From the book about Southern South Dakota, Wind Chargers and Syrup Dinner Pails

Life's Treasures are the Memories

Submitted by Jan Peterka of Gilmer, TX

Born 1942


         Growing up in southeast South Dakota near Ft. Randall in Gregory County in the 1940s and 1950s provided me with memories that very few young folks of today could have. At the time, I considered my life a hardship, but in retrospect, the memories are treasures.

      I have a very close connection to the area around Ft. Randall, as all of my paternal great-grandparents were early day homesteaders near the fort. When the area opened up for homesteading, people flocked to the area to settle due to the safety from Indians by living in close proximity to the fort. In my earlier years, we had no modern conveniences such as running water, indoor plumbing, telephone, or electricity. We raised most of our own food such as beef, pork, chicken, fruits, and vegetables. Summers were spent storing food to last us through the long winters.

      Growing up isolated, led us to be adventuresome and quite inventive. For my first six years of schooling, I attended a small rural one-room school two miles from home. Many times, I rode my horse bareback to school. My dad and I had a “signal” to tell whether I’d gotten there safely. When I got to school, I would knot the reins over her neck, pat on the behind and she would go home by herself. If she came home with the reins still knotted, Dad would know that I’d arrived safely. If the reins were dragging, he’d know that there had been a problem and he would come looking for me. Luckily, that never happened. Other times, weather permitting, I could ride my bike.

      Living about a mile from the Missouri River provided me with a way to entertain myself on hot summer days. Taking my dog with me, I would walk down to the river. I loved to watch him chasing beavers that would slap their tails on the water and dive to get away from him. I could play in the sand, wade in the shallow areas, and watch small boats go by. It was so peaceful. On one of these treks when I was about 12 years old, I was walking home when passing under a large tree; I heard a noise above me. I looked up to see a bobcat on a branch about ten feet above my head and I thought he looked like he was ready to pounce. Needless to say, I took off running as fast as I could.

      We had many encounters with wild creatures such as coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and worst of all, rattlesnakes. Dad was very good with a gun and took care of the problem critters as needed. I had a close encounter with a rattlesnake when I was about eight years old. I was carrying my little two-year-old sister on my hip, taking her to our old outdoor toilet. It was just a narrow path in the weeds. All of a sudden, I heard the dreaded sound of a rattlesnake. I looked down to see it coiled just a few inches from her dangling, bare foot. I took a couple of quick steps backward (the dogs having gotten the snake’s attention) and screamed for Mom who came running and quickly dispatched the snake with a garden hoe.

      Another encounter I had was with a pair of coyotes. I had attempted to ride my bike to my aunt and uncle’s house about two miles away. I had decided to take a shortcut, but due to a recent rain, it was muddy and soon my bike wheels were plugged up with mud and I could go no farther. I had to leave the bike, and just as I was walking home, I heard coyotes howling. I looked back and a short distance away, I saw two coyotes coming in my direction. I walked faster, and when I got to the next hilltop, the coyotes were sniffing around my bike and looking my direction. I took off running for home. Meanwhile, Dad had been gone somewhere and coming home, saw my bike by the road and up ahead noticed the coyotes headed in the direction of our house. Dad became alarmed and was happy to find me safely at home.

      And then there were skunks! One day, Dad discovered that there was a skunk holed up under the large pallet under our big, round, tin grain bin. He wanted to shoot the skunk, but needed to chase it out to get a close clear shot because there were hogs on all four sides of the pallet. I was the chosen one to chase the skunk. Dad gave me a long willow pole and told me to get on my belly, wiggle under the pallet, and poke the skunk, hoping it would run out the other end. I did as told, but the skunk “shot” me before running into the barrel of Dad’s gun. I saw what was going to happen and luckily ducked, so it only got the top of my head, my arms, and shoulders. Next came a hosing down at the hydrant and a bath in Mom’s homemade tomato juice.

What my Parents Didn’t Know

      I must admit there are some things my parents never knew about. For instance, in high school, we were allowed to drive our cars around during the noon hour and several of us would go down to the nearby Ft. Randall Dam to drag race across the spillway, which was approximately a quarter mile. My old ‘47 Chevy never won.

      At night, we would play a game we called “ditch ‘em” which was hide-and-seek with cars. There were many empty houses in Pickstown and we could easily drive cars in behind them and hide. We hid from each other as well as the one and only town cop. Near Lake Andes, South Dakota, there was a steep hill on a graveled road that we called “thrill hill.” We would get up to a pretty good speed, come over the hill fast enough that the car would leave the ground a bit and bounce. The idea was to see how many times the car would bounce.

      When I had to go into town for something at night, I was to go straight there and straight home. No extra driving around. Dad would write down the mileage, so I would disconnect the speedometer when I got to my destination, do my chasing around, and then reconnect it before I started the seven-mile trip home. Being caught at any of these things would have resulted in loss of driving privileges upon the first offense.

      There are many more tales to tell, but that is life growing up among the rattlesnakes and coyotes in the hills along the big Missouri River. Life became much easier as little by little we became “modernized,” getting running water, electricity, a telephone, graveled roads, indoor plumbing and finally television. We thought we were really privileged and at last were “living the high life.”

Later Years

      Probably the most unusual twist in my life came after high school and college. After graduating from Picktown High School in 1960, I went off to college in Springfield, South Dakota, studying to become a teacher. After college, marriage, living in Wyoming for a year and having a baby, we moved back to Pickstown in 1964 where I ended up teaching many of the same students I’d attended school with only four years before. I taught fifth grade for one year, then instrumental and vocal music for two years. I started the first marching band that Pickstown had, along with writing several halftime shows for football games. The kids were so thrilled to get to march in the college homecoming parade at the college in Springfield, South Dakota. These were some wonderful kids and I am in contact with many of them today.

      The last year the school was open, my husband was the principal; consequently, he was my boss. It was a great year.

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