© Copyright 2015 by Judith Nakken
I left the pheasant capital of the world without seeing one. I didn’t hear a meadowlark, either, one of the items on my bucket list, although I slept five nights at Aggie’s. Her splendid old farmhouse is several miles southwest of Iroquois, South Dakota, now population 266, and would be surrounded by pheasants and meadowlarks, were there any.
I did experience 100 degree heat with 80% humidity (we had only dry heat when I was a girl there on the prairie) and one of Dakota’s knock-down, drag-out thunderstorms. Two rain days abated the heat so that Sunday and Monday, the last days in the state, were reasonably cool.
Other experiences were a mixture of joy and sadness, reminding me of the chorus of a Pentecostal hymn I’ve been hearing in recent months. Aggie’s home, for instance – upgraded to accommodate the five kids she and Frankie had – is the house where I spent my wedding night on August 27, 1952. We had a giggle remembering how the guys caught a chicken and young bride Agnes cooked it not-quite-done for our wedding supper.
As we toured the countryside together we remarked often about the old homesteads that were being allowed to fall into rack and ruin. We passed section after section of green farmland with corn knee high to a brontosaurus’ eye, short sunflowers, alfalfa and the occasional brilliant gold of recently-combined grain, vistas unbroken by signs of habitation. “Only the Red Beards and the farming co-ops are working the land now,” I was told, “and they have no use for the old homesteads.”
‘The Red Beards,’ I remembered, were not the folks from the Hutterite colony near Iroquois, although those folks also wore plain clothes and males grew beards after marrying. The early Mennonite settlers in the Dakotas gained the nickname due to their men’s practice of also growing beards after marrying, many of them auburn. In the 50’s it was often remarked that they could grow crops on land where “regular farmers” failed. I didn’t comment on the probable political incorrectness since I, the Martian Schoolgirl, was again in a foreign land.
Mennonites, I was informed, were the only inhabitants of Osceola now. That was pretty much the case when I was overjoyed to see it occupied in Year 2000, compared to the desolation I had seen in 1975. So that was no surprise.
I “did” De Smet, the Kingsbury county seat, with Agnes and Helen, another Iroquois high school chum, on Thursday. Cruised the Laura Ingalls Wilder home, gave an interview about Confessions of a Martian Schoolgirl and photo to the De Smet News, and wept unabashedly at the Harvey Dunn original paintings in De Smet’s nice library. I even told Mary, the librarian who lives in Bancroft (“population now about eleven,” she said,) about my plan to hijack one of those paintings in my early, more larcenous days. (I nearly wrote the story, “The Great Harvey Dunn Raid,” for my book Stream and Light: A Woman’s Journey, but thought better of it at the last minute. Perhaps another day, when the statute of limitations has expired on the lusting in my heart after a Harvey Dunn painting.)
After a Friday interview at Huron’s Daily Plainsman, I had not much luck at its big library – a really outstanding Carnegie replacement in a city of only 12,592. But Roger Larsen, the Plainsman reporter, said he’d get Martian Schoolgirl into that library when I sent him a copy. My radio interview didn’t happen, either. Bummer. The day ended in happiness, however, for Helen had a get-together in Iroquois for half a dozen women who remembered me. We talked and hugged and stuffed our faces, reminisced again and ate some more, for five full hours.
Aggie wanted to accompany me on my planned solitary Saturday, August 15th, and I became grateful she was with me at the Iroquois cemetery. Armed with clippers, trowels, broom, water and scrub rags, we cleaned up the graves. Great-Grandfather Christian lies in front of a huge monument shouting “Hanson” to the world (he eliminated the Danish “e” from his name when he encountered prejudice from Norwegian and Swedish immigrants already proving up their claims.) Great-Uncle Art isn’t there and I don’t know why. There is a marker for Great-Uncle Charl who died in his house fire in 1950, and for his sister, Christine, who died in 1905 at age 24, and whose bible came to me at an auction in California a half century later. Great-Grandmother Elise, that crusty old gal who died in 1947, isn’t there in front of the borrowed-name stone. “Leave those Cooper books to that little girl with glasses who always has her nose in a book,” she told someone on her deathbed, and a couple dozen gilt and leather J. Fenimore volumes came to me. Her marker is tucked away at the back of the Hanson stone, and spells out her name with the Danish “e.” I giggled. They could not take her proper surname from her, even in the graveyard.
Further down the winding cemetery lane lay The Grandfather and Grandma Zilpha beneath a single stone headed “Hansen.” I lingered there even after the cleanup work was done, because I knew who lay beneath a white marble veteran’s marker under the next tree. Finally, I left Agnes and went there alone.
Unbeknownst, I came to clean the Wicked Stepfather’s grave on the 61st anniversary of his death at age 61. A wisp of hatred lingered only a moment, then dissipated on the South Dakota wind.
No signs marked the Osceola turnoff and I ended up in silent Bancroft. An obliging young farmer on the road told us we were a mile away. Disappointment reigned within me as we cruised its three streets. The refurbished Great Northern depot, a major player in my Stream and Light story, “Osceola,” and which could have stood for another hundred years, was gone from Odom’s field. The dirt house had disappeared in only these 15 years and where it stood was a large, rambling building that looked like a nursing home. The Grandfather’s little house, so alive with a young family when I was last there, was peeling puke green paint and abandoned. Tears gushed as I stood outside the north window where I howled at the northern lights nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
Finally, The Grandfather’s sturdy brick store building, burnt out before my last visit, seemed to be a thriving repair shop, while across the side street where Ed Currier used to carry water to his gardens in months like this was the school. “Sunny Plains Christian School,” it proclaimed to every eye. I didn’t see a post office, so I can only hope my fear is unfounded. The name “Osceola” was not to be seen anywhere. Were the Mennonite settlers who had resurrected my once-abandoned village now changing its name?
The bright day had turned to figurative gloom as I drove the expensive rental car back to the county line and turned north. On the right hand side of the first section (a mile square) only a fallen hog house and the dry, tree-lined hole of its duck pond remained of Aunt Evelyn’s farm. Across the road, asphalt now instead of gravel, the eye could not tell that Aunt Loie’s spread ever existed. Sad, slowly I approached the end of that mile where I would turn left to Aunt Helen’s farm, the Derscheid’s massive home place. I didn’t want to go any further, but pulled myself up by my bootstraps and began the couple miles drive to the Derscheid location.
A big, bright white house stood at what I was sure was the right spot, a small, old, red barn below. A miniature green lawn was ablaze with marigolds and zinnias, as welcoming as the two little girls in ankle-length print dresses who burst through the south door. “Is your mama home?” I asked.
She was on the heels of the girls, followed by a little towhead boy not yet three. A pretty girl in her early twenties, her long print dress was as bright as her eyes. “I thought I was in the right area,” I began, “but maybe not. Is this the old Derscheid home place, remodeled?”
“Not really remodeled,” she answered. “But I think it was Gross’s. At least, that’s who we bought it from. Do you want to come in and look?”
Marilee had locked herself out of the parlor door and we went to the other end of the house. Inside the kitchen door I stood and wept again, sweet, cleansing tears. A real bathroom was in the little room on the right instead of Helen’s hand-filled, clawfoot bathtub. The other big rooms were all modernized, but this was Auntie’s bridal home.
My hostess was not taken aback by my tears. “Would you like to see upstairs?” she asked as we stood in the middle room where Uncle Marvin doused Auntie with a bucket of water nearly seventy years ago.
I didn’t need to go above. Spirits soaring again, we returned to the noontime sunshine just as a huge green tractor came huffing to a stop in the wide driveway. The little boy ran to his daddy and was enfolded in strong arms. The young farmer’s smile was as brilliant as his beard.
The hymn continued to haunt me all the way home, especially the last two lines of its chorus:
There may be pain in the night,
but Joy comes in the morning.
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