I grew up in the community where I still live, so when we leave home, I am likely to see the sagging barns and empty storefronts as they once were.
Then I blink, and a couple of generations pass. Because the older pictures are still in my mind, I find it easy to visualize this drive as I would have seen it a few decades ago.
Gus Maus is planting windbreak trees along his entrance road, trees that still catch the snow and keep the road relatively clear even in a high wind. Like my dad, he planted dozens of trees, taking time from his ranch chores to look to the future, sheltering generations he would never know.
Only corrals are left at the next place, though they’re kept in good repair. When the kids sold it to that corporate ranch, hired hands tore down the house, the barn, the machine shed. They had no need to rent them out or use it for hired help since they only use the corrals only once or twice a year. They’ve put in a good chute so they can ship the calves from here.
At the next place, I can almost see Pratt’s milk cows walk out of the barn, down the draw, and into the dark underpass of the highway, emerging on the other side without so much as flicking an ear at the traffic. Walking slowly, their great white bags swinging, they spread out over the pasture like a river delta, grazing slowly up the hill.
If we are driving toward home at dusk, I visualize the cows begin to turn as they graze, and begin to pace deliberately back down the hill and under the highway to line up in front of the barn. Archie—that was his name! (I’ve only remembered because I was remembering the cows and their stately march)—would be waiting to wipe down their udders. Then he and whatever hired hand was working there that year would perch on low stools and begin the slow job of milking a couple of dozen cows by hand. Now the big old barn that once gleamed white, repainted every year or two, is a dingy gray, with shingles missing, slats kicked out of the sides.
The Hansen house burned while it was rented out, I think, after the old folks died. Just as well; the absent son rented it to people who threw beer cans in the ditches as they roared along the county roads. The county now piles gravel where the house stood, but when I drive by, I can see it still: two stories, with white net curtains in all the windows though the paint was gray and chipping. I can almost see the old woman looking out the window to see who might be driving up for a visit.
The trees old Joe Burns planted as a shelter for his missus thrive still; they’ve both been gone for decades, and no trace remains of the buildings. A long metal storage shed for feed stands where the Briscoe house used to be. That’s another ranch dissolved into a bigger holding, with hired hands who live in trailers for a season or two. No need for the old houses. The corporate owners buy calves in the spring, feed them for six months and sell them, so they don’t need winter shelter. Most of the hired hands drift on come winter, since they have no insurance, and no guarantee they’ll have a job next year.
There’s the Elm Creek School: windows and doors gone, holes in the roof. Half the white-haired old folks in the county went to grade school there. Consolidation, don’t you know. Now the kids ride the bus, or their parents drive them miles to school in town. In town they aren’t the sons and daughters of respected ranchers, just shabby teens with western shirts, scuffed boots and calloused hands.
Johnsons. I hear the folks moved back to the old house they built when they married, let the kids have the big new one. I can remember how they worked together on that little house: he cut the studs and she nailed them up. They call it cozy instead of small, and are happier than they were behind the wide picture windows of the new place.
My uncle Bud Hey stands in front of his filling station in Hermosa—recognizable today by the GARAGE sign--wiping his hands on a greasy rag as he asks what the HELL you want. People used to say that when he was banging around under someone’s truck, they could see the swear words boil out of the building in a black cloud that scorched the air.
In the only photograph I have seen of his business, he’s not really visible. In November of 1954, a ruptured oil line forced an Army Hiller 12 E helicopter from Ellsworth Air Force Base into an emergency landing in a hayfield beside the Custer County Fairgrounds south of town. Bud’s son, my cousin Roy Hey, remembers that once the ‘copter, a three-place model used for observation, was repaired, it was brought to Bud’s Mobil station and filled with “Mobile Special” gas so it could continue its journey. Bud is somewhere behind the ‘copter, probably filling the gas tank, while bystanders watch. Roy visited not long ago, and he and I strolled around town, feeding each other’s memories and smiling a lot.
Passing Hermosa, I see a cloud of dust rocketing up the hill toward the ranch where my uncle Harold Hasselstrom lived most of his life. His wife, my Aunt Josephine, never observed a speed limit in her life. She was always in a hurry, but she never ran over anyone, and she was usually taking a pie to some family who had suffered a death, or rushing to a nearby town to help serve a community dinner. She poured her energy and her money into this community every year she lived here.
And there, across the tracks, is the Bill Snable house. I never knew Bill; he was gone before I arrived here, but I’ve heard stories about him all my life. His photograph appears in the monumental history of our county, OUR YESTERDAYS (920 pages), so I can even picture his reluctant smile.
He’d lived in Chicago, where he drove a jitney bus for the city, and was a mechanic. By the time he came to the neighborhood in 1912, he’d served in the U.S. Army during the Spanish American war, and was stationed in Florida. His marriage had vanished, though apparently a stepdaughter survived him. For a while, he worked for Charles Upham on his ranch near town, but he filed on a homestead in what was then the Urban community. In his spare time, he collected stones from his own land and fashioned them into a sturdy house. In 1917, he moved to his ranch, ran a few cattle and, according to the history book, farmed a little; it’s hard for me to imagine how, considering the abundance of rocks. In 1946, he moved to the State Soldiers Home in Hot Springs for two years, making occasional trips back to his place. In the spring of 1948, he sold his ranch to Hasselstrom Brothers. He died in 1950 in Battle Mountain Sanitarium at Hot Springs.
From my dining room window, I look at Bill’s house every day. Nothing remains on the broad plain but the house, standing like a sentry over the land that must have meant freedom to Bill. How did this man, who’d lived in Chicago, decide that he wanted to live on the South Dakota prairie? I can’t imagine that we will ever know. But I have a photograph of this memory, framed to keep it safe.
(Some names have been changed and locations shifted to protect the privacy or memories of me or others.)
# # #
The Pilot was Hermosa's first newspaper, thriving one year after Hermosa became a town. (John Stanley, editor.)