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.] 


  1. Good that you did get to know him - better late than never, and so lucky to have him for that long. And there can be no better memorial for a person than what you've written here. My sympathies on his passing, but he did indeed live a full life and you are much the richer for knowing him and his story. Thanks for sharing it in your inimitable way.

    1. Gordon would be your second cousin, Elaine. Maybe your half second cousin, a mystery we still have to resolve. You never had a chance to meet Gordon, but maybe I've helped you "know" him just a little.

      Someone once told me that researching history should be leisurely, after all, history has already happened and will not change. But, as every family historian discovers, history slips past us day by day. Perhaps learning this will encourage families to learn their history NOW directly from the people who made that history.

    2. Absolutely and he would be a prime example of what you're talking about. I'm happy to have discovered just a few of those long lost relatives in the last year or two and sorry I didn't get to meet Gordon also.

  2. How sad to hear of the passing away of Gordon van der Boom, a man that holds a special place in my heart. Unfortunately I never met him and I feel I should. In the family history and the connection between American and Dutch Van der Boom's Gordon played a special role that not many will know about. Probably because he would not talk about it himself.

    When a relationship was re-established by an action of the author of this blog, during the early eighties, my father Eef van der Boom and I were still doing a lot of research after the family's history. The aim was to eventually publish a book. Not long before we had discovered that another Van der Boom, called (and is this coincidence?) Govert van der Boom from The Hague and one of his brothers had done research before the second World War. Upon his death in 1948 all his notes and stuff were donated to the Central Bureau for Genealogy in The Hague. They were rediscovered by us and I left my calling card in one of the boxes. You never know, I thought, if somebody else would be researching our family in future times, they might want to come into contact with me and my dad. And it turned out someone did, several years later, Kathleen, as said, the author of this blog. Anyway, we made several trips to copy the notes and research all that was in the boxes. Attempts to borrow them for a time were futile. Then after we came into contact with many American relatives again and even visited many in 1986, during a delightful trip to South Dakota, Gordon got wind of our desire to own (a copy of) the research that Govert and his brother had compiled and not after returning from the USA we suddenly received a check for $300 in the mail with a note saying this money should go to towards copying the Govert van der Boom research papers! We were dumbfounded. Copying was still relatively expensive in those times and scanning was still in the future. At the bureau they were amazed and though me a rich man when I ordered everything copied, it took them two days... Such was the generosity of an American Van der Boom I had never met and only corresponded with.

    Then, when it was time for the book to be published, Gordon was again generous. And without asking he paid for at least 20 books including postage up front. The money helped us financing the project. And Govert gave books to all his children and grandchildren as gifts. He was by no means the only Van der Boom who was immensely generous to us but he does hold a special place in my heart.

    Dear Kathleen, you write so beautifully. How I wish you had the time to write with me on the Van der Boom family book. That you had time about 20 years ago to work with me on it. It would have benefitted so much from your insight and skills. Thank you for writing so lovingly on your blog and about the Van der Booms and other relatives. Thank you!

    1. Hans, thank you for recording the history of the reunification of the van der Booms in The Netherlands with the Van der Booms in the United States. In doing so you have clearly demonstrated once again that you need no assistance in creating word pictures. Furthermore you have the distinct advantage of writing beautifully in two languages! I am grateful you are following Thru Prairie Grass.

    2. Wonderful story. Just from those few sentences we know what kind of a man he was.
      Thanks for that, and you do write beautifully yourself Hans, I will definitely echo that.

  3. Sweetheart,

    Let me add my praises to the others you’ve already received on today’s blog posting about your Uncle Gordon. You’ve written a truly wonderful reminiscence about him and his relationship to you and your family and to the town of Govert.

    Your blog entry today is interesting and informative, vivid and expressive, heartfelt and poignant. Thank you also for sharing with us many of your personal memories of Gordon. As always, your writing is a pleasure to read. And, as in previous blog postings, the added photograph lends much depth and richness to your words. As we read details about Gordon’s life, it’s nice also to see the picture of him as a young man. It makes much more personal our connection with him as we read the blog. It’s easy to see the “merry and mischievous twinkle” in his eyes!

    Thank you for writing such informative, varied, and entertaining blog postings. They are consistently outstanding. In addition to your skill as a researcher of genealogy and history, you are an extremely talented and creative writer. As your readers, we are the beneficiaries of your exceptional abilities and efforts. Thank you!

    1. And thank you, Russ, for overlooking the common annoyances of living with a genealogist, let alone a writer.

  4. Great stories Kate. I want to make a Strudio now. Sharon.



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