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Woster: Supply chain issues used to come with weather in South Dakota

Think how my friends would have treated me if I had raved about how great the house smelled when my mom was making a special meal. They’d have laughed me off the playground.


With Thanksgiving well and truly celebrated, it’s time to look ahead to Christmas and to supply chain issues.

I can’t recall the first time I heard that phrase. It was in the last year, for sure. I’ve been aware of the concept, though, since I was a kid living in rural South Dakota.

When people refer to supply chain issues today, you probably think of TV footage of huge container ships steaming in circles outside U.S. ports, stacked so high with cargo you’d think they’d tip right into the ocean. Maybe you picture equally high stacks of containers all over the docks, waiting to be loaded and trucked across the country. If I understand it, much of what we buy in this country is made overseas. That includes Christmas gifts, and that ratchets up public anxiety over bottlenecks in the supply chain.

Now, when I was young, I don’t remember being aware that things were imported from overseas. We bought stuff in Reliance at the co-op, Sattler’s grocery store in Chamberlain, at J.C. Penney or in Mitchell at one of the 5- and 10-cent stores that used to draw folks to the main street from all over the region.

I suppose some of that stuff was manufactured in other countries, but I’d never heard of it. I’d never heard of the internet, either. Nobody had. It didn’t exist, not even in someone’s twisted mind. Even the most imaginative science fiction writers of the time had no concept of a worldwide web. I read the comics in the newspaper and thought Dick Tracy’s wrist-radio (a watch and two-way radio he wore on his wrist) was the latest in technology. Imagine, a portable device that told time and enabled communication.


I did understand long-distance purchasing, a kind of forerunner of online shopping. My mom was a master at it. She had no computer, tablet or cell phone. (The phone was black with a rotary dial. It sat on a kitchen-corner shelf, had seven other parties besides us and was used only in emergencies such as prairie fires.)

What my mom did have was a mail box on a stump of a fence post a mile or so up the road from the house. She had a standing request for each new catalog from Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck. Those retail giants used to issue Christmas catalogs, special editions with gift ideas on every page. The day those gift catalogs arrived at the mail box was almost as magical as Christmas itself. I’d pore through those things, looking at page after page of toys, making a list of several dozen things I wanted. I didn’t get most of that stuff. That’s probably why people called the catalog a Wish Book. I got some, though. That was enough.

My mom tore the order sheets from the catalogs, filled them with wishes, slipped them into stamped envelopes and had my dad put them in the mailbox. He lifted a red flag on the box so the carrier knew we had outgoing mail even if he didn’t have incoming mail. It took days, often weeks, but eventually Christmas showed up at the mailbox and dad hauled it home.

And that system sometimes had what today you would call supply chain issues. Our issues didn’t involve ships circling outside a port or stacks of containers sitting on loading docks. Mostly, the supply chain issues in farm country involved the weather.

We were eight miles from town, after all, and most of the way was gravel or packed dirt. It didn’t take much of a snowstorm, accompanied by high wind, to build huge drifts across the roads, interrupting the supply chain to our farm for days at a time. If it wasn’t snow, it was a late rain. Rain would turn parts of the road into a rutted, soggy mess. Never mind the Post Office slogan. Sometimes the mail couldn’t get through.

Thinking about those days, I can picture my dad walking into the co-op after a big blizzard and announcing, “I don’t know about you, but we’ve been having supply chain issues out in our country.’’

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A regular opinion piece by columnist Terry Woster