Early Days of South Dakota, The Dry Years Part IV
Opp, Daniel D. "Early Days of South Dakota, The Dry Years Part IV." Prairies 8, no. 10: May 1985, 12-14, 16-19.
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In the first three parts of “Early Days in South Dakota,”
Daniel D. Opp vividly describes his own joy and frustrations as
he arrived as a boy at the vast prairies of Dakota Territory in
In this final installment of the series, Opp records some of the
despair he and others felt during the traumatic 1890s:
As I have previously mentioned, in 1888 we had very good times.
However, we know that after good years, poor crops usually follow.
That was the case the ensuing year.
In 1888, many of the first settlers, who had no horses, bought
some. No longer did they have to hitch on ox team to the hayrake
or sled to drive to church, as they once had to do. But horses were
high, from $400 to $500 per team.
Those who could pay for them were fortunate, but many were not
in a position to do so and could only pay one-half of the purchase
price, depending moreorless on the security they could offer. If
the horse dealer agreed to it, then they not only took the horses,
but also the proved up pre-emption claims, 160 acres of land, into
the mortgage, the papers running from one to two years.
The year 1889 produced little in crops. Prices were
low, as they are at the present time [Opp wrote this
journal during the drought-filled 1930s], and the
debts for horses and other items often could not be
paid. The creditor had to be satisfied with the interest
and such part of the principal as the farmer could
We now pass over the year 1890. The winter was dry and cold, with
only a little snow. We did not have many cattle to feed, and our
work was quickly done. Whenever we wanted a little enjoyment, we
neighbor boys came together, one day at this and the next at that
farmer. Then we hitched up a pair of three- or four-year-old oxen,
which were broken for driving. They were quite wild and had to be
caught and trained, which we enjoyed immensely.
Since I have told about the training of steers, I will relate about
a true event, which happened at that time east of Leola:
A farmer of advanced years and his son, John, in addition to a
pair of horses, had a four-year-old steer, which, however, had not
been broken in for work. One day they wanted to cut wheat with the
horses, but the work for the two horses on the binder was too hard.
Then the father said to his son, “We will break in the steer
and hitch him up with the horses.”
John, on the first instant, could not quite understand this and
asked: “But how are we going to break the steer?”
The father, however, had already made his plan and said to his
son: “Go and get the steer. I will tend to the rest.”
He still had an old yoke and a small sled, which was made ready.
Then the father was yoked up with the steer. The father put his
head through the yoke on the right side, and the steer was yoked
on the left side. Afterwards, the son took the rope to lead the
They were ready to go, and they went much faster than they had
expected. The steer made a mighty jump and dragged his teammate
with him until John finally halted everyone, hastening to his father
to release him from the yoke.
“No, no,” replied the father. “Release the steer
first. I will lie perfectly still.”
Similar events like that happened quite frequently.
But now to come back to my subject again. Spring came as usual,
and everyone helped put in the seed. Everyone tried to put as much
as possible into the ground, for all were confident that we would
get a better crop than in the previous year.
But the spring, like the winter, was dry. Most of the seed did
not come up. The breaking up of the land had to be discontinued
on account of the drought. There would have been no object continuing
the work, because the flax could not have come up for it just would
Thus it was the entire summer. One day like the other. Nothing
but hot winds. And the heat was almost unendurable.
As a result, of course, everything dried up. The year 1890 was
a total failure.
Many farmers received neither wheat nor potatoes. For the first
settlers, it was not quite so serious, for some of them had several
head of cattle to sell. The price was ridiculously low, but the
necessities of life were also low.
It was hard for those who had just settled here a year or two earlier—and
for two years had had no crop.
Many men walked 150 miles to look for work. But usually
there were more workers than work. They were advised,
however, to remain and that the other workers would
be changed so that all might earn a little. Yet after
three days, when it was there turn again, they had
nothing left of what they had earned, because what
they had earned had just about covered their board
bill. They worked for a big threshing outfit.
Despondent and discouraged, they returned home to their families,
who for some time had been without bread.
Compared to the present, those really were hard times. The present
times are not so bad that we have to go hungry, for we have always
had enough to eat, only we cannot do as we would like to.
In 1890, the poverty of many people was so great that it cannot
be described. In the fall, the creditors demanded their money, but
since most of them did not have any, they took away all they had.
The horse dealers also demanded their money or else what they had
After much begging and pleading, an extension was given on the
condition that another quarter of land was put on the mortgage,
or, sometimes, even the entire property which the debtor possessed.
It actually happened that a pair of horses was sold, on which the
debtor had paid nearly the full amount. The horse dealer not only
took the horses away from him, but also two quarter sections of
land, and later sold the land for $5,000.
There was another concrete case where a horse dealer, for a debt
of $60, took a quarter section of land from the debtor and sold
it for $5,600. In such a manner, a single horse dealer acquired
more than 100 quarter sections of land.
At that time, many provisions –such as corn, flour, and clothing—were
sent for the poor people from the southern parts of
the state. But the poor received the least of it.
Those who were best provided, who talk big everywhere
in the world, they were the ones who were in the front
rank and took the best away, while the poor and timid
had to stand in the rear and look on.
In those days, there were prosperous, yes, even rich, people in
the old home in South Russia, to whom the poor relatives here in
America appealed in their distress.
But their appeal died away without being heard. Yet, not all, for
some replied and said: “Why did you not stay in Russia? You
sought something better, and now see to it how you get along.”
By the same token, when the distress later was so great in Russia,
and they requested help from the Americans, we did not think about
their negative words and letters, but helped them to the best of
our abilities, rendering good for evil and saving thousands in Russia
from starvation by our help. In a proverb it is said, “Much
can be forgiven, but not forgotten.”
To all our misery another dread was added that fall, namely the
report that the Sioux had broken out to massacre the white settlers.
That, naturally, cause great confusion, especially among the people
living near the Missouri River, close to where the Indians lived.
Hundreds left their homes with their children and all they possessed,
fleeing in wagons to Eureka.
It was during the last days of November, at a time when many had
slaughtered their hogs. Reports were circulated that many of the
fugitives threw all of their meat, and even their flour, into wells
so that it would not fall into the hands of the Sioux.
It was even reported that a family lost one of its children, who
had fallen from the wagon in their flight, and although the mother
pleaded with her husband to turn back and save the child, the husband
in his fright whipped the horses and cried: “Forward, forward!
Better lose one than all!”
(But I have my doubts that such a story is true.)
Many sent their women and children from Eureka by train to Aberdeen,
while the men remained at home and awaited the things that were
I also was on guard at home for the nights with my own.
In reality, there was not much to the matter. After the leader,
Chief Sitting Bull, along with seven of his followers, had been
killed by our soldiers at Standing Rock on December 15, 1890, the
7th Cavalry had only a short combat on December 28th at Wounded
Knee, at which time the Indians were defeated and the war was over.
The Christmas holidays were a rather quiet and miserable affair,
for as we did not live in luxury like so many of the present day,
we entered the new year of 1891 with a heavy heart, wondering what
it would have in store for us.
Thus we lived into the winter and heavy frost held nature in bonds,
the cold holding everything in rigid lifelessness. Nature mourned
and the white snow seemed to enfold the corpse like eternal slumber.
But when in spring the sun ascended and the balmy winds blew, when
the lifegiver sent his warm rays over the hills and valley, then
the fetters of frost dissolved and the warmth of life penetrated
man and beast, and, yes, even the depths of the earth, quickening
the roots to new life. Grass and blossoms sprouted forth as a sign
of hopeful fertility. All that had breath lived and moved and rejoiced
in life. Even the songs of the feathered songsters arose again in
the tunes of jubilation to the creator.
That spring, many a farmer had no seed, and so the county commissioners
at the time were compelled to buy seed wheat and distribute it among
the poorest farmers so that they could seed their land.
In the early spring, we had only sufficient moisture in the ground
for the seed to come up, but soon it was very dry again. Hope for
a good crop faded.
But when the need is greatest, help is nearest.
On the evening of May 21st we had a soaking rain. From that time
on, there was no lack of moisture the entire summer. The weather
was favorable so that we harvested a big crop in 1891. That raised
the spirits of the farmers considerably. It also rained much of
the fall, and the farmers were able to plow all of their land.
The threshing season was prolonged, because there were only a few
machines. We finished threshing on the 10th of November and pulled
our machine home the same evening.
It was in due time for the next morning we had a real snowstorm,
which steadily increased. We had a hard winter before us. That was
no agreeable task for us because we had much wheat to haul to town.
Frequently, 30 to 40 sleds, loaded with wheat, would be seen, one
following the other, on the way to Eureka.
I also went to Eureka every day, if possible, until Christmas.
By then, my time was up with Valentine Mettler, for whom I had worked
the past year.
I previously mentioned that in 1891 we had a good crop, and that
the soil was in good condition for 1898. Due to favorable weather,
we also had a good crop in 1892. That year many “headers”
were bought. My father also bought one for $180, although we had
eight horses, yet four of them, were too young, and so we had to
hitch four oxen to the header for the harvesting of the big crop.
Horses were very high at that time. Those who had any took the
best care of them. Every farmer endeavored to have the nicest horses.
For that purpose, the best full-blooded stallions of different breeds
Horse breeding increased to such an extent that by 1915 it had
reached the highest point in the northwest.
But what has become of the noble horse on which our fathers greatly
prided themselves? Yes, not only the men, but also the feminine
gender took pleasure in the proud steeds.
When a man drove into the yard with a pair of fine horses and asked
the parents for the hand of the daughter of the house, he shortly
received their consent. But how they have fallen, the proud steeds
of whom so often some of the great poets have sung in inspired words!
They had to surrender their rank to make room for a dead tin box,
so that the guides may strut about on good roads. Though if, in
spring, the soil is too wet, and the roads too muddy, then the half-starved
horses are good enough to do the hard work!
It is a fact that many horses are deprived of the necessary feed
so that gasoline can be bought for the gas steed. Yes, it is a deplorable
picture when you see some horses at work these days, especially
if you remember how faithfully they served the first pioneers.
We will now go back to 1893 and 1894 when we had a small crop,
and in 1895 a little better, in 1896 and 1897 fairly good crops,
but in 1898 a total failure. From 1899 to 1908 and 1909, we had
fairly good crops—very good the last two.
Prosperity could readily be observed for wherever one went, new
churches and schools were built. In the farm yards were to be found
large homes, barns, and granaries, which were neatly painted either
red or white.
Indeed, there was hot competition among the people. Everyone tried
to outdo the other. The ascendancy of the farmer’s weal became
noticeable in industry everywhere. Cattle breeds were improved by
full-blooded breeds where cream could be sold at a good price. From
time to time, more corn was planted and more hogs were raised. It
truly could be called mixed farming. The farmer was no longer entirely
dependent on wheat. A failure as we had in 1911 did not have any
effect. From that time on, we had fairly good crops so that, whatever
the price, many farmers not only become prosperous but attained
riches as well.
Out of that wild prairie a home and a land had been created, in
which milk and honey flowed. The prairie states tasted success up
to the calamitous war of 1914-1918. At that time, America coveted
honors, which, however, left a sour taste in the mouth. But that
was not enough. The hypocritical prohibition was forced upon the
neck of the free people and country, putting the stamp of hypocrisy
upon honest citizens.
Other problems emerged. Business stagnated. The entire nation was
brought to the brink of ruin. To use a nice expression, it was called
That is like pressing a man who is in a situation where he cannot
go ahead, and then pressing him with a still harder kick from the
rear. Yet there are people who look upon “prohibition”
as progress for our nation. Indeed, it would be laughable if it
were not so sad.
Before we come to a close, I want to say that much has been written
lately about pioneers. But if you want to know who those pioneers
are or were, then go to the cemeteries. Most are buried there. As
a testimony, you can read their monuments. They did not reach a
high age. Only a few attained an age over 50, or, at best, an age
of 60. Death was the usual reward for the burden and work they experienced
during the 1880s.
Therefore, the Lord has called them away early so that they might
not see so many things which they built up by the sweat of their
brow now trodden underfoot. Yes, they have gone to their reward,
but they still live in the memory of those who knew and have sung
Of’t the days were dark and dreary,
On the long pilgrimage of life,
By all the grief made faint and weary
And many a heartache, caused by strife.
They have passed on through tribulation,
And the time of distress is o’er,
To the Lord be praise and adoration,
Who was their Helper evermore.