19 - SOUTH DAKOTA - 1882
In the fall of 1882, Herst Gann, the editor and publisher of the Warren Sentinel, and Amsa Spencer, a farmer of the vicinity, became so convinced of the good opportunities of the country that they went to Kimball, a new town on the Chicago - Milwaukee - St. Paul and Pacific Railroad; about twenty five miles east of the Missouri River, to start this search for claims. They were joyous over the beautifully prairied country, beautiful in rich covering of grasses and almost entirely till-able land. They found the new towns having every evidence of a substantial boom.
At Kimball they consulted with an attorney who was quite attentive to the land seekers. They found that all of the best land within ten or twelve miles of town had been taken up. But that to the northwards, about fifteen or eighteen miles, there was still considerable land for settlement. Fortunately they found a man who was going north and who was quite familiar with that part of the country. He said he could find them a good claim still open for settlement. His name was Henry Forn. He was from Washington, Iowa. His occupation had been bridge builder and carpenter, he also had studied law - so evidently was quite an enterprising fellow. He was now engaged in hauling lumber for one by the name of Waterbury, who later established a town site by that name there.
Here and there a shanty dotted the prairie, but not much evidence of habitation anywhere. On their journey to their destination they passed considerable rolling country, owing to the two large creeks intervening. But everyone there gave ample evidence of a fertile soil and the thick growth of grass. The invigorating atmosphere was one of the very pleasant experiences of the new country.
When they arrived at Sulfur Springs, their hunger was very keen, so they stopped at a settler's shanty where they were served with hot coffee. Mr. Gann said "my but that seemed to be the best coffee that I've ever tasted". Something about the atmosphere induced their hunger in a remarkably short time after a meal. At the direction of Mr. Larsen, we found two quarters adjoining, or at least we thought so, in a very nicely lying upper valley which gently sloped to the southeast towards Crow Creek. Mr. Spencer located a claim also for me, about a mile and a half southeast, toward Crow Creek. As soon as this was done they returned to Mitchell where the land office was located, fifty miles east of Kimball, where they filed "Soldier's Declarations". They were delighted with the new country and were enthusiastic of the prospect of returning to Dakota the following spring. They gave such an encouraging description of the country, and of the claims they had taken, that I was quite ready to enter into a plan with Mr. Gann, to take a car together, to move in the early spring.
Mr. Gann paid for and occupied one half of the car. We took enough lumber for our shanty's, three horses, a lumber wagon, a breaking plow, and a supply of provisions - and also grain and hay to last for a month or so. We also took a young friend with us who went to get a claim. We left our wives and children until at least we should have a habitation prepared.
We tried to sell our home in Warren which is worth about a thousand dollars, but it was utterly impossible for us to sell it at any price. Our town had suffered by a parallel railroad which had recently come through that part of the country, and of course it had towns located every few miles, and these towns took away much of the trade that had formerly come to Warren. So we did the next best thing - borrowed all the money we could on it with which to begin a life anew, so to speak.
Our journey to Dakota consumed about five and one half days. The only incident worthy of mention while on the way - the conductor was suspicious of us of having someone else and our two selves being in the car. And he became so very offensive in his language, that I warned against making an investigation of the contents of the car, to the extent of searching it for other passengers. But of course he did not heed my warning and proceeded to enter the car. Ol' Bruno - our faithful old dog, half Mastiff, and the other part English Bull, sprang upon him while I was prepared to resist his further entrance into the car - armed with a "Mississippi toothpick". I was very thankful that the dog prevented him from coming nearer to me, where it might had of been a bad affair for both of us. We were told that he was very abusive to all the immigrants who come under his charge, if they resented his domineering attitude. I reported him at the first stop. A telegram was sent to headquarters, and he was soon taken off that division.
When we arrived in Kimball we found that there was no place in town that could accommodate us with lodging, so we slept in the car for a couple of nights until it was unloaded. We piled the goods beside the railroad. There was a great deal of immigrant goods stored in that fashion which was mostly covered with canvas cloth. There were some of the immigrants who remained in tents beside the railroad until as late as June, waiting for an opportunity to jump a claim.
The weather was just beautiful when we first arrived; the Meadowlarks singing joyously in their robust fashion. It was indeed joyful to hear their happy song. And the glorious fresh air came sweeping over the wide, wide, prairie, waving the grass which still remained upright, having withstood the snows of the winter. The stock of the grass was so very stiff and strong, that it remained erect long after it was dead. The creeks and lick beds were full to overflowing of water made by the excessive, heavy snows of the two previous winters. Dakota has been described by Geographers as being in the semi-arid belt, but we concluded that they were very far wrong in their information.
Kimball presented a very busy scene - new houses going up by the dozens and scores of immigrants coming every day, and everyone seemed to be full of enthusiasm for the new country. The fourth day after arriving there we started for our claims, which were nearly a days journey distance, for those hauling big loads over the south prairie roads. But before going I met a tall, awkward, loose-jointed asthmatic, who had come to the country for the sake of his health. It did not take him long to see that I was likewise afflicted - he stopped me by impertinently exclaiming "wheeze damn you! wheeze!". The stranger's greeting at first nettled me, but when I saw that his suffering from the disease was as great as mine, we had a great deal of fun over it.
The road was good considering that it was nothing more than a few wagon tracks over the grassy prairie. We had no particular trouble until we arrived at Crow Creek, which was one of the largest creeks I had ever seen. As we reached the brow of the hill, overlooking the valley, the scene was very pretty. The valley was about a half mile in width, and we see could see for miles up and down it, from a northeast to southwest. On both sides of the valley were pretty little hills, gravel-ly, but well covered with a thick growth of curly buffalo grass and nigger wool. The dead grass at this season was a grayish brown.
The main channel of the creek was about forty feet wide, but at that time the water extended across the valley, but not at all deep. Day was nearly ended as we arrived there, so we immediately began preparations for supper and lodging. We were all very hungry, so we got out our best provisions to enjoy for the evening meal. The atmosphere was charmingly invigorating. The wind blew a stiff breeze, and the sky had the appearance of change of weather coming, but the birds filled the air with happiest of songs and chirping.
I thought it necessary to be careful how I slept, so got a mattress out and had a most refreshing sleep. The others had no desire for more than the blankets and quilts, to lay on the thick carpet of grass. I had to always be extremely careful to avoid lying or sitting upon the ground, since the asthma had afflicted so badly. The next morning we were awakened by the beautiful song of the happiest of birds - the meadowlark. After a hearty breakfast we were soon busy at work upon a raft to get across the creek with. The others were quite discouraged at the difficulty confronting us. But my suggestion of making a pheasant raft solved the problem quite satisfactorily. We made the raft of the lumber that Kimball had donated for a bridge here - three loads of which had arrived about midnight after we did.
By one o'clock we had crossed the creek and were safely on our road of the last three mile stretch of our journey, and we proceeded nicely until to got to Agumbo Flat. Here we had a strenuous time in getting through the tough and sticky soil. We put up the tent upon Gann's claim, and this was the only habitation in that part of the country just then. The land had been mostly taken up, but we were the first to commence residence in that locality.
There were shark lawyers in Kimball, who found claims for newcomers, for which service they charged from fifty to two hundred dollars. One man in our neighborhood later paid two hundred dollars for information to secure a tree claim. One rascal, who made this a business, put three persons on one claim. When found out, it became exceedingly dangerous for him - he was shot at twice, in one day, by his victims. I guess there were about as many grafters in the territory in 1883 as there are today - at least it seemed so out in Dakota Territory. Of course there were many of the pretending settlers who were unscrupulous in their operations too.
Our first night at holding down the claim will long be remembered by us. The wind blew a gale and we were awakened by the tent being blown over our heads and the pelting of rain on our faces. The first thing I heard was - "Uncle Mike! our tent's gone!". It was Gann, sitting up in bed, while the cold rain pelted him furiously in the face. The darkness was absolute until a flash of lightening lighted up the scene. We were much relieved to see that our tent, all piled up in a heap, and lying a short distance away from where we had retired for the night. We were soaked to the skin in a very few moments. We soon had the lantern lighted, and staked the tent down, and also we laid scantling upon the guy ropes to try and make things more secure. As the prairie was lighted up by the occasional flash of lightning, we could see that the locality was covered with a sheet of water. The rain turned to snow before morning as it often does in the early spring storms. So when we arose in the morning the prairie was white with snow, but the meadowlark was singing merrily as before. What an inspiration that sweet bird is, as it pours its soul out to the world, on the prairies of the west.
We had planned to go to Kimball for a load of goods the following morning, so I arose early, got astride a horse, and rode to the creek, three miles distance, to see whether we would be able to cross it. We were of the opinion that the higher water might have taken away our raft, but it was safe. So we went to Kimball for a load of our goods, which were not very secure from the rain. The following day we returned, with all the horses could pull over the south prairie. We had two passengers, and their trunks, also in our load. They were there to take up claims, and one of them was there mostly for his health - he appeared quite consumptive. They were both nice appearing boys. At Crow Creek we overtook a settler who was located in the place where they were going. He slept on our premises, the boys slept in our tent. They paid us three dollars for their transportation. The consumptive became very sick and his father came from the East to take him home to die. The other boy stayed and later became Postmaster, which was named in his honor.
We immediately started to build Gann's house which was really a superior habitation for holding down a claim. It's dimensions were sixteen by 24 feet, and ten foot studding. This made room for three beds besides the living room. Our boss carpenter was a settler from the Crow Creek valley by the name of John Oats. He had been a former coach builder in Aurora Illinois before coming to Dakota for a home and free land. So we got the house built in a decent fashion. The weather was very cold and wet that spring which inconvenienced us considerable in building for awhile.
The Indians had burned the prairie off the fall previously to destroy the surveyor's landmarks. They were adverse to the white's coming into this midst to spoil their happy hunting grounds, so there was no dead grass to mar the beautiful green of the new grass. The whole country was very pretty. All over the prairie were countless holes, beside little heaps of dirt, which were made by squirrels, and larger ones - by badgers, prairie dogs and coyotes, and they were much more plainly seen on the burnt over sod.
In the early part of May we built my claim shanty which required about two days work. My first real farming operations were in breaking six acres for Gann and assisting to plant it to potatoes and other vegetables. As the weather warmed up, the prairie became a beautiful dark green, mingled with millions of delicate little prairie flowers. The rain fell in abundance. Wild duck, geese, cranes, and snipes migrating to the northward, swarmed over the lakes and creeks in the millions, making a very merry and animated scene. And the ever present meadowlark poured his happy song out to the world in a most inspiring way.
In planting the potatoes we dropped them right in the bottom of the furrow, and covered the seed by the sod, turned over upon it by the next furrow, which turned over like a great long ribbon - so stiff was the virgin sod. Many of the early settlers were skeptical of raising potatoes by planting in that fashion, but we were all surprised when harvest time came. I expected continually to have a spell of asthma by being wet as often as I was, but most surprising to all, I gained in strength steadily and coughed very little. The fact was the climate was surely saving my life, so I rejoiced exceedingly. Life was surely taking on a new life for me, and I would fail to try and describe the charm of the invigorating spring mornings. Thousands of birds swarmed through the air while the prairie chickens boomed and cackled, and the wild duck quacked while there wings whistled as they circled around over us in the change of their feeding waters. The wildness, but yet the splendid peace of the new scene, we can never forget - it is all splendid to remember.
By this time there were many claim shanty's dotting the prairie in every direction. Some were quite substantial, others just all that the law required to hold the claim. Some were sod and there were a few dug-outs. About six miles to the south was a family of about fifteen, when they all arrived from England. The father told us that there had been twenty one children, but not all living then. He and his brother were expert hunters, so had located their claims upon a creek and lake, that is, beside these bodies of water so that they would be very convenient to the ducks.
Nearly every nation in Europe was represented by the new settlers and they appeared of a class who would make good citizens. Also, nearly every state east, and as far south as the Ohio River was sending immigrants to this promising land. Everything indicated that the country would soon be developed into a rich farming country. Nearly all who visited the land were enthusiastic in their high estimation of it.
Everything was proceeding happily until the tenth day of July - the day always to be remembered by us that settled on that little spot, of that vast prairie. The day was exceedingly hot, and I had just finished hoeing a field that had been sown in turnips, and returned to the house. Tying the horses to the wagon, I went to the house, and been there only a few minutes when our attention was attracted to an unusual sight in the sky.
To the northwest, a few miles distance, three clouds descended to the earth in the form of a tail, and appeared to dance around for a few moments, when instantly they came together. Then darkness came as the tornado descended upon us with terrible swiftness. We realized that we were very likely to be hit by it so Gann hurriedly put his wife and daughter upon the bed and threw a mattress over them. His presence of mind, and quickness of action, was surely remarkable. Those people whom they took with them from Warren, quickly assisted me in trying to hold the door while Gann held the mattress down over his wife and daughter.
The furious wind turned the house partly around, and turned the horses and wagon over and over, rolling them for several rods. The girls said, when the house began to twist, "my god we're's gonna be blowed away, we're gone!" She said afterwards, "the first thing I thought of was - what will poor Mrs. Hileman do?".
The wind was followed by two very large hail storms. The storm had all passed beyond us in a very short time, but we could hear the roar of it until it was gone many miles away. We of course expected that the horses were killed, and the wagon destroyed, but the fact is there was very little damage done to them. We thought at first that the tornado was going to miss my shanty, but it turned from its general direction, onward, and demolished my shanty completely, as though purposely done.
The next place it hit was Mr. Slade's home, less than a half mile farther on. Here it turned the house completely upside down. As soon as we saw this we got the team to the wagon as quickly as possible, and galloped the horses as fast as we could urge them, to be of possible help to the inmates of the home. We found only the upper floor right-side-up, and upon it lay Mrs. Slade, with a cook stove upon her limb. She was unconscious, her ankle was dislocated with a foot turned back upon her limb - the tendons were broken. As we beheld this distressing scene, their daughter, Stella, crawled out from the house, and she was also badly injured - her breast bone being broken.
There was a doctor in the Minnesota settlement across the creek valley, about two miles distance we understood - a Doctor Bigelow, so we sent a messenger for him. When the messenger returned we were most distressingly disappointed to find that he had gone away somewhere, so as I was the only one of us present who had any experience in assisting a surgeon, they insisted that I should proceed to try it - to set the foot. No matter how much it pained me to do this duty, I did not let my sensitiveness interfere with applying what little knowledge and experience I had, to the relief of this unfortunate woman. She remained unconscious until after her foot was set - then her anguish was pitiful to behold.
We never heard of further damage of the storm, until it struck a town in Minnesota, where it did great damage. It was undoubtedly the same tornado.
My shanty was entirely taken away, but least, there was not enough left to kindle a fire, where it had stood. We found my mattress down in the creek valley a mile away. The filling was ground away, and mixed with sand and mud so much so, that four men could not lift it into the wagon. As strange as it may seem, we found all of the bedding except one sheet. Later I found a board while plowing, of the shanty, that was driven into the hard-pan better than it could have been done with a sledge hammer. On account of the injury to Mrs. Slade, and her daughter, the storm left us feeling very badly. They would probably never get entirely over their experience, even though they would be entirely well of there injuries, and as time went on we were very sad to see that the unfortunate mother was made a nervous wreck by the awful storm. Every time there was a least sign of a storm, she paced the floor in her fear, that was pitiful.
One of the amusing incidents of the time, of the storm, was Gann rushing out with a dishpan over his head to protect it from the large hailstones which were falling, as soon as the wind had passed us. He had no fear of the later developments, which might come of the storm, he was in anxious search of his boy who had gone to the creek to fish, about three miles distance. But he had gone about a quarter of mile when he met Hersty, looking somewhat worst-for-wear, for the fight with the storm. He was soaked to the skin and covered also with mud. Upon his father asking what he did when the storm struck him? he said, "well papa, I just laid down and held onto the grass with both hands and cried a little, and laughed a little, and swore a little - but it didn't hurt me none". His papa was half laughing and half crying when his little ten year old boy told him how he had fought with the young tornado.
It seemed rather remarkable to us that we had lived in a country so long that had a reputation for cyclones, and had come to this new territory, that was supposed to be nearly free of such terrible storms, to be treated to a taste of a real tornado so very soon.
The atmosphere was simply delightful after a storm. The brisk northwest breeze clearing off the clouds while the air was just cool enough to be invigorating - and the birds singing and chirping everywhere. The meadowlarks, plovers, and blackbirds being especially numerous. The blackbirds being very close companions while we were at work in the fields, and the prairie squirrels were ever whistling around us.
They would follow us up closely in the furrow, they were always on the alert, while they munched on the Indian turnips which were cut in two by the breaking plow. And no wonder at the squirrels selecting them for food, for they were very good tasting root to a human being. The Indians were very fond of them. The kind they especially liked was much larger than that plowed up mostly. It was much larger and harder - the skin being very tough and hard, and it grew much deeper so that the breaking plow would seldom would cut through the body of it. This turnip constitute quite a part of the Indians food at this time. They were quite expert at digging them with long sharpened poles made for the purpose.
The visits of the Indians were quite a lively part of our experience of that summer. They came from the Crow Creek Reservation, about four miles West of us. They came in quite large parties generally, and camped near the creek or a lake usually. They were well supplied with shotguns and ammunition. We expected to see some marvelous shooting done by them in their hunting of the wild ducks, but to tell the truth, in this we were disappointed. In fact we amused on different occasions to witness their unsportsman like shooting. We had much fun in trading with them. They were especially anxious to trade for coffee, sugar, and bread and butter. And often they displayed very poor judgment in valuing the articles of trade.
We were quite amused upon visiting a camping party - they were cooking their meal of wild fowl. They eliminated much work by just cooking the fowl without it being drawn, and also the eggs were boiled in the soup. When we indicated to them that the inwards of the fowl might make them sick, they were very much surprised to think that they didn't know that the bad all went up in the "puff" - indicating that it all went up in the steam. Well, you're too near our dinnertime for us to safely watch their proceedings very long. Oh yes, and they had a turtle in with the fowl and the eggs, boiling in the pot.
Well, we marveled at the way that things grew. In a very short time the potatoes were up through that tough sod and were nearly a perfect stem - and how did they grow. We had always been proud of Illinois for its fertility, but we thought that Dakota surely had the Illinois State beaten for growing things. And the grass was a joy to be hold. The horses kept in fine condition, with much less grain than necessary with the team grasses, or the hay, of the east.
No Matter how hot the day, the night was nearly always cool enough to require a blanket for comfort in sleeping. None of those good corn nights to keep a person tossing and chasing about the house, to try to find a place where a good breath of air might be found. Invariably there was a delicious breeze pushing through the grass. Oh what a blessing it was to me, those refreshing nights sleep. So often in Illinois I had to sit in bed, or in the chair, in order to breathe. Now my asthma had almost entirely left me.
We were very happy to see the country filling with settlers so fast - and it all seemed so hospitable and obliging. It seemed to us that Dakota was going to have a population of choice people. When our six months of residence had expired, Gann commuted, and proved up on his land. His war service was not long enough to help him much in shortening his time of residence on his claim. He was anxious to get back to his work on the newspaper, so he preferred to pay a dollar and a quarter, per acre, to the government and discontinue their residence after six months had expired - the required time.
Spencer deeded forty acres of his land to the County, and Gann gave his house for a courthouse to establish the County seat there. We then expected, that in the near future, a good town was to occupy most of these two-quarter sections of nicely laying land. Gann was especially hopeful of some capitalists of Chicago investing in business enterprises here. Men whom he was well acquainted with, and had given him much encouragement by their schemes to that end. So when fall came, Gann and the family went back to Warren. Spencer decided to stay and keep house in bachelor-hood style. I remained and was busy at backsetting or plowing for a settler a mile and a half to the southwest of us. The fall weather was perfectly beautiful and so invigorating. It permitted us of plowing to late as nearly holiday time, and I was then ready to go back to Warren again to stay until about the first of April.
I well remember one night, early in the fall, which I had a rather amusing and exciting experience. I had shot the fine mallards, and had hung them up on the outside of the shanty to keep cool until morning. I was suddenly awakened by a bang against the shanty. At first I could not imagine what in the world was taking place, for when the sound of the clawing on the wall was made real to me, I realized that the coyotes were after my game. It didn't require long for me to get dressed enough to see my visitor - and I greeted him with a load of buckshot. I did not try to keep the pelt, but sold it in Kimball for a small amount.
I was not troubled any further with coyotes coming near the shanty, though their yelping in the dead of the night, in the distance, intensified the loneliness of the place. The yelping of two of these animals made a racket that one would declare could only be made by a dozen of them. Sometimes they would answer each other when they were perhaps two or three miles apart. It was most remarkable the way the sound carried over the prairie. A cow bellowing, or even a horse neighing, were heard were plainly on a clam night, at a distance of a couple of miles. And even people speaking in quite ordinary tones, as spoken out-of-doors, could be distinctly heard as far as a mile.
Not long before Christmas I sold my three horses to Mr. Glen, a coal miner, who had left his work in the mines near Springfield Illinois when a strike was on - not believing in that system of righting wrongs imposed on them by the employer. He settled on a homestead towards the northern part of the County. He was a very fine man, the kind that every new county needs. He was too good a man to be kept under the dark under ground as a digger of coal. I made a profit of over a hundred dollars, on the three horses and wagon. And he was as well satisfied - the outfit was just what he needed.
The potato crop was so phenomenal that I felt induced to fill up the spare room in my trunk with some of the choice ones. And also a turnip that weighed sixteen pounds. The potatoes weighed over two pounds each. Gann was Postmaster at Warren, and he kept these samples of Dakota's produce in the window for several weeks. These potatoes were perfectly solid and as mealy as one ever saw. The turnip was also perfectly solid. As well might be expected, these vegetables were to receive much attention from all who saw them. We had never seen anything like them produced in Illinois.
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