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Mystery hole plagues backyard

Pictured here is the hole that developed earlier this year in a backyard in Lake Andes. A large, chambered underground structure has since been discovered, though nobody knows exactly what it is. (Submitted Photo)

LAKE ANDES -- In early March, as the last of the snow was starting to melt in Lake Andes, Carla Pesicka and Kevin "Radar" Lehmann noticed something different about their backyard on the northeast edge of town. A hole had opened under the corner of their tool shed.

It started small, only about 2 feet by 3 feet. Thinking it was just an ordinary sinkhole, Lehmann began to fill it in with dirt. When it collapsed and continued to get larger, he hired contractors to fill the hole with pea gravel and more dirt. That's when he and Pesicka saw the frame.

Heavy wooden beams support at least three connected chambers below the ground underneath the tool shed, and possibly much more of the yard.

"There's no way to know how big the thing is," Pesicka said.

Lehmann and Pesicka figure that the beams that once made up the roof of the structure collapsed under the heavy rains of last spring and summer, and the heavy snows of last winter. They've lived in the home for 14 years and have never had a clue that there was anything underground in their backyard.

Lehmann is more than a little concerned that he may lose his shed to the hole.

"That was a wedding present from my uncle," he said, "and I just had to put it right there."

Pesicka got in touch with the South Dakota State Historical Society, which sent Jason Biggins, historic preservation specialist for southeastern South Dakota, to Lake Andes from Pierre. He documented the site, and specialists in Pierre and Rapid City studied photographs of the structure, coming to the conclusion that the area was likely the site of a pre-electricity dairy farm and the hole was a storage facility used to keep milk cool.

Rosaline Pesicka, Carla's mother, doesn't think so. The Pesickas have a photo of Lake Andes from the 1920s that shows the present-day northeastern edge of town to be completely empty.

"It was just plain prairie out there," Rosaline said. "That's why I didn't agree with what they said from the state. They said it was a pre-electricity farm, but I know it wasn't."

After speaking with Herbert Hoover, University of South Dakota professor emeritus of history, Rosaline is convinced that the chambers serve as a flume to direct water from flooded prairie flatlands into the lake.

"There was a lot of flooding around here," she said, "and it makes sense that they'd have to have some drainage."

Jason Haug, director of historical preservation at the State Historical Society, said schedule and budget constraints have limited the options available to investigate the underground structure further.

"With the funding cuts that the Archaeological Resource Center has gone through, it makes it that much harder to do anything else," Haug said. "But it's definitely an interesting site."

Pesicka runs a daycare center out of the house, taking care of children between the ages of only a few months up to 10 years old, and the hole has been an area of concern. Lehmann fenced it off, and they've covered it with plywood on two-by-four supports.

"It would be nice to get it covered up," Pesicka said, "especially if we can't figure out what it is."

Pesicka and Lehmann are frustrated with the lack of response from the state, but with the cost of excavation likely between $18,000 and $24,000, there's little they can do.

"One thing that's pretty obvious," Lehmann said, "there isn't any gold in there, because I would have found it by now."