Thursday, June 4, 2015

Who in the World Reads Thru Prairie Grass?

The first post to Thru Prairie Grass was published August 15, 2013, more than a hundred years after Govert Van der Boom proudly distributed the first edition of the Govert Advance at the Govert Post Office inside the Govert Store. From 1911 until 1943, the Govert Advance was the people's choice for news of Govert, South Dakota. People who lived there read the Govert Advance, as did people who used to live there, and others distant who followed the activities of a son or daughter, brother or sister. A century later, in 2013, I wondered if anyone would read my stories about Govert.

Who in the world would be interested in Govert, South Dakota, I wondered. Would anyone read the blog? And, if they did, how would they react to what they found on Thru Prairie Grass? Would readers in Harding County be disturbed either because the blog missed details, or because the detail felt intrusive? Would they be suspicious of me as an outsider? All this I wondered.

I knew Marie Kulisich would read the blog every single time I published, but that's like cracking open eggs and baking a cake for the owner of a bakery. Marie and I already had a wampum exchange for five years before the blog saw light of day - Marie shared her memories and I shared my research. Marie shared with you, too, through my stories and then through her own - do you remember Sheep Ranching in Govert, SD?

Certainly the West sisters would read the blog, and Saundra Laflin, too - all four had connections with Govert that included waking up to the Slim Buttes each morning. And, I thought, maybe Howard Jensen's children and grandchildren would read the blog. After all, the Jensens still own prairie in Govert Township. And, sure enough, Evaline, Alice Mae, Shirley Jean, Saundra, and Doug Jensen read the blog, and now Doug's sister, LuAnn Schroeder, reads the blog, too.

I figured Saundra Laflin's daughter, LaDelle, and LaDelle's husband, Derek Brink, might catch up on the blog from time-to-time ... when they weren't calving, and working the cattle, and rodeoing and running Govert Powerline Services, and raising a family, and when Derek didn't have School Board commitments ... after all, they live just down the road from the old Govert Townsite. So maybe, I thought, they would catch up from time-to-time. And they do.

My Dutch cousin, Hans van der Boom, and his wife, Marjon, read the blog, because this is "geschiedenis Amerikaanse tak" or "history of the American branch". You might remember Hans from Vrolijk Kerstfeest! where Hans was our guide, helping us understand the Christmases Govert Van der Boom would have experienced with his Dutch family in The Hague and then in Platte, South Dakota, before Govert homesteaded in that corner of Harding County that would become known as Govert Township. Another cousin, granddaughter to Goverite Peter Rosenthal, reads the blog; Pat Dreesen and I are American cousins because Govert Van der Boom and Peter Rosenthal were Dutch cousins.

My Canadian cousins, Sharon Frizell, Elaine Fleck, and Gloria Gifford follow the blog because they descend from the Tobolt line, the same line as Goverites Emma Vogt Van der Boom, Lydia Vogt Gee, Theodore Vogt, Ernest Vogt, and Gus Toble. Wayne Grantz, the grandson of Theodore Vogt, reads the blog, too, as does Theodore's great-granddaughter Susan Marco.

Trent Van der Boom and his wife, Ann, are interested in what happens in Thru Prairie Grass. Ann is intent on assuring that her children know about their South Dakota roots and their Dutch heritage. Cousin Trent's wife was one of the very first subscribers to Thru Prairie Grass.

Frank Goodell, a Springer descendant, follows the goings-on of this prairie town where his Grandmother Dabu's life played out. Frank added to our knowledge of his family and prairie values in The Coat Exchange. The blog has been a good resource for Herman West's granddaughter, Arie, who learned more about the man who raised her grandfather in The Soul of Forrester West.

Donna Rose Walker Banning is on board; she's the daughter of Anzley Walker and Rose Helen Kapsa. Don Phillips and the rest of that Phillips bunch are listening, too; they descend from Chester Phillips and Leah Vroman who homesteaded north of the Buttes near Gill.

Gary Lehman, Howard Jacobs's grandson, reads and learns along with the rest of us. For Gary, as for many descendants of homesteaders, the stories of this character-building and character-testing prairie adventure were not passed down through the generations.

Paula M. Nelson, author of two of my favorite books, "After The West Was Won" and "The Prairie Winnows Out Its Own", commented on the blog and promised to check back regularly. Jean Simons, retired West River newspaper columnist, but always an historian, found me through the blog, and our correspondence is rich with her memories about life in historical West River South Dakota, the subject of her columns. Then there's Mary Buchholz, who had such a prominent role in the collection and publication of local history for the Harding County History Book. And Pat Engebretson, who encourages and safeguards West River history from her sentinel post at the Belle Fourche Public Library in Butte County. They all read the blog.

Another reader of Thru Prairie Grass is South Dakota State Senator Betty Olson. Besides representing a broad expanse of northwestern South Dakota, overlapping county boundaries, Senator Olson is a rancher with historical roots deep in Harding County. She has already established a legacy for preserving West River history as president of the Harding County Historical Society, chairman of the board of directors of the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish, Trailboss (chairman) of the South Dakota Great Western Cattle Trail Association, and Senator Olson also serves on the State-Tribal Relations Legislative Committee.

Longtime friends with no connection to Govert read Thru Prairie Grass to be supportive, like Sharon in Wyoming, and Helen in Washington State. My family is supportive, too. My mother and my husband read the blog because they have to ... although, in his comments to the blog, Russ may lead you to believe that he likes what I write. My brothers have been known to say a thing or two about the blog, when a thing or two is called for. My mother reads the blog to my sister on the phone, because my sister has always liked the way Mom tells a story. 

But who else is reading Thru Prairie Grass? 

When Thru Prairie Grass passed the landmark of 10,000 pageviews, I figured more people must be reading the blog than I thought. Unless, that is, my mother sits at her computer day and night, continually left-clicking links with her mouse to watch the number mount up. Me, most days I add words to draft posts or document ideas for new stories, but I pushed the buttons on the administrative panel to assure that the counter does not see me.

Nearly 10,400 pageviews now. I sure am suspicious of numbers that high. How can it be possible that Thru Prairie Grass has been viewed that many times?  What does that number mean? What is, and what isn't, a pageview? The common answer is that one pageview is added to the counter each time a web page is loaded in a browser. So, if you go to the blog at and read the most recent post, that is one pageview. If you click on a link in the post you are reading, that is a second pageview. Then, if you go to the Govert Roll Call on the right panel of the blog to see what is going on there, that is a third pageview. On the other hand, if you subscribe to Thru Prairie Grass and read each new posting on the email you receive in your inbox, you don't count toward the 10,400 pageviews. Where, then, do all these thousands of pageviews come from?

Maybe the "web crawlers" are generating pageviews ... the "spiders", the "bots" crawling around in the background, technical whatsits scanning for important words, allowing you to do a Google search to find "Govert SD". That still begs the question of who is reading the blog, because even the most friendly of bots, the most dedicated, those bots curious about the homesteading history of South Dakota, can't account for all those pageviews, or can they?

I'd write Thru Prairie Grass even if no one was listening, just so the homesteading history of small prairie towns like Govert, South Dakota, will not cease to have meaning. We are visiting on the Internet because this is a place where the stories can be found when someone is ready to listen.

Wouldn't Govert Van der Boom, having emigrated from Holland as a child in 1890, be amused by all this? The computer, the Internet, the blog, the bots, all of it?

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[If you are following changes to the Govert Roll Call, see Lottie Lyons and the following families: Donohue, Hallan, Jarvi, Jensen, Lale, Limpert, Livingston, Phillips, Vroman, White.]

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Roll Call: Govert, South Dakota

Schedule a reunion and they will come. A Govert reunion. No one would miss this reunion. No one. Not Howard Jacobs. Not Charles and Zee Laflin. Not Mitch and Nikla Kulisich. Not Forrester and Louise West. Not Nick Lale. Not the Giese sisters or the Hafner brothers. Not Smokey Joe. Not Gus Toble. Not Theodore Vogt or his brother, Ernest. Not Evaline West or her sisters, Alice Mae or Shirley Jean. Not Marie Kulisich.

No one would miss this reunion. Not Govert Van der Boom. Not his wife, Emma. Not his sons, Virgil, Gordon, or Roger. If a reunion could roust the founding family of Govert from the grave, why would other Goverites hesitate to break a path back to Govert, South Dakota, back to the beginning?

No one would want to miss this reunion ... a reunion where every man, woman, and child bearing allegiance to Govert, South Dakota, would gather to share the stories of their lives.

Schedule a reunion and they will come.

They appeared over the horizon from every direction, these former neighbors. From North Dakota by way of Buffalo and Reva, crossing the Slim Buttes. From the west, leaving sunny homes where they retreated in retirement after years of buffeting by the icy Harding County wind. From the south, joining other reunion travelers northward by way of Rapid City and Belle Fourche and Newell. From eastern states they came, crossing the Missouri River to reach the prairie lands rolling away from the western bank.

They came hunched over from days astride the back of a horse, or bumping along in buckboards, rattling in carts, cruising in the relative comfort of a Model T or a Model A. They came perched on tractors and harvesters, roaring on motorcycles, cruising on bikes, and and peddling tricycles, little legs pumping hard. And some arrived footsore. But no one was going to miss this reunion.

Charles Laflin's wagon came into sight first, Govert newspaperman and booster, eager to gather again those he once rallied into community. Just then appeared Mitch and Nikla Kulisich in their Chevy, wheels flattening the prairie grass, small particles of soil rising behind them as dust. Forrester and Louise West pulled up alongside in their '39 Ford pickup truck. Gustav Toble, eating the dust of the Ford and Chevy, while raising his own, watched for familiar landmarks over the backs of the mule team straining against the weight of the wagon, the wheels turning, turning, over the prairie grasses, returning Gus to the place that gladdened and saddened his heart, toward the town that gave him a place to be during the Depression years.

Look! Do you see Howard Jacobs who, together with Govert Van der Boom, founded the prairie crossroads town of Govert? He's there - look - over there to the west - his buggy rolling sedately toward the Govert Store, Laura Belle sitting elegantly at Howard's side on the leather seat.

A 9-year-old Howard Jensen appears riding bareback, his lips pressed together insistently, his mouth watering at the thought of the chocolate and caramel candy bar he would buy on his father's account at the Govert Store.

The Hafners arrive as they did in 1913 from the east, in two covered wagons, trailing a herd of cattle and a herd of sorrel horses with startling blonde manes. Ollie Nelson, on horseback, joined his friends Peter and William as the three maneuver the herds forward toward Govert. Peter's wife, Clara, and Clara's sister, Lora Giese, reins in hand, pointed the teams and wagons toward Govert, eager to return to the place they raised their families.

And there's Dina Olthoff, looking uncomfortable sitting astride a white horse, still wearing the heavy Dutch dress she safeguarded on the ocean voyage from Holland, a dress better worn sidesaddle. Peter Rosenthal rides the black horse beside Dina ... Petrus ...the reason Dientjie made the journey to New York by ship, and then west to South Dakota by train.

Schoolmarm Dixie Blomberg sits lightly, trusting her horse to pick his way across the prairie, Dixie's eyes skimming the prairie grasses for the hint of purple of the prairie lilies. The schoolchildren abandon their game of tag, tearing across the gumbo flat, shirts and skirts flapping. Miss Blomberg! Miss Blomberg! Dixie pauses, surprised to see the small up-tilted ovals, eager, full of smiles and dirt smudges, the children, her children, clustering around her, drawing her back into their lives.

The matronly figure of a woman in a floral-patterned house dress, apron askew in the breeze, walks briskly from east of the Govert Store. As the distance closes, the Van der Boom boys run out to greet their aunt, Lydia Gee, and to get a better look at the two deep-green watermelons their cousins, Melvin and Russell, lug to the reunion feast. That this was not the season for harvesting watermelon gives them no cause for concern.

Schedule a reunion and they will come.

They come from the years leading up to 1909, when open range ranchers, and squatters, and then homesteaders claimed the prairie. They come from the 1910's and the 1920's when Govert was full of hope, and growth still seemed possible. They come from the '30s and 40's when only the very hardy dared to remain on the prairie. And they come from the 1960s when Elizabeth Marty May, now a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives, was a schoolgirl at the Govert School. The Brinks are there. Howard Jensen's son, Doug, is there. Everyone is at Govert for the reunion.

These are the homesteaders, the farmers, the ranchers who made their lives in and near Govert Township. These are the farm hands who stayed for a season or two, like Cornelius Kraatzenbrink ... and the families who left before the census taker ever knocked at their door, like the Putmans. These are the men, women, and children who felt the embrace of the Govert community.

As familiar faces and forms streamed over the horizon, Govert Van der Boom fidgets in the doorway of the Govert Store bestowing his bright smile on the earliest arrivals, favoring the children with the twinkle in his eye. Next door in the residence, Govert's wife, Emma, eager and impatient, cheeks red, stirs the pots and casts a nervous peek into the oven of the hot woodstove ... pausing now, one hand on her hip, straightening, to ease the ache in her back. She slides the roast out of the oven and the table trembles when the pan falls into line with the ham and the pies. A waft of earthy rich coffee from the big pot on the stove floats out the window overlooking the Slim Buttes.

Eunice Jensen's frosted layered white cake ... with the filling of ground raisins and nuts baked into a custard ... bounced on her knees as Hugo pulls on the steering wheel in a futile attempt to avoid the ruts deeply engraved into the dirt road passing in front of the Govert Store. Louise West's dozens upon dozens of oatmeal cookies bulged in the re-purposed cloth flour bags, a bounty proudly carried by Evaline and Alice Mae and Shirley Jean. Nikla Kulisich carried a brilliant strudio, her offering for special gatherings. Dina Rosenthal brought salmon croquettes. And someone brewed up a pot of oysters and milk into a bona fide oyster stew.

Others brought sandwiches layered on fat slabs of richly buttered, freshly made bread. They brought hot potato salad, cold potato salad, cabbage salad, chicken salad, deviled eggs, meat and vegetable casseroles of every description, and dishes with the exotic appeal of Croatian, Dutch, German, Belgian, Scotch, and English influences. Everyone brought a bowl mounded high, a heavily laden platter, a sloshing pot to add to the feast, because that is what they expected of themselves and their neighbors. That was the way they socialized in the years gone by when Govert was their home. That same community sharing, personal responsibility, and self-sufficiency remain the tradition in Harding County, honored ever more by the passing of the years. The joy of the potluck dinner lives on.

I wouldn't miss this reunion, not for anything. Would you? Heaven on earth is the opportunity to ask the questions you never thought to ask while you still could ask them.

Schedule a reunion and they will come. Follow this link to call the roll.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to SD Representative Elizabeth Marty May, SD Representative Sam Marty, Myrna Giannonatti, Howard Jensen, Patricia Dreesen, Frank Goodell, Marie Kulisich, the West sisters, to everyone who shared their family stories of Govert, South Dakota, with me over the years.

If you would like to return to the list of invitees in the future, you will find "Govert Roll Call" on the right hand panel of the blog itself at]

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Soul of Forrester West

The unrelenting wind slapped the prairie grass against his legs and whipped the blue chambray of his shirt which earlier had been tucked neatly into the worn, bibbed denim overalls. Forrester West broke his gaze from Sheep Mountain cast in the pale remnants of gold and peach of the rising sun. He turned to his left and, via the jagged edge of the Slim Buttes to the north, continued his tour of the prairie toward the far away horizon to the west. This survey of Forrester's world, a world extending little beyond Govert Township, reminded him of why he resisted leaving the remote corners of the prairie ... why he remained here with his family long after other prairie homesteaders surrendered to the siren call of urban centers beyond the borders of Harding County, places like Belle Fourche or Rapid City, or those who quitted entirely the state of South Dakota.

Forester's business was cattle and sheep - and family. We can't overlook Forrester's wife, Louise Cornella, because he wouldn't. Louise was both fragile and gutsy. Forrester respected his wife's determination and character, and treated her with warm concern for her fragile heart. We can't forget Forrester's children, because he couldn't - Herman and Richard, his wife's sons whom he embraced as his own, and their daughters, Evaline, Alice Mae, and Shirley Jean, who brought Forrester a gentle joy he never knew would be his. Forrester's livestock was a means, and his family the end. This wild, unfettered land was the how and the where he wanted his children to be formed into strong, independent adults. Forrester wasn't much of a stockman, his daughter Evaline remembered, the land held him, not the nature of the work ... Evaline's father had far too much empathy for the cattle and the sheep in his care. Forrester was a shepherd in rancher's clothing.

Little about Forrester appeared ordinary. He was taller than most, and his dark hair was thicker than any man had the right. The forehead beneath that bounty of hair was broad, giving the impression of deep thought, or an artistic temperament. Your eyes would be drawn to his - a prescient grey - and by the prominent cheekbones supporting them. Forrester watched the world around him through these grey eyes, half-closed. Maybe his eyes were light-shy from all the days of his life lived outside on the prairie ... from the hot, gritty wind half the year and ice barbs carried on the wind the remaining months, and from the near eternal prairie sun. Or maybe watching the world through half-closed eyes was instinctive, a tool of observation.

[Louise Cornella West and Forrester West in 1925]

Was it the half-closed eyes under the broad forehead that made you wonder "What is that man thinking about?" Was it because Forrester had little to say when you leaned on the counter beside him in the Govert store, or claimed the empty seat on the bench beside him at a P.T.A. meeting in the Govert schoolhouse, or stopped on the side of the rutted dirt road interrupting his work to talk about the weather? Forrester must have thought in loops of consciousness that most of us could never hope to understand. Forrester observed the world like an artist, and he painted the world he saw with words. For us he translated his thoughts into poetry.

Forester worked his poems while he worked the cattle, while he worked the sheep, while he mended the fences. Then at night, by the muted light of the kerosene lamp, he transferred the words swirling behind his ever observant eyes to a lined yellow legal tablet. You might wonder how poetry can flow from a man who works more hours in the day than you knew existed, outside, in the hot sun and blowing dirt.

Forrester appreciated hard work, honesty, integrity. He appreciated the beauty and strength of nature, and the strength and weakness of mankind. He appreciated the cycles of life. Most of all he appreciated the openness of the prairie, the beauty of the rustling grasses, the buttes, the breaks, the sunrise, the sunset, and the absence of all that was urban - the sort of silence that forgets man and allows men to forget.

Forrester West was a man you would want to know. Here on Thru Prairie Grass you will read Forrester's "A Message to Youth" published in the Govert Advance on November 28, 1940. Herm was 26, Rich was 24; Evaline was 12, Alice Mae was 10, almost 11, Shirley Jean was about 3 years old.

Forrester became the messenger when he wrote "A Message to Youth". Published after Forrester passed his 54th birthday, wisdom had replaced the brightness of opportunity, and the peace of acceptance was still to come. Forrester must have been talking to his sons, young men full of life's promise. Forrester had no way of knowing that in five months his son, Richard, would be dead.

by Forrester F. West

The return of spring with its sunshine and showers,
Its new life and budding flowers,
Always reminds us of youth and the springtime of life.

In memory we go back thru the years to our own youth,
With its joys and pleasures, its disappointments and sorrows,
Yes, and its dreams and ideals.

But for us the day is far spent.
Now our greatest ambition is to realize in our children
What we wanted to be,
And the accomplishment of what we wanted to do.

Yes, you who are young,
We have an interest in you,
And for you we have a message.

We are taking a great deal of liberty in speaking to you
For we are not speaking for ourselves alone,
But for our generation.

Perhaps you ask, what right have you to speak to us?
You who are Ignorant.
No marble halls of learning have ever been yours.

No, but we are wise,
In wisdom often gained through bitter experience.
Yes, wisdom sometimes hot with the yearnings of a heart,
And sometimes with the anguish of a soul.

We who have crossed the half century line
Know that we have reached the afternoon of life.
Yes, we are nearing the land of the setting sun.

But you, who are young,
For you we hope life, real life,
Has scarce begun.

Memory carries us back nearly fifty years,
But it seems only yesterday
That mother wiped away our childhood tears.

In looking back we realize how short is life,
Even tho we might be spared
The three score years and ten,
Or four score or even more.

But rather than go back, if we could,
And live it over again with its failures and mistakes,
We would stumble on down to the end of the trail.
Hoping that a wise and kind Heavenly Father
Might give to us a few more years.

That we in some way might finish the work he gave us to do,
That the burden to be laid on your young shoulders
Might not be so hard to bear.

But why lament over the shortness of life?
For it matters not so much how long we live, but how we live.
Yes, one short second may decide the destiny of a soul.
One minute might decide the destiny of a nation.

We believe that time and life
Are two of the most precious things in this world.
Time may be cruel,
For it carries us toward old age and the grave.

But then again it is kind,
For with the passing of the years,
Many of the bitter struggles and hardships of our youth are forgotten,
And in their place linger memories we cherish dearly,

But enough of the bitterness remains
To remind us that your troubles and your problems are real.
Yes, if we had it to do over again
We would be more kind to the young,
Giving a word of kindness along with a word of reproof,

For we have some idea of the disappointment
And heartache that might be yours.
Of the two, life is far more precious than time,
Yes, precious Human Life.

Human life consists of three elements,
The body, the mind and the soul.
Sometime every young person asks,
Which of these is the most important?

Certainly, it is not the human body,
For of it has been said from dust thou came,
To dust thou shall return.

It is not the mind,
For that mind, tho it may be brilliant,
Before the dawn of another day,
It may reel and topple from its throne.

Then it must be the Soul,
That spark from the Divine,
That for good or evil
Shall live thruout Eternity.

Today Forrester's daughters are in their 70s and 80s. They have taken their turn as messenger, and have progressed beyond wisdom to the peace of acceptance. They are exactly where their father would want them to be.

Thank you, Forrester West, for choosing to pass your life on the prairie near Govert, South Dakota, for sharing your poetry with the Govert community, for sharing your soul.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Forrester Frank West and the three daughters he raised to be such wonderful women, Evaline, Alice Mae, and Shirley Jean, who now are sharing their father's poetry with us. Photo and poem used with the permission of the West sisters.]