History, memories bond as 130-year-old town dissolves

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By Victoria Lusk

Correction: The Buffalo Plains Historical Foundation was incorporated in 1990. According to records available at the Office of the Secretary of State, several members of the community and county formed the first Board of Directors. This story incorrectly identifiesJim Anderson as the sole founder of the foundation. We regret the error.

LILY — When a handful of Lily-area residents stand on Main Street, they see what used to be.

Decades ago, banks, gas stations, elevators, stores and city buildings lined the street of this Day County town.

Farm families would come into town Saturday nights for supplies, dances, movies, haircuts and even the occasional roller skating lesson. A can of Copenhagen and a candy bar could be purchased for less than a quarter. Daily trains would carry both passengers and freight.

But on a chilly Tuesday afternoon last week, none of that is happening. The town, founded in 1887, is quiet.

Soon enough, Lily — population: zero — will no longer exist as a town. A court will see to that March 8.

On this quiet Tuesday, a slow wind works to pile snow up against city hall, blocking the garage door that once helped define it as the town’s fire station.

The steeple of the Lily Lutheran Church still rises high into the clear blue sky.

The Legion Hall stakes its claim within the limits of the town, and it earns its keep hosting a Turkey Shoot every fall.

Lily’s zip code — 57250 — is proudly displayed in the window of the old post office. A window that now only reflects an emptying Main Street, which, on that day, was full of those who love Lily enough to keep telling its story.

After all, to the naked eye, all of these buildings — now mostly vacant — and the stillness of air that surrounds them tell less of a story, and only that the town — once vibrant and bustling — has faded in its nearly 130 years.

Getting there

The sign, just east of Bristol on U.S. Highway 12, points south. Thirteen miles it says. All one has to do is cross the bridge and keep going.

You’ll hit gravel before you hit Lily. Yet the eastward road that travels through the town is paved, an upkeep that loudly says it’s still there.

But not for long — at least not in the traditional sense.

The 2010 Census counted only four residents and, since then, the town’s population has dwindled to zero. As a result, Lily will dissolve after that March court hearing.

“We don’t believe that there are any permanent residents living in Lily,” city attorney Thomas Sannes said. The town’s mayor and board members have moved, which means there is simply no one left to operate the town.

The decision wasn’t taken lightly for sentimental reasons, Sannes said, as the town obviously was very different 100 years ago.

Still, people are disappointed, he said.

Or maybe that’s not the word for it at all. Maybe they’re just sad.

That’s how Lily native Bonnie (Loterbauer) Headley described how she felt earlier this month when she read the legal notice announcing the dissolution.

And her feelings aren’t alone.

“It’s a strange feeling, having your town going away,” former resident and historian Jim Anderson said. He grew up just two blocks from Main Street. Now, as the founder of the Buffalo Plains Historical Foundation, Anderson has worked to turn the former post office into a museum of sorts.

Anything you ever wanted to know about Lily, Anderson can tell you. And then some.

Some might say the town’s fate was sealed when railroad service stopped. But even then, the local watering hole — or drug store, however you want to look at it — was still open. And two churches, one Catholic and one Lutheran, would keep their faith in Lily and its residents long after the beer joint closed.

Even after Lily is officially “off the map,” there are plenty of people who won’t stop calling it home. It’s where great-grandparents set up shop, where parents worked building businesses, where family farms were established around more than a century ago, where roots were planted.

And it’s alive with memories.

Building Lily

His great-grandfather homesteaded in the late 1880s the same farm Mike Matthews lives on today.

Matthews remembers his father, Joe, telling lots of stories — one of which stood out in particular.

“When he was a young boy, everything he ever needed or wanted was in the town of Lily, and he never knew there was a world beyond here,” Matthews said.

The town did once have a little bit of everything, and sometimes two of the same types of businesses, including two competing gas stations, the drug store and more.

“We had two banks,” Anderson said. The thought of one bank, let alone two, ignites laughter from other former residents and area farmers who gathered Tuesday around Gary Fossum’s table at his farm on the eastern edge of Lily.

Each person had their own story to share, their own memories. Some left and came back. Others were born and raised. Either way, everyone seated in Fossum’s house came to show his or her love for a town that’s slipping away.

The banks closed in 1924, casualties of a recession that followed World War I, and the trains stopped coming in the 1970s, Anderson said.

But Fossum remembers when, as a kid, he would go down to the train depot just to listen to Morse code come in.

“That thing would just rattle,” Fossum said. “Sometimes Henry Grimes (the last depot agent) would go look at it and send a message back and other times it’d just sit there and rattle.”

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad first went through Lily in 1887, which is when the town was platted, Anderson said.

“But we didn’t really start building until about (18) ’94-’95 and then we started really building,” he said.

Students, athletes, farmers and family

Many of those who live in the area now were students in Lily, back before the schools closed. Lily High School graduated its last class in 1956.

When there were students, many of them were athletes.

Among the town’s claims to fame, according to those who lived it, are several basketball and baseball triumphs, including what Anderson refers to as “the Day County game of the century” in 1949 when Lily’s boys’ basketball team defeated Webster by one point. Prior to the game, Webster had won three State B championships, according to a special centennial issue of The Lily Leader in 1987.

While lifetime resident Glenn Gabur has many fond memories of Lily, the closing of the schools weighed heavy on him. “Because you knew the end was coming then,” he said.

It’s the people Gabur grew up with and came to know as family that has kept his feet firmly planted among the rows of crops on his family farm a mile north of Lily.

“We used to have some pretty good characters living here in Lily,” Gabur said.

Among them was Lily’s former blacksmith, who taught Gabur’s hunters’ safety course and who would fix any kid’s toy at the drop of dime.

“He’d charge the parents, but any kid — he’d fix that up for free,” Frank James said. James’ great-grandparents homesteaded near Lily, and he’d spend his summers helping his grandpa and uncle on the farm. He moved near Lily with his wife, Barb, in 1972. Now, it’s home.

While many grew up around Lily, Paul Halvorsen lived in city limits from the age of 2. “We lived just in Lily. Gary lived on the farm out of Lily,” Halvorsen joked.

“At one point, they said his bedroom was in Lily, but the rest of his house wasn’t,” James added of Fossum, who chalked that up as a tall tale in Lily’s history.

“We just had the benefit of we could be city people or country people. We could be either one. A lot of people thought we lived in town, but we didn’t,” Fossum said.

Even so, he says he’s no different than anyone else. “It just happens that our farm is right on the edge of town, but it’s the farm that keeps us here. That’s were our roots are,” he said.

Those roots mean Lily will always be home, even when it’s no longer legally considered a South Dakota town.

Once a ‘Lilyite,’

always a Lilyite

Because no one permanently lives within Lily city limits, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop the dissolution of the town.

Lily is in a unique position, Sannes said, where there are no registered voters to bring a petition. Additionally, because the city still collects taxes and someone has to pay the bills, the board needs to do something, he said. Ownership of the City Hall and any city property will be taken over by Anderson’s historical foundation. He plans to upkeep the town and continue to preserve what once was.

“When you love to do something, it tends to stay in your memory,” Anderson said.

Maybe that love is why, when Fossum looks down Main Street, he sees something more, something historic among the remaining structures.

“I remember the way it used to be,” Fossum said. “People walking on the streets and men would tip their hats to the ladies.”

And on March 8, at least these area residents are planning to attend the Day County court hearing dissolving their hometown — if for no other reason than to to tip their hats to the city one last time.

Follow @vlusk_AAN on Twitter.

Lily history

• Founded: 1887 in southeast Day County.

• Notable people: The parents of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey Jr. lived in and were married in Lily. When Humphrey wrote his autobiography, he started his story in the town. “In 1906, Lily, S.D. had 175 people. Two of which were my mom and my dad,” it reads.

• In sports: Lily holds the distinction of being the only high school football team in the U.S. to go undefeated, according to the town’s historian.

“We were 1-0,” Jim Anderson said. In 1955, Northern State University gave Lily High School a bunch of equipment to start a six-man football team. Conde invited Lily to be their homecoming game opponent. “We beat them 50-44,” Anderson said.

• While Lily does not have any permanent residents, it does have summer residents. Many of the houses still remaining in Lily are owned by and used as hunting lodges or vacation homes by people living out of state.

Source: Historian and former resident Jim Anderson, The Lily Leader and Day County History

Small communities

Towns in South Dakota with population of 10 or fewer residents:

• Artas, Campbell County, 9

• Cottonwood, Jackson County, 9

• Farmer, Hanson County, 10

• Hillsview, McPherson County, 3

• Verdon, Brown County, 5

• Wetonka, McPherson County, 8

• White Rock, Roberts County, 3

Source: 2010 United States Census

Lily-area residents gathered at the home of Gary and Trudy Fossum to share stories of their town Tuesday. In the foreground on the counter is an article about the town of Lily in the most recent issue of South Dakota Magazine. American News Photo by John Davis
A sign along U.S. Highway 12 east of Bristol points south to the towns of Butler and Lily. American News Photo by John Davis
From left, Lily-area residents Paul Halvorsen, Jim Anderson, Bonnie (Loterbauer) Headley, Austin Grimes and Gary Fossum talk about the town Tuesday outside the former post office.
The sun sets in the distance in this view of the eastern city limits of Lily Tuesday. The small Day County town will soon unincorporate, but area residents expect little change. American News Photos by John Davis