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Woster: What's beyond city limits in South Dakota

A few more folks scattered here and there would be nice, though, enough to support a café or two, a general store, a corner grocery and so on.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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Once when I was in junior high, I walked along Chamberlain’s main street with a friend just as a big bus drove past and parked near the Rainbow Café.

My friend and I watched in silence as the bus doors opened and some of the biggest, toughest looking high school kids we’d ever seen stepped out. They crossed the sidewalk and entered the café. They wore the black-and-orange letter jackets of the Sioux Falls Washington High football team. Chamberlain was a convenient lunch stop on a trip west for a game in Rapid City, or maybe Cheyenne.

They were an impressive bunch. They didn’t frighten us, exactly. They just seemed different.

Many years later, it occurred to me those kids weren’t different at all. In those days, while Sioux Falls was a big town, biggest in the state, it was still a town. The players were small-town kids like us. They happened to live in a big small town. Most of them had probably been to a farm or ranch, maybe still had relatives living on the land. It isn’t unlikely that one or both of their parents had grown up on farms. It used to be like that.

I’m not sure it’s still that way. My awareness, based on things I’ve read and anecdotes I’ve heard, is that South Dakota has become home to more and more people who know little about farms or ranches, know nothing about the country between the Falls of the Big Sioux and the Black Hills. I can’t prove it, but the middle of the state may be as much fly-over country for some new residents as the entire state and region are fly-over country for folks who live in coastal cities.

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That’s OK. We’re still out here. It might be nice to have a few more folks in the small towns in the middle of the state, a few more families trying to make a go of it on the farms and ranches around those small towns. We don’t need a flock of new folks cluttering things up, and I’m pretty sure we will never have such a situation.

A few more folks scattered here and there would be nice, though, enough to support a café or two, a general store, a corner grocery and so on. I remember once when Jim Saterlee, a South Dakota State demographics specialist, told a group of legislators, “You can’t complain about how your little town is drying up when you drive 60 miles past the local place to save a dollar on a two-by-four.’’ Well, it takes a certain size population for a community to even support a two-by-four business.

I love the middle country in my state. Maybe people who come to live in South Dakota should see what’s out here. Maybe they could spend a few days out this way to see what’s beyond the mega-stores and sprawling parking lots. To really call themselves residents of South Dakota, maybe people should — at least once in their lives — have to drive 10 miles on a dirt road only to find that the rickety bridge over the creek has collapsed and they have to backtrack 10 miles through the dust still hanging in the air from their trip out. Such experiences are an essential part of being a South Dakotan.

I doubt most folks these days would understand what it’s like to spend a whole evening on a Lyman County farm mapping out a trip to Mitchell on the coming Saturday. But maybe some old-timers could spin stories about such times, the way an old fellow out in Haakon County once told me and photographer Greg Latza stories about living in an isolated trailer at the end of an abandoned section line. And maybe, as that old boy did for us, some old-timer could take city folks out in a field of grass and show them wagon ruts still visible from traffic along the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail in the late 1800s.

Maybe that would mean nothing to the newcomers. Then again, maybe it would give them a sense of what’s out beyond the city limits.

More from columnist Terry Woster...
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