South Dakota is full of roadside attractions, advertised with tempting billboards that tout the wonders of the Prairie Dog Town, Wall Drug, The Dinosaur Park…it goes on. As children, the three of us were whisked past one after another, with a parent issuing the dismissive, “It’s a tourist trap,” whenever one of us begged to stop.
This did not stop us from begging.
Both my mother and my birth father were born in South Dakota in the 1930s. No doubt they were repeating the highway mantras of their own childhoods. I doubt it would ever have occurred to my grandparents to stop at some dusty place on the prairie. The Depression and wartime budgets of the Odlands and the Zwebers didn’t include spending good money to see tunnels full of crop-eating pests. They had neither time nor cash to waste in an old storefront full of cheaply made souvenirs that would fall apart on the way home.
Still, from the backseat of whatever large American car we were riding in, these places looked like meccas of wonder to my sister, my brother and me. Wall Drug, with its endless roadside couplet signs offering free ice water and nickel coffee, especially beckoned. But the parents would roar past, shaking their heads. No time, no patience, no way.
Divorce is a strange thing. It might be a source of lifelong trauma in the long run, but in the short run, it can be an enormous liberation. When my mother left an unhappy marriage after nine years, she entered a personal renaissance. She stood prouder, got a little slimmer, raised her hair to beehive heights, and traded in her glasses for something more fashionable. She moved us from Claremont (population 50) to Aberdeen (population 20,000). This was a considerable change. She re-enrolled at Northern and finished her degree. And she decided to take us on a vacation.
Mom would rent a trailer large enough to accommodate her, our babysitter Maryanne, and us three kids. We would tow the trailer behind our current car, a tank of a ’57 Buick (sky blue, white top, and chrome trim).
We would stay in a different KOA campground each night, and we would would stop at every single roadside attraction, except one. By group vote, we skipped the Bible park–as good little Christian Scientists, that would have been an overload of graven images, which were verboten to us. Aside from that, we would leave no billboard ignored on our quest to visit every tourist trap in the Dakotas. And each one of us received five dollars spending money.
In 1968, that was a LOT of money.
My impressions of most places are fleeting. The Reptile Gardens? That place smelled terrible. We walked on wooden paths through a swampy enclosure. I found most of the animals repellant and yet…interesting. Snakes and gators have never been my thing, but there were plenty of them. The Prairie Dog Town? With my love of small furred critters, you’d have thought this would have made an impression, but I have none. I don’t even remember seeing the gigantic cement prairie dog that still stands there today.
The biggest let down was the Petrified Forest. In my eight year-old mind, I expected, you know, a forest. We didn’t have those in the part of South Dakota where I lived, so I leaned on children’s literature. I was expecting something like the talking trees in The Wizard of Oz, but turned to stone, with stone branches and stone leaves. I didn’t expect them to talk, but I did expect the to be standing. But the “forest” was nothing more than a large expanse of dirt and gravel, upon which were scattered fragments and chunks of petrified wood.
The dinosaur park in Rapid City was fun and free. We have a few photos of us kids there, and we’re smiling. The dinosaurs were smooth and green, like the Sinclair dinosaur, so of course we assumed they were scientifically accurate. I have pictures of us somewhere and might add them, but not today.
In 1968, there was a gravel parking lot, a gift shop with a panoramic view of the memorial, and that was about it. That was plenty for me. I looked out the window for a while, recognizing and admiring three of the four presidents. Then I found a little naked souvenir doll more suited to Hawaii than South Dakota, and took her right up to the cash register.
On the way home, we finally stopped at Wall Drug. Back then, it was just a short stretch of Old West-appearing storefronts. To get your free ice water, you went behind the store to a little pump and helped yourself. I’m not sure where the nickel coffee was dispensed, but it was somewhere. You could smell it. I don’t recall any actual drugstore merchandise, as in home remedies or a pharmacist’s counter, but apparently they have always been there, too.
What I do remember is touristy crap galore. The store was a wonder. I wish I had photos from back in the day, but I took a few in 2015 when I went back. Taxidermy dominated the walls, hung with every dead animal you could imagine and a few you couldn’t, like the jackalope.
It even had animatronic tableau. I stood for too long in front of some weird looking robot cowboys doing rope tricks while their eyes spun. When I went back in 2015, these were still there and operational. Sadly I don’t have a video, but here are some stills.
I also remember putting a nickel in a slot so a robotic cowboy would say “Draw, Pardner!” and fire his gun at me. I couldn’t find him, but here is General George Custer.
Thrilling stuff. But not as thrilling as what I bought with the money that remained to me. I wanted a beaded necklace with a tiny Native American on it, but that was rich, and I’d already spent part of the five so I had to be discriminating. I selected an onyx egg, an onyx “worry stone,” a vial of agate crumbs, and a pure white rabbit pelt. That was the end of my five dollars.
I kept that pelt long after I let the rocks go. I knew it was the skin of some poor rabbit. Somehow that didn’t bother me. I loved how soft it was, how white. And then, in the eighth grade, I made it into a purse that eventually disappeared. But for years, it was my comfort. I would take it out and stroke it, soothing as petting a cat, and remember that trip.
It was our first family vacation, and our last. And it was perfect.
I made a trip back to South Dakota two years ago, after decades of not seeing it. I left the prairie as a child and hadn’t realized how deeply the roots of this landscape grew in me. Recognition rang me like a bell, even though many floods have changed what I found when I went “home.”
I could hardly speak my joy at the miles of wheat and barbed wire fencing, the glimpses of badlands, the red-winged blackbirds on every fence post, the tiny ground squirrels rushing across the highway. Water towers and speed traps, billboards calling me to tourist traps, the eerie grandeur of the Badlands. I drove a causeway over a lake full of migrating pelicans and dead trees gone bare and silver.
The floods that have reclaimed parts of the prairie have changed the landscape in subtle ways and loaned a pearly mist to the summer sky. It softens the summer heat I remember from my own childhood there. And it’s claimed so many of the farmhouses; farms are still active, but no one lives in the houses anymore.
This is why I couldn’t find my grandparents’ home outside Claremont. It’s gone, damaged beyond repair by flooding and torn down. I thought I couldn’t find it because the two rows of tall trees (species lost to memory–edited to add, my sister says they were oak) that flanked their long drive were cut down and sold long ago. Why keep such a welcome when there was money to be made from the lumber? But the last time I visited, in 1996, their two-story house still stood.
My grandfather bought this house for my grandmother in 1964, I believe. Their marriage had been strained by an attempt to live in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. My grandfather was an ardent member of the John Birch Society. He wanted to live in a valley that could be dynamited closed at both ends in the event of a Communist attack, and there were only a few of those in the country. He chose Montana.
My grandmother hated Montana. She loved open vistas and the prairie horizon. She felt oppressed by mountains and excessive trees (later in life, she disliked Washington state for its forests). But Grandmother Lucille was a quiet woman who rarely drove and didn’t write a check until her husband died. I’m not sure how she orchestrated a return to the prairie. My grandfather always got his way, but in this, she prevailed. Had he screwed up in some grievous, secret way? Well yes, he had, my grandfather was a man of secret practices, but that didn’t come out for another eight years. I’m not sure why he returned to South Dakota, bought the farm, and gave my grandmother cart blanche to transform it, but he did.
A grandparent’s home is always seen through a lens of childhood. It is generally larger and more opulent than any other home in your memory, by sheer dint of your own smallness back then.
We approached along a tree-lined drive, an overarching ostentation that thrilled me as a child. We parked around the side of the house (the front door was enclosed by a newer screened porch), and entered through a mudroom at the back of the house. It was for boots, jackets, for deciding where you wanted to go–the house or the basement. There was an iron grate that closed off the basement steps, a showy affair with an “O” worked into the design, but my sister and I rarely went down there. (edited to add–my sister says it was “V O”, Grandpa’s initials, and that we pretended this was the gate to the “Village Orphanage,” and we played orphanage down there ALL THE TIME, and I believe her). Birchers are preppers (apparently they are experiencing a resurgence), and he had a basement full of canned goods and other defenses against the Commies, who he sincerely believed were poised off the coast in submarines, ready to take down America. I do remember an old Hoosier cabinet that we loved to play kitchen with, and how scandalized we were when my aunt took it away to California. It never occurred to us that it was hers.
Past the basement, we walked up three steps into a hallway that held a gigantic chest freezer. My grandfather had opened the first feedlot in South Dakota. That meant he raised small herds of cattle that, once they’d been pastured to a reasonable weight, were locked up in a feeding barn to gorge on corn, which marbled their flesh with oh-so-desirable fat. My grandfather was fond of opening the freezer and sweeping his hand across the pile of meat within, reverently intoning his favorite mantra: “(However many pounds) of corn-fed beef.” Then he would close it, so proud of the fruits of his livelihood.
This was primarily a corn-fed beef household, though our grandmother fried chicken fairly often, and invited us out to eat it since my mother refused to cook chicken. My grandmother was a magnificent cook of whatever she touched. Later in life, after my grandfather had his stroke and was in a nursing home, leaving her to pursue a quiet single life, Grandma said, “I remember when I could get a pot roast around with about as much effort as it takes me to make toast, now.” And she laughed, fondly.
Grandma loved the words “fond,” “grateful,” and “lovely.”
So we would leave the freezer behind, and walk into the laundry room, with its linoleum floor. On the wall was mounted an old wooden crank telephone, something my grandfather found at a farm auction. Aside from the washer and dryer, and a high shelf full of treasures like the metal Scotty dog with a broken tail that my grandmother occasionally let me play with, the only furniture was a small antique school desk with one drawer. In that drawer was a white enameled tin bowl full of crayons. Those were for me. Other grandchildren visited, my siblings and cousins. But I, in my naive grandchild innocence, assumed the crayons were mine. On one visit, I opened the drawer and found papers drawn on by my cousins. I felt utterly invaded.
In the way of all rooms in those old farmhouses, the laundry room had five doorways. One was just the opening you passed through from the hall with the freezer. One door led to a half-bath, one to the kitchen, and a funny angled door actually led to a walk-in pantry (edited to add–none of my siblings remember a pantry, so I might be confabulating, but Grandma’s kitchen was small and she had to store her pantry stuff somewhere, didn’t she?). I wonder, now, just how small and useless that laundry room must have been. At the time, it seemed large and light to me, sitting in that school desk and coloring in my coloring books.
The main back hallway was carpeted, and similarly doored. It had the door from the laundry room, a second back door (I think this was a Dutch door), a door to the upstairs, a door to the screen porch (formerly the front door), an archway into the living room, and an opening that led to my grandparents’ bedroom and en suite bathroom. I stayed out of their room and bathroom. These were part of their adult world. I do know they had extra-long twin beds with custom-made bedspreads, and that Grandmother had a huge box of costume jewelry that I loved to play with. But that was a penultimate treat, almost the last weapon in her arsenal of tricks to amuse visiting grandchildren. The ultimate treat was investigating the contents of the small glass-lidded jewelry box where she kept her “good” jewelry; watches, her first wedding set, her own mother’s white-gold wedding band.
The stairs were carpeted, and led to two upstairs bedrooms. One was the “east room” and one was the “west room.” I have no sense of direction at all, so it remains a mystery which was which. One was furnished as a little sitting room, with a linen-covered loveseat and small tables, and a painting of a fruit basket on the wall that my mother and grandfather found at a farm auction. This room had a big closet in the eaves with an actual safe in it. Grandpa kept his gun in there. Since he was a John Bircher, he probably had a lot of money in there. I liked the closet because Grandmother Lucille kept her Mother West Wind books in there, which she read to me often in her gentle, calm voice.
The other bedroom was also called a “guest room.” It had a double bed and a closet full of cast-off clothing, including my grandmother’s navy blue chiffon wedding dress. She was small enough in her youth, and I was tall enough in mine, that I could wear it in third grade. There was a low dresser full of the kinds of things that make their way into dressers when clothing doesn’t. I found the first baby pictures I’d ever seen of myself in this dresser when I was six or seven. I’d been wondering if I was adopted due to the lack of baby photos, so I was greatly relieved to see them.
But back to downstairs, which I usually reached by sliding down the steps on my bottom, thump thump thump all the way down on the carpet, then through the back hall, through the laundry room, and through another door. So many doors!
The kitchen was a galley, and at one end was “the breakfast room.” It looked out on Grandmother’s lilac hedges, and held a table and chairs and one of my grandfather’s recliners. We would all sit at the table, and he’d sit in that recliner. There must have been a breakfront or buffet table in there, because I remember a pair of huge ceramic chickens. My grandmother loved birds and chickens, or at least representations of them. They were everywhere in her house, including a small pewter toothpick holder with a baby chick sitting on a wishbone that I handled a lot, fascinated by the wishbone.
The kitchen had dark wood cabinets, and both the kitchen and breakfast room had dark, planked oak floors laid with pegs, no nails. My mother loved to tell me this with awe and house-lust in her voice, that these were pegged floors. Grandmother eventually had these floors covered with indoor-outdoor carpeting, which horrified my mother and me.
At the other end of the kitchen was an archway that led to the living room-dining room, with a huge heavy oak dining set that was only used on holidays, set with Grandmother’s fleur di lis china and ornate sterling silver. My mother knew the names of the patterns, and loved the brown and white china. A huge oak hutch stretched along the living room wall to hold the radio (it had tubes that needed to heat up) and a color TV (same with the tubes), around which we would gather to watch The Lawrence Welk Show. My grandparents got so excited about Lawrence Welk. I’d catch the general vibe of anticipation, then become more and more confused as the show commenced through polkas, Bobby and Sissy, and so on. Why would anyone want to watch that?
The room held a beautifully upholstered tuck and roll sofa (there were matching draperies over the bay window), an oak butler’s tray coffee table, and of course, another ugly recliner for my grandfather. I thought this room was incredibly sophisticated. My mother told me the story of how Grandmother had ordered the “distressed oak” hutch top from England. A local woodworker had built the lower part of the hutch to order, and nearly cried when he had to take a bicycle chain to it before applying the finish. It had to be distressed, like the hutch top.
There was one other incredibly special part of this home, and it was the carpet. It was a wool short shag in shades of gold, and it covered the back hall, the stairs, all three bedrooms, the living and dining room. Grandmother Lucille had this carpet woven in England, all in one piece. The installers opened it up, unrolled it, and tacked it down. It fit perfectly. My mother thought this was carpet was incredible, and I have to agree. She would talk about the arrival of that carpet like it was the arrival of Christ.
And so, with its glorious details so thoroughly enshrined in my memory, is it any wonder that I couldn’t believe this house was gone? My grandparents’ home of endless doors and English wool carpet, where we spent Christmas Eves, basking in the beauty of their artificial tree with its spun cotton birds, red velvet bows and gold satin balls. Where my grandmother fixed an all-white Christmas Eve dinner for my grandfather that included oyster stew, oyster crackers, white rolls and vanilla ice cream. Where she cooked her fabulous meals and baked the best rhubarb pies and grew the sweetest tomatoes and tended her lavender lilacs and called everything “lovely.” How could this house be gone?
In my own home, I keep a little of it. The painting of the fruit basket hangs in my entry. The metal Scotty dog with the broken tail is on my bedroom bookcase, and the pewter toothpick holder is on my dining room buffet. The small antique school desk is in my living room, though the crayons are gone. And a few pieces of Grandmother’s good jewelry made their way to my keeping, because I visited her when I was fifteen and she pressed them breathlessly into my hands, wanting me to “have something.”
But the house of pegged oak floors and one-piece English wool carpeting is gone, taken by the floods of South Dakota. Everything is lost, eventually. Everything goes on. But oh, how the cradle of memory rocks us.