The Planted Row: Create a record before the past is lost

Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Pinedale, Miss., the tiny community where my grandmother grew up.

The ruins of the school she attended were still standing. I imagined her walking home from the crumbling building with her arms full of books. Maybe she would walk to her house, which wasn’t far, or to her father’s store, which was even closer.

Neither the house or nor the store were standing by the time I came along. A house that already looked old to me and a store that appeared to be failing occupied their places. The next time I visited, the store was closed for good, and the old school house had been demolished.

Not much was left of the place where my grandmother spent nearly a fifth of her life. All that she could point out that was familiar to her was the hill she liked to roll down as a girl and the cemetery where her family members are buried.

It’s a story that probably seems pretty familiar to many people in South Dakota.

This week I watched a documentary on South Dakota Public Broadcasting called “Vanished South Dakota: Towns of Yesterday.” The documentary tells the story of many towns in the state that were once growing communities. Some started as railroad stops. Others started as mining towns. Some even began as good places to stop when moving cattle on trails.

Most of them were places with ambitions to grow even larger. One of them was even a county seat for a short time. These towns sported churches, stores, newspapers, restaurants, schools, law offices, elevators, stockyards.

Life happened there. Lives were spent there. Families grew there. Fortunes were made and lost there.

But fate was not kind to these towns.

In every case, something changed. A railroad discontinued service. A mine dried up. Trucks started moving most of the cattle in the country.

When that happened, the mining towns quickly died. The railroad and cattle towns faded more slowly, supported somewhat by the surrounding farms and ranches. However, as those farms and ranches have grown larger while supporting fewer people, many smaller towns and communities have died out.

As one commentator in the documentary said, “That process has happened much faster in the last 20 to 30 years than over the previous four decades.”

That means now is the time to start creating a record of your community. What happened to those towns that have already vanished will happen to others. Decades from now there will be people like me who have grown old enough to start getting interested in their family history, and there won’t be any information for them if we don’t start recording it now.

The good news is that modern technology makes all of this easier, and not all of the work has to be done by adults. Most kids these days have a miniature recording studio in their pockets. A good 4-H or scouts project might be for interested kids to record interviews with people who carry a lot of a town’s history in their memories and preserve the recordings for future generations. Or they can create displays with photos and donated items.

The places where our ancestors lived and worked are important places to us, whether we realize it or not. Everything that happened there and then led to where we are now. So our ancestor’s lives are a part of our lives.

It would be nice if future generations could have more than a hill and a few old gravestones to connect them with their past.