KWIT

James C. Schaap

Contributor

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa. 

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There's very little to see now but row after row after row of foundations, a procession of rectangles angling down a long slope toward where there once stood a front gate. If you get there in June, the whole expanse will be awash in wildflowers, a bright yellow smiley face on a place you can’t help but grimace to remember.

Go up the gentle hill west of LeMars sometime. Take a right when you get up the rise, and you'll find an abandoned place with an old house square enough to be a dorm. 

Once upon a time, it was.

Up there, you could well be on top of the world. East, the Floyd River snakes around the city of LeMars, which was far smaller back in 1880 when Captain Reynolds Moreton built the place where you're standing, a place he called Dromore Farm, named after a castle in Scotland. In his day that house was twice as big, but it’s still lordly, although silent now, abandoned. 

James Schaap

The only means of getting man and woman, beast and wagon across the rain-swollen Niobrara was by rope, hand over hand. Dozens of oxen and as many as 500 horses had to get to the other side, as did 523 Ponca men, women, and children. 

And the rain wouldn't stop. All those wagons were disassembled and shouldered through and over the raging Niobrara. It took a day to recover, yet another rainy day.

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We’ve taken that razor-straight county road east and west often enough to have stopped, but never did. Last week, with time to kill, I pulled off where a bleached sign announced a historical marker with the headline Fort Brule.

When Sven Johnson, his wife and two children, left their native Norway, they spent the next eight weeks crossing the choleric Atlantic in a sailboat. Impossible to imagine.

A brother lived here in this new land, 100 miles from a place called Omaha, where that brother promised to meet Sven and his family, and did, although a couple days later than he'd said. If the Johnsons worried for a couple of homeless days, Sven doesn't mention it in his pioneer memoir.

The story goes that a man named John H. MacColl suffered mountain fever after coming west to Nebraska for, of all things, his health. Wasn't just a setback either; inside of a day or two MacColl was unable to move from the waist down.

Somehow, he made it to Fort McPherson, forty miles away, to visit the post surgeon, who, after a long visit and checkup, simply told Mr. MacColl that there was nothing he could do. 

When he was a kid, his father was killed when a rifle somehow discharged. A bloody fight for leadership ensued between him and his brother, and Little Crow was wounded in both wrists, scarring his arms so badly he kept them covered for his entire life. But he became the leader of the band of Dakota into which he was born. 

They were all wooden-shoe clad. I’m told klompen are wonderful insulators and they had to be because that morning the temperature was --22, if you can believe the stories, which is risky.

Snow quilted everything, and there was no road, nothing really but experience to guide those sleighs all from Orange City west to Calliope, 23 miles in insufferable cold. It was January 22, 1872.

Jeanne Reynal

A January thaw is what all of us look forward to right now, a breath of warmth that reopens our hope that someday soon April will return. Two cold-of-winter days, maybe three, of forty degrees. No wind.

Heaven comes to Siouxland.

That’s the relief people felt early on January 12, 1888, when most of those who’d put down homesteads had just arrived.

Here’s how David Laskin describes that morning:

James Schaap

The sign out front claims a well-kept church up on a hill north of Flandreau is "The Oldest Continuously Used Church in South Dakota" (all caps because it is, for sure, a title worth coveting). That means it's been "First Presbyterian" for 137 years, "River Bend Church" when it was established along the Big Sioux River long, long ago. The name change came later.

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