From Dell Rapids' Attic - History
It was probably a few days before October 31, 1929 – the same day as the great American Stock Market crash. A Dell Rapids Tribune newspaper reporter (W.W. Sanders was editor at the time) sat at his desk to compose an article for his weekly small town newspaper.
He probably gave no thought to the prosperity that the nation had experienced just the decade before. Nor, was he probably even aware of the day’s Stock Market crash. Even if he did know, he certainly wasn’t aware of the devastating effects it would have on the nation and Dell Rapids in the decade to come.
The reporter was oblivious to his surroundings. His mind was on a different period of history – a different time, but the same town. His only focus was on his interview notes of local resident Byson Crisp and the writing task that lay before him. He began:
Byson Crisp Relates Interesting Story of Early Days in South Dakota
Was a Member of Party of Wisconsin Homesteaders; Came Here in 1873
The story of the development of South Dakota is a very interesting story to every one of us. History gives it to us in a general way, but it is the personal experiences of some early settler that brings to us a great thrill. This writer’s favorite pastime is to get an early settler “cornered” and begin to ask questions pertaining to the early settlement of the state.
One recent evening we called on our good neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. W.B. (William Byson) Crisp. Everything seemed to be in our favor. We were confident from the moment we entered their home that some pioneer experiences would be forthcoming.
There they were – this elderly couple, comfortably seated in the living room, both in their slippers, the fine radio in the corner was silent, and the evening paper lay folded inside out on the table. There they were, sitting side by side, just visiting in a sort of reminiscent mood.
After a brief discussion of the weather, and conditions in general, we started the “ball rolling” by asking Mr. Crisp when it was he came to South Dakota.
“Well, sir,” he chuckled, “I landed in Dell City, it was then, on the second day of June, 1873.”
“Did you come alone?”
“Oh, no, there was quite a party of us who came together.” Speaking a little lower he said, “There are only two of us grown folks left now – myself and my sister-in-law, Mrs. Walter Crisp. “Let’s see, there were several of us in the party: Mr. and Mrs. W.T. Hill (Elder Hill), Mr. and Mrs. James Hart and their two children, my brother Walter Crisp and his wife and their two children, Mrs. and Mrs. Ed Hart and their four children, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Gregg and their one child, Mr. and Mrs. George Wood and their two children, John and Eugene Wood, Ed Pierce, and myself. That makes sixteen grown folks and eleven children doesn’t it? Oh, yes, and we started with six dogs – only two of which made the trip though.”
“How long did it take to make the trip?” we continued.
“Let’s see. We left Marshall, Wisconsin, on the 18th of April and got here on the second of June. It took us 47 days to make the trip.”
“That’s quite awhile, isn’t it? They could circle the globe a couple or three times in that length of time these days,” we offered.
“Yes, but we weren’t traveling in airplanes – that’s one of the many inventions we old timers have seen. We traveled in a safer way in those days. We started out from Marshall with eight covered wagons and nine teams of horses. We made good time on the road until we reached Cresco, Iowa. It was a great trip though. We went from Marshall to Madison, Wisconsin, then to Prairie de Chien, then to Cresco, Iowa, on into Minnesota, passing through Jackson, Blue Earth, Albert Lee, Worthington, and then to Sioux Falls and Dell City.
“It started raining at Cresco, and many times between there and Jackson we were compelled to put four horses on a wagon – pulling half the caravan a mile or so then going back and hitching on the other four wagons. It took us two weeks to make that trip from Cresco to Jackson. Yes, sir, two weeks,” he laughed, “and last year my wife and I made the trip from here back to Cresco in the old Buick in one day.
“At Jackson we decided to lighten our loads some. We rented a building and stored some of our goods, going back after the stuff in September.”
“We suppose you had plenty to eat on the trip?”
“We faired all right. Each family had packed a half barrel or so of salt pork and a quantity of flour. When it wasn’t raining and we couldn’t build a fire, we had plenty, such as it was. In fact, we had more then than we had after we got here for a year or so,” he smiled.
“How come you people came to South Dakota?” we asked. This question brought forth a good hearty laugh from Mr. Crisp.
“A girl,” he said.
“Back in Wisconsin there was a man by the name of Alexander who was employed by the government as a surveyor. After the treaty with the Indians, this country was being developed, and Uncle Sam sent Alexander here as a surveyor. Mr. Alexander had a daughter who came west with him. Ed Pierce had known this family back in their native state. Shortly after they came, Ed Pierce followed. This was in 1872. He filed on a claim just north of Dell Rapids, near the Jim Jensen farm. He stayed here during that summer and went back to Wisconsin in the winter of the same year. Upon his return to Wisconsin, he immediately went to work to enthuse us about Dakota Territory. He told us of the splendid opportunities here – the vast prairies with a wealth of soil, etc. In the spring, when it was time for his return, we all came with him. Pierce routed us through, and that’s one reason we made such good timing on the road. He was in a hurry to get here in time for the June wedding. At Valley Springs, or about where that town is now, Pierce and Elder Hill took a short cut across the country to Dell City. The rest of us wanted to go by Sioux Falls as the land office was located there. When we got here, Pierce and Miss Alexander were enjoying their honeymoon out there on their claim.”
Without further encouragement, Mr. Crisp continued:
“We landed at Dell City about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Just south of town a short ways we met a man and asked him where Dell City was. ‘Right there it is,’ he said. ‘Can’t you see it?’ We ford the river just about where the old bridge is now. There was no ferry or bridge here in 1873. As soon as we made camp, the women folks got busy and washed clothes on the banks of the river. My brother Walt and George Wood were delighted to find the river and a place to fish. They said that they would fish while the rest of us came up town. It didn’t take us long to look over the town after we had found it.
“We went back to camp for supper, feeling pretty good for we knew we would at least have a change of meat. The boys had caught the fish all right, and they had been fried nice and brown. They looked very appetizing, but when we started to eat them we found that they were not so good. Someone asked what kind of fish they were, and Walt picked up the plate, threw them to the dogs, saying: ‘dog fish.’ They were carp we learned afterwards.
“The next morning we found Albion Thorne, who was then helping settlers locate their claims. He took us out east of town where all of us had filed our claims. This area is where Logan Township is now. It cost us $2 each for locating.
“We all sort of settled on the James Hart claim where a big sod house was built – living there in his sod house until we had built our own. The families would move on their claims later, as other shanties were built.
“We got hold of two sod plows and put our teams to work as soon as possible. The other teams were used on the road, hauling lumber and supplies from Worthington. There were about five acres of ground broken on each claim the first year. Even though it was rather late, gardens were planted, and they grew fine. Prospects were good for plenty of vegetables, but just about that time along came the grasshoppers you have heard about. They slicked up everything – not a stem left. We were a pretty blue bunch for awhile I’ll tell you. Then we had other misfortunes, too. One day I remember when Gene Wood was out plowing and a thunder storm came up. Gene unhitched his team from the plow, put them on the wagon, and started for the shanty. He had gone only a few rods when a bolt of lightning struck his team, killing them. We were watching him and went to where he was. He was only stunned and soon came to. But, we lost a good team.
“Things looked pretty tough when fall came. There was no feed for our horses and not much for us. We went a short ways north and west of here where grasshoppers were not so bad and cut hay for the horses. Later in the winter, we would kill an antelope or perhaps a deer that had come to our small stacks of hay to feed. That fall the men with families went over to the Thompson settlement. Ole Thompson and his brothers had settled there about three years previous, and were better off than we were. The men got hold of a cow or two – so with the milk, and what wild meat we could get, we got through the first winter all right.
“The next spring we started out with a lot of hope and ambition. We plowed a few more acres, planted a little wheat and corn, planted gardens, but again the hoppers cleaned us out.
“That summer and fall (1874) Henry Merry, Ed and Thurb Harvey, and I did cross-country teaming. We made trips to LeMars and Sioux City, hauling settlers, supplies, etc., in, and occasionally hauling a settler out – if he had enough money to get out on. We did hauling that year and the next.”
“What did you do if anyone ever got sick? Did you have a doctor in the settlement?” we asked.
“You bet we did. Dr. Parker was here in Dell City. He lived in a small shanty with a curtain that stretched across one end which he used for an office. I remember well one time I had a toothache. I called on Parker, and he took me in the office and examined my teeth. After looking around considerably, he said, ‘Crisp, you have fine teeth. There’s nothing wrong with them except that you have one too many.’ He picked up an old turn key, twisted out a tooth, and everything was all right.”
“Did the Indians bother you?”
“No, not to speak of – only just to beg food. They gave us several good scares, but no harm was ever done to us.”
Mr. Crisp started laughing again. “I’ll never forget the first pig that came into the settlement,” he said. “One day Walt was coming from Worthington. A settler along the road sold him a pig on time for a dollar. He was bringing a kitchen stove home with him – one of those old high oven affairs, so he put the pig in the oven. There was nothing to feed the pig but dish water, so naturally he hung around the house pretty close. It took a great deal of Lottie’s time trying to keep the pig out of the house. Finally she declared she could stand the pest no longer and something had to be done with the porker. Walt had started to dig a well and had gone down only a few feet before he decided to dig the well somewhere else. The hole was there handy, so he just dropped the pig in there to keep him out of the way. We had many a good laugh over that pig. He was kept in that hole for some time, standing with his head in the air looking for something to eat. When he was finally let out of his prison, he continued to hold his head high – always looking and praying for something to eat it seemed. Walt butchered the pig some three years later. He had a hard time making anyone believe it was pork they were eating.”
“Did you go back to Wisconsin?” we asked.
“Yes, it was winter. I went up the river a ways and cut three poles, two for sled runners, and one for the tongue. I put a little box on, put my trunk behind the seat – I have the trunk upstairs, yet – and started for Wisconsin in the dead of winter, the first of January. It didn’t take as long to make the trip back to Wisconsin as it did to come out,” Mr. Crisp said. “I made the trip all the way on the snow in just four weeks.”
“What did you go back for, Mr. Crisp?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly, but when I came back to Dakota Territory again, Mrs. Crisp was with me.”
Is it any wonder that these old settlers love South Dakota? This little group of settlers went through just what many others did. The Crisps, the Merrys, the Harts, the Woods, the Thompsons, the Hills, and all the others are the foundation of the stock of our highly developed state of today. They must have had faith, grit, and courage beyond conception almost to withstand the hardships and difficulties that they encountered in developing a new country.
But, as Mr. Crisp says, “Boy, we were right. We have been repaid and we are satisfied.”
After a few changes, the Tribune reporter ended his story. He probably took another moment or two to reflect on those days long gone by. Satisfied with what he wrote, he set the story off to the side where it would be set in type and printed later – joining the other stories of that week’s newspaper.
His article was done and would be printed and read by many of the small town citizens a few days later – October 31, 1929. But, for another writer and other readers some generations later, a first chapter to a unique history of the Dell Rapids community begins.