Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Dakota Roots
Cousin Mike moved to the West Coast right out of college and has spent the better part of fifty years close to the ocean in Southern California. His South Dakota roots have always run deep, and it seems he has come full circle by moving back to the family home last October. His move brings back conversations and memories he shared with me over the years, memories that anchor those roots deep.
Mike remembers going with his dad in the spring when he would plow gardens around town with his team of horses and a one-bottom plow, celebrating the cool smell of fresh dirt, a sure sign of spring. He pulled off his shoes and began the summer barefoot in that freshly turned soil.
He remembers his grandma Zoller and his mom’s baking talents, how three times a week his mom would have fresh baked bread waiting for him and his friend Larry Bohning when they came home from school. I remember making that trek with cousin Dave after school too, eating warm fresh-baked bread with butter and jam topped off with a glass of fresh milk. Mike’s sister Jane, her daughter Collette and even his brother Tom are carrying on the baking tradition of his family, a connective thread that reaches far into the past and hopefully will touch many generations in the future.
Growing up in a small town always meant adventure for young boys. Mike spent a lot of time among adults when he was quite young while he and his mom waited for his dad to return from the War. One of his favorite spots to explore was the depot, watching the trains fly by or stop to take on passengers or freight. He was sometimes given the job of holding the pole with notes and telegrams attached to the end, stretching it out towards the train as it roared by, the air almost sucking him into the moving cars, waiting for the conductor to snatch the message from Mike’s pole with his own pole as they went by.
Mike’s move to California never loosened the bonds of those Harrold memories. As an adventuresome young man he would hitchhike home for Christmas, sometimes getting stranded along a deserted highway only to have someone passing by pick him up and carry him closer to home. Some of those people became lifelong friends.
Years go by almost unnoticed for most of us, and Mike is no exception. We look at each other and wonder how did we get so old so fast. Mike realized a few years ago that he needed to come home. It has not been the end of a journey but the beginning of a whole new life for him. He moved his silversmith shop into a bright and warm room in the family home and now sleeps in the same bedroom he slept in as a teenager. He drives his folk’s 1971 Ford pickup, learning how to work the manual choke in the cold weather. He has had a few chances to explore the countryside, noting the changes that fifty years has brought to the prairie and the homesteads. He avoids Walmart and Menards, saying they are not part of the South Dakota he remembers, shops in Highmore’s little grocery store, Dakotamart in Ft. Pierre, and Hogan’s Hardware. His artist’s eye goes with him, preserving images with the camera that is by his side all the time, looking for evidence of his roots to share with friends in California, the old deserted homesteads, the open prairie shining in the winter sunset, the memories the family farm brings back.
Mike senses it will take some time for him to reconcile his memories with his recent move. He knows many of his old friends have passed and the names of most of the people who live in Harrold are strange to him. The main street where he grew up is gone except for the post office which is open a few hours each day. Cap’s Trail Service is still there, Norman still works on the 71 Ford pickup, and the farmers and ranchers still gather there at night to visit. Mike’s brothers and sister are scattered across the country, but we cousins are Mike’s family nearby. Mike’s roots are what are important to him. This coming home is as much spiritual as physical for him. I hope I can spend time with him and share that spiritual love for South Dakota and what it means to both of us for years to come. Welcome home, Mike.
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I used to travel to horse shows with Tom Eliason, sharing the driving and storytelling along the way. Tom did a lot of judging, and I always learned a lot about horse confirmation and performance…