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Early Days of South Dakota Fire and Smoke/Ruin and Death, Part III

Opp, Daniel D. "Early Days of South Dakota Fire and Smoke/Ruin and Death, Part III." Prairies 8, no. 9: April 1985, 10-16.

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In parts I and II of the Opp family saga, Daniel Opp described his impressions as a young boy when he and his parents arrived at a near empty and awesome frontier—the prairies of McPherson County in 1884.

Opp’s narrative of those early days in Dakota Territory (which he wrote in the 1930s) continues with his recalling both sad and humorous incidents of pioneer life—and the excitement when statehood was granted.


Yes, the first part of the summer of 1887 was very dry and the prospects for a good crop soon vanished. Most of the people did not have much to eat, and due to poor prospects, no credit in any form was extended.

Butter was three cents a pound, and eggs five cents a dozen. So you can easily imagine that an empty cupboard was steward. Most of the children had no shoes and the clothing was worn out. It was, indeed, a desolate spectacle.

However, when the need is greatest, God is nearest.

On the evening of June 28th, dark clouds became visible on the western horizon, which piled up higher and higher and assumed colors. The flashing lightning and the constantly rolling thunder came nearer, until the gates of heaven were opened and the rain came down in torrents, so that in a short time, all the low places looked like lakes. There was a succession of heavy rains, and because the weather was so favorable, we still had a fairly good crop, with the exception of flax, which did not come up until after the rain and was killed by frost in the fall.

During the summer of 1887, the roadbed of the Soo Railroad was constructed from Aberdeen to Bismarck. The contractors, however, had brought their own laborers. Therefore, our people received little employment. The Milwaukee Railroad also completed its roadbed that fall to Eureka, which, of course, was hailed with great joy. When Eureka was established, the buildings shot up like mushrooms out of the ground. In a very short time, wheat not only could be sold, but also all the necessities of life could be purchased there. Located in the center of four surrounding counties, Eureka had a big boom and became a lively town, doing considerable business. Very soon, it became known as the largest wheat market in the world.

Winter came rather early again with severe cold and much snow. Big storms were the order of the day. The worst was on January 12th, 1888. The storm has since been recorded as the “largest blizzard” in the history of South Dakota. Not less than 200 souls, in three states, South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota, became victims of the blizzard in 1888.

South Dakota was hardest hit, with 91 lives lost, mostly school children. When the blizzard struck, the teachers dismissed the scholars, and of several schools in the southern part of the state, the teachers and their scholars lost their lives in that storm. Some families lost from four to five children or all they had, due to the short-sightedness of the teachers, who should not have dismissed the children in such a storm, but should have kept them in the schoolhouse.

They should have followed the method of a certain teacher, who did not permit her scholars to leave the building. A little boy began to cry and was determined to go home. When the teacher saw that all the warnings were useless, she said, “Alright! If you will walk around the schoolhouse three times, I will let you go home.”

The little fellow agreed. The teacher let him go, but not alone. She went out with him and held on to him, so that he could not get lost. That was a good lesson. Before he made the first round, he quickly decided that he did not want to risk going home. (Many a teacher, even at the present time, might profit by that example.)

Cattle were lost in the storm, too. And not by the hundreds, but by the thousands. Those people who did not see and live through that terrible blizzard could have no conception of its fury. We had so much snow that the buildings could no longer be seen. I saw tunnels 80 feet long, through which cattle were driven under the snow from the stable to the well and back again.

That mass of snow remained on the ground until April, when it was finally devoured by the sun. That the field was late that spring, the reader may well imagine. But the crop of 1888 was one of the best we have had up to the time of this writing, and would to God that we might have another abundant crop like in 1888, for that would put an end to the present woe and lamentation.

All the crops of that year were of the best quality. The price of wheat went up to $1.15 per bushel, and was paid for mostly in gold, because little paper money was to be seen.

It would easily be noticed that farmers and merchants were satisfied. Most of them could pay their old debts, which was sufficient cause for rejoicing.

A newly arrived immigrant is the example of the above-mentioned situation. In the spring, he had to buy everything he needed for farming, but could pay down only a small amount. For one debt he contracted, he had to mortgage everything he had. Then he discovered he had no harrow, and so off he went to Eureka to the well-known businessman and financier, Chas. (Tscharley) Pfeffer. Since the struggling immigrant had already bought all of his other implements from Pfeffer, he told him about his difficulties. Mr. Pfeffer asked him if he had any more heifers at home, to which the man replied that he had.

“Well and good,” replied Mr. Pfeffer. “We will take the two heifers into the mortgage.”

However, since the heifers had no names, the farmer had to specify the color, and the color was specified as light and dark brown. When the farmer paid his debt in the fall, he said to Mr. Pfeffer: “But Tscharley! It really is fortunate that we have an abundant crop, otherwise you would not have gotten anything for your harrow, for one of the haefen is broken!”

Through a misunderstanding, Pfeffer the businessman had not taken two heifers into the mortgage as he had thought, but instead had signed for two heafen, that is, two stone jars.

But Mr. Pfeffer was by no means put out by the incident because he and his brother-in-law, William Brameier, were two untiring businessmen who worked day and night. And did they not own the bank and a large implement business?

Due to the growth of Eureka and the surrounding countryside, Pfeffer realized the need and the importance of a flour mill. He took the matter in hand during the summer and by fall the mill was in operation. It was of great benefit for the farmers. The farmers could trade in his wheat for cheap and good flour, and would not have to pay a double price for it. Because of these undertakings, Eureka soon became the mecca for the farmers in the neighboring counties. Business was in full swing. Most everybody was happy and content. It helped too that diseases were practically unknown. Colds occurred very seldom—because most of the people were poorly clothed and never got warm enough to catch a cold!

High blood pressure was also unknown, which we must attribute to the lean and simple food. Even more important, during the summer, the good Lord provided plenty of mosquitoes, and they certainly drained our blood and kept the blood pressure down. That is the reason why at that time we had no doctor bills to pay for that disease.

Thus we lived, souls content. With a cheerful mind, we anticipated the coming winter, which obligingly approached mildly. That time, Santa Claus remembered us at Christmas, and we did not go by empty-handed. And so we entered the new year of 1889 in the best frame of mind.

VII

For many, the year of 1889 was an unfortunate one. The winter, however, was not severe and so fieldwork was begun as early as March 15th. But the spring was very dry. And on the second of April, we had such a violent storm, the like of which we had not seen before or since that time. The air was so full of smoke and dust that we had to light lamps at noon.

During the windstorm, a prairie fire had broken out about nine miles southwest of nearby Ashley, North Dakota, the fire sweeping madly through the hilly grasslands and destroying everything in its path. And it headed directly for the little town of Leola!

The inhabitants of Leola said at the time, because of the dust and smoke, they did not see the fire until the town’s first buildings were in flames. No less than 84 buildings were destroyed. Only five buildings remained undamaged.

Two lives were also lost. One, a man by the name of G.N. Olds, who lived three miles west from Leola. He was plowing with an ox team when he spotted the flames rushing toward him. He ran back to his home to save his wife and children, but he could not find them. They too had seen the fire and had fled to a plowed field, which, in such cases, was the safest place. But in the meantime, the unfortunate husband in his confusion and fear for his loved ones, ran back and forth on the prairie searching for them, until he finally became prey of the flames. He was discovered, crawling on his hands and feet, badly burned. He died several hours later.

The other victim was T.H. Wadell, who lived ten miles southeast of Leola. He happened to be in his house when he noticed the fire. He hastened into his yard, and, to his dismay, discovered that his barn was on fire. He had earlier put his horses in the barn, and he rushed to the fiery building to try to save them. When he returned from the barn, his home was also in flames. Looking for his wife, who in the meantime had left the house, Wadell contracted such severe burns that he also died, but only after having suffered excruciating pain for two weeks.

Yes, many families were completely ruined on that sorrowful day.

Most of the inhabitants of Leola had fled to the railroad track where there was no grass, and so they remained unharmed. But it was a terrible day for everyone, nevertheless. Most of them new settlers, standing out in the storm, surrounded by dust, fire, smoke, and ashes, seeing the devastation with their own eyes, well knowing that all their possessions were going up in flames.

With but a few possessions, all were suddenly without shelter. Nor was there any to be had, for at that time it was no easy matter to find shelter and protection for 25 to 30 families. No wonder that many, on account of that disaster, said farewell to the town of Leola and left with their families. No wonder that many, on account of that disaster, said farewell to the town of Leola and left with their families for their old homes in southern Dakota Territory and to other states.

After the entire month of April had been dry, we had some rain in May. But in June and July, a great drought set in. As a result, the crop of 1889 was very small.

There was also a strong increase of immigration from South Russia that year, with Eureka their destination. Hundreds of families reached the thriving Mecca of the Plains, and from there they ventured out into neighboring counties.

By the summer of 1889, most of the better homesteads had already been taken up. The latter part of that year, the government withdrew two claims—pre-emption and the tree claim—from the privileges of settlement. That meant that the newly arriving immigrant was only entitled to a homestead of 160 acres.

Still another significant event occurred in 1889, this time on the political scene. North and South Dakota were admitted as separate states to the Union, thus becoming full-fledged members of a great nation.

It may be remarked here that some of the first settlers in 1889 were overtaken by severe visitations of destiny. In the course of time of less than six months, no less land seven husbands lost their better halves by death. Such sad events occurred 15 miles northeast of Eureka, and not more than five miles distant from one to the other.

It was strange that each of the seven women died as a result of confinement after child-birth. That was a severe blow to the survivors, especially so because the fathers were left with a number of motherless children, and many of them in destitute circumstances.

Yes, dear readers, at that time conditions were different than what they are at present when mothers can be taken to a hospital for their confinement. At that time, the women were dependent on themselves. However, some of the men found helpmates again, and some became prosperous, while others remained poor. But they lived in peace and contentment.

At that time, there was more mutual love among the people that there is today. Even though they were poor, yet there was a more helpful spirit among them, probably because the one needed the other. Now, however, that is not the case. Now, no one wants to be dependent upon others. Such an uncharitableness does not only prevail among the common people. It can also be detected amongst the higher circles.

I cannot refrain from mentioning the minister of the first years. Many a poor pastor had to manage to get by on a salary for $300 to $500 a year. With a wagon and sled, he had to make the trip to a half-dozen or more churches, which he himself, with hard work, had called into existence and then had to sustain them. Many members lived from 10 to 50 miles distant. Even during good weather, the circuit of the parish would require three days. When road conditions were bad, and is he did not want to neglect the most distant members, the trip took up to a whole week. Very often the traveling was done when it was 35 degrees below zero.

Yes, those frontier pastors also belong to the real pioneers. They knew, by personal contact, poverty and privation as but few knew it.

The conditions of the present day are entirely different. Today, [in the 1930s] most pastors serve but one church; others from two to three, with a salary of $1,500 to $2,000 a year. But times change and even they complain about hard times.

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