Faith has a character all its own.
THE MIND CAN PLAY TRICKS on travelers who visit a town that’s new to them. You find yourself imagining what it might be like to live there. How would you earn a living? What would you do for fun? And would the locals warm to you?
Those thoughts can be conjured in Faith, even to a South Dakota visitor, because Faith has a character all its own. And though it’s mostly a cow town — lying smack in the middle of West River’s undulating prairie — people do things here that are totally unrelated to cattle: hunting prairie dogs and dinosaurs, for example.
Thousands of people saw Faith for the first time in 2008, when the town hosted an exhibit about Sue, the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex ever unearthed. Sue Hendrickson found the fossil on a ranch near Faith in 1990.
After driving past miles and miles of green grass and mostly-black cattle, the T-rex-seeking visitors came onto a town with one of most things: one saloon, one school, one grocer, one pharmacy, one sit down restaurant, one car repair shop, one park and seven churches. Faith is a tidy, square city with hard-surface streets and a busy business district with a big, new community center. Faith’s citizens congregate at the community center for just about any public, indoor activity — such as weddings, funerals, basketball games and dinosaur exhibits.
You wouldn’t live for long in Faith without meeting Mayor Glen Haines, a local trucker with thick sideburns and a smile that reminds you of Andy Griffith. “We’ve got a go-to attitude to get things done,” the mayor told us when we met him at the community center. He says the new community center is one example. ”When we proposed to build it, people just told me to make sure that if you’re going to do it, make it big enough to get things done,” he said. Despite a debt on the $1.4 million building, the mayor says not to fret about city property taxes because there are none. The city owns the only liquor store and bar, the electric and water utilities and the phone service. Those enterprises, plus a city sales tax, provide enough to run the city.
You’ll probably live in a modest-size ranch house if you move to Faith — because that describes just about every house. You’ll be assessed county and school property taxes on your ranch house. These are things a visitor often doesn’t consider when he’s watching the sun sink over the golf course, which in Faith’s case is just south of town by little Durkee Lake. The school taxes might go up or down depending on the outcome of a daring plan to fund the school through profits from a wind farm (see our sidebar story). Unlike some South Dakota towns of 500 people, Faith is likely to have a school long into the future because the town is at least an hour’s drive to bigger places.
Faith will welcome you with open arms if you have children, because the state’s funding formula is based on a nose count. Today there are 197 noses enrolled in grades K-12. Your kids would like the athletic complex for football, softball and soccer and the city swimming pool in the town park.
You’ll also be enthusiastically welcomed if you bring a business to town. Just ask Reed and Donna Henschel. Reed was a talented Wyoming woodworker when he invented a collapsible stool that’s easy to carry or store. He asked Wyoming officials for help in growing a small manufacturing plant. When they balked, he and Donna decided to travel to Reed’s home state of Minnesota to inquire about business assistance there. On the way, they stayed overnight at Faith because Reed had previously restored and rebuilt the interior of the town’s First Lutheran Church.
Roger Gravelle, then the proprietor of the Prairie Vista Inn, met the Henschels when they registered for a room. He was impressed with their stools, so he asked if he could show them around town. A few days later, when the Henschels returned to Faith, Gravelle told them he’d taken the liberty of talking to state officials in Pierre.
Reed remembers Roger’s exact words, because they changed his life. “He said that if we wouldn’t mind staying another night, we’ve got your room and we’ll buy you a steak and buy you breakfast, and all you have to do is talk to the guys from Pierre who will be here at 10 tomorrow morning.”
Like most travelers, Reed and Donna looked around town and thought Faith looked nice. At 10 a.m., economic development officials from Pierre arrived to offer assistance in relocating the Henschels’ business, Tower Stool. “We did in five days what Wyoming couldn’t do in five months,” Reed says. They bought a main street building, hired workers and opened for business.
The Henschels keep developing new products. They design stools for people who work on airplanes, musicians in orchestras and hunters afield. They also have a close relationship with the Little People of America organization, and build special products for its members.
“Don’t tell us it can’t be done or Faith will make a liar out of you,” says Reed of his adopted town. “You got to earn your way here. But if you have an idea and you want to work hard, this is a good place to do it.”
Mike Stocklin works at Tower Stool, but he has also carved out his own profession. The bearded, burly Stocklin carves knife blades, arrowhead and lance points. His shop and retail store, called Dakota Creations, is stocked with pails of rocks, stacks of feathers, rolls of elk hide and bundles of chokecherry ticks. “If I don’t talk too much and start with a good piece of stone, I can make an arrowhead in seven to 15 minutes,” he says. Finger cuts are an occupational hazard, but Stocklin has made a career as a flintnapper. He even conducts classes on the nearby Cheyenne Indian Reservation to teach youngsters the art.
Stocklin is not the only downtown artist. Four young ladies at KJ Leather Company craft beautiful products from aromatic rawhide — purses, Bible covers, saddlebags and halters and reins for horses. “Some people step in the door just to smell the leather,” says Shannon Carmichael. She manages the shop for Jack Gully, who has a similar business in the nearby town of Newell.
KJ’s specialty is western chaps. They make and market the leather leggings for horse show riders, rodeo cowboys and working ranchers. They’ll burn your brand in the leather, add a silver sterling buckle, border the chap with a fringe or handtool an oak or floral design. Carmichael, a young rancher’s wife, says a basic pair of working chaps sells for $150, while fancier show chaps cost $400 to $500. The aroma is free, but she says you’ll get accustomed to it before long.
Faith only needs so many flintnappers, wood-workers and chapmakers. But there are other opportunities. The town’s only full-service restaurant was for sale when we were there. If a proposed wind farm is successful, the school hopes to double its faculty. The city employs about a dozen people to run its offices in the community center, and to maintain the parks and run the utilities.
Digging dinosaurs is backbreaking and exacting work, and like so many occupations, the man or woman who sweats the most is least likely to get the big payoff. The Field Museum paid $7 million for Sue’s bones, but the people who found her — Sue Hendrickson and her paleontology pals, the Larson brothers of Hill City — got only grief. The Larsons even ended up in prison when the ancient prairie dust settled and the bones were reassembled in Chicago. But paleontologists can’t help themselves, so both professional and amateur fossil hunters still roam the river valleys around Faith.
The most traditional West River occupation, of course, is ranching. The Lakota Indians sustained themselves by bovine known as buffalo, and then the white settlers brought their bawling bovine known as cattle to the ocean of grass that stretches from the Missouri River to the Black Hills.
Faith was born when the Milwaukee Railroad bridged the Missouri at Mobridge, crossed the Cheyenne Indian Reservation, laid track into the northeast corner of Meade County and platted a town on three quarters of land.
Many of today’s residents trace their ancestry to that era. Irean Jordan, a lifelong resident, says her dad was a government wolf hunter from 1898 until the wolves were exterminated in about 1917. Mike Haines, a local rancher, says his grandfather arrived in Dakota Territory during the gold rush of the 1870s and bought a ranch on Deep Creek in 1890.
Faith’s first homesteaders tried to farm like Iowans and Minnesotans. They raised hogs, sheep, chickens and cattle, and planted all sorts of grains. But within a few years, many departed the country and the survivors learned to adapt to the land. In pioneer days, Faith was a collection of wood houses and stores. Trees were rare and coveted. The streets were dirt. The railroad tracks did a U-turn (it was truly the end of the line in somebody’s mind) and returned to the East.
Odin Thompson arrived in 1917 to open a pharmacy in Faith. His father came to visit from his home in Toronto, near Brookings, and he was unimpressed. “How long do you have to live here?” the father asked the son. The next day, the elder Mr. Thompson returned to Toronto and never came back. But the son stayed, and the pharmacy still operates on Main Street. Odin’s son, Carv, eventually expanded to six other towns and helped other pharmacists get started in business. Carv likes the story of his grandfather’s visit because he thinks distance has been a strength as much as a hindrance for Faith.
“We’re in the center of the northwest quadrant of South Dakota,” he says. “Faith is 100 miles west of the Missouri River, 100 miles northeast of the Black Hills, 100 miles east of Montana, 100 miles north of Interstate 90 and 70 miles south of Lemmon and the North Dakota state line — so when you get to Faith you’ve come about a hundred miles from somewhere.”
Those miles and miles of grass that separate Faith from other places make it one of America’s greatest livestock pastures. Sheep were an especially good friend to the rancher, according to Gary Vance of Faith Livestock Commission Company. “Everybody had sheep at one time. Sheep paid for a lot of the ranches. But they’re more work than cattle, and they have more predators.” Also, the federal government ended wool incentive payments in 1996. So coyotes, the enemy of sheepherders, and the bureaucrats teamed up to thin sheep numbers and create more acres for cattle.
“Ranches have gotten bigger through the years,” says Vance, who operates a market run by his family since 1960. “Some ranchers have taken on partners … usually sons, and daughters and sons-in-law. In the last five or six years, we’ve seen some outside money come into the country, but most of what you see is old, established ranches. The biggest ranches have 700 or 800 cows, but our business is founded on the guy who has 50 to 150 cows.”
How dominant is the beef business in northwest South Dakota? Here’s a perspective: there is one grocery store in Faith and three cattle feed stores. The Vance family’s sale barn sells up to 5,000 head of calves at the regular Monday sales during the fall “calf run.” In late October, so many calves are “coming off” grass that the Vances hold a special three-day sale to accommodate the buyers and sellers.
Ziebach County, just east of Faith, has 2,500 people and 33,000 beef cows on 227 ranches. Perkins County, north of Faith, has 3,300 people and 53,000 cows on 452 ranches. Those census numbers indicate that on average there are less than 150 cows per ranch.
Cattlemen are wondering what the recent spike in corn prices will do to their industry but, as the Lakota understood centuries ago, grazing bovine is the most efficient way to use the shortgrass prairie — whether the bovine be buffalo or Black Angus.
Some farmers and ranchers subsidize their cattle income by hosting hunters. Antelope, deer and pheasant are plentiful, and so is the controversial prairie dog. A rancher who insisted on anonymity told us that his neighbors are crazy for complaining about prairie dogs. “They are a resource, not a nuisance,” he said. “Hunters pay us several hundred dollars a day to hunt them.” The lobby of the Prairie Oasis Motel features color photos of local game, including the prairie dog. Hunters help keep the 30 rooms full in summer and fall.
Horses are a sideline for others. Gerald Trainor breaks horses for a living, as his father did before him. Bewhiskered, in a kerchief and big hat, Trainor looks like a man a horse might obey. But due to his Meade County modesty (or a sly plan to discourage competitors), he claims it’s not much of a business: “If you have an outlet, it’s OK,” he drawls. Trainor trains draft horses to pull wagons. “The good ones are worth a lot of money,” he notes, “and the average ones you can’t give away.”
Can’t picture yourself taming a bucking horse or pulling a calf from a heifer at midnight in the mud? There’s always politics. Faith, for its size, has been a hotspot in the latter half of the 20th century. Thompson, the longtime local pharmacist, was a legislative leader in the 1960s and ran for governor in 1972. Bob Samuelson, a local rancher, served in the legislature and ran for governor in 1990. Dick Butler, a Faith insurance agent, was elected state treasurer in 1992 and gained attention by battling the state’s biggest banks over whether lost credit card payments should be considered unclaimed property (which eventually becomes state property). Ryan Maher, a young Faith banker, now represents northwest South Dakota in the state senate.
The waving sea of grass that surrounds Faith seems as permanent and precious as the fossils it hides. Like a sea, the prairie attracts a special breed of people who appreciate the solitary landscapes and the independent spirit of their neighbors. For some, Faith is just a curious place to visit, while others will dream of it as a way of life. Which are you?
Copyright © 2014, South Dakota Magazine