Big Sioux River to the James
West of Watertown, corn and bean fields pockmarked with countless lakes and sloughs dominate the landscape. This is the oldest stretch of Highway 20, which opened in 1929 between Watertown and Highway 45 near Cresbard. In 1944 the highway was extended through Hoven to U.S. Highway 83. In the 1950s a stretch to the Minnesota line was added, and in the 1960s it overtook what had been Highway 8 to Montana. In all, Highway 20 spans 432 miles.
Grain elevators are prominent in nearly every town from Watertown to the Missouri. Through the wheat belt of Spink County, huge elevators sometimes stand alone. Grain bins greet travelers in Florence, a town rebounding from a devastating fire in June that destroyed an elevator that Terry Redlin used as the backdrop in many paintings. We stopped for root beer at Max Johnson’s Pioneer Cafe, then walked down the block to the elevator’s temporary office where Steve Schlenner was checking markets. Schlenner has managed the Florence elevator for 27 years, and it was he who discovered the fire. Construction crews working on remodeling had left for the day, and Schlenner was running wheat around the large elevator complex when he saw smoke.
“I knew right away it was going to be all gone,” Schlenner says. “I just knew there was no way we would be able to save it. I looked up the chute, and for just a brief second I thought about going up there with a fire extinguisher, but I realized I’d never get it out. It was just a ball of fire. So I dialed 911, and I knew then it was all going to go.” During our visit, crews busily repaired two adjacent grain bins, and Schlenner said the elevator hoped to be ready to handle the fall’s corn harvest.
Eight miles down the road lies Wallace, birthplace of U.S. Senator and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, though the sign announcing the town’s claim to fame no longer stands along the highway. In Wallace we met Marie Ann Robinson, the state’s only pressed flower artist. She gathers flowers, leaves, fruits and vegetables from her yard and creates award-winning pieces of art.
She showed us a sample of her work. In a Black Hills scene, a flowing waterfall is made from onion membrane, and the rocks are mushrooms. In another, the wooden walls and floor of a weathered building are day lilies. Robinson explained that after they die and are rehydrated, lilies develop a deep brown color and resemble wood grain when pressed. Her interpretation of Henri Matisse’s Woman With a Hat uses peony petals, poinsettia and white poplar leaves. Robinson’s popular South Dakota series includes pheasants, mallards, geese, buffalo and a work in progress featuring wild turkeys.
To prevent deterioration, the art is secured with aluminum tape and sealed beneath a layer of Mylar and two pieces of glass. Oxygen absorbers and silica gel packets remove any moisture, so any changes in the botanical material won’t be noticeable for decades.
In the early 1990s, Robinson was arranging wreaths and working with live flowers when she found a lily of the valley pressed in the pages of her grandmother’s Bible. She learned about pressing flowers and began making small bookmarks and magnets (some are for sale at Watertown’s Expressions Gallery, where you can also buy originals or prints of her larger pieces). Then a friend gave her a book on pressed flower art, and she expanded into bigger pieces. She joined an international pressed flower art guild on the Internet, and learns many of her techniques from Russian and Ukrainian artists, including a new framing method that is similar to vacuum packing the art within the frame.
Robinson has lived in South Dakota since 2002, but still speaks with the slight Southern twang she developed growing up in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. She and her husband, a Webster native, lived on an acreage near Clark, where she tended 12 flower beds and a large vegetable garden. But a few years ago she decided to downsize. The flower patch at her Wallace home is considerably smaller, but she still finds what she needs around town and by exchanging materials with fellow artists.
We passed through Bradley and Crocker before arriving in the smallest town on our journey. Just five people live in Crandall, but an old gas station and its summertime music festivals have brought over 3,000 people to town since Dave Swain bought it in 2005. The Pumps was a full-service Standard station opened in 1934 to serve townspeople and passers by on Highway 20, which once ran right past the station (today the road is gravel, and Highway 20 passes 3 miles south of Crandall). When it closed in 1971, it was the last Standard station in the country to use gravity pumps. Standard wanted to include the pumps in a museum exhibit after the station’s closing, but owner Ben Hildebrandt produced receipts showing he owned them, and they stayed.
The station was a popular stopping point for motorists traveling from Aberdeen to Watertown. Gov. Sigurd Anderson and Hildebrandt were good friends, and the governor often visited. It was also the site of weekly poker games.
Swain opens The Pumps every other Sunday during the summer. There’s no gas, but he sells ice cream, candy bars and pop and displays memorabilia from Crandall’s heyday. One old photo shows the entire town boarding a train for Aberdeen in 1911 to see President Taft. In honor of the 100th anniversary next year, Swain is planning a celebration. The Pumps is also home to music jamborees, usually one in the spring and another in early autumn. Musicians set up outside and Swain serves a light lunch.
Crandall lies near the western foothills of the Coteau des Prairies, a flatiron-shaped rise across eastern South Dakota. Today giant wind turbines dot the horizon; hundreds of years ago it was a popular gathering place for Indians. Burial mounds and remains of fire rings lie in the hills just north of town. Chief Drifting Goose and his Hunkpati band of Yanktonai were headquartered near here at Armadale, an island in the James River four miles northeast of Mellette that the meandering river has since re-submerged. He’s remembered as a peace-loving chief who preferred pranking homesteaders instead of fighting them. Legend says he once stole the clothes from a settler and made him run back to his sod shanty naked. When railroad surveyors marked the line through his encampment, he moved the stakes. Eventually the railroad was routed through Northville, a more respectful 10 miles west of Drifting Goose’s camp.
Locals tell Drifting Goose stories with a chuckle, but they also respect the leader who never signed a treaty and, in his mind, never ceded any of his land. No markers commemorate the colorful chief, but Swain is leading efforts to rename the bridge that crosses the James on Highway 20 after Drifting Goose.
When we left The Pumps, we followed Swain through Conde and his hometown of Brentford to tiny Plainsview Cemetery on a narrow, dirt road northwest of town. A few years ago Swain was exploring the cemetery when he found a single, white tombstone that read, “Corp. George W. Melton, 45 Va. Infantry, Co. E, CSA.” After some re- search, Swain discovered that Melton is one of less than 10 Confederate soldiers buried in South Dakota. He learned that Melton and fellow Confederates Jeremiah Houseman (buried in Mellette) and William Henry Carrico brought their families to Huron from Carroll County, Virginia in 1884. Melton and Houseman both served in the 45th Virginia, while Carrico fought under famous rebel Jeb Stuart at Gettysburg.
The rediscovery of Melton’s grave has led to another mystery around Brentford. Every Memorial Day, an unknown visitor places flowers and a Confederate flag by the tombstone.