Plains

James C. Schaap

The endless prairie all around is so bereft of people and buildings that coming up on St. Stephenie Scandinavian Church from any direction is a joy, even though the old church is but a shadow of its former self. It's hard to imagine the neighborhood teeming with Danes and Bohemians and Virginians, a Great Plains melting pot, each family--eleventy-seven kids--trying to make a go of it on 80 acres of lousy land. There had to be a time, maybe early June, when you could stand beside the old church and hear the music of children's voices rising from homesteads miles around.

The prairie grass was very tall, spread wide as the eye could see, an immense, shaggy hide over undulating hills, grass so tall and thick that it was a hazard for those white folks who determined to settle the land here. The only way to be sure you knew where you were going, should you want to walk with the family, was to hold hands and not let the kiddos get lost in the mess. Such things happened. In those first weeks and months, the only way to be neighborly was to dig trenches between the soddies.  

James C. Schaap

As late as the 1930s locals still found bones right here, on a flat spot of ground in what was once a wide river bed.  Bones--the skeletons of ponies that had belonged to Black Kettle's Cheyenne people. 

George Cable / Wikimedia Commons

Think Julie Andrews. Think "The Hills are Alive." It's unlikely the Sisters ever cavorted so sweetly amid the hills, but who knows? They loved their native Switzerland's shimmering mountain lakes and perfectly stunning peaks, so who knows what kind of dance they did when alone amid that mountaintop majesty.

James C. Schaap

Cathedral of the Prairie

A couple of farmers don't just get together over coffee at the Coop and decide to build a cathedral like St. Anthony of Padua, Hoven, SD. Putting up a that sized cathedral requires a vision.
 

  

St. Anthony's visionary was a priest named Anthony Helmbrecht, who wanted a cathedral not unlike the ones he remembered from his Bavarian boyhood. In the early years of the 20th century he went door-to-door until he collected enough money to contract the artisans he wanted, who then began to build the "Cathedral of the Prairie."

Wright, Robert Marr (1840-1915) / Wikimedia Commons

  

So give me a home where the buffalo roam

Just get me the heck out of this sod house.

 

You know, I used to say there weren't any great songs about sod houses because no one went all rhapsodic about living in thick dirt. A sod house kept out heat and cold in remarkably efficient ways and likely never blew away. Let it be said—or sung—that sure as anything a soddie was a shelter in the time of storm. But far as I knew, nobody ever picked out a song about a sod house that found its way into the American soul. No siree.

James C. Schaap

Out in the middle of nowhere, an old white frame building is all that remains of a heart-felt dream that, as an answer to prayer, opened its doors in 1893 to a dozen kids who wanted an education not otherwise available in the Dakota Territories before the turn of the century. 

I’m Mark Munger and you are listening to Check it Out.

A ship set in ice. An axe. A giant disappearing into arctic waters. Such are the uncommon beginnings to an uncommon Western. In the Distance by Hernan Diaz approaches one of the great American genres with a cold but intense embrace.

Ron Sterling / Wikimedia Commons

Maybe you've heard. As unlikely as it seems, trees may be our saviors. Researchers have determined we could plant 2.5 billion acres of new trees without losing an inch of farmland or cutting back at all on urban sprawl. Those billions of trees—take a deep breath here--can sweep up and away 200 gigatons of the carbon that's warming us dangerously. As Margaret Renkl said in a recent Times Opinion piece, "Planting trees. . .could go a long way toward saving us from ourselves."

Tall, dark, and handsome? --all of that. Virgil Earp and his brothers were big buffalo-shouldered guys who could make every man bellied up to the bar feel prune-ish. The Earps were Iowans, did some growing up here, anyway, their father a gold-digger forever looking west.

I’m talking Wyatt Earp here of OK Corral fame. He was an Iowan. Raised here, in Pella, tulips and wooden shoes down a straight-and-narrow path of Calvinist righteousness. Once upon a time, law-bible-toting, Dutch-speaking Pella was home to the Earp brothers of shelf full of dime novels.

Benjamin F. Gue / Wikimedia Commons

Long, long ago a massive chunk of pink quartzite was left behind in the immense wash of a turbulent inland sea. It's impossible to imagine a rock 20-feet high, 40-feet wide, 60-feet long--getting carted anywhere, but that's what happened. An ocean swept that massive thing south and east from its moorings on the outcropping of Gitche Manitou or Pipestone. In its fingers, the glacier picked it up and unceremoniously left it behind.

Vern Wigfield / RRPictureArchives.NET

Started out as a trading post named after the man who decided, right then and there, to do some business, Antoine LeBeau, a Frenchman, like so many other trappers of his time. In 1875, he put up his business on the east side of the Missouri, just across from the Cheyenne River Reservation, and started trading furs, pots, pans, and whatever his customers, white and red, thought worth buying and selling in LeBeau, South Dakota.

Yesteryear Once More

Old Elizabeth--she picked up a white woman's name--never heard of Susan B. Anthony. Couldn't have. She didn't know English, knew nothing about a right to vote. But that didn't mean she wasn't a feminist. No sir and no ma'am.

Old Elizabeth had little to do with men, but a lot to say. Outspoken? Yes, on all things gender-related. Opinionated?—you bet. She flat out didn't like men.

Don't remember where I heard it, but the conversation wasn't directed at me.  I must have been sitting somewhere among a whole group of people when I overheard a mom telling someone else about her boy, how he was really into his own music, how he was in three or four bands and had already produced his own CDs, how he was going to make music his career, wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

Sure, I thought. He and a half million others. Maybe more.

"That's all he lives for these days," she was saying, or something to that effect. She was proud of him, and I was cynical.

James Schaap

We visited Stratford-upon-Avon, toured Shakespeare's house and watched the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Julius Caesar in the Royal Shakespearean Theater. I vaguely remember the grave of Jane Austin, but Piccadilly Circus is gone completely.

For reasons I can't explain, nothing in jolly old England left as hearty an impression as the bombed-out hulk of Coventry Cathedral. For a moment, the Battle of Britain was more than a grainy newsreel or a whole album of old black-and-whites.

Palace of the Governors Collections, Museum of New Mexico

It’s hard to know where to start because the roots of this incredible story originate all around the world.

That there were Frenchmen here long, long ago will surprise no one. The French arrived not long after the Sioux showed up—fur trappers, hundreds of them, and their dealers, men with largely unpronounceable names like Sioux City’s own founding father, Theophile Brugeiur.

How long ago? Ages. Ben Franklin, the Ben Franklin was 14. George Washington wasn’t even born—and wouldn’t be for a dozen years, Thomas Jefferson for 23. Early, early, early.

Jim Schaap

What’s there today is more of a grave than a memorial. Once upon a time—well, for more than 100 years—an obelisk stood mightily atop that chunk of granite, rose twenty feet into the air above the Missouri River.

But the obelisk is gone. A naked steel bolt reminds you that something once stood there. But then, maybe that’s okay. The issues aren’t mine to determine.

Sweethearts on the Prairie

May 1, 2017

In the barest of outlines, their getting together seems a marriage of convenience. If you stop at the Homestead Monument, you might just think the gravestone up on the hill marks something cold. Pioneers like Daniel Freeman were incapable of expressing their feelings, if they have feelings at all. Isn’t that right?

Besides, old Daniel had to be flat out lonely. The Civil War was finally over and he’s got a place of his own, a homestead, first one anywhere. What he needs is woman.

Wikimedia Commons

  

I’d like to think of them as ours, but they aren’t—not really. Bison will be forever associated with our own Great Plains, but evidence of their roaming has turned up from Florida to Alaska, Maine to Mexico. They don’t “belong” only to those of us who live here.