From Dell Rapids' Attic - History
Rising Sun Encouragement to the Early Day Settlers
There are many stories about the struggles that early pioneers experienced as they moved onto the Great Plains. The determination and hard work of the early Dakota pioneers were essential in transforming the empty and sometimes hostile prairies into livable environments.
James Hart, one of Dell Rapids earliest settlers, was no exception. Hart was born in England and moved to the United States as a three-year-old. His family eventually settled in Wisconsin. In the early 1870's, he heard about the opportunity of free land in the Dakota's. Like so many others of the time, Hart and 15 other hardy adventurers took a risk, gave up what they had, and traveled westward by covered wagon.
This group would become one of many such groups that homesteaded in the area. Hart, and his friends (including William Byson Crisp), secured land east of the newly formed settlement known as Dells Rapids. Their new life began, but not without its problems.
In 1886, thirteen years after arriving, Hart wrote an article about their struggles and published it in the local newspaper. It was reprinted 50 years later in the February 6, 1936 Tribune edition. This story provides readers with a better understanding of the lives of the early settlers. Here is James Hart's story.
Thirteen years ago last April we left the state of Wisconsin, bound for Sioux Falls, the "Queen City" of the Dakotas. It was said that steamboats were running daily to and from Sioux City.
When we arrived there during the great June freshet of 1873, we found no steamboats, but we found plenty of water. There was so much water that the largest ocean steamer (keeping within the channel) could have landed her cargo at the city wharves.
We found a young town at Sioux Falls composed principally of old barracks and a few general stores. All were in a beautiful location. The falls of the Big Sioux River struck the beholder with wonder, and the splendor and grandeur was not to be excelled. This seemed to us to be the "Paradise Lost.”
After staying for four days to recruit up, we took our departure for Dell Rapids. We arrived on the banks of the Sioux opposite Dell City on a beautiful morning. We were tired of traveling and camping out. The countenance of the ladies told us plainly that they were not in the best of humor, but this soon disappeared after looking at the silvery water rushing through the dells. The evergreens, which had taken foothold in the rocky crevices on the banks, made an everlasting impression upon us all. Its picturesque appearance and its waters teeming with fish gave us fresh courage. Our hearts grew light with the bright prospects before us - and with the consolation that we had everything to gain and nothing to lose. We felt that Wisconsin had nothing for us. All we had in the world was with us.
On inquiring for government land we were told that all land was open for settlement. There was so much land. We drove our stakes on the southeast quarter of section eight in the township of Logan. There, on bended knee, we kissed the ground and named our farm "Convincible House". It was also called "Puckridge" named after the great college at Hertfordshire, England, where all students who entered (the rich with the poor) were on the same footing.
We built a sod house that measured 12x20 feet. It was the first house east of Dell Rapids in Dakota, and it became the home of three families - 16 souls in all. The appearance of our house on the prairie drew lots of travelers. It became quite a stopping place - in fact, the best hotel in town. I think our customers were poor since I don't remember of one paying us anything.
We planted a garden. It grew nicely only to be eaten by the grasshoppers in 30 minutes. From that time on till winter there was not much ambition in any of the 16 of us to build a pigpen out of sod. So, that winter we just kept our one litter pig in an old cook stove oven.
When spring came so did fresh hopes. We planted and sowed, but did not reap. The insects came and took all our grain and potatoes. They also devoured any wearing apparel that was not in use. This caused us to look for work. We found plenty in moving the town of Dell Rapids from one site to the other. In fact, we became experts at the deal, and we soon had the town on wheels. This gave us the necessary assistance so that we were able to have venison for Christmas dinner.
Another spring came. We increased our acreage, built a 14x16-frame house, planted trees, etc. We all had hopes that the tide would turn, and we would be rewarded for our labors. But, alas, we were met again with disappointment when most of our crops were devoured. However, there were some potatoes spared and enough wheat was saved for making bread. We killed the pig that had been kept in the oven, ground our wheat in our coffee mill, and slept 16 hours a day to save from burning the hay. Happiness seemed to prevail. We had social gatherings once or twice a week, and preaching services were held every Sunday at some of the new neighbors' houses.
If there was anything that gave us courage it was to behold the rising sun in the eastern horizon one nice May morning. All was silent. All that was untouched by the hand of man harmonized to one great and glorious whole - subject to all laws of the universe. We reflected, took courage, and again seeded our land. This time we reaped a rich reward. Wheat averaged 33 bushels per acre. Lands became marketable, and the merchant's stockades became full of goods. Everything had a different aspect, and during the coming years prosperity could be seen on every hand.
From that time on, for the most part, we prospered steadily. Hail and grasshoppers hit the crop of 1876 and the crop of 1884 was partially destroyed by hail. But, the average price for wheat during the last 11 years has been 72 cents, and all other cereals have fared as equally as well.
We are now well repaid for the hardships that we endured during those early days. We have seen our homes advance from a worthless prairie to become valuable farmland. We have seen the railroads penetrate the great territory at its center. And, we are now seeing the people asking Congress to admit South Dakota as the 39th state of this great Union.
In addition to becoming a successful farmer, James Hart taught students in the first school in the area – his sod home. On July 24, 1891, the Dell Rapids Times published an article titled “Farmers Testify as To Their Prosperity since Coming to this Country.” This article gave the testimony of 24 local farmers and told about the successes that they experienced. James Hart was one of these farmers. His description reads:
James Hart of Dell Rapids Township arrived in Minnehaha County in 1873 with “a span of horses, a lumber wagon, a wife and two children, all in good health.” His farming here has netted him over $10,000, and he now owns 320 acres of black loam from one to three feet deep, large and comfortable buildings, full farm machinery, 80 head of cattle, 30 hogs, and 9 horses. Mr. Hart, who formerly lived in Wisconsin, says this country is superior to any he has ever seen. His crop record is: Wheat 38 ½ bushels per acre, corn 40, barley 40, potatoes 300, and oats 60. His lowest has been 9 bushels of wheat, corn 30, oats 50, barley 25, and potatoes 150. His trees which were planted 14 years ago average 45 feet in height and one foot in diameter.