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WOSTER: East River, West River - Differences really do exist

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WOSTER: East River, West River - Differences really do exist
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

I’ve always considered myself a West River native, even though I lived on the east side of the Missouri River for a good part of my childhood and I’ve lived this side of the river my entire adult life.

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Our farm was west of the Missouri, though, so I grew up thinking of myself as a West River kind of guy. It’s true that the farm was barely west of the river. My dad and his goose-hunting buddy, Ab Vehle, didn’t have to drive very far east to reach the western bluffs of the Missouri, and I can tell you those two guys made that trip as often as they could in the fall after farming for Dad and grain elevator work for Ab had eased.

I suppose we shouldn’t capitalize East River and West River. By rights, we should probably just say “east of the river’’ or “west of the river,’’ but there are those who consider the James and the Big Sioux and the Cheyenne, Moreau, Grand and the White rivers. Lower-casing might confuse. When anyone in South Dakota says East River in a capital-letter way, everyone else in the state knows that refers to only one river.

John Milton, the late author and professor from Vermillion, was among those who saw the capital-letter difference. He wrote, “Almost everyone in the state recognizes that East River is different from West River, different enough so that those terms are used as though they were geographical names to be found on the map — which they are not.’’

The Woster Brothers agricultural enterprise rested solely in Lyman County. It was a combination of alfalfa and hay land, which supported the Hereford cattle that roamed the sprawling pastures, and crop land, where wheat, oats, barley, corn and milo grew in the good years. Although we were on the west side of the Missouri — out in West River — I don’t think any of us called our place a ranch. We considered the land we cared for a farm. I don’t know why. Maybe because we thought of our 3,000 or so acres as a modest spread compared to the massive ranches farther to the west.

I didn’t think of our farm as a big place until I was in college and listening to some dorm mates from the northeast part of the state talk about rich farmers. One of the guys was dating a coed from Day County. The guy said his girlfriend’s dad was the richest farmer in the county. He owned nine quarters of land, the guy said. He sat back and waited for all of us to be impressed.

Some of us were, mightily so. I was silent, working out a little math in my head. Nine quarters, at 160 acres a quarter, equaled a bit over 1,400 acres of land.

That was about half the size of the Woster operation, and we sure weren’t what I’d consider rich. We and the bank had a good thing going in those days, but without the bank, we had some pasture, some cows, some crops and some hay. That’s the conundrum of being between East River and West River, I suppose.

One of my favorite East River-West River stories came from former Gov. Walt Miller. He told me years and years ago about his first session in the Legislature back in 1967. At one point, Miller said, Republicans and Democrats from West River stood together in the House while Republicans and Democrats from East River met in a private caucus to talk about short-grass payments.

Those were state payments to counties with large amounts of nontaxed public land. Most of that public land was in western South Dakota, and Miller told me lawmakers fought bitterly over how much state money should go to the short-grass country.

In the days of the short-grass fights, Miller said, “It was an ongoing, divisive feud, not as a (politically) partisan issue, but right smack down the river.’’

The Legislature divides on political lines sometimes, but all politics is local, and short grass was local.

Left out of a closed meeting. One more reason I consider myself from West River.

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