Any accountant will tell you that land is one of the few resources that is not depreciated. Land always has a value. Land has always had a history, and it will have a future long after this paper is written. Louis O’Donnell believed in the value of land. One of the most common things he would say in his life is that land is a good investment. The northwestern quarter of section 18 of Mellette Township in Spink County in South Dakota is the focus of our story. The legal description being the northwest quarter of section 18 township 119 in range 63.
The Indians that are first noted in the nineteenth century took claim of this land after being shuffled out of Minnesota. The Native American was always moving further west as the European settlers claimed the land. France also took claim to this land via a more politically acceptable method of the time. The United States Government opened this land for settlement, and from that point forward the story can be documented of the people and happenings of this farm. The settlers that first broke ground faced many challenges. They also triumphed.. The buildings and tools used on the farm show that it was a business. The characteristics of the farm also demonstrate that it was part of life on the farm. Hamlin Garland in his book “Sons of the Middle Border” talks about all the activities that happened in and around the barn. Garland sums up his feelings of the barnyard in this quote. “For me the grime and the mud and the sweat and the dust exist. They still form a large part of life on the farm, and I intend that they shall go into my stories in their proper proportion.” (Garland) This acreage proves to be the same. The barn is a focal point of the farm. It hosts the work as well as the play for the families. Often the pioneer life encompasses work and play.
The land was part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Napoleon offered the US more land than the government had expected. Monroe and Livingston contracted a deal for over a million acres of land for 15 million dollars. The Mississippi was a major thorough fare for trade in western United States. Following the purchase, Lewis and Clark were commissioned by the U.S. President Thomas Jefferson to investigate the land. Forts were built in many areas of the Dakota Territory to protect settlers from the natives. . The nearest fort to the farm is Fort Sisseton which lies northeast in the Couteau Hills. Fort Sisseton was originally called Fort Wadsworth before it was changed to Sisseton in honor of the tribes that resided in the area. The hilly landscape provided for a scenic view of the prairie below as well as a natural defense. There were many lakes in the area for drinking water. The lakes were named based on how far they were from the fort. Mr. Freeman grew up at Four Mile Lake and as you guessed it, it was four miles from the fort. (Freeman)
The Sioux conceded the land east of the Missouri River in an 1858 Treaty. Settlers were arriving as fast as the Railroads. The Railroad had reached halfway across the State by 1873. (Wiki) The Chief Drifting Goose Band of the Yanktonai Sioux, although mostly a peaceful people, intimidated surveyors as well as the settlers. This particular section was included in the Drifting Goose Reservation that President Hayes set aside for the tribe. Hayes revoked the reservation when more local government bodies told him that the settlers would fight for the land they homesteaded. (Harlow) This area would be the land where Abigail Gardner was held captive. Most of the credit for the tortures and crimes went to Inkpaduta. In the book A Fate Worse than Death by Michno he refers to the rescue of Abigail Gardener. “Inkpaduta moved to a large village on the James River in present-day Spink County, South Dakota. On May 30, 1857, three Wahpeton’s appeared and began a three-day bargaining session for Abigail. An expensive deal was struck, and for two horses, twelve blankets, two powder kegs, twenty pounds of tobacco, thirty-two yards of blue cloth and thirty-seven yards of calico, Abigail had new owners.” (Michno, 197) Armadale Island which was the summer home for the Drifting Goose Band lies to the north east about six miles, and is also part of Mellette Township. The large village where Inkpaduta relinquished Abigail is six miles south of the section. The Yaktonai were being pushed to the Crow Wing Reservation near Fort Thompson after the reservations were established, which lies in the southern part of the state along the Missouri River but in the spring the tribe returned to grow crops such as pumpkins and enjoy the view of the river island. (Gibbon, Freeman)
Between the years 1840-1880, Chief Drifting Goose a Yaktonai Sioux roamed this section of land. George P. Cady considered Drifting Goose a friend, or perhaps his relationship was more of a liaison to the settler’s community. George Cady worked at the bank in Mellette and was a Notary Public,(Freeman) Cady has his signature and stamp on most of the historic abstracts for the section of land.(Abstract) On the other hand, Mike O’Donnell, Coral’s grandfather, felt threatened by the chief and his tribe which numbered just over one-hundred people. Mike mentioned to his granddaughter that it made him uncomfortable when Drifting Goose would camp on the other side of the James River from Rondell, South Dakota, where Mr. O’Donnell had his first butcher shop. (Freeman) Armadale Island became a celebration ground for the white man as well as the natives. Chief Drifting Goose attended Independence Day celebrations on the island with whites and the natives. The Mellette Tribune, the local newspaper, invited people from all around to celebrate on the island. A race track was built on the island to race horses at first and then cars. As the times changed the island became a rendezvous point for the local youth to have parties. Today, Armadale Island is under water in the middle of the James River. The only sign of their ever being an island is the outline of dead trees. It has been that way for the last fifteen years. The bridge on Hwy 20 crossing the James River has been dedicated to Chief Drifting Goose just this year, 2011. The bridge has been named the Chief Drifting Goose Bridge. The local trap shooting club refers to their summer celebration as the Drifting Goose Rendezvous, as well. (Freeman) Perhaps the Yaktonai has finally received recognition for his part of shaping the area and the state.
The first US patent for Section 18 was established by Eliza I. Thompson in 1887. She becomes a widow by 1902, evident when she borrows money against the land, where she is referred to as a widow in the abstract log. (Abstract) She arrived in South Dakota from Wisconsin where she was born and raised. (Census) In the Prairie Echo’s history of Spink County, Dana Harlow mentions that there was a good sized gathering of Catholics that had come from Wisconsin to homestead land and start the All Saints Catholic Church in Mellette. Perhaps this is how and why the Thompson’s came to settle here. (Harlow) The patent states she received 159 acres give or take. This would be just the northwest corner of section 18. She raised three children by herself Lauren, Mabel, and Floyd. (Census) Lauren the oldest would be only seven when he loses his father. Eliza’s husband Charles does not appear on the homestead documents. Charles homesteaded other quarters of land in the township. (Bureau) Upon Eliza’s death her oldest son Lauren Richard Thompson takes the farm over, he is in his forties. Lauren marries Ivy Veatch a girl from Conde, just twenty miles to the east of the farm. The Thompson’s were not unlike most of the pioneers of the prairie. They survived the blizzards of 1880, 1887 and 1888, which left flooding on the James River which lies east of the farm less than two miles away. (Kingsbury) The crops were good in the eighties, and they continued to be good into the 1920’s. They rejoiced when South Dakota became a state in 1889 after much debate and strife.(Spink) The crops continue to prosper during the 1900’s and 1910’s, although some of the land is mortgaged to cover the taxes from year to year.(Spink, Harlow) The community deals with the influx of the railroad. The Minneapolis and St Louis railroad is opened in 1884 running east to west from Crandall SD to the Missouri River in Le Beau SD. The Milwaukee railroad was already in service in a north to south route running north to Aberdeen, and south to Redfield. (Hofsommer, 92) The local farmers seek to have representation with the Railroads by sending Harry Hunter of Mellette to Pierre as State Representative in 1881. The farmers think the railroads are impeding the crops getting to market. After it is all said and done Harry Hunter becomes a lobbyist for the railroads at the State Capital in Pierre. The problems with the railroads are not resolved to the farmer’s expectations. In 1881, US President Garfield is assassinated. The state stands by to see what happens with the Indian Treaties under President Arthur, as well as the continuing debate over statehood for Dakota Territory. The invention of the car at first brought new goods to deliver, but it also called for road construction. The people wanted to drive their own vehicles on the newly developed roads and the passenger train in South Dakota would be no more. (Kingsbury)
Lauren Thompson and his wife continue to farm into the 1930’s. Lauren had issues with gambling. The farm suffered because of this and during the twenties Lauren was forced to mortgage some of the acreage at times, and it shows that at times he would come across money to be able to pay off all his debtors. Lauren R Thompson passes away in March of 1935. Ivy, his wife, spends several months in court hashing out the probate and bankruptcy of the farm. (Freeman, Oberle, Petition)
The first barn on the farm burns. A new barn is built to the south of the old barn. The new barn is paid for in 1929 from the Crandall Lumber Company which is thirty miles to the east of the farm. (Affidavit) The part numbers on the pulleys and the hay knife link back to the Menasha Wood Split Pulley Company in Menasha Wisconsin. The town of Menasha is located on Lake Winnebago southwest of Green Bay. The town is still known for making wood products. (Menasha)
The town of Crandall as well as Mellette is on the Minneapolis & St Louis Railroad which is the most likely way that the materials for the new barn are delivered to the farm. The railroad was established in 1884, but by today the sign of there ever being a railroad has all but disappeared. (WPA, 68) The current Northwestern High School football field sits where the “M&StL” line ran through Mellette. (Freeman) This would be south of current Hwy 20 running parallel with the road. The town of Mellette lies three miles northwest of the farm. Mellette was named after the last Governor of the Dakota Territory and the first Governor of the State of South Dakota (Harlow) Governor Arthur Calvin Mellette resided in Watertown which lies to the southeast about 80 miles. A.C. Mellette served as the register at the United States Land Office in Watertown. (Wiki-AC Mellette)
The barn was most likely built during a barn-raising with the help of neighbors. There were many barn raisings on the prairie and the neighbors looked out for one another. (Freeman) Western barns are very common on the South Dakota prairie, but the barn of today isn’t utilized like it was in the early twentieth century. The latest in innovation for 1929 was the pre-built pieces of the plank barn. The plank barn was built with screws and bolts, but the rebuilt barn is made with trusses and nails. This would give more proof that the barn was built in the old fashioned way, and may have required more help than just a few people. The traditions of use and mechanical function of the old fashioned method are lost from memory. The barn was a place for doing business, but it was also a hub for the family. The days of pulling the plow with the horses ended with a brush down and cool down walk with the team. It was work, but there was time for rest to enjoy the weather, or to take part in the fruits of the harvest. The well-maintained barn was a sign of prosperity, especially if there was a house built on the farm. (Johnson).
The barn on section 18 is a common Prairie Barn, or Western Barn. (Auer) The floor plan is a 36’ X 36’ standard layout with one box stall and three standard stalls on the west side of the main hall. The eastside has two standard stalls a staircase leading to the haymow and under the stairs is a door way to the original “lean to”. North of the stairs is room for horse tack and horse feed. The east” lean to” was built along with the 1929 barn. The west” lean to” was added in 1976 with Steve Roberts, contractor. Both of the "lean tos" have cement floors, although the main barn does not have a cement floor. It only has cement under the frame of the barn. The back door of the main barn leads out to the pasture. The Prairie Barn is greatly influenced by the Dutch and English. The English adopted Dutch techniques for the barns on the prairie. (Upton) The O’Donnell’s and Freeman’s used the main barn mostly for raising horses and cattle. The “lean to” was used for sheep and pigs. The pig lot extended out from the west side of the barn. The “lean to” included slot doors where the door lifts from the top so that the pigs and sheep can be separated quickly by releasing the wood panel back down in place. Shortly after the 1976 construction a door from the main barn to the west “lean to” was added through the box stall. Currently, the barn is being used for storage. Mr. Freeman stores two boats and a pickup topper, and other miscellaneous. The west “lean to” houses a few cars covered in dust and a woodstove in the northwest corner. It looks as though the car mechanic just quit working one day and no one has touched the stuff since. (Freeman)
The main barn is built with a gambrel roof. The pentice sticks out about six to eight feet on the north side of the barn. This feature is what makes it a Prairie or Western barn. (Auer) The pentice is the extended mechanics of the haymow door where the point of the roof sticks out over the large door.
The barn has a track at the very top that controls the large haymow door. The hay slings are also controlled on the track. It delivers the hay from the ground to the second level. A series of pulleys control the door with a rope from the top of the door through a metal brace on the door to the first pulley that runs along the ceiling rollers.
This pulley will extend out to the pentice as well as most of the length of the haymow. The second pulley is attached to the south opposite end of the barn. The rope continues down through a hole in the floor of the haymow to a pulley on the floor of the main level of the barn. When in use the rope would continue through the main ally of the barn out to the harnessed horses.
Showing the tongue of the harness for the horse team.
The horses would hold the door in place by pulling away from the main alley door. When the haymow door was ready to be opened the horses were backed up to loosen the slack. The haymow door top would slide out along the pulley; the rope on the pulley would guide the hinged door down so that it folded down from the top. At that point the hay slings would be used on the roller track and pulleys.
Hay Sling stored in the haymow.
The hay sling could haul one ton of hay from the ground, along the pulley and rollers and deliver the bales to the floor where the farmer could unload and stack them into the haymow. Most of the other doors on the barn are on a slide roller. Two slide doors allow for easy access to the lower areas of the haymow. This allowed for filling the beginning levels of hay from a truck parked just beneath the slide door. The main alley doors at both ends are also on a slide roller.
The haymow has holes above the feed bunks in the stalls to drop hay to the horses or cattle. The haymow comes complete with a short handled straw scythe or hay knife to loosen the hay that gets compacted at the bottom. (Freeman)
Many of the same kinds of barns included two features that this barn is lacking. The cupola which is the ornate metal piece that sits at the top of the roof. It includes a rotating cylinder that allows for heat to escape from the barn. Sometimes barns include more than one of these. The Farm Mechanics periodical mentions that smaller barns didn’t need a cupola. The other item is lightning rods. Most builders felt that lightning rods were absolutely necessary for the building. (Johnson) It is possible that these were removed somewhere along the way in the life of the barn. The farmer, Lauren Thompson, was having money difficulties so many shortcuts may have been taken to reduce cost. It is also worthy to note that there were many lumber companies closer to the farm then the Crandall Lumber Co.(Affidavit) Crandall may have been the nearest location that would provide credit to Lauren.
The large porcelain sign that indicated the location of the lumber company.
During the early thirties the Lauren Thompson family continues to struggle with the farm. This was happening to not only the Thompson’s but most of the nation. The Great Depression was being felt by the nation, but the biggest problem for the Thompson’s was the dust storms. Up until the 1930’s the Dakota land was farmed the same as east coast farmers and used farming techniques from the country they originated, mostly western European. The result of the dirty thirties made farmers think about how to keep the ground from blowing around. South Dakota is known for its wind, and drought. This would continue to be a problem without a change in farming techniques. Wind erosion became a bigger problem with human cultivation. Over the next fifty years farmers change their methods. Rows of trees were planted down the length of fields to slow down the wind-blown materials as well as leave the snow melt in the fields. The determination was that the best way to retain water in the area was to have vegetative matter growing in the areas. Farmers left field stubble in the fields during winter until spring when they would till and plant fields. It was determined that it didn’t matter if the vegetation was alive or dead. Further along other methods are utilized. No till or low till cultivation eliminated the need for plows. The grain was planted in stubble fields where the field was only disked to break up the earth enough to plant seed. New crops were introduced such as soybeans, and sunflowers providing for the rotation of broad leaf crops with grass type crops such as wheat. These crops required different nutrients from the ground so they were used in rotation to avoid depletion of healthy soil. Nitrogen would be the biggest nutrient that is depleted from soil during cultivation. The soil in and around the James River Valley including section 18 is sandy loam. The land seldom yields a rock to inhibit field work. (USDA) Mrs. Freeman says this type of soil is favorable for crop growing. (Freeman)
The Thompson farm continues to be mortgaged to pay for the taxes during the early thirties, and in some years the taxes are not paid by any means. Lauren Thompson passes away in March of 1935. Lauren’s wife Ivy relinquishes any interest in the farm to H.W. Flint and his wife Jane who are residents of Sioux Falls SD for one dollar and value. (Bankruptcy) It was common at the time not to disclose actual dollars on publicly available documents. Privacy was very important to the cultures of the area and the time. (Freeman)
The farm goes back to Spink County and the State of South Dakota sometime between 1936 and 1944. There are no records of taxes or ownership until 1944 when Leland and Kittie Keiser purchase the farm from the county. The Keiser’s never lived on the farm. They were residents of Conde. They leased the farm to Milton Foster, who was a bachelor share-cropper at the time. This was a short lived arrangement. (Deed, Oberle)
Louis and Stella O’Donnell, Coral Ann Freeman’s parents, purchased the house from the Keiser's in September of 1948. The house had not been lived in for some time when the O’Donnell’s moved in. Stella mentioned that they spent many days cleaning the house with her daughter, Coral, and her good friend, Hazel. Stella was first generation American Dutch and grew up in Ashton a town 8 miles south of the farm. Stella’s father and mother came from Finken, Netherlands for the second time on the 4th of April of 1912. (New York) They were custodians of the church in the Netherlands, but they did odd jobs such as carpentry in the US. Louis grew up in Rondell, and Mellette. His father, Mike, ran the grocery store and butcher shop in each of these towns. Mike emigrated from Canada just before the turn of the century. He did not become a US citizen until July of 1945. (US Naturalization) He states on his WW1 Draft record that he was a citizen of Canada. (WW1) Louis’ mother, Francis was a descendent of the Mayflower Compact signer, John Howland. Mike and Francis would divorce in the twenties. The crux was most likely the death of their daughter Laura who suffered from black diphtheria. Laura suffered from this disease in 1921 prior to penicillin becoming a regular means to treat illness in rural areas. (Abstract, Freeman)
Louis and Stella had two daughters Coral and Joy and one son Michael. Coral and Joy attended the Morgan school which was on the northeast quarter of section 18. It was less than a mile to school, but it really was all up hill. Their grade school years were at the one room school house, but both girls graduated from high school. Coral graduated from Mellette High School. Joy graduated from Northwestern High School which was a combined school from neighboring communities. The population was decreasing. It was necessary to merge schools. As the years have gone by, the number of communities that are part of the cooperative have increased. (Harlow) Their son Michael would only live a few days. Stella and Coral would call him a “blue baby”. This would be a treatable problem in today’s world, but it is a heart defect. It was untreatable in 1937 in rural South Dakota. (Freeman)
The O’Donnell’s had lived on a rented farm southeast of this section. They saved up many years before purchasing the farm on Section 18. Louis worked for the Rural Electric Company installing high wires to help contribute to the savings. In letters he sends to his wife he talks about the cost of glass, and the camaraderie of the crews from all over the Dakotas. The glass was for the insulators on the electric lines. Stella stays behind on the rented farm serving meals from only the items they could raise. Eggs from the chickens they raised were the most common source of protein. Stella would say many times that if eggs were bad for you she would have died long before now. (O’Donnell) In the historical documents for the farm is a bill of sale dated 1942. It is a bill of sale from Louis to his wife. The payment for the sale is “One dollar - assistance with the milk route and other valuable considerations.” (Bill of Sale) I asked Coral what she thought the document was about. She mentioned that the bank witnesses were all Louis’ good friends, George P Cady, and Montgomery Cliff. She speculated that it was Louis apologizing for bad behavior and his willingness to change his ways by giving Stella all the control of any belongings he possessed. It was also noted that the May 2nd date was the day before Stella’s birthday. Louis was known to have a wild streak. He ran moonshine during prohibition, he had no fear of high places, and he loved to break horses as well. (Freeman)
Louis and Stella continued to farm Section 18. They acquired other land to farm by purchase, and by renting, or share-cropping. In 1970, Louis was diagnosed with Lymphoma Cancer. He hired his son-in-law Orrin Freeman to work the farm as well as provide for his wife, Stella, when he passed. That same year the Freeman’s moved to the house on Section 18, and Louis and Stella took the house in Mellette that the Freeman’s had been living in. (Freeman)
The original house on the farm was hauled away to a farm near Richmond, South Dakota in the seventies and replaced by a more modern split level home. The building was started in 1972 the contractor was Dean Christenson. The last billing statement for the farm house was delivered in 1976 from Dean Christenson of Warner SD for additional materials for about three thousand dollars less any payments already made. (Christenson) The new house cost approximately twenty thousand dollars and took four years to complete. (Freeman)
In August of 1972 Louis succumbs to cancer. Louis was 59 years old, three months short of his sixtieth birthday. Orrin and Coral Ann Freeman and family continue to farm the section under a share crop agreement. This allows for economic support for Stella as well as the Freeman family. Orrin Freeman is also a school teacher in Mellette at Northwestern High School teaching math at the junior high and high school level. Coral works for a telemarketing firm, and hotel reservation firm after their children are out of high school. This agreement continued until 2006 when Stella needs nursing home care. Some of the land was sold to pay for the nursing home care. Stella passes in April of 2010. Orrin and Coral Ann Freeman are able to maintain ownership of the land in the north western corner of Section 18. They continue to farm section 18 as well as one other quarter that they lease. They are currently in their seventies and thinking more about retirement and traveling. During the interview, Coral and Orrin show me a brochure of a trip to Cape Cod. Perhaps they will learn some more about Coral’s link to the Mayflower Compact and John Howland. (O’Donnell, Freeman) They raise four children, and their grandchildren continue to enjoy the land for work and play. During Mr. Freeman’s interview his grandson, Nicholas was painting the buildings red. Red would be a traditional color for most barns, and dairies traditionally have white barns. (Auer)
Undoubtedly, the farm is ready for a new change, but what that change will be is certainly any bodies guess. Mr. Freeman has resigned the barn to be a storage building as well as shelter for the many pheasant chicks he raises each fall and winter.
The Native Americans in the area for the most part have adapted to the settlers ways. Most of them are no longer full blooded Native Americans. They can trace their roots to many European countries as well as different tribes that lived in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
The Railroads are not as many, but in the fall when the harvest is in full swing the grain car trains are long and often. The grain elevators look more like skyscrapers, and the wind turbines have arrived. During the day, the turbines look like robots from a Star Wars movie. At night it looks more like a spaceship runway off on the Coteau Hills. Mrs. Freeman isn’t very happy about the grain elevator that has been built in the last decade on the south side of Mellette. She calls it an eye sore.
The farm house has been maintained over the years. The most recent changes for the farm house have been a new metal roof installed in 2010. Also, the owners have introduced the internet to the farm house. During the last year the Freeman’s have used AT&T, then Verizon, and finally James Valley TV to be their internet service provider. It has been a struggle to maintain communication through the internet as well as cellphone reception.
The history of the land is very intriguing. Section 18 is no exception. The author uncovered information that was mostly hard to believe without validation in black and white. Land always has a value. The beginning of the farm was a patent which cost a few dollars for the entire quarter, it reached a mortgage value of about $30 an acre in just a little more than a decade. In the late 1940’s the value of land is anywhere from $60-$90 an acre. The land has increased tenfold today. The O’Donnell’s, the Thompson’s, The Keiser’s, and the Freeman’s have all left a legacy for the next generation. The land has been marked. The author also finds it interesting that this particular section of land was owned more by a woman then a man. Pioneer life apparently was a little more tolerant with women in the work place. Of course, the author realizes that the spouse homesteading a quarter of land allowed for larger farms for one family.
There is more to uncover in this story as well. Lauren Richard Thompson died at the age of fifty years old, how did he die?
The story has uncovered very little about Charles Thompson. How did Charles meet Eliza and where did he come from?
The Flint’s retained the land after 1936 but did they ever farm it, and what happened that the land went back to the county before 1944?
Why did Louis write up a Bill of Sale to Stella in 1942?
The future is a mystery yet to unfold.