Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: A Barrel of Sugar

One of my memories of living behind the barbershop on Harrold’s main street is of the shuffling, bent over figure of a man always dressed in a greasy cap, soiled overcoat and buckle overshoes, wandering aimlessly along the sidewalk or down an alley. It was hard to see his face, he hardly ever looked up, and the long beard hid most of his features. I was always a bit afraid of him, and always curious about him. Who was he? I only knew he lived on the corner of the block next to Dr. Martin’s home and office, and that at Halloween kids dared each other to knock on his door, scaring each other with stories of kids disappearing into his house never to be seen again. I remember older kids teasing and making fun of the old doddering man, imitating his shuffles and mannerisms while following him down the street. My dad caught me being part of a group of boys doing that, and sharply ordered me to come sit next to him on the bench in front of the drugstore. His irritation faded away and he quietly told me about Harry McQueen.

Harry’s father threw together a shack in what would soon be Harrold in 1883. His family lived there while he built a proper house. Harry, his sister Mabel and their mother arrived from Wisconsin in a freight car that held the family cow, their horse and buggy and a few pieces of furniture along with some provisions. The first night they stalled the cow and horse in the shack along with a barrel of sugar and other supplies. That night a tornado struck, demolishing the shack and taking both ends out of the sugar barrel, scattering the precious commodity to the four winds. It took the shaken family most of the next day to find the horse and cow.

Harry’s mother decided to drive to town one sunny winter morning. She took a neighbor who lived along the way with her. Shortly after they reached town a blizzard blew in and the two ladies decided to head for home against all advice from townspeople. They soon realized they were in danger of being lost and freezing to death but were fortunate enough to stumble onto an old claim shack. They unhitched the horse and took him into the shack with them. There was wood in the wood box that gave them some heat from the small stove, but it soon ran out. Mrs. McQueen realized they would freeze to death if they didn’t get home, so the women took the frightened, high-spirited horse out and after many attempts were able to hitch him to the buggy. They knew the general direction to the McQueen ranch and let the horse have his head. Fighting frozen fingers, toes and ears, they finally made it home. Harry’s mom was a bit put out that her husband had not been the least concerned about her, assuming she had stayed in town to wait out the storm.

Harry’s family moved to Pierre while Harry attended high school. He returned to Harrold to become an influential figure and a “character” in the young town, holding city offices, running various businesses and campaigning to bring the first light plant to Harrold, one he personally maintained. His “character” side was mostly forgotten until when doing research for the Harrold Centennial book, we found a photo of a building located near the railroad tracks. Across the photo were the words, “The Famous Red Onion, Harry McQueen, proprietor.” When the photo was discovered, there was an amused murmur that rippled through the crowd as the old timers started remembering this “famous”, not so respectable establishment.

Over the years Harry became a fixture in Harrold, a curiosity to newcomers and children, not part of the happenings anymore, but still shown respect by those that knew his story. I don’t recall when he died, I was still in grade school, but I do remember seeing him through different, maybe even grown-up eyes after Dad told me his story. I realized this shuffling, bent over old man that kids teased was the last vestige of Harrold’s beginnings. I wish now I had known him, could have talked to him and heard his life story. What a story it must have been! Instead, it’s a personal history that much like the barrel of sugar is lost, scattered in the four winds of memories.

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