Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: A Sunday Drive
Sunday afternoon drives in the Fall have been a habit of mine for many years. There is something about the inevitability of winter’s onset that makes me want to capture an autumn afternoon, to hang on to the last few moments of perfect South Dakota weather. I usually return home after such a drive content. That didn’t happen when my drive took me down memory lane.
Patti and I leisurely drove east on highway 34, enjoying the river view, ending up at the West Bend campground. My thought was we would drive back to Pierre, but as we returned to highway 34, I turned east, only then realizing I was wanting to visit Harrold. Turning onto the gravel road leading to Harrold, I pointed out farms and ranches to Patti, telling her who lived there and realizing after passing a few places that I had not only known those families all my life, but had taught many of their kids when they were in high school. Many of the places have been in the same family since they were homesteaded a hundred years ago. We also drove by places where there were only traces of what used to be a homestead. Thoughts of who may have lived there and what life would have been like slipped through my mind.
I am always surprised by the skyline of my hometown when I catch sight of it. Grain terminals now dwarf the water tower that used to be the beacon for travelers, reflecting sunlight for miles over the flat prairie. I hardly noticed the water tower that day. The main street, my “playground” when I was growing up, now seems to be lifeless, with only the post office giving people a reason to drive down the street that used to be lined with grocery stores, banks, implement shops, along with a drugstore, barbershop, movie theatre, car dealership, newspaper, and a doctor’s office. Foundations of buildings that used to house the Sky Rocket dance hall and the lumber yard are now gone, along with memories of Saturday nights when Lawrence Welk and his Hotsy-Totsy Boys played polka music for farmers and ranchers coming to town to buy groceries and have a good time. The movie hall that was down the street from Dad’s barbershop, where everyone in the theatre gasped the first time someone on screen uttered “hell’, the building later becoming a dance hall, gone. The bank building, converted into the barbershop and an apartment, next to the Masonic Lodge, both now just empty lots. Bohnings store, where kids spent afternoons watching the Lone Ranger, Captain 11 and cartoons, only a crumbling shell, sitting on what used to be the busiest corner in town. The drugstore where malts, floats and burgers were in demand on Saturday nights, along with the steady stream of men getting haircuts in the backroom, unrecognizable. Willmer’s lumberyard where Dave and I would spend afternoons playing on the stacks of lumber or in the room above the office where Willmer had bar bells and free weights, torn down and cleared away, making room for the elevator’s growth. Doc Martin’s office along the mainstreet, a converted bedroom in his home where my dad carried my cousin when he cut his foot on a broken bottle in the alley, again someone’s home. The “Harrold Journal” printing office which later housed the fire truck, just a distant memory.
We drove slowly back to Pierre. I was lost in thought, recalling memories of when that little town on the Dakota prairie was my whole world. I haven’t strayed too far from my roots, kind of like my dad, not wanting to sever the ties of family and friends in that special, nondescript place. Even though much of the recognizable part of Harrold is gone, I can still go downtown on a summer Saturday night where the little town is still alive in my memory. That Harrold will never change.