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.]

1 comment:

  1. Sweetheart,

    What an incredible coincidence...that those two postcards you received at the same time from a “dealer in postcards” were in fact connected, despite the facts that each of the postcards is over 100 years old, that they were originally sent at different times, and were sent to different recipients. It’s remarkable that they both would end up on your desk at the same time and coming from the same source.

    You’ve done an amazing job of detective work in “sleuthing” out the background of the underlying story behind the two postcards and making connections…that they were written by sisters and mailed at the same post office near Govert…that there’s a subsequent link of one sister, Myrtle, to Govert…and, most remarkably, that there’s an ultimate connection directly to you through Myrtle and Harry Devereaux going down to Harry, the grandson, and the two of you playing marbles together. Wow! They say truth is stranger than fiction, and that seems to fit this wonderful blog posting you’ve given us this week.

    Thanks for all the great historical information you’ve detailed about Mertle/Myrtle, Bessie, and Dorothy, and about their family, and about Harry Devereaux and his ties to Govert and Myrtle. It’s all very interesting…fascinating actually…and quite enjoyable to read and reflect upon.

    By the way, I never knew the tidbit you give about putting the postage stamp on upside down to show affection for the recipient. I’d never heard that until now…if this comment to you had a stamp on it, it would be upside down!

    Thanks again for another interesting, informative, well-written, creative, and entertaining blog item.



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