were mailed from Hoover, South Dakota, a rural post office little more than 14 miles south of Govert, South Dakota. One was written in a younger scrawl; the other author had more years to develop her penmanship. One was written by Mertle; the other was written by Bessie. Who in the world were Mertle and Bessie? And what were Mertle and Bessie doing in Hoover, South Dakota?

Mertle chose the card with the snow scene in the snarl of violets. If snow and violets seemed incongruous to Mertle, she paid it no mind. Mertle picked up her pencil and wrote a note to her cousin in Scobey, Montana, a small town so remote the card would have to travel almost all the way to Canada. "Dear cousin, Did you know we had a new sister, born on 16 July. Write soon. Mertle Holt."

The postcard was cancelled on 25 July, but that must have been the day the Hoover postmaster was somehow incapacitated. Whoever was helping out at the post office on the morning of 25 July didn't realize the number under the day was for the year, not the hour of the day. With the cancellation stamp incorrectly calibrated, this card has passed through the decades effectively undated. Aha! You see it, too, don't you? A good clue! A newborn Holt baby, with a birthdate of 16 July.

You know, and I know, Mertle's new sister had to have a birth year; we just have to figure out what it was. With a flick of the history wand, and reference to the South Dakota birth index, we now know the new Holt baby was born in 1911 ... 16 July 1911, little more than a week before the postcard was mailed from the Hoover post office. "Dorothy", they called the new Holt baby. Mertle and her baby sister, Dorothy. Mertle and Dorothy. The two Holt sisters.

We can't forget the second postcard ... the one written by Bessie.
 ... signed as "Bessie H". Wait a minute ... you see it, too, don't you? "Mertle Holt"? "Bessie H."? Could it be? Could it possibly be?

Another flick of the history wand and we have our answer. Sisters. The three Holt sisters. Mertle and Bessie ... and Dorothy ... all sisters. What were the chances that these two postcards, sent to different destinations, ordered by me from a dealer in postcards, would land on my desk at the same time? But that's not the end of the story. Maybe that's just where my story begins. Maybe, for Mertle, this is the middle of her story.

Mertle's story goes back to 1897, when she was born in Lincoln County, South Dakota. You can't travel much further south and east in South Dakota than Lincoln County without crossing the border into Iowa. Canton, where Mertle began her life, was the county seat, right on the border with Iowa, the border that followed the Big Sioux River. Fourteen years would pass and the Holts would cross a lot of miles before Mertle's baby sister, Dorothy, would be born west of the Missouri River.

Mertle didn't make this journey alone. This was a family journey. Mertle's sister, Bessie, was older by 11 months. Then came Emma, Erwin, Rolfe, and then Wilfred, who was born in 1905. Their parents were Carl O. Holt and Mary Christine Martinson Holt. As for Dorothy, in 1905 she was still a gleam in her mother's eye.

In 1905 the South Dakota census taker found Mertle's father in Woonsocket, South Dakota, just east of the Missouri River. Often the husband formed the advance party, seeking a secure situation for his family. Then, in 1910, when Albert H. Pier, the census taker for the federal government, knocked on a door on Seventh Street in Woonsocket, he found Mertle living there with her mother and her brothers and sisters, but now her father was claiming a homestead west of the Missouri River near Hoover. Mertle is moving ever closer to this place that would become her new home.

Mertle will have a close connection with Govert, South Dakota, perhaps even a surprising connection, but you won't learn about that until Mertle gets to Hoover, and even then you will have to wait until Mertle grows up. Right now the year is 1910, a year before Mertle mails the postcard from Hoover. And Mertle is still east of the Missouri River in Woonsocket. Mertle is 13 years old.

Thirteen years old. Mertle must have wondered about this next move west across the Missouri River, virtually into the wilderness. When they moved this time, would she make new friends at the country school near her father's homestead? Will I fit in? Will they like me? Always a town girl, Mertle would now attend a small country school with all the children in one classroom. At thirteen, Mertle would have been among the oldest children in the country school; many children would stay in school no longer than necessary to earn their common school diploma.

In 1910 Mary Christine Martinson Holt left Woonsocket with her six children, the oldest 14 and the youngest 5, traveling with them to Carl's homestead near Hoover, South Dakota. From the time they reached the Holt homestead, they would mail their letters from the Hoover post office. The family arrived in Hoover sometime during the two months between 22 April and 20 June, probably in May after the end of the school year in Woonsocket. How can we be so sure? The first date is when the 1910 census was taken in Woonsocket and the second date is when Mertle's older sister, Bessie, mailed her postcard with the orange-red poppies from the Hoover post office back to Woonsocket. "Dear Lola, Will answer your postal. I was pretty tickled to get it. It was such a cute one. You say you wish I was there. I [know] you don't because I would tease you so. Goodbye as B/4. Write soon. Bessie H."

And then, thirteen months after Bessie sent her postcard to Woonsocket, Mertle posted the other card to her cousin in Montana boasting about her nine-day-old baby sister, Dorothy.

Perhaps the mystery of the two postcards is solved. But you still don't know Mertle's connection with Govert.

What is the rest of the story for Mertle? Mertle was 14 when she wrote that postcard in 1911. As the years passed, "Mertle" became "Myrtle". In 1916, at the age of 19 (or 20 according to the marriage record), just five years after sending the postcard, Myrtle married Harry Devereaux.

Harry is believed to have been the first editor of the Govert Advance. Maybe he even founded the country newspaper read by every Goverite over a span of years leading into the 1940s. And then there was the Moreau News. Or how about Harry's involvement in the Star-Herald in Panama during construction of the canal. Harry Devereaux was also the merchant at Hoover, the same way Govert Van der Boom was the merchant at Govert, and the two men most certainly were acquainted. Harry Devereaux is another story, for another time. For now, Myrtle Holt needs no better connection to Govert, South Dakota, than her husband. Harry and Myrtle had a son, Jack. Myrtle died in October 1982, at the age of 85, then a widow.

What is the rest of the story for Bessie? According to the 1915 South Dakota Census, Bessie was a teacher in Hoover. Not even a flick of the history wand gave us the end to Bessie's story.

What is the rest of the story for Dorothy? Only 15 years after Mertle so proudly broadcast her baby sister's birth in a postcard, Dorothy died. Mertle's baby sister died 24 July 1926, and that precious child, such a welcome addition to her family in 1911, is buried at Hope Cemetery in Newell, South Dakota, together with her parents, Carl Holt and Mary Christine Martinson Holt.

What is the rest of the story for me, your storyteller? Yes, I can step into this story, too. I went to elementary school in Wyoming with Myrtle's grandson, Harry Devereaux, named after his grandfather. Little did I know then that my schoolmate, through his grandfather, had close connections to the history of Govert, South Dakota, the town founded by my grandfather, Govert Van der Boom. Little did I know then that my grandmother, Emma Vogt Van der Boom, was a close friend of young Harry's great-grandmother, Sarah Murphy Devereaux Burke. Emma had her own homestead before her marriage, north of Hoover and bordering the south edge of the Burke ranch. Sarah, that strong, gutsy, Irish woman, took her new neighbor under her wing. Little did I know the postcards would lead me home.

I didn't know. I simply didn't know. In my early playground years, I cared for little more than playing marbles kneeling in the dirt at recess ... clearing a circle in the dirt, aiming my prized creamy white shooter. And, of this, I have the strongest recollection ... I beat young Harry at marbles.

I couldn't have been that skillful; my lucky shooter was soon retired. Wait a gol-darned moment ... did that Harry Devereaux let me beat him?

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with reference to US Federal Census records for 1900 and 1910, South Dakota Census records for 1905 and 1915, South Dakota record of birth for Mertle Holt, and record of marriage for Harry Devereaux and Myrtle Holt,, US Social Security Death Index, Government Land Records; and with gratitude to the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City, South Dakota, for sharing the biography of Harry Devereaux presented at the 2 July 1970 dedication of the Devereaux Library, named for Myrtle's husband.]

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Fox and Geese ... and Children ... Oh My!

No winter passes in the North Country of South Dakota without the bite of bitter cold. This very day of February the temperature in Buffalo, South Dakota, may rise as high as 5 degrees. Yesterday the high was -3 and last night the temperature fell into the double digits below zero. Harding County winters were no different back when Govert School was in session to teach the children of Govert township.

The memory of Govert as a town includes the memory of wood frame houses with little or no insulation, miserably warmed by a wood or coal burning stove. Goverites had no experience with layers of insulation in their attics measured in inches, with high efficiency gas or electric furnaces, with double paned windows. How cold was it? Cold enough for the pail of water in the kitchen to freeze during the night. Yes, that cold.

But what does this have to do with fox and geese and children? For this story we need a winter scene, so play along.

During the years the Govert community stood on the prairie ... during the 1910's, the 1920's, the 1930's, and into the 1940's ... the only warm place in the house on a cold day was the stove. The stove came in many shapes, and your house might have only one ... the cook stove ... but picture in your mind a pot-bellied stove. From watching their parents, children learned to face the stove to warm their hands and their front side, and then to turn around to warm their back side. Many of the stoves had a foot rail so you could pull up your chair and prop your feet on the stove rail. In winter, life in the North Country played out within the effective radius of the stove. Yes, that cold.

And now on to the fox and geese and children.

A favorite winter game for Govert school children was Fox and Geese, a game of tag. Other agreeable versions of tag could be played before the first snow and after the last snow, but Fox and Geese required a good snowfall. Sitting at their desks in the one room Govert school house, with that first snow calling them by name, the children grew restless for recess, eager to stomp out a new playing field. They fidgeted and bit their lips, made faces, looked around and rocked in their chairs, making scratching and thumping noises.

By the time the children thought they could restrain themselves no longer, the teacher knew their minds were beyond her reach and she called recess. If it was the year Miss Blomberg was the teacher, the children who jumped from their desks were James Donohue, Mercedes Hafner, Marie Kulisich, Billy Lale, Albert Springer, Edwin Springer, Roland Springer, Alice Mae West, Evaline West, and Nona Marie Wald.

For whatever reason of childhood, not even the most unbearable of cold winter days could get in the way of children intent on recess. The children piled into the cloakroom and bundled up, layering on sweaters, coats, mufflers, mittens, snowsuits ... whatever they had taken off and hung on the hooks when arriving at school that morning. They early learned to pull on their snow boots before adding on the last layers of clothing, or they would never be able to bend over and reach their feet.

Scrambling outside to their favorite play area, the children then stomped and shuffled through the snow, one behind the other, like a parade following in the same path. First, the children stomped a path making a circle, a large circle several feet in diameter. Then they stomped straight paths across the circle like a wagon wheel, one rim to the other. The hub of the wheel was stomped flat, too. Shuffle and stomp. Shuffle and stomp.

If you've never seen the wheel of a horse drawn wagon, you might not be able to imagine how the spokes radiate from the hub in the middle to the rim on the outside edge. In that case, think of how a pie is cut, from one edge of the circular pan to the other. These Govert children knew their wheels and they knew their pies, and they knew how to easily entertain themselves.

Entertain themselves they did. Miss Blomberg was sure to add certainty to any indecision over who would be the fox. The fox, of course, was "it" in both nature and on the playground. Maybe James Donohue was the fox. He was one of the older boys that year. Or maybe Marie Kulisich, or one of the West girls was the fox this time. Everyone took a turn at being "it". No one seemed to mind.

The fox took a place in the hub of the wheel while the remaining players, who were the geese, spread out along the circular path, as far away from the fox as they could get. And then the wily fox leapt from the center of the circle and chased the geese. The geese scattered around the circular path and up and down the straight paths. Once the chase was on, the children could not leave the perimeter of the outer circle.

The playground purist might insist that the fox could only follow the straight lines, while the geese could seek escape along any path. But, as with any playground game, you might make your own rules. Who really cares who follows which path when all you want is a good chase and 15 minutes of shrieking excitement. The purist would tell us the goal of the game was for the fox to tag a goose, who then became the hunter instead of the hunted. Miss Blomberg might confide the goal was to consume the excess energy of children who would otherwise wiggle in their chairs during lessons.

These children of Govert, played hard during recess. They ran hard, jumped hard, laughed hard, and the excitement and activity warmed them better than any stove. Recess ended with rosy cheeks, glowing eyes, and numb fingers. Most children are reluctant to give up their freedom for the classroom once again, but our future mothers and fathers, and future ranchers, future teachers, social workers, and artists returned to the cloakroom of their one room schoolhouse, and once again hung their coats and snowsuits on hooks.

Now wait for it ... wait for it ...

Not much time passed before the first child walked into the narrow circle of heat surrounding the pot bellied stove in the schoolhouse. No one seems to mind. Miss Blomberg was cold, too, and didn't discourage the children from leaving their seats and warming themselves at the stove. Another child takes a turn at the stove, and then another. The children warm their hands facing the stove, and then turn around to warm their back side.

What is it about recess that makes children invincible as against the cold?

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to the fox and geese of long ago Govert, South Dakota, Marie Kulisich and Alice Mae and Evaline West.]