Woster: Watching whatever was on that black-and-white screen

Our cousins two miles up the road had a television before we did. I envied them.

Terry Woster

The folks didn’t get a television set for the farm until I was 13 years old.

An email exchange with my brothers jogged my memory about that. One of us made a comment about the KPLO television tower on Medicine Butte being knocked down in a wicked ice storm. I remembered the incident but not the date. A quick search showed it was 2010.

My big brother started the conversation by mentioning KELO Television’s 70th anniversary of broadcasting in South Dakota. The station began operations in May of 1953. My brother noted that KELO was broadcasting in the Sioux Falls area before the REA brought electricity to our rural neighborhood in Lyman County. REA changed a lot for farm families. Among other things it made it possible for us to have a television set at home.

Before rural electricity, we got our power from a wind charger. The tower, much shorter than a windmill, was anchored in concrete by the back steps. When the wind blew, we had power. When it didn’t, we had a bank of glass batteries on the porch, inside the cabinet where Dad had the cream separator bolted. Neither the wind charger nor the battery packs were all that reliable. The batteries ran down quickly, but they were what we had beside a few lanterns that I think burned kerosene.

Although REA came to our place not long after KELO began broadcasting in the Sioux Falls area, we couldn’t get that signal. No sense getting a television yet. The station might as well have been in Kansas City.


Kansas City is where I first saw television. My Uncle George owned it. I remember watching programs during a Thanksgiving visit. I got to see professional wrestling, or “wrassling.’’ A guy named Antonino Rocca was featured. He was a high-flier who leaped from the top ropes of the ring at a time when wrestlers didn’t do that. He became my favorite wrestler until I saw Vern Gagne some years later.

It wasn’t until 1957 that a tower for KPLO Television was completed. It stood on an upper saddle on Medicine Butte, just a few miles north and west of our home place. The tower, I read somewhere, was 1,000 feet high. It seemed like it touched the clouds as I viewed it through binoculars steadied on the clothesline pole in our north yard.

Our cousins two miles up the road had a television before we did. I envied them. Occasionally we visited them in the evening, mostly to watch television. Mom, no slouch at the keyboard, found Liberace fascinating - his musicianship, his flair, his outfits, his candelabra. We really needed a TV set of our own. Finally, the folks bought one.

For a while in the early days, the station had a live news broadcast from the tower on the butte. I’m pretty sure I remember that correctly. For sure, I remember a time when we got rained out of the harvest fields on a summer afternoon and hung around the living room watching whatever was on the black-and-white screen. We’d have watched the test pattern, if I am being honest.

What I recall, though, was that a group of traveling musicians — I want to say gospel singers, but maybe they were country-western folks — got stranded in the mud on a road that ran near the butte. They troupe hiked to the building below the tower with their instruments and put on an impromptu live musical performance. And if for some reason that isn’t true, well, it’s the sort of story that ought to be.

The tower on Medicine Butte stood until that wicked ice storm late in January of 2010. The storm shut down much of South Dakota. Thousands of people lost power. It took days and days to restore electricity, especially in rural areas. Pretty much the whole Cheyenne River Reservation was without power or water. And the KPLO tower fell.

Maybe that was a blessing. Tribal people, who considered Medicine Butte sacred, had long wanted the tower moved. The new tower was built six miles away from the main butte. There’s a happy ending for you.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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