- Historic Sites
A Dakota Boyhood
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
Often we would ride all night sitting up, sleeping if possible, so that we would arrive in the morning and have the full day in either Sanborn or Chamberlain, and sometimes in Mason City. There were no dining cars, so the trains stopped for half an hour for meals. The station lunchroom served a breakfast, a huge meal—soup or oyster stew followed by steak or fish, vegetables, and two or three kinds of pie—all in thirty minutes. This generous meal cost thirty-five cents.
Occasionally scientists, or relic seekers—which they were, we never knew —came to our ranch. They would ask whether or not we had noticed any mounds. They appeared very anxious and would investigate any place that we could mention. Usually I was persuaded to ride along and show them where such places were. They would dig up any hillock on the prairie’s surface and were usually disappointed, although near our ranch they did find a few burial mounds.
The graves sometimes had walls of flat stone, with the floor and ceiling constructed in the same way. One that they found was very old, so they said. It was made like a small stockade with wooden poles about four inches thick lining the walls. The ceiling and floor were made with flat stones such as did not exist in the vicinity. The extraordinary thing about the grave was that the poles in the side walls were petrified; they had become solid stone. The grain of the wood was clearly visible. I had found many pieces of petrified wood, but this was decidedly more remarkable than anything I had ever seen. On the floor were many articles— numerous flint arrowheads, pots, and other things. These were gathered along with the petrified poles, put into the wagon, and taken away. The Indian chief must have been a great man to have received such a burial and to have his afterlife so well supplied.
Winter on the prairie usually was intense with high winds and heavy snow. The blizzards were so severe, the snow so thick and blinding, that one could see no more than a few feet, nor could he keep his eyes open long.
At those times it was necessary to hold on to long ropes attached to the house when going to the barns and various cribs for feeding the animals. After a great blizzard the buildings, except our two-story house, were entirely snowed under; the drifts covered the thatches. Steps had to be cut into the snow down to the doors. The packed snow was so hard that it was strong enough to carry the weight of a man. When the sun came out and melted the surface of the snow slightly, it would freeze and form a thick crust, solid enough to support a yoke of oxen drawing a load of hay. During the blizzard herds of ponies or cattle would be left to take care of themselves. We always knew where they could be found. They drifted with the wind and snow and we would find them fifteen or twenty miles away in a direct line with the blizzard.
During one blizzard we spent a terrible night waiting for the return of my grandfather, who had gone to Mitchell to get a doctor for my sister. The doctor came out on his pony but my grandfather had walked. It was early in the evening, and the doctor reached our house just as the blizzard arrived over the prairie. (The doctor was forced to stay with us for two days.) When my grandfather failed to reach the ranch, the night was spent watching and putting candles and lamps in all the windows. It seemed impossible for anyone to live through such a night on the prairie. We knew he had started home because the doctor had passed him just before the snow began to fall. Grandfather told us later that he had stumbled through the blizzard from evening until two o’clock in the morning, when he came to the railroad track some miles west of Mitchell. He knew that he must be west of the town so he followed the tracks east and came into the roundhouse an hour later, more dead than alive. Most of the time he had been trailed by prairie wolves, which he could see dimly. He knew they were waiting for him to fall. He kept them off by shooting at them from time to time. He certainly was strong, as many a younger man might have died in such a blizzard.
After I learned that we were leaving Dakota—which had been a place of wonderful adventure for me—I became very lonely and sad. I dreaded going away, and from my final days on the prairie I have a vivid memory of a spring morning on Firesteel Creek.
A strong desire to go fishing for the last time in my favorite haunt got me up at daybreak. I went to a beautiful turn in the creek where I co-aid usually catch large black-barred perch. I rode there, as I often did, on my little Billy—the last time I ever rode him. The fresh morning air was soft with a scent of earth and water such as comes only in the early spring. It was completely silent—the silence of a primitive prairie. Suddenly above me I heard a breath-taking bird song. Then silence for a long pause, then the song again, repeated at regularly spaced intervals—always the same limpid melody. The beauty of its sound, intensified possibly by my lonely feelings, raised the hair on the back of my neck and ran chills down my spine. It left such an impression that ever since I have listened for that particular song and have heard it occasionally during the years. Now, strangely enough, for the past few springs I have been thrilled by the song near my studio in the country—the same haunting melody. An ageless continuity of tiny creatures singing the same God-given song, always the same perfect notes and beautiful variations, known only to its kind. From what far time, no one knows, nor to what distant end.