Prairie

Harvey Dunn

Not so long ago I stumbled on the little book by a man who lived in a place where people haven’t and likely shouldn’t even try to live. It’s a memoir. Don’t look for it in bookstores. You won’t find it. Homesteading in the South Dakota Badlands, 1912, "The Last Best West," a tiny little book of deeply lodged memories put to paper by a man named Ernest G. Boermann—it’s his story.

Ron Knight / Wikimedia Commons

Okay, maybe this isn’t about Christmas, but Christmas is the season for sweetness, so I’m hoping you’ll let me tell a story that fits, even if it’s set so many years earlier in a land that seems ever so far away.

There’s a baby in it. It’s short a manger and a posse of shepherds; but I can’t help thinking this little story is related.

There must be a thousand stories like this—more, in fact, stories about shady first impressions suddenly turned to gold. Here goes.

Big Bluestem

Jul 27, 2020
Paul Chelstad

Big Bluestem.

 

Used to be, there were far more of them than there are of us. Tall and spindly, it grew up every 

summer from a thick bundle of shorter stuff at its base, like a grass skirt, a thicket that a host of critters thought of as home. Spindly and thin up top, Big Bluestem, the tallest of our native grasses, gets tossed around so mightily by gusty winds that not even a goldfinch can hold on. But the skinny stem doesn't break, it just waves, waves away, waves beautifully, waves like an inland sea. 

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. 

Thomas Tran / National Resources Conservation Service

Hattie says that just before her mother got married, she’d left the farm to start working in a grocery in Springfield, SD, where some young men “seemed suddenly to have a greater hunger for candy and cigars.” One of those young men would become Hattie’s father, who, she says, in all candor, “had need of a girl like this." 

A century ago, when a man got to a certain age, and he came to know he’d better get somebody to help with chores--a man needed to get a wife like he needed to get a haircut. 

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.

Summer is finally here and Siouxland Public Media took “The Exchange” live to the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center on June 21, 2019.

Guest host Sheila Brummer was joined by experts on the environment, conservation and wildlife. 

Education program director at the Nature Center, Dawn Snyder, shared details on the offerings at the facility this summer.  She also talked about the year-round programs available to the public.   

Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region [Public domain]

Sunday, October 15, we went to church. The wind was then blowing wildly, but this became worse further along in the day. When we got out of church, we saw smoke in the distance, because the prairie was on fire. 

 

It is November, 1871, and Harmen Jan te Selle, a homesteader from Lancaster County, Nebraska, is writing home to the old country from a sod house amid grasslands he his family back home could never have imagined, an immense, roiling sea of grass.

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.

You got to love Carry A. Nation, a woman who listened when the Lord God almighty told her to uphold the law in Kansas and bring to an glorious end the miserable indecency of those who pedaled booze in utter disregard of the law.

US Bureau of Land Management

You have to hunt to find it, but here and there along the way you’ll find stone markers, set down a century ago to memorialize a highway that for a couple of rowdy decades swept through the land not so far away, on its way to nothing less than the promise of the good life. It’s the Oregon Trail.

The first white folks to "do" the trail were the Whitmans, a couple of newlywed missionaries bound for eastern Washington. It was 1836. Mrs. Whitman's letters home were a marvel when they were published out east, sparking a romance for the west in hearts and minds all over this nation.

Duncan, Patricia D. / Wikimedia Commons

It took me 31 years of Iowa living to take my first steps on real native prairie, the kind my great-grandparents must have set upon when they arrived in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. Thirty-one years. Seems like a lifetime.

But then, real native prairie goes at a premium in this corner of the state. You can stumble on a few sloped patches of original grasses along the bluffs of the Big Sioux River, but for decades already the land has been drawn-and-quartered by the endless row crops of a gigantic garden. 

Good Samaritans on the Prairie

Aug 23, 2017
Wikimedia Commons

Okay, at least the man in the ditch in the famous New Testament parable, put upon by robbers, says the gospel of Luke, wasn't alone. What passed along the road above as he lay there was hardly a freeway, but at least there were passers-by, even if neither of the first two paid him the time of day in his suffering.

But the third one helped the guy out and up. What I'm saying is, at least the poor guy in the ditch wasn't alone.

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.

In 1875, the year before the Battle at Little Bighorn, a 30-year-old single woman named Mary C. Collins, who’d been living in eastern Iowa, accepted an appointment as a missionary/teacher on the Great Sioux Reservation of the Dakota territories.

You might have missed a Mormon monument not all that far from here, just down the road from Niobrara, Nebraska. It’s easy to pass by.

In the middle years of the 19th century, the Poncas were here, the Santees were here, even some Pawnees--and occasional Sioux bands never far away. That meant cavalry and agents and suppliers and draymen, not to mention swells of dreamers when anyone out west claimed to find gold in them thar’ hills. Simply said, there were more people coming and going.