City folks might struggle to believe this, but I once interviewed a guy who grew up on an island in the middle of the Missouri River.
I sometimes have trouble believing it, and I was there. The guy I interviewed grew up to be a musician who played steel guitar for several dance bands in central South Dakota. Music is how I happened to hear of him. A friend of mine who also played dances mentioned a childhood buddy from the Onida area who told great stories about growing up on the river. I was researching river stories at the time. This one seemed like a natural. It was, too.
I tracked the man down at a convenience store he operated along the river bluffs west of Onida, or maybe Agar. I can't remember exactly which road I took west toward the river and his store. I still remember walking into the store, dropping my friend's name and coming away an hour later full of coffee and tales that would have made Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn proud.
One of the stories involved winter activities, which is why I thought of the guy after all these years. During the extended cold snap we're experiencing out here along the river, many winter-weather stories from over the years have popped into my head. My conversation with the river man is one of the more enjoyable of those.
To set the scene: He said his family grew up on an island smack in the middle of the Missouri River somewhere west of Onida. As he described it, the piece of land was about three miles long and a mile wide, and at one time or another, three different families owned pieces of the island. His family ran some cattle and horses. They grew vegetables and caught fish to sell in town.
He also told me school was a five-mile walk from the east bank, and the east bank was a short row-boat ride from his island home. He was born the year of the big stock-market crash and lived his young life during the Great Depression. Times were tough on the island, but fish, vegetables, beef and an occasional buffalo kept the family fed.
I looked out my window at the frozen river when I thought of the guy's story about how he and his brothers used sturdy ice saws to cut square blocks of ice from the river. They'd stack those blocks of ice in a deep pit on the island. A thick layer of sawdust over the pit would keep the ice from thawing, sometimes until far into the summer, he told me. I'd read stories as a kid about that sort of life, but sitting and talking with someone who had actually lived it was still a thrill.
But, listen. Here's a kid out in the middle of the Missouri on an island, and one of his, well, chores, I suppose you'd call it, is walking out on the frozen river to saw two-foot-square chunks of ice to haul home and store in a saw-dust covered pit. Even today, I doubt there would be an app for that. Stuff begins melting in my refrigerator if the door is left ajar for an hour or so. These pits of ice apparently lasted months and months.
The guy also told me he and four brothers slept in an unheated bedroom. One winter their dad hung a buffalo carcass in with them to keep it from thawing and spoiling. When spring came, what was left of the buffalo meat was canned.
Now, I like a chilly room for sleeping. Our kids joke about how we could store beef in our bedroom. But it's never actually been cold enough for that. I can only imagine the pile of quilts those boys must have burrowed under to sleep.
The river life ended when the federal government started building Oahe Dam. The water backed up and flooded the island. The guy said he could still go to the bluff and point out where his island home is submerged.
Remembering stories like that, I still sometimes miss newspaper reporting.