As a kid living in Chamberlain for the school year, I played with a group of neighborhood friends among the rocks and small trees along the banks of the Missouri River.
After a couple of particularly harsh winters at our farm eight miles northeast of Reliance in the early 1950s, my folks decided to move to town for the school year and return to the farm in the summer. We might have been ahead of our time, what with a town home and a place in the country.
Living in town while still owning a working family farm meant, of course, that my dad had to drive to the country each morning and back home each evening. I remember a few times when he got caught in a sudden snowstorm and had to stay in the farmhouse a night or two. He had a cellar full of canned goods, soup in the pantry, meat in the fridge and a supply of propane for the furnace. He was safe, if lonely.
We moved just before I started third grade in the fall of 1952. I don’t remember getting to discuss the move. It was between my folks. Kids didn’t usually have a voice in the momentous decisions back then. First I knew about it was when dad told us he had just plunked town $13,000 in cash and we owned a house on South Courtland in Chamberlain. As I recall, that information came only a week or two before we actually moved to town.
The house we bought was a two-story place on a corner lot. It was fairly new, totally plain and pretty cozy once we settled in. A block down the street to the west, just past River Street, the river itself beckoned. Until I began to make a few friends — not an easy task for a painfully shy 9-year-old — I went to the river bank after school alone, day after day. It became a safe haven, where I could sit and watch the water flow sluggishly past while I worked through problems and conjured big dreams.
The great dams of the Pick-Sloan Plan were just being built. Fort Randall downstream, the dam that created Lake Francis Case, was completed about a year after we moved to town. When I first began to know the river, it still ran mostly free, high during spring flood season and after widespread rainstorms, puny and thick with mud during the dry times.
Like the friends I gradually made and most of the rest of town, I watched as barges pushed bridge spans upstream from a place called Wheeler to fashion what essentially is still the old Highway 16 bridge between Chamberlain and Oacoma. As I progressed in school and the rising water created the lake, I continued to spend time down over the river bank near the water. Catching carp, bullheads and an occasional catfish with friends, or alone with my thoughts and dreams, I stayed close to the Missouri River until I left high school for college in the fall of 1962.
Out of college, I worked as a newspaper reporter in Sioux Falls for a couple of years. They call the Big Sioux a river, but it isn’t the Missouri, and I missed that river and how essential a part of my life it had been. In October of 1969, The Associated Press offered me a job, and I moved with my family to Pierre, on the bank of the Missouri again.
That was 50 years ago. If you had asked me even a year ago, I’d have told you that Nancy and I were going to live out our lives beside the river in Pierre and Fort Pierre. I’d have been wrong.
We just finished buying a house in Chamberlain, and we’re in the process of moving back where I was in third grade. The decision was sudden, yes. Our new place is a stone’s throw from where my friends and I fished and smoked driftwood. It’s close to our youngest granddaughter, and it has an amazing view that encourages thoughts and dreams.
No guarantees, but I’m hoping this is where we’ll live out our lives.