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Dirty Thirties and the Black Blizzards

Updated on August 11, 2009

A Dark Day in Dakota

The Aftermath of a Black Blizzard
The Aftermath of a Black Blizzard

It Made the Dirty Thirties Dirty

It required the soul of a Viking to endure a life in the Dakotas during the late 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. It was no time for wimps and this was no land for the timid. Those who chose to settle these grassy plains faced some of the most challenging conditions known to man and had to exhibit a toughness of heroic proportion just to earn a chance at survival.

The more realistic knew the prospect of prosperity was only a pipedream and the best they might hope for would be a few seasons of comfortable living amidst years where starvation was a distinct possibility. Despite this, there was never a lack of people willing to brave the odds. They came from faraway lands where they faced a future even more grim. It was easier to accept the potential of failure when they had nothing to lose.

The stories of how these unique souls adapted to a place most would find uninhabitable is fascinating. Families who grew up in this environment developed a level of character few outside their little world could understand. A deep respect for God, a reliance on others who shared their condition and a work ethic second to none were the building blocks of their society. Their ability to adapt and find happiness even in the worst of times is inspirational and tales of their courage in the face of hardship would fill volumes. This story, however, will focus on a single important segment of life for the residents of this inhospitable country. By exploring the role of high school and college sports in pre-1960 South Dakota, the essence of the Dakotan emerges and a bigger picture is revealed.

This story follows a few great men and their quest for excellence at a time of national economic challenge and worldwide conflict. Through their involvement in sports, they helped their communities maintain a positive spirit at a time when it was sorely needed. Sports provided a distraction from the reality of these harsh times and the fans appreciated how the high school programs gave them something special. It represented one of the few entertainment options in town before the spread of movie theatres and television, and any fan fortunate enough to afford a ticket to the game savored the experience like a wonderful meal. To understand the impact of high school sports on the community requires an examination of the conditions that molded the residents and made the game into something bigger than life. It all begins when the first wave of settlement reached South Dakota.

The Dakotas

In the mid-to-late 1800s, the harsh terrain of what is now South Dakota had been wrested from the Indian tribes by a strong and prideful group of Scandinavians, Czechs, Irishmen and Germans just stubborn enough to endure the pain imposed daily by their environment. In the summer, temperatures could soar to more than 110-degrees Fahrenheit, and in the winter, the prudent citizen would move the brass monkeys inside to prevent freezing their little metal balls off. Ambient air temperature could plunge to 40-degrees below zero and the stiff wind would make it feel much worse.

The storms from both weather extremes were epic and truly a challenge to existence. The number of days per year considered life threatening due to blizzards, tornadoes, monstrous thunderstorms, floods, or extreme cold counted in the dozens. Even a “normal” day involved a constant and unrelenting wind. An old joke went something like this: “It was so windy in South Dakota that one day the wind quit, and everyone tipped over.” Even the nicest days had their challenge as the abundance of insects native to the plains made the great outdoors a place of major blood loss. In the midst of a wet year, the sky would appear almost smoggy with the millions of mosquitoes, flies, and moths hovering above the ground. At night, any light source intended to illuminate the way for humans was eclipsed by the swarm and what little light escaped appeared to dance and undulate against the walls of the houses and barns as if it too were alive.

In the Dakotas, weather found other ways to show displeasure with the human race. A lightning strike on the prairie could cause one of the most dangerous conditions known to the early settlers. If the lightning ignited the tall grass, it would quickly grow into a sea of fire traveling in a line in front of the wind. Unsuspecting residents would rarely have enough time to react to the oncoming flames due to the strength of the wind, and the fire would often move faster than a human being could run. The fire line would extend out as far as the eye could see and would only stop if it ran out of fuel or encountered a natural barrier that prevented further spread. To make it worse, the ever-present tumbleweeds once ignited and pushed by the wind ahead of the fire line could intensify the danger and spread the flames over a much larger range.

In the days before roads or tillage, there were few barriers to contain the line. As a result, conscientious pioneers would situate themselves near a pond or natural firebreak to allow a prairie fire to burn past them without taking lives. They had to rely on their sense of smell to provide early warning and even a faint aroma of smoke would signal a need for urgent action to get the family and livestock to the predetermined shelter. On one of the many windy days, the gap in time between the first detection of smoke and the burn-over of a homestead was surprisingly short. Slow reaction meant certain death as a sod house was ill equipped to handle the flames and could become an earthen oven if the intense flames lingered.

Those tough enough to survive the perils delivered on a storm-by-storm basis later learned they had not seen the worst Mother Nature could toss their way. In the 1930s the residents faced not only the Great Depression but also one of the longest droughts in recorded history as the “Dirty Thirties” began. It was not the first major drought experienced by South Dakota as history tells of terrible dry periods in the 1880s and 1890s, but for a number of reasons, this particular drought had the most severe consequences.

This decade is infamous for its impact on the farm economy, and those dependent on agriculture for a living came to understand the meaning of a “Dust Bowl.” Life on the grasslands meant very few trees, and without a natural windbreak, a drought could lead to major damage to the farmland. The loss of moisture combined with an unrestricted wind caused the tilled topsoil to become airborne and would literally blow a farm away. Acting like a sandstorm from the SaharaDesert, when the wind increased, the land became indistinguishable from the sky. The dust cloud would tower thousands of feet into the air, making it hard to breath and impossible to grow crops. Because of the so-called Black Blizzards, the dirt was everywhere, except where it was supposed to be, and dishes, clothes, food and the air itself felt gritty. The dust was so oppressive it caused the death of many elderly or extremely young residents who ingested it into their lungs and suffered a new malady called “dust pneumonia.[1]” This malady was so prevalent it inspired the song “Dust Pneumonia Blues” by Woodie Guthrie in 1938. The world of the Dakotan in the 1930s lacked color and everything seemed covered in gray. If miserable had a face, a windy day during the Dust Bowl would be its visage.

Pestilence, Famine, War and Death

Those religiously inclined must have felt the four horsemen of the apocalypse were upon them when, at the height of the drought and resulting famine, the grasshoppers came calling. Farm communities struggling to survive had hopes their personal gardens might sustain them even if the crops failed. The arrival of the insects was a huge blow, and to battle the swarm, the families would assign their kids the task of shooing the insects away from the vegetables. Hour after hour, they would bring their arsenal of towels, shovels, brooms, rakes or any other weapon at hand to clear the deck of these ravenous little beasts, but as soon as they had swept the patch, the insects attacked again. The grownups did all they could to abate the problem and found they could gain a tiny bit of control using a combination of bran, banana oil and arsenic or some other derivative of poisoned food[2]. It was a horrible condition and many lacked the financial resources to battle the bugs.

The State of South Dakota lost more than 50,000 of its residents during this period. Most gave up and opted for a new start somewhere else. When World War II began in the 1940s, the prophecy seemed fulfilled as it seemed the fourth horseman had arrived. As a result, those clinging to religion must have felt a real need to make their peace with God.

It Was Not Just Bad Luck

In reality, the problem of the “Dust Bowl” was manmade. The lack of crop rotation and deep plowing of the grasslands were the real culprits. Prior to the settlers and their gift of farm implements, the grasslands never felt the impact of a plow. For thousands of years, the arid grassy plains found ecological harmony. The grass would go dormant during the dry times and flourish during the wet. The huge herds of buffalo roaming the plains would provide adequate fertilizer to nourish the grass that sustained them. The Native Americans were able to make a living by hunting and consuming the buffalo as their primary food source. The buffalo were also the primary source for shelter and clothing. The Indians totally consumed the animals they killed, including their hooves and bones. The concept of waste was unknown to the Indians of the Great Plains as it never was an option.

The White Plague

The disruption of the environmental stability began with the arrival of the white man. The expansion of the railroads required huge crews of men, and due to their availability and nutritional value, the buffalo became a staple to feed these workers. Later, the demand for buffalo hides for leather production and as a fashion item caused the level of hunting to increase dramatically. The leather companies paid between $1 and $3 per hide in the 1870s[3], and with the US economy suffering after the Civil War, this represented some very good money to the professional buffalo hunter. In the early 1800s, the buffalo herds numbered as many as 60,000,000 animals. The massive slaughter began as early as 1872 when, that year alone, more than a million animals died. By 1884, the herds faced complete extinction. By 1897, the total number of bison remaining in the United States declined to less than 100 animals.

The Perfect Weapon:

The development of the “perfect” buffalo rifle gave the hunter an insurmountable advantage and enhanced the slaughter. In 1848, Christian Sharps patented his famous gun and started production via the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. The company opened in 1851 and had a 30-year production run.[4] The nearly four-foot long Sharps rifle utilizing .52-caliber ammunition with a 475-grain projectile and a 50-grain cartridge would propel a bullet downrange at a speed of 1200 feet per second. This gave the hunters an effective range of 500 yards, which allowed lethal force from a safe distance. This feature was very important, as a wounded buffalo was as dangerous as any bear or cougar; they were fast, aggressive and known for their surly dispositions. Those hunters who employed a lesser rifle might put themselves in range of a wounded buffalo and suffer a possible trampling by the large beast with sharp horns. It was very clear why the Indian tribes would only hunt buffalo while atop a horse as at least they had a means to escape the charge.

The Sharps rifle enjoyed a rate of fire of 8 to 10 rounds per minute and an industrious buffalo hunter might kill dozens of buffalo in a day. After 1870, the hunters would tend to just skin the beasts and leave the carcass on the prairie to rot in the sun. With the ability for one hunter to kill at an unbelievable pace and with the large number of hunters seeking their fortune, it appeared the buffalo was bound for extinction. The actual demise was a sad tale told far too many times but its impact on the Dirty Thirties was profound. In an ironic turn, the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo actually resulted in a secondary industry for those who descended from the buffalo hunters as they struggled to make a living in the early 1900s. Scientists of the day discovered the huge accumulation of buffalo bones left on the prairie would be a great resource to assist in the refinement of sugar. The bone piles were loaded in rail cars and shipped back east for this purpose. It resulted in a small income for the bone collectors and tidied up the prairie[5].

The buffalo hunters served the interests of the United States Government. By over-hunting the bison in the name of profit, the perpetrators were actually supporting the government’s agenda by taking away the food source for the Indians and making it impossible for the tribes to remain in their nomadic state. The government had responsibility to keep settlers safe on the prairie, and when the tribes spread out in search of the buffalo, it increased the number of troops needed for protection. At a time when the federal government could ill afford more troops, the cost to benefit ratio of security on the plains was very high. With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in the 1870s, the situation just got worse. The Indians felt angry at the intervention on their land and the prospectors were just too darn gold-struck to use any common sense. Many settlers died as a result and the “Indian problem” became a big agenda item for the War Department. The Battle of the Little Big Horn was just one of the skirmishes in this long action but it put a face on the problem and resulted in more resources being committed to the resolution.


The government knew the buffalo represented the reason the Indians remained nomadic and that the promotion of hunting would reduce this resource, resulting in a more controllable situation. By taking away the tribe’s food source and bringing military resources to bear against those who resisted, the government forced the tribes onto reservation land. Ultimately, after some very dangerous times in the Dakotas, the tribes became dependents of the state and what had been their traditional tribal land was now safe for settlement. When the security of the white man was assured, the pioneers who were interested in farming came west in droves. The population of the land representing what is now South Dakota, grew from an estimated 12,000 in 1870 to 402,000 by 1900[6]. True to the government’s plan, The Indian way of life died along with the buffalo herds and a more sedentary dynamic rose up on the Great Plains.

New Norway:

Events in Europe had huge impact in shaping the Dakotas. A major factor affecting population growth was economic turmoil experienced in Germany, Russia, Norway, Sweden and other Scandinavian and Slavic Countries. To illustrate this point, examination of problems faced in the country of Norway provides insight into the conditions that caused the population of the Dakotas to grow. In the mid-1800s, the population of Norway had expanded to such an extent it became difficult for the young to find a path in life. The country could no longer support this growth and was running out of resources. About two-thirds of the citizens of Norway still depended on farming or fishing for a living. This meant a boy born in Norway had no alternative but to do what his father and grandfather had done. Most were the sons of peasants, and unless they were the oldest male child, they were not going to inherit a farm or a fishing boat when Papa passed on. The problem boiled down to overcrowding as the demand for farmland well exceeded supply, which resulted in a huge unemployment rate.

Rather than lament their situation, these descendants of the Vikings rediscovered their wanderlust and spread out to find their fortunes in a new land. News of a place where land was free and fertile spread to the farmers of Norway. The American Midwest seemed the perfect solution to the problem of overcrowding and the most adventurous began their journey to this new land. As the initial groups established their homesteads, they sent communications to their family and friends describing their good fortune and encouraging them to follow their example. The problem was that it was not a cheap passage to the new world, and few had resources to pay the fare. Over time and because of the sheer number of folks looking to travel, it became easier for the shipping companies to reduce the price. A one-way passage fare actually dropped as low as $18 during the height of the immigration boom.

The SS Misery

The trip from Norway to the United States was far from a pleasure cruise and more often resembled the journey taken by slave ships earlier in the 19th Century. For the price of a cheap ticket, the immigrant could expect a filthy berth, crowded conditions, poor sanitary facilities, and awful food. It would take up to eight weeks to make the passage and sense of relief at reaching the east coast of the United States was overwhelming.

Once the immigrants arrived in the new world, the struggle was not over; in fact, the hardest part was just beginning. The language barrier was the next major hurdle. The immigrants knew the trip to the Dakota Territory required that they accumulate everything they needed to homestead after they arrived in the United States. It meant finding supplies, purchasing livestock, negotiating prices, getting directions and arranging travel. To handle these logistics was difficult enough as an English-speaking person, but for one who spoke no English, it was an adventure in pantomime. As more of the Norwegians arrived in the new world, they helped blaze the path for those who followed. In time, the new Dakotans were able to provide guidance and support for the late arrivals and the journey became easier.

When this immigration boom finally ran its course, nearly three-quarters of a million former residents of Norway made their way to the USA and most settled in the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. This particular group of immigrants was accustomed to weather extremes and having been farmers in Norway, they knew how to deal with a short growing season. If any group of people on earth had a chance to make a living on the prairie, it was the Scandinavians.

Black Gold

The newest residents of the Great Plains left Europe with just enough money to make passage to their new home. They heard stories of riches in this faraway place, which gave them incentive to brave the unknown. Many did find riches but not in the form most bound for the Dakotas envisioned. While the gold prospectors were seeking a precious metal, the pioneers were looking for something much different. The gold they sought was dark and rich and came in the form of a thick Houdek loam[7] soil, superior to any soil available in Europe. In this soil they knew they could grow corn, wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, squash, turnips, beets, carrots, onions, and other commodities they might consume or preserve for the future.

Potential was the name of the game and the settlers saw potential everywhere. They knew this land held potential to produce crops in such abundance they would have a surplus to sell to others and create cash income. The concept of a cash crop was a quantum leap from farming for personal survival. It made enduring the amazingly harsh environment more palatable when they had the potential for prosperity. To encourage the pioneers even more, it appeared land not suitable for farming was still exceptional for raising livestock. They realized it would be possible to add cattle and sheep to the mix, and they could raise chickens for meat and eggs, hogs to eat or sell and cows to milk and provide fresh nutrition and cheese for the family.

It was true the economic potential was the best these optimistic souls had experienced in their lifetime. The hard truth was the conversion of potential to reality represented a very difficult proposition and many who tried ultimately failed.

Pioneer Pick-Up Truck

As the farmers claimed their land and staked their homesteads, they had to figure out how to protect themselves and their families from the elements. Building shelter was not as simple as cutting down trees. This was the prairie after all and it meant grasslands, not forests, and this lack of a fundamental building material caused the settlers to construct dwellings from whatever they could find in a reasonable proximity to their land. Unless they managed to transport lumber to their new home, the choice of building materials was very limited, and most settled on using the very sod covering their land as the building material for their new home.

Most made their journey to the Dakotas in a Conestoga wagon with a canvas tarp cover to keep the rain and snow off their family and possessions. The wagon contained everything a pioneer family owned and everything they would need to establish a new life in a difficult land. They had to assume the cross-country trek was a one-way journey, and once they entered the frontier, they would have to make do with whatever was contained in the wagon or acquired from nature. These amazing people faced an immense amount of danger and as their Viking ancestors had done, subjected themselves to a level of risk other cultures would run from. In the name of adventure and with hopes of a better life, these hearty souls went eagerly into the unknown.

The Survival List:

To help understand the difficulty of the journey and the toughness of those who survived to become Dakotans, it is important to visualize what it took to reach their destination. The logistics facing a family seeking its fortune in the west were daunting. Proper planning and making good decisions often represented the difference between life and death while any error in judgment resulted in dire consequences. The following represents a list of basic items needed for the journey to the flatlands. Inside the wagon, the settlers would cram everything they needed. Survival items trumped comfort items but most of the pioneers would load up as much as they could, the limiting factor being the amount of weight their team of animals could pull. Those who misjudged the strength of the oxen had to leave beloved personal items along the trail. If they did not lighten the load, they risked the death of their team and a premature end to their journey. Facing the choice between going forward to their destination or keeping the family piano, settlers chose to move forward. It was a sad situation to leave the heirlooms on the side of the path but it was the only solution. It was an eerie sight for many to come upon a veritable treasure trove of personal belongings along the well-worn trails to the Northern Plains. All items that were discarded from the wagons of hopeful settlers who experienced a choice between a new life and a family heirloom.

A conscientious settler intent on a safe journey had to bring blankets, feather beds, ground clothes, pillows, tent poles, stakes, and ropes to avoid exposure. For hunting and protection, they needed a rifle, pistol, knife, hatchet, gunpowder, lead, bullet mold, powder horn, bullet pouch, and holster. Man could not live by wild game alone and to sustain themselves when game was scarce and until the farm became productive, the pioneers carried flour, bacon, coffee, baking soda, cornmeal, hardtack, dried beans, dried beef, dried fruit, molasses, vinegar, pepper, eggs, salt, sugar, rice and tea. The common theme here was a long shelf life for these staples.

Since food required preparation, the kitchen came with them. In the wagon, you would likely find a Dutch oven, kettle, skillet, reflector oven, coffee grinder, coffee pot, teapot, butcher knife, ladle, tin tableware, water keg, and matches. If there were an emergency, they would need supplies to deal with it. The wagon was their mobile clinic and contained items for any contingency. As a result, they carried surgical instruments, liniments, bandages, campstool, chamber pot, washbowl, lanterns, candle molds, tallow, spyglasses, scissors, needles, pins, and thread. Durable and practical clothes were mandatory and the well-dressed Dakotan-to-be simply had to have woolsack coats, rubber coats, cotton dresses, wool pantaloons, buckskin pants, duck trousers, cotton shirts, flannel shirts, cotton socks, brogans, boots, felt hats, Palm-leaf sun hats, green goggles, and sunbonnets.

The pioneers, being so far from their ancestral homes, had a need to surround the family with familiar comforts. The luxuries typical for the plainsman might include canned foods, plant cuttings, schoolbooks, musical instruments, dolls, family albums, jewelry, china, silverware, fine linens, iron stoves and furniture. The earliest settlers had to purchase tools for farming back east and carry these to the Dakotas. A conscientious farmer-to-be would bring a set of augers, gimlet, ax, hammer, hoe, plow, shovel, spade, whetstone, oxbows, axels, kingbolts, linchpins, ox shoes, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes and chains.

It became very difficult to judge how much to carry in the wagon. The combination of wagon weight with the number of oxen needed to pull the wagon turned out to be a ratio hard to calculate. The oxen proved amazingly strong and required reasonably low maintenance, but not knowing the conditions they would have to endure or the impact on the health of their beasts of burden placed the farmer at a disadvantage. Farmers would bring with them as many oxen as they could afford and many would bring up to four to pull the wagon and to help establish the farming operation. Once the settlers arrived at the homestead, the animals became the power source for pulling the plow and tilling the soil. The oxen were typically cheaper than mules and were well-suited to survive on the available grass found along the way. Horses were rarely a part of the livestock pool for the earliest settlers, and with the exception of the Indians, it was years before the horse became a practical addition to the homesteader’s life.

The Tough Truth:

Considering all the items contained in this small vessel, the truth of the Conestoga wagon becomes clear. With dimensions of not more than ten feet in length, three and a half feet wide, and sides of less than thirty-six inches, it was just not physically possible to carry the weight of the necessities and still have room for the family. The family was forced to walk, which further illustrates the toughness of these hearty folks as many trudged as far as 2000 miles before putting down roots.

The trip to the Dakotas got easier over time. As the late 1880s and 1890s arrived, the settlers changed their mode of transportation to renting space in a train car headed to the Dakotas. In this car, they could load their belongings, including livestock and building materials. This made a settler’s journey much easier, and as the railroad companies continued to push more and more rail lines into the more remote areas, transportation became less a problem.

Home on the Range:

After securing their homestead and gathering the necessary resources, the time to begin construction of the new home became a main concern. If winter arrived before the shelter was completed, a very dangerous situation could develop. Therefore, the first priority for the new arrivals involved getting a roof over everyone’s head.

The Sioux Indians had found the teepee to be a practical solution as it allowed an interior fire to keep them warm and the design allowed smoke to rise up and vent out the top without a separate chimney. It set up quite easily, and when the tribe moved, it would fold down into a manageable shape and be used as a travois behind the animals or be pulled by members of the tribe. This fit the nomadic ways of the Indians, but for a farmer, this was far from adequate. The farmer had the advantage of possessing a specific patch of land and found much greater benefit from a permanent structure. Most settlers had already expended their precious capital by the time they arrived at the homestead. This meant they could not buy wood even if it were available. The three most common dwellings chosen by the settlers were frame shanties, dugouts, and sod houses as the materials to create them were more abundant and cost little to no money.

Construction of a Sod House was more an art than a science and many variations dotted the prairies. From the Official Nebraska Government Website of the Nebraska State Historical Society, comes a description of the steps needed to build this mansion of mud. From the diary of a young man named Rolf Johnson, a Swedish Immigrant from Illinois,

His description of how the home was ultimately constructed illustrates how shelter could rise from the dirt. "First we broke sod with a breaking plow; this we cut off into bricks which were two feet long, twelve inches wide, and four inches thick; of this we built the walls of the house. In the center of the house is a big crotch; in this and on the end walls rests the ridge pole; next come the rafters, about one and one-half feet apart, which are simply round poles of elm, ash, and cottonwood with the bark on. On top of this is a layer of willows; on top of them a thin layer of sod, and over all about six inches of dirt. We have a cellar and board floor though it is something unusual in a sod house. The house is sixteen by twenty-one feet inside and the walls are two feet thick. On the west side is a door and half a window, on the east a half window, and on the south a whole window."

From the website,[8] is another description illustrating an alternate design and process. Again, it shows how a little bit of dirt can make adequate shelter. A sod plow was used to cut the soil into three-foot lengths. Cutting had to be done between mid-May and mid-July so that the sod would not rot. A sod house was about fourteen feet by sixteen feet with walls four feet thick. Slabs of sod weighed about fifty pounds and were laid in a staggered pattern like bricks. The roof was made of crisscrossed poles of cottonwood or willow with a layer of sod on top. A sod house lasted about six years.

Sod houses were cool in summer and warm in winter. The ceiling was covered with cloth or paper to keep the dirt from falling into the soddy. Sod houses were damp, dark and musty. Mice and snakes often tunneled through the walls.

As shown in previous paragraphs, building a house of sod most often involved cutting the material into rectangular “bricks” that were stacked upon each other to form walls. The walls could then have stucco or some form of protective frame installed on the exterior, and canvas or plaster would seal the walls on the interior. The sod structure, the least expensive construction method available, allowed for conventional doors and windows. The thick sod did provide some level of insulation, but when it rained, the home could become very uncomfortable and required constant maintenance. Harvesting sod involved a tricky exercise. The very thick virgin sod required great physical exertion to harvest it into the shape of building blocks. The sod houses tended to be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter; somewhat dirty, attracting vermin and insects; and depending on the weather, a very unpleasant place in which to live.

The building materials became more available over time as the population increased but at a cost that was prohibitive. As the settlers developed more self-sufficiency and produced cash crops, it became easier to acquire the materials needed to construct the wooden dwellings and outbuildings. When a farmer ultimately made the transition to a more substantial wood structure, he utilized the sod dwelling as shelter for his livestock or as a granary to store portions of his harvest. In a land with a shortage of suitable shelter, preserving all available resources made great sense.

Water and Wood

In addition to shelter, the need for potable water and wood and the scarcity of both greatly concerned the settlers. Most would choose to settle near a lake or a small grove of trees, if available. They would seek out a dependable source of water, which might include a surface well, a lake, pond or a river. Later, the technology came via the railroads to dig deeper wells to access a better water source. The windmill is the image that comes to mind for many when they hear the word Dakota. This apparatus became one of the most practical machines ever to grace the grasslands of the Dakotas. It required no fuel, was built to last, and could pump a constant stream of water from well below the surface, making deep-water wells practical.

The deep-water source was artesian water that, by definition, was water under pressure that would flow to the surface once tapped. The railroads would typically drill the first deep wells in a community through which their track was to run. In the 1800s, the steam locomotives required frequent water stops and the wells provided a dependable source for this. At a depth of 300 to 900 feet, the wells would initially have a phenomenal amount of pressure. For instance, the well in Woonsocket, South Dakota, drilled by the railroad in 1888, initially produced 8000 gallons per minute of flow with a water pressure of 153 pounds per square inch[9]. The extreme pressure would cause problems for the unsuspecting, and where there had been a low spot near the well, it now became a lake with a constant feed of this pressurized artesian water. In some communities, it became a real problem, as buildings located near a newly tapped well would end up partially submerged in an ever-expanding pond. The first well drilled in Aberdeen, South Dakota, had such pressure as to send the drill bit, rods, and apparatus straight up into the air, powered by a stream of water flowing at 2500 gallons per minute with 180 pounds of pressure per square inch. It caused a six-inch stream of water to rise into a 60-foot geyser[10]. This nearly drowned the young town and caused Main Street to become a river.

The poor quality of the water in the surface wells, streams, and lakes caused serious illness, resulting in many deaths from consumption of this stagnant water and accounting for a high infant-mortality rate well into the early 1900s. Even the deep artesian wells produced yellow, slimy, smelly water that was cloudy with precipitate. The townsfolk discovered they could pull the precipitate out of solution by adding a pinch of alum to the mix. The water still tasted horribly but at least it was clear.

Nearly as important as food or water was the need for fuel for cooking and heating. For the first arrivals in the Dakotas, an easy fuel source just was not readily available. As the railroads pushed into the area, they brought coal and wood with them but the shipping cost made it too expensive for most. With the shortage of traditional fuel sources, the alternatives were few and the settlers had to make do with whatever they might find. To demonstrate the ingenuity and adaptability of the early residents of the Dakotas, they found a by-product of the buffalo to be helpful as a source of fuel. The prairie remained covered with dried up excrement, otherwise known as the buffalo chip. This resource, once harvested in pie-sized increments, would be stacked near the dwelling for use when needed. It actually had good burning characteristics and was handy in a pinch. It was more likely that the industrious residents of this new land would twist the ample grass into tight bundles and use these for burning. They were easy to light and if properly twisted would burn slowly and keep a fire going for some time.

Once the settlers secured the most fundamental elements of survival, they turned their efforts to the farming operation. The breaking of the sod to prepare the land for crops was a slow and difficult task. A fourteen-inch plow pulled by a team of four oxen could break one to two acres a day. There was no immediate gratification at the start. On some farms, it took several years to break the sod. The first season often provided a very limited crop, and for survival, the farmers would plant a personal garden. Depending on what cuttings and seeds they brought with them, they would grow the variety of vegetables needed for survival, which included the most important and necessary crops of potatoes and corn.

In the beginning, the settlers did not understand that each acre of land they tilled would make the impact on the “Dirty Thirties” much more severe. The first steel plow used to bust the sod would become the first shot fired in an ecological war, which was ultimately lost by the farmers in the next century. Steam and internal-combustion engines supplanted animal power. These technological advances caused the virgin prairie to retreat even more under the mechanized onslaught.

The Tractor Factor

The introduction of the Rumley-Oil Pull tractor to South Dakota was a major shift in farming method. The steam version of the tractor arrived in the 1860s but was more useful for roadwork and timber harvest. The tractor was very large and not practical for tillage. However, in 1892, a man by the name of John Froelich adapted a Van Duzen gasoline engine on a Rumley-Oil Pull chassis. He set up in a grain field in South Dakota, and over a 52-day harvesting period used this to power a threshing machine[11]. It was the first successful adaptation of a gasoline engine to a farming use. The tractor as a means to power threshing machines allowed a farmer to process a larger harvest. It added efficiency to the separation of the chaff from the grain and increased the yield-per-acre harvested.

The development of gasoline-powered tractors changed the dynamics of farming. As they became more affordable, farmers were able to plow more land and bring more crops to the market. Tractor manufacturing companies were established in many parts of the country, and by the early 20th century, a farmer could purchase tractors from manufacturers such as Waterloo Boy, J.I. Case, John Deere, Hart-Parr, Ford, Massey-Ferguson; Oliver, Minneapolis-Moline, Farmall and International Harvester. The tractors made the amount of output from a single worker multiply dramatically. In the earliest times, the farmer would only till a patch sufficient for his or her own consumption. As the farmer’s capacity increased, he would expand operations and till more land. The profit incentive intensified when the railroads arrived in the rural areas and opened up more markets for their grain, promoting even more tillage.

Wrapping It Up

Farming hugely impacted the Dirty Thirties. The plow destroyed the grass and root structure holding the soil in place. As the grass died from this tillage, the farmers took away the natural ability of the land to protect itself from drought and wind. Before the agricultural community realized it was creating a time bomb, the bomb had already exploded.

With the onset of the Great Depression and the intervening “Dust Bowl,” those who had chosen to make a home in the Dakotas faced a return to a survival mode. The absolute devastation of the farm economy forced many families who had pioneered the land into making a decision to stay and fight or leave and hope for a better life somewhere else. Many chose to leave and the exodus left a relatively unpopulated state with even less population. It is not clear if those who stayed were too tough to give up or too stubborn to leave but it was certain they were made of different stuff. By the time World War II arrived, the population of South Dakota represented less than one-half of one percent of the population in the 48 states.

To be a South Dakotan meant an acceptance of the reality that they had to earn their survival each day and nothing was certain except more hardship. Those who stayed bet on their wits that they could deal with whatever came their way. When wits were not enough, they could lean on a strong Christian faith. The special folks who stayed and fought could do so because they were humble and felt no particular sense of entitlement. They had arrived with nothing so a return to nothing was survivable, and they could deal with that prospect. An understanding of this mentality is foundational to understanding the men and women who are subjects of this story.

Family was the priority, and with strong values, spirits remained high. Although they subscribed to Christian beliefs, they actually represented a great example of Darwin’s theory of evolution. They adapted to this land when others could not, and despite enduring one of the harshest environments in North America, they won out in the end. Like the Sioux Indian tribes who had roamed this land for hundreds of years, the prairie dwellers learned a simple life remained all they could expect.

Ultimately, the citizens of South Dakota survived the Dirty Thirties, and with the help of the government, put erosion control resources to work to preserve their farmland and to prevent another Dust Bowl from occurring. The rains ultimately returned and the fortunes of the farmers changed.


The events of the 1930s seemed to stunt any advancements made by South Dakota society for a period of many years. It seemed modern society passed the Dakotas by and the residents of the state seemed a decade removed from the advances enjoyed in more urban areas. The two examples most representative of this point were the fact electricity did not make it to the very rural communities until the 1940s and 1950s and many, until the 1960s, considered indoor plumbing a luxury.

In the years before plumbing became a necessity, the Dakotans had only two choices relative to their disposal of personal waste. To avoid a trip to the outhouse, they would have to use a chamber pot, which allowed them to dispose of their waste at a more convenient time. The problem was the aroma and mess were an unpleasant addition to a house sealed tight to prevent winter from imposing on their comfort. Those who chose the outhouse had to endure discomfort of a different nature. In the summer, the aroma and the flies would border on nasty, and in the winter, the cold and other elements of weather made it downright painful. In fact, to prevent a possible deadly situation in the midst of one of the frequent blizzards that haunted the state, a person would sometimes string a rope between their back door and the door of the privy. It seems an interesting practice for such a short distance; however, those who found themselves snow blind and lost in a raging storm discovered how practical it was. A bad case of frostbite would really convince the Dakotan not to take sense of direction for granted.

When rural electric power arrived in the most remote communities after World War II, the world of the farmer changed. With power and illumination in the barn and other buildings, it extended the workday. When milking machines, milk coolers and electric motors became common, it helped revolutionize the dairy industry. Interior lights and power for refrigeration and heat made the farmer’s personal residence much more comfortable as well.

The End of the Depression

The end of the Great Depression came in phases. In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced a country experiencing the highest level of unemployment in its short history. The inability of the economy to heal itself caused the President to sponsor some radical programs designed to cure the unemployment problems. He created the first of his New Deal initiatives with the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC. When declared unconstitutional in 1935, the Work Projects Administration or WPA replaced it. Both programs provided jobs and income to the unemployed and the millions who participated built many public buildings, dams, and roads. In addition, they operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects and worked to distribute food, clothing, and housing.

The government’s strategy meant using government to create full employment and it resulted in improved infrastructure for the nation. Although it teetered on the brink of pure socialism, it ultimately achieved its objectives. Often times, the projects were neither requested nor needed by those who benefited but most were happy with the result. The programs made it possible for people to earn a small paycheck and money began to flow into the economy. The recovery of self-esteem was a great cure for desperation and getting a paycheck helped the Dakotans cope, although the help received was not the major reason for the recovery.

World War II

The real end of the Depression came because of the actions of Adolf Hitler and The Imperial Japanese Empire. The horrors of war were extreme but the war restored the employment opportunity and put the country back on a track to prosperity. The war changed the dynamics of the economy and suddenly the demand for workers exceeded the supply. Because of the war, an entire generation of young men left the farms and ended up on the battlefields in Europe, Africa, Asia and the South Pacific. It was trading one hell for another but being a soldier meant income, food, and shelter. The jobs they left behind were available for those who were too old, too young, 4F or female. Retooled factories began to produce tanks, ships, trucks, jeeps, aircraft, and munitions. The demand for employees meant anyone who could work would work. Employment suddenly was not an issue and those left behind were able to start clawing their way back. South Dakotans had always worked hard to eke out a living. The concept of “Midwest Work Ethic” was foreign to them, as they had not met anyone who felt entitled to get up after sunrise or quit before sunset. Without a basis of comparison, they were not aware of the disparity.

News Shortage

Many South Dakotans felt a real isolation as the war began. Those born within the borders of the United States did not feel a connection with the problems in Europe but many of the older residents who had grown up in Norway or Germany felt the events deeply. Friends and relatives still lived in Europe, and as Germany became more and more aggressive, it would sometimes pit German-born neighbors against Norwegian-born in a small prairie town. They really felt it when the Nazis invaded Norway, especially if their tie to the old country remained strong.

As the war began, the Dakotans felt an information deficit. They did not have widespread access to the immediate news sources enjoyed in other parts of the country. In the 1940s, with the absence of electricity, the live news and information could only come from battery-powered radios. Because the batteries were expensive, those who owned them turned on the radio only when the evening news came on. Families with some means would listen on a wooden console radio, which, standing three to four feet high, became the furniture centerpiece for the family. The radio became almost communal in small towns, as many families gathered around the set of the fortunate family who possessed one. When the radios first arrived, due to the use of tubes verses the transistors of the future, the set could only be big and bulky and some brands of radio were as expensive as $700 back in the late 1930s.

Most South Dakota families could not afford the early models, but like most innovations demanded by many, the manufacturing community found ways to reduce the cost over time. After the war when electricity arrived in rural South Dakota, a majority of the families could afford at least a used radio. RCA, Philco, General Electric, Montgomery Ward, Sears, and Westinghouse made most of these models. Those built by Zenith, Scott and Atwater-Kent were mainly for the rich as their prices ran higher. With plastic and Bakelite options available in the post-war days, radios became easier for most families to buy.

The Boys Go To War:

As the war progressed, more and more of the residents of South Dakota volunteered or received draft notices. When a family sent one of their own into the armed services, the angst they felt was overwhelming but they understood patriotism and knew the cause was moral and just. Most of the soldiers from the state went willingly. Due to this involvement, the war moved from a distant struggle not affecting their lives to something very personal. This increased the family’s interest in the war dramatically.

The South Dakotans regarded these soldiers as heroes and everyone in the community was proud of them. It became a common practice among the residents of rural South Dakota to put a star in the front window as a tribute to their Father, Brother, or Son serving in the armed services. If reports of the death of a soldier or of a loved one missing in action, or one wounded or captured would filter back to the family, the entire community would band together in support. No one would mourn alone. Newsreels playing before double features at the local theatre provided the patrons with one of the few visual images of the war. Hollywood promoted patriotism in the reels and always included a positive message to encourage those with family overseas. John Wayne was a creature of propaganda as much as a movie actor and he inspired numerous future recruits to join the armed forces based on his heroic portrayals. Everyone wanted to be the Duke and rarely saw the real horrors of war, only the bloodless death of the hero’s best friend at the hands of a cowardly Nazi or a sadistic Japanese guard.

Officially, 1,426 of the soldiers from South Dakota died during the war. There were countless heroic tales to tell but two received Congressional Medals of Honor — a posthumous award for one and the other adorned a future governor[12]. From the Congressional Archives, the heroism of these two brave men inspired young men to enlist in the armed forces for decades after and their stories illustrate what so many of the Dakotans were made of.

“Olson,ArloCitation:: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. On 13 October 1943, when the drive across the VolturnoRiver began, Capt. Olson and his company spearheaded the advance of the regiment through 30 miles of mountainous enemy territory in 13 days. Placing himself at the head of his men, Capt. Olson waded into the chest-deep water of the raging VolturnoRiver, despite point-blank machine-gun fire aimed directly at him made his way to the opposite bank, and threw two hand grenades into the gun position, killing the crew. When an enemy machinegun 150 yards distant opened fire on his company, Capt. Olson advanced upon the position in a slow, deliberate walk. Although 5 German soldiers threw hand grenades at him from a range of 5 yards, Capt. Olson dispatched them all, picked up a machine pistol and continued toward the enemy. Advancing to within 15 yards of the position he shot it out with the foe, killing 9 and seizing the post. Throughout the next 13 days, Capt. Olson led combat patrols, acted as company No. 1 scout, and maintained unbroken contact with the enemy. On 27 October 1943, Capt. Olson conducted a platoon in attack on a strongpoint, crawling to within 25 yards of the enemy and then charging the position. Despite continuous machinegun fire, which barely missed him, Capt. Olson made his way to the gun and killed the crew with his pistol. When the men saw their leader make this desperate attack, they followed him and overran the position. Continuing the advance, Capt. Olson led his company to the next objective at the summit of Monte San Nicola. Although the company to his right was forced to take cover from the furious automatic and small arms fire which was directed upon him and his men with equal intensity, Capt. Olson waved his company into a skirmish line and despite the fire of a machinegun which singled him out as its sole target led the assault which drove the enemy away. While making a reconnaissance for defensive positions, Capt. Olson was fatally wounded. Ignoring his severe pain, this intrepid officer completed his reconnaissance, supervised the location of his men in the best defense positions, refused medical aid until all of his men had been cared for, and died as he was being carried down the mountain.”

“Foss, Jodeph Jacob - Citation: For outstanding heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, at Guadalcanal. Engaging in almost daily combat with the enemy from 9 October to 19 November 1942, Capt. Foss personally shot down 23 Japanese planes and damaged others so severely that their destruction was extremely probable. In addition, during this period, he successfully led a large number of escort missions, skillfully covering reconnaissance, bombing, and photographic planes as well as surface craft. On 15 January 1943, he added 3 more enemy planes to his already brilliant successes for a record of aerial combat achievement unsurpassed in this war. Boldly searching out an approaching enemy force on 25 January, Capt. Foss led his 8 F-4F Marine planes and 4 Army P-38’s into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, intercepted and struck with such force that 4 Japanese fighters were shot down and the bombers were turned back without releasing a single bomb. His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.”

Joe Foss later founded the South Dakota Air National Guard that initially flew the P-51 Mustang. He took good advantage of his fame and was elected Governor of South Dakota and even served as the Commissioner for the American Football League. He remains the face representing the heroic contribution of the South Dakotans during World War II. His name and life-size statue grace the airport in Sioux Falls.

The Battle Against Boredom

Aside from the World War, the residents of the Dakotas fought another war each day — an ongoing battle with severe boredom and isolation. This intangible enemy had haunted the prairie dwellers since they first arrived. For most Dakotans, the newspaper provided the primary source of information and represented the main link to the rest of the world. The available newspapers, local in scope, tended to cover the social issues of the day, including visitors to the area, school lunch menus, church schedules, marriages, births, awards, and police and fire department activities. Publishing an obituary was a big deal and offered the interesting histories of those who had immigrated to the Dakotas. Ironically, for the conservative, humble, and God-fearing Scandinavians, this was often the only written record of their lives. The advertisements and want ads served as the primary source for buying or selling items within the local community, while the listing of commodity prices helped connect the farmer to the markets in Chicago and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

If residents of a small town were intent on getting their picture in the paper, many opportunities existed, especially at the local high school level. The coverage of high school sports and other school activities sold subscriptions and kept the readership interested in its community.

Radio offered a nice addition to the news-starved community but for the reasons noted earlier was mostly unattainable until electricity arrived in the small towns. The introduction of television for the masses and the reduction in cost over time represented a cultural shift for the residents of the state. The small number of residents occupying a large geographical area made for sporadic coverage. Until cable television reached the rural areas, the number of stations received would depend on the size of the antenna on top of the home and the proximity to one of three larger towns with broadcast facilities. The total number of stations never exceeded two in the Aberdeen area, even up to the early 1970s.

The lack of entertainment options proved difficult for the people and probably contributed to the high incidence of alcoholism and teen pregnancy. Cabin fever may not have been a physical malady but it certainly caused some major pain for families who dealt with the consequences of the affliction. 

Stay Tuned For the Next Segment of This Story


[2] and The Past, Present, and Future of Rangeland Grasshopper Management by Kerri M. Skinner,


[4] From, “Sharps Rifle” article,

[5] The Lay of the Land, Mrs. Walter Kepke,


[7] Houdek Loan, found at


[9] July 13, 1906 edition of the Woonsocket Times found at

[10] Early History of Aberdeen, South Dakota 1880-1890 by J.H. McKeever from

[11] from Inventors, “The History of Tractors” by Mary Bellis author



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