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]