GOVERT, SOUTH DAKOTA
The Prairie Town Named for Govert Van der Boom
by Kathleen VanderBoom
published in Harding County History Book (2013), Volume 2, p551-556
published in Harding County History Book (2013), Volume 2, p551-556
With temperatures hovering in the low 30s, Roger Van der Boom ran as fast as a five year old could run. An instant later, Roger propelled himself and his sled through the air. Runners now flying across the prairie snow, Roger realized, too late, how short this winter ride would be.
Collision with the barbed wire fence loomed with unspeakable certainty. Roger’s speed broke only when the sled slammed into the twisted strands of wire, propelling Roger face first into the rusty but still sharp metal barbs.
The icy cold of that February morning numbed Roger, protecting him from pain. Soon he found himself in the white-painted Govert Store warmed by the new Huron pipeless furnace his father, the storekeeper, installed three months earlier. The store was the center of activity of the town of Govert, and Roger’s accident would draw attention.
Roger’s mother was summoned. She quickly appeared from the unpainted frame house next door, yet uncertain whether fear or a good scolding for her young son was more appropriate. The Govert Store and the four room house next door, where Roger ate and slept with his parents and his two older brothers, were the world then known to Roger.
Five-year-old Roger may have been considered a minor celebrity, as this snowbound South Dakota prairie town was named after his father, Govert Van der Boom. Roger’s celebrity status only increased the day he tangled with the barbed wire. His wintertime accident was a significant event in the Harding County, South Dakota, town of Govert, and was covered by the weekly newspaper, the Govert Advance on February 28, 1929.
|Govert, South Dakota before 1914|
The town of Govert began 20 years before Roger’s close encounter with the barbed wire fence enclosing his father’s land. In 1909 Govert Van der Boom and his friend Howard Jacobs, both businessmen in Wessington Springs, South Dakota, responded to the call for men to homestead Harding County. With experience as a farm laborer in his youth, Govert was ready once again to put his back into the plow.
Other experiences as a young man also prepared Govert for his vision of a Harding County homestead. Govert had applied himself to learning business, beginning as a clerk. By 1908, he had been a grain buyer for three years. Howard understood business, too. In Wessington Springs, Howard was a harness maker, having learned the trade from his father.
When Govert and Howard plotted this new joint venture as homesteaders, Govert was 26. Howard was his elder at 29. Govert was an immigrant, arriving in America from Holland in 1890 at the age of seven with his parents and his seven brothers and sisters. Howard’s roots reached back to England, but he had no accent like Govert did. Howard was the eighth generation of his father’s family born in America. Out of their friendship was to grow a community.
Govert and Howard filed claims on adjoining homesteads in Harding County. How carefully they selected that parcel of land. Their land was a mile east of the north branch of the Moreau River, and an equal distance west of Spring Creek, assuring them a supply of water. Their town center would be just northeast of the center of the township. The fact they would wake to a beautiful view of the Slim Buttes to the north and Sheep Mountain to the east was not lost on them.
Govert claimed the southeast quarter of Section 15, Township 15 North, Range 8 East of the Black Hills Meridian. Howard claimed the quarter to the west, the southwest quarter. They cobbled together their tar paper claims shacks, and set up housekeeping in September 1909. They made their mark on the land and when they fell into their beds at night, they knew they were home.
Ten months later, seven additional men were known by the United States Census taker to be homesteading in Township 15, or what soon would be referred to as Govert Township. Peter Rosenthal was Govert Van der Boom’s cousin from Holland. Austrians Nick Lale, George Pervitich, Louis Zurak, and Mitchell Kulisich knew each other from Lead, South Dakota. Friends George Sloan Davidson and Obadiah Trueman Lawton traveled to Harding County from Mystic, Appanoose County, Iowa to stake their claims. Of the nine men known to be in Township 15 in June 1910, Nick Lale was widowed and all the other men were single. There were no women and no children. That was soon to change.
In the meanwhile, Govert Van der Boom and Howard Jacobs had work to do. They had a few months until spring when they would set about breaking the soil and planting crops to satisfy the Homestead Act, just like every other homesteader had to do. Their job now was to provide for the needs of the homesteaders who were already on the land and those they saw coming over the horizon.
Tar paper sprouted from the prairie forming shacks overnight, and these new homesteaders needed flour and sugar, crackers, sardines and nails. They also needed to mail letters home to tell their loved ones about their new lives on the prairie. They needed a store and a post office. As women and children began to join husbands and fathers, and women came to homestead in their own right, community needs became greater. The homesteaders now needed a church and a school. To meet all their needs, including a need for social interaction, the growing population not only supported, but actively encouraged a focus on community.
The first element of a town was the store Govert and Howard set up soon after their arrival in 1909. Govert and Howard knew their homesteaders would find success elusive if they had to travel far for supplies, even to one of the other small prairie towns in Harding County or nearby Perkins or Butte County. The claims shacks Govert and Howard built at the near center of the township were to become a residence and the store where they sold hardware and food staples.
These two storekeepers of Govert, South Dakota, could bring their homesteaders everything the urban areas offered. If Govert hitched his horse to the wagon and slowly bumped his way across the prairie, the homesteaders would never have to neglect their chores. Without the one person making this trip for them, every homesteader would have to follow the same 49 dusty and slow miles to the mercantile firms already gathering in the area that would be known as Newell in 1910. Traveling to the county seat in Buffalo too would be easier one day, but in 1910, the distance was still covered at the speed of a horse.
Belle Fourche was the closest town with city-like attractions. A bustling business center since the late 1800s, Belle supported two railroads, two banks, and two newspapers in 1909. By the time the town of Govert began gathering homesteaders in 1909, Belle already had a population of about 1,800. Belle’s many well-established businessmen were well-prepared to sell a wide variety of perishable and nonperishable groceries, hardware and farm machinery, clothing for field work, and finely tailored clothing for ladies and gents. Belle even had a boat builder, not that anyone in Govert would ever need a boat. Until Newell attracted a train spur, Belle Fourche, at 65 miles, would remain Govert Van der Boom’s destination of choice for everything that would please the heart of a man, woman, or child.
The esteemed firm of Jacobs and Van der Boom was happy to oblige this need for local availability of hardware and food staples. With the Govert Store supplying day-to-day needs, all the homesteaders in Township 15 were free to lapse into a preoccupation with the back-breaking labor of homesteading.
Justifying the establishment of a post office might have been considered by some to be the single most important reason to form a community. Communication with their absent families meant writing a letter on a piece of paper, and sticking a stamp on an envelope. The nearest post office was 13 miles away at Hoover, a little too far.
Within a month of settling on their own homesteads, Govert and Howard submitted the paperwork for a post office. The federal government saw the population to be supplied with mail was “about 40 and more new settlers coming in right along”, and agreed the town of Govert merited a post office. From May 27, 1910 the homesteaders could pick up their mail in a corner of the Jacobs and Van der Boom Mercantile. Delivery to the store was once a week on the route from Harding to Sampont. Howard Jacobs was the first postmaster of Govert, happy to pass over a bundle of mail to a homesteader eager for news from home.
Govert and Howard knew a strong community required strong people, and that church services had a civilizing effect. As a personal matter, practicing their faith was important to them. The still small community of Govert welcomed the continuing efforts of these two men to provide an opportunity for the adults to follow their faith and to assure a religious foundation for the children. At an early date Govert and Howard were already scheduling Sunday School classes for adults and children in both the residence and the store. They also coordinated support by traveling ministers, missionaries, or ministers assigned to churches in far flung prairie towns. Church services were irregular, but not by choice.
Enough people now identified themselves as Goverites that Govert founded a newspaper. The Govert Advance began publication in 1911. E.L. Senn was the first publisher, with men like Harry J. Devereaux and then Lewis R. Scott assuming the responsibilities of editor. In 1916, Charles Laflin became both editor and publisher of the Govert Advance, a position he was to hold for 25 years, producing a newspaper every Thursday, week after week, year after year. The value of a newspaper to some in the community was to make travel unnecessary for publication of legal notices required under the Homestead Act. For others the value was indulging in the gossip reported as local news. For some the newspaper was an easily acquired source of reading material, and some would learn English from reading the Govert Advance.
Mercantile, post office, church, and newspaper, Howard and Govert were always at the ready to provide for one-stop shopping. If the homesteaders had a need Govert and Howard could meet, they did. So when Govert Van der Boom became a notary and later a U.S. Land Commissioner, this was welcomed, too. Even if a homesteader only wanted a letter written, all that was required was a visit to the Govert Store where he or she would find Govert’s leather bound law books lined up on his desk, and the proprietors at the ready.
An element of community providing social structure for as long as the town existed resulted from the homesteaders’ response to having school-aged children in their midst. The community built their one room school house a mile south of the Govert Store. The first clear evidence of a school located in Govert Township was in 1913. Margaret Murray taught a three month term beginning February 10, 1913. After a ten day break, Ellen Murray taught a second three month term beginning May 19 and ending August 22. With the school term beginning in September 1913, the children of Govert had a more conventional school year. That year Hazel Thomas taught an eight month term ending April 21, 1914. Once the Govert School was erected, the children would attend school there during the week and return on the weekend with their parents for church. The one room school house became a multiple purpose community building.
Considering the nine men known to be in Township 15 in 1910 were all unmarried, boasting school age children by 1913 may appear remarkable. This feat was not at all surprising, but evidence of a growing population. Widower Nick Lale married in Lead in November 1910 and brought his new wife Pauline and his children from his first marriage, Mary, Estelle, and Nicholas to Govert to live with him on his homestead. Mary was the oldest at 12 and Nicholas the youngest at 7. George Hafner and his wife, Anna, soon joined the Govert community in 1910, followed in 1911 by their adult sons Peter and William. In 1913 Peter would bring his wife Clara and four children from eastern South Dakota to add to the three Lale children. Three of Peter and Clara’s children were either school-age or fast approaching the time they would join the other children in a classroom.
Other homesteaders were marrying and bringing their wives to the Govert area to start families. Charles Laflin, the future publisher and editor of the Govert Advance, filed on land in the township to the north in April 1910. Two years later he returned to Iowa to marry, bringing his bride, Mary Zee Campbell, home to his 160 acres north of Govert. In November 1912 Govert Van der Boom, himself, married Emma Vogt from Minnesota who had her own homestead just south of the Harding County line in Butte County. Mitch Kulisich married in 1915 and brought his wife Nikla to his Govert homestead. Peter Rosenthal sent back to Holland for a Dutch wife, Dina Olthof, who arrived in 1915. Some of the men would never marry. Without a wife to smooth their rough edges, George Pervetich was one of these old bachelors, as was Luka Gjures.
|Govert and Emma Van der Boom in 1912|
People continued to settle near this small town and the population continued to grow. In the 1916 Northwestern Gazetteer and Business Directory, Govert boasted a population of 60, pulling into that proud number those living in the area supported by the Govert Store, the post office, and the newspaper. Govert still was not a town with a main street lined with business establishments. No hotel. No saloon. No bank. No boarding house. No restaurant. No jail. Not even a sheriff. The town of Govert would never be the kind of town Newell became. Being Govert was enough.
If you wanted it, Govert the town had it, or Govert the man could get it. The homesteading wife in search of a ten pound bag of flour at the Govert Store would find at her destination the store, the residence, the requisite assorted out buildings, and the ten pound bag of flour. The lone traveler making his way across Harding County would find the same friendly reception. Howard Jacobs and the Van der Booms welcomed travelers, in the same manner as innkeepers, offering a bed and a meal, even if the bed offered displaced one of the Van der Boom children to the floor. These two Govert businessmen provided a work place for traveling businessmen at the town site, as when the dentist appeared by buggy, or in later years trailing a cloud of dust behind his car.
The number of people claiming Govert as their town continued to grow. The population of nine unmarried men in 1910, multiplied into a population of 34 households and 143 people by 1920. At the same time Govert grew, some had already moved on. Of the nine men on the 1910 Census, only four remained in Govert in 1920: Govert Van der Boom, Mitchell Kulisich, Nick Lale, and George Pervitich.
Their companions from 1910 were awarded patents and then found different lives in other places. Obadiah Trueman Lawton cast his chances with the coal mines of Musselshell, Montana. His friend and fellow Iowan, George Sloan Davidson, returned to the coal mines of Appanoose County, Iowa, where he soon married Osie Scott, the sister of another Govert Township homesteader from Iowa. Howard Jacobs married in 1914 and left Govert in 1915, settling with his wife, Laura Belle Tidball Jacobs, in Rapid City. Peter Rosenthal and his wife, Dina Olthof Rosenthal, buried their infant twins on the prairie in 1916 and, in 1919, moved with their young daughter, Annie, to North Dakota in search of more productive farmland.
|Dientjie (Dina) and Peter Rosenthal in front of Govert Store circa 1916|
With homesteads often resulting in a large percentage of abandonments or relinquishments, Govert can be proud of the determination of the early homesteaders who called Govert home. Of the nine men in Govert Township in June 1910, all but Louis Zurak remained to fulfill the legal requirements of the Homestead Act, and received patents on their land. The presence and departure of Louis Zurak, the ninth man, remain a mystery. Although enumerated as a homesteader in the United States Federal Census for 1910, no record exists to show he ever filed on land in Township 15.
More and more hopeful men and women unpacked their wagons in this corner of Harding County, bringing their families in search of a home and a living. Some were relatives of those already farming and ranching in Govert Township. Others were just passing through and, attracted by this close knit community, stopped for awhile. Finding only a difficult living, many of these settlers packed up their wagons once again to continue searching. The most transient of the population were the hired hands, staying for a month or a season to work the land or tend the growing herds of cattle or flocks of sheep.
As occurred over and over again throughout the history of this small town, former Goverites often followed a path leading back to Govert. Search as they might many of those who moved on could not find what they were searching for anywhere else. In spite of what some would describe as primitive conditions, the town of Govert had heart. Neighbors here were people who supported each other through the sorrows of injuries suffered when their horse fell on them, of death of a loved one struck by lightening, and of anguishing losses in prairie fires. These were the people who would work the land all day and, in the evening, gather at a neighbor’s house, move out the furniture, roll up the carpets, and dance until the morning sun broke around Sheep Mountain. This was a community.
|Virgil, Roger, Emma, Gordon, and Govert Van der Boom at Govert, South Dakota, in about 1926|
By the latter part of the 1920s Govert was still a community, but the community was getting smaller. Govert could no longer continue to boast growth. Economic conditions in America seemed to conspire against this small and isolated prairie town. In 1930 Govert could only count to 25 households and 87 people. This was a substantial reduction of nine households and 56 people from a decade earlier. Govert Van der Boom, himself, left in 1929, settling his family in Newell. Roger, his five-year-old son, finally ventured beyond the only world he had ever known. When he left the town named after his father, Roger proudly wore as a trophy the scar left by the barbed wire, still a red welt on his face.
The creation of new homesteads had slowed in the 1920s, and for few was a patent granted. In 1930, only Mitchell Kulisich and Nick Lale remained of the nine men who were enumerated on the 1910 Census. Peter and William Hafner and Charles Laflin and their families continued to call Govert home as well. Then, when it appeared the homestead era was over for Govert Township, one more homestead was filed. The very last homestead formed in Township 15 was when Forrester West filed papers in 1934, right in the middle the Great Depression. Forrester’s contacts with Govert began in about 1926, so he knew the people, he knew the soil, and he knew the odds. Forrester made the commitment and he stuck with it. Forrester was awarded his patent in 1940, like the others before him, making fast his tie with the land.
In later years, a grown-up Roger Van der Boom and his next older brother Gordon would break into smiles with their memories of the town of Govert and propound their considered opinion that the population of the town never exceeded five. The five they were considering were their father and mother, their oldest brother Virgil and themselves. If a town requires a jail and a sheriff, this is true.
Govert needed neither jail nor sheriff. Govert was still a town by virtue of being a community. The homesteaders, and then the farmers and ranchers, were as tied to the town of Govert as they were to their land. True, those who claimed Govert as their town were dispersed over an area exceeding six square miles. Nevertheless, they looked at the road passing Govert Store as their Main Street. Govert Store was their store. The Govert Advance was their newspaper. Govert School was their school. They got their mail at the Govert Post Office.
The town of Govert was home. Being a member of the Govert community came with an identity. Their friends were in Govert. Their work was in Govert. Because of this tie to both the people and to the land, Govert was a town that fought the inevitable draw of the conveniences of modern life. It even fought the Depression which stole population from the land. However, like many small prairie towns, Govert eventually was forced to give up the fight.
The Govert Store continued until 1942. In 1929, after running the store for 20 years, Govert Van der Boom sold 10 acres of land and the Govert Store to Clifford D. Calkins and his wife Mollie. Their daughter, Adelaide Calkins was a country school teacher and had married a Govert area rancher. Running the country store was the retirement job Mr. and Mrs. Calkins chose to be near their daughter. Running a country store in the middle of the Depression was not what they bargained for, and Clifford and Mollie eventually decided to retire once again.
Louise West, the wife of Forrester West, then ran the store with her daughters for a period of time in the 1930s when Clifford and Mollie took a leave of absence. Again in the early 1940s Louise and her daughters ran the store, this time as West Mercantile. The time came when Louise would be forced to close the door of the Govert Store one last time. Providing for the education of her three daughters required that mother and daughters leave Forrester to work the ranch alone. By 1942, Clifford Calkins was advertising in the Govert Advance the sale of the building that had housed the Govert Store for 33 years. In the late 1940s Govert Van der Boom bought back his town from Clifford and Mollie and disassembled the store and residence, eventually using the building materials to extend the back of Newell Implement Company in Newell.
The Govert Advance continued until 1943. Charles Laflin had been both publisher and editor for 25 years and by 1943 he, like the town, was tired. One of Mr. Laflin’s great talents was born of the depth of his identity with the Govert community. Mr. Laflin seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the community, a heart-felt connection with the people of Govert he expressed over and over again in his reporting. For many years, Mr. Laflin himself may have been the very heart of the community of Govert, always encouraging community solidarity and advancement.
Govert School thrived year after year teaching the young of Govert. Beginning in 1929 the Govert community was able to support a high school but, after two years, the children of Govert were sent to Newell, to Sorum or to other larger communities for high school, or to live with family in other states. In 1944 the school effectively closed. In that year May Wald home-schooled. After a period of time, the school building was moved to Marty Road to what is now the Brink Ranch, LaDelle Brink being a Laflin descendant. There the Govert School reinvented itself to teach another generation of children before it finally closed for good.
The Govert Post Office continued to serve the ranchers of the area until 1954, long after the rest of the community structure broke away. Back in 1915, Govert Van der Boom had assumed the responsibilities of postmaster from Howard Jacobs, and Govert’s wife, Emma, became postmistress in 1919. Adelaide Calkins became postmistress in 1929 when the Van der Boom family moved to Newell. George Hafner, the grandson of the George Hafner who homesteaded in 1910, was appointed postmaster April 1, 1935, then his wife, Lillian, took over for him on April 19, 1938. May Wald was appointed postmistress March 4, 1944, and Nida Snoozy, the last postmistress, was appointed November 15, 1952.
After 1935, the Govert Post Office was never to be located in the Govert Store again. First the post office moved south, directly across the road from the Govert Store. Then it moved west along Marty Road to a place west of the intersection with Laflin Road. Finally, in 1944, the post office moved to Section 23, where May Wald, and then Nida Snoozy lived. After August 31, 1954, the mail for those people previously served by Govert was sent to Sorum. Govert Post Office closed after a good run of 44 years.
In 1953 Govert Van der Boom sold the ten acres which had been the Govert town site to Josiah Ogden, of Sorum, who was known by his neighbors as Smokey Joe. Smokey Joe was a bachelor with a reputation for eccentricity, living in the basement of what was once the Govert Store and in an old school bus he drove to the town site and scuttled. Smokey Joe died in the late 1960s and was buried in an unmarked grave in Rose Hill Cemetery in Spearfish, South Dakota. There at Rose Hill are also buried Clifford and Mollie Calkins and Govert and Emma Van der Boom, who preceded him as owners of the town site of Govert.
Of the founders of Govert, this we know. Howard Jacobs and his wife, Laura Belle Tidball, returned to Govert after their 1914 marriage, but the prairie cold and demanding labor were hard on Howard who was already experiencing the early onset of rheumatism. Their first daughter, Florence, was born in 1915 in Wessington Springs where Howard’s family lived. Twins Margaret and Mary were born in 1918 in their new home of Rapid City. Seeking the comfort of a warmer and dryer climate, the Jacobs family moved to Tucson, Arizona, before 1930, and then on to San Diego before 1940. Howard Jacobs died at age 60 August 25, 1940 in San Diego, California. He never knew his six grandchildren, all boys. Laura remained in San Diego, where she died September 5, 1968. In Rapid City and in Tucson, Howard continued in the grocery store business, the legacy of his launch into merchandising in Govert.
When Govert Van der Boom left the town site of Govert in 1929, he continued down the entrepreneurial path he began in Wessington Springs in 1903 when he was 23, and followed for 20 years in Govert. In Newell, Govert and Emma owned the Newell Implement Company. With his sons, Virgil and Roger, Govert sold farm equipment, vehicles and household appliances. Govert and Emma lived in a cozy home south of Newell High School on 5th Street, with all of the luxuries of electricity, hot and cold running water, an indoor bathroom, and reliable heat in the cold South Dakota winters.
In Newell Govert continued to do business with farmers and ranchers who knew him first as the storekeeper in the town named after him. The Van der Booms also continued to socialize with former residents of Govert, now living in Newell, like Bert and Lottie Ellis, and Herb Scofield, the Kulisiches, and the Burkes who lived near Emma’s homestead in Butte County. In 1957, twenty eight years after leaving the town of Govert, Govert and Emma made their final move, this time to the newly opened Dorsett Manor in Spearfish. Govert died a year later in Belle Fourche on May 1, 1957 at the age of 74. Emma was blessed with longevity, living at the Dorsett Manor until her death at 88, January 19, 1974. Throughout his life, Govert remained proud of his town and the newspaper that bore his name.
Roger left the town of Govert, the only place he had ever known, when he was five years old. He never forgot, however, the sledding accident. Years later he tried to show his wife and his own children the faded scars, by that time invisible to everyone but himself. Much of the history of Govert has also faded with the town back into the prairie. My father, Roger, and my grandfather, Govert Van der Boom, would be pleased to know that by reading this you are assuring the memory of our South Dakota prairie towns remains visible and that this part of our history is never forgotten.