Law and Order in South Dakota
From the east came a low rumbling. Thunder. Flares of lightning bolted across the sky. The thunder grew louder. A sprinkle of rain began. We were thankful we'd spread our blankets under the shelter of a bandstand in the campground of a little South Dakota town.
As we watched the storm, marveling at the play of lightning and enjoying to the utmost the comfort of our shelter, a car drove into the grounds. A man climbed out and felt his way around in a hasty survey of the wet camp. Ours was the only shelter. Win hailed him and he approached.
"We've got a tent but can't put it up tonight," he said.
"You're welcome to share the bandstand with us," was Win's response. Piling in with mattresses, pillows and blankets, the Davies family introduced themselves. I lit a match and in its unsteady glow saw that there was a woman and two pretty daughters. The man, we learned, was a cousin.
Next day was "get acquainted" time. I do not hesitate to say we were greatly pleased when Mrs. Davies suggested we spend the day with them in camp. A good share of the morning was occupied in making fudge, Win assuming supreme command of the job. The girls praised him for his skills. Throughout the day we relaxed in the friendly atmosphere of the campground, playing games and sharing experiences with the Davies girls.
At the end of our trip we made a count of the names in our notebook and discovered we had met nearly 200 young ladies of approximately our age—give or take a few years. We took the names and addresses of almost every one and, with about fifty of them, established real friendships. While still on the trip, or after returning home, we began correspondence with a couple of dozen of the girls we'd met. With some of them we kept writing for a long time. Both Win and I had cherished girl friends back home, classmates and companions we'd grown up with. But what is travel for, if not to see new sights, visit new places, meet new people, make new friends? Girl friends included. On our trip something happened which I would not have imagined, and would not even have guessed at the time. One of the girls we were to meet on this thirteen month odyssey—one of the 200—would later become my wife, in a marriage which is now nearing its sixtieth year, with each year better than the last. For me this would be the greatest bonus of our journey of discovery.
One of the "cherished girl friends back home" was Vera. Win and I had our individual friends but Vera was more like a sister to both of us. Throughout our 48 state hike we wrote to her frequently, often describing events that did not make it into our diary. After our journey was over, she was good enough to return all those "roadside" or "campground" letters. They have helped us greatly in establishing the authentic background of our adventures.
After meeting the Davies family Win arose early to begin writing a letter.
"It is now 5:00 A.M. but already camp is beginning to stir and soon the tourists will come around and bother me with their talk which in reality I love to hear. Do you know, Vera, that one gets a comradeship and companionship in these camps that is impossible to describe...A lady just came up to me and said, 'My golly boy, haven't you finished that letter yet?' You see, it's taking me quite a while...A man just now came up and he said, 'For heaven's sake, you still writing?' ...The friends one meets in these camps are real friends."
South Dakota marked the beginning of the harvest fields and here we began asking for work, but without success. It was in this region, also—in the small burg of Bristol—that I was arrested. We were shoestringing our way through town. Charged with success, and unheedful, I walked into a dimly lighted little office on a back street and stated my business. There was no response.
"Something you'll always use." Still no reply. I began to get fidgety and looked up into two sharp, stern eyes set in a sour face. It was the village judge.
"Boy, where's your license to peddle shoestrings?"
"Well, to tell the truth, I don't have one," I confessed. "Now, if you'll help me out by buying a pair of..."
"I suppose you are aware that you have to have a license." He didn't even give me time to finish my sentence.
Actually, I hadn't been aware of this. I told him so. "But won't you buy a pair anyway?" I doggedly continued.
"Boy, I've got to fine you for selling shoestrings in this town without a license."
I certainly couldn't have been thinking about what I was saying, for I continued my sales pitch and held the strings up for inspection. "These are for working shoes and I've got the oxfords here too, either kind for ten cents. They're twenty-seven inches long. Of course the big ones are regular length."
The judge hesitated. Could it be that I was winning? But no, he began again.
"I told you I was going to fine you. And I'm going to do it, do you understand?" He leaned forward and took a pair of the heavy laces, then reached into his pockets. "Now I'll tell you what. I've got just eight cents here," he continued. "I'll give you that. for a pair, and fine you the other two cents. And don't let me catch you here again."
I bolted out of the door. Hunting up Win I breathlessly recounted my experience. He remained silent a second. "Well, anyway," he said, "you cleaned up five cents profit on the deal."
Making our way out of town we continued inquiring for work in the harvest.
Aberdeen, South Dakota, the metropolis of this prairie state, was overflowing with 2,000 strangers, all waiting for the harvest to open. Every street corner was crowded with idle men. Each freight train brought in more. And the harvest was two weeks off! After checking with the county agricultural agent for job possibilities, with no success, we walked out of town to try our luck elsewhere.
A car shot by, the driver threw up both hands, gave a shout and brought his machine to a standstill to give us a lift. It was not a regular automobile; it was an engine on four wheels. Originally it had probably been a Ford. There was just the chassis, on which were attached an engine, a flimsy red body, some headlights, and a place to sit. Just half of a windshield, no top, no fenders. These had been traded in for gas.
The driver, a fellow of about twenty-one, wealthy in experience but otherwise uneducated, was as mixed a personality as one could choose to meet.
There was room in the seat for me, but I had to crouch down backwards to keep the wind from driving my eyes out. The driver had some goggles. Win straddled the back of the flimsy body like a roughrider straddling a steer, and clung onto a piece of iron which happened to be bolted to the body of the car. Luckily there was an extra pair of goggles for him. They had broken strings but my brother needed only to adjust them to his eyes and look straight forward. The force of the wind did the rest. That car traveled!
For hours we sped northward. The country was changing rapidly. The Sunshine Highway which our driver was following turned into a natural trail of dirt which stretched mile after mile over the unbroken plain. One time we missed the trail and struck off over the open prairie until it appeared again. From horizon to horizon, nothing, not even a tree.
The sunset that evening was a picture set in a frame as wide as the sky. Long after the ball of fire had slipped behind the distant hills, the glow lit up the clouds on the western horizon. Toward the east it was dark, and gradually the darkness grew. We crossed the line into North Dakota, our 8th state. The fellow was going to drive all night, and right along the route we had planned to take. He wanted us to accompany him.
At 9:30 P.M. our strange vehicle rattled up to a pumping station in the little village of Edgeley, North Dakota. A man came out to supply our needs.
"Do you want a job?" he asked. "Fellow out here in the country told me to pick him up some help if I could. Haying and harvesting rye."
Win and I exchanged glances. "We'll take it."
He phoned Harris Alfred, got an agreement that our wages would be $3.00 a day, each, and gave us directions.
"Now, boys, you keep on in this red buggy for ten miles to a corner," and he described the place, "and Alfred will meet you there. He lives four miles east of that corner."
Whipping around a sharp turn in the road outside of town the car tilted on two wheels. Win, after eighty-five miles in his cramped position, was weary and had relaxed his hold. He slipped and was about to fall. But he caught himself and regained a solid hold.
At the corner ten miles out we dismounted and thanked our friend. Pulling down the throttle he shot the red devil into the night. We started walking in the direction of the Alfred Ranch.
Soon lights appeared ahead and a car approached. It was our boss. Even though it would be rye and hay instead of wheat, we had hit the harvest.
The Alfred place was not a "farm," such as Michigan has. This spread was a North Dakota "ranch." A thousand acres planted to wheat, rye, and hay. There were horses, cattle, turkeys, pigs, and more chickens than a person could count. How one man took care of it all was more than I could figure out. There was only one man, perhaps. But there was also his sister Nanny. Though charming and sweet-voiced, she did a man's work in the fields, driving the cultivator, the binder, the hay rake.
In harvest season, such as now, there were also two or three hired hands—when they could be found. Later we learned that our new boss had just fired a couple of lazy workers who didn't know a pitchfork from a buggy whip.
Harris Alfred was a pleasant young fellow of English descent who had come from Tennessee. His speech, like his sister's, retained the mellow southern accent.
It was Mrs. Alfred who really supplied the answer to the question, "How can Harris Alfred keep up such a ranch?" He could not have done it without such a woman. She was busy early and late. Work, work, work. But that was not all of it. As Shakespeare said of his lady love, "Ann Hath-a-way." And so had Mrs. Alfred. She had just the things we liked best to eat. On hot days she made lemonade. In the evenings she would play the piano and we would forget the hard day's work.
The first day Win raked a twenty-five acre hay field by himself while I worked in the rye and later brought in a load of hay. We quit work at 7:00 P.M. but it was after 9:00 before the chores were finished. A sixteen-hour day takes it out of a fellow. Win and I were dog-tired so went to bed immediately after taking a spongeless sponge bath.
On my third day of haying I began to feel strange. It was hot and I'd consumed gallons of water. The ranch was supplied only with alkali water; it made me sick. I was up on the stack when a peculiar sensation overcame me. I got down on terra firma, shut my eyes and lowered my head. When I raised my head and opened my eyes there was a bountiful meal spread out before me—my breakfast.
The haying continued. It's a job for two men, and Alfred helped out when he wasn't driving the horses. Our bodies ached by nightfall. Unused muscles had been called upon. We stacked fifteen tons the next day.
After supper, when all chores had been completed, I walked to the mailbox, stopping once to sit by the roadside with miles of horizon in all directions. Off toward the east, cast in the shadows of twilight, I let my imagination wander over the scenes back home.
Win and I had worked for several summers on the Frank Andersen farm near Howell. Without that experience we might have had even a harder time adjusting to these sixteen-hour days in our new job. Frank Andersen had taught us to harness and bridle a horse, drive a balky team, how to plow and cultivate, rake hay, shock wheat, and shuck corn. On that farm, our muscles had grown used to hard labor. In that experience, Win had started the summer farm work one year before I did, and had learned to milk. By the time I started, Frank Andersen had an automatic milking machine. I never learned the art of milking a cow by hand. And it is an art.
Bringing my thoughts back to the Alfred ranch, I looked toward the west and contemplated the year to come. There was a single star in the western sky and I called it mine. Upon returning to the house, I played the phonograph and let all my thoughts and musings blend with the strains of soft music. I had worked hard and was tired; I had earned "Just a Song at Twilight."
At 5:00 A.M. the boss's call rang out. The weather had changed; it was cooler. Also, the work had changed. "We'll be in the rye today," announced Harris.
"Good," came Win's reply. "That'll give us something new." Just how new we were soon to find out. How we ever got through that first day in the rye is beyond me. We both located coveralls in place of our heavy hiking trousers, so stayed much cooler. But our whole bodies were soon covered with red swellings caused by the poisoning jabs of the rye beards.
The prairies surrounding the ranch were full of animal life. Of prime interest were the jackrabbits. Especially to the ranch dog, Jeff. The rabbits grew almost as large as dogs and when Jeff started chasing them they would travel like a race car, ducking their long ears when they passed through a fence. Jeff never caught one although he would sometimes run right over the jack. The prairie chickens were almost as numerous. A family of skunks walked up to the house one evening. Badgers crept in and killed some chickens and a wolf killed one of the turkeys not ten rods from the house.
Jeff was a wonderful stock dog. If Alfred wanted the horses brought up he told Jeff to get them. If it was the cows, Jeff knew enough not to run them. If a pig or chicken got out, it was Jeff who put it back. He watched the children and guarded the house. In fact our boss claimed he was as good as a hired man. He loved to ride in a car and could almost drive!
Our parents planted the seeds for our year-long 48 state odyssey. They had made the initial suggestion. They encouraged us to go and refrained from worry. For these reasons, we could not blame them for doing something we would rather they had not done. They'd never been to Yellowstone Park and wanted to pick us up along the way and tour the park together. Win and I wanted to be completely on our own, but cheerfully agreed to their plan. With an exchange of letters we arranged for them to pick us up at the Alfred Ranch.
One evening, just at chore time, they arrived. According to the agreement with Alfred one more work day remained. Win and I pitched in harder than ever. Our mother helped Mrs. Alfred with the washing and kitchen duties. Our father went into Edgeley to cash Harris Alfred's check for our wages. We turned that money over to our father, to send back home, where it would swell our "college fund" bank account. After chores we rye shockers took baths in water that approached the temperature of ice. At dawn next morning, with our folks, we headed toward Yellowstone.
- Category: Foot By Foot Through the USA
- Written by Grace McKay
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