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John Stanley

Excerpt from an Autobiography of Mr. John Stanley

The following is a contribution from Diane Bartels Doyle. This information was given to her from the grandson of John Stanley. Mr. Stanley was the editor of the Gary Inter State in the time frame of 1883.


Pioneering in Dakota Territory

Homesteading In Dakota Territory

In 1878 father's longing for pioneering overpowered him again. There was extensive publicity about Dakota Terri tory, which railroads were penetrating and where new set tlers were going. Mother's brother, David Aiken, and a few other friends of our family decided to join father in going west on an inspection trip. The Winona & St. Peter rail road (now C. & N. W.) had been granted by the government every other section of land extending ten miles on both side of their railroad all the way from a point in Minnesota to Lake Kampeska, in Dakota, where Watertown, South Da kota, now is; hence the railroad was doubly interested in settling up that vast uninhabited domain. The railroad at that time was offering its government-given lands mostly at three to four dollars an acre, which speculators were rapidly buying, while hordes of settlers were taking advantage of locating on the government lands.

The temporary terminus of the railroad was Gary, on the Dakota side of the state line, where immigrant cars filled the sidetracks; everything was exciting and apparently inviting. Here Captain H. H. Herrick, an old Mississippi river steamboat captain, had a few years previously "squat ted" upon a tract of government land (before it had been offered for homesteading). It was an attractive location along the Lac Qui Parle creek, fringed with a growth of oak, elm and cottonwood trees, which presented an inviting scene in that vast prairie region. This was on the first railroad to extend into the central portion of Dakota Territory, and therefore was attracting widespread attention. Captain Herrick had hunted and trapped over a large portion of that region and had visions of a rapid settlement upon the free land the government was offering to settlers in 1877, when he built a hotel and established himself as land locator-for be knew the quality of about very quarter section. Father was not slow in becoming acquainted with the old captain, who had been hoping for a physician to locate there. It developed that Captain Herrick had not yet located anyone on a choice half section of land only two miles from his town site on the railroad, but he showed it to father, who made a homestead and tree claim filing thereon, 320 acres, in the spring of 1878.

Breaking Virgin Dakota Sod

Forthwith a small shanty was built and the required breaking of the sod was done. At the same time father es tablished himself in town for the practice of his profession. The town was growing, in keeping with the rapid settlement of the country along the railroad and far out on either side. The railroad was extending to Watertown, forty miles west, which was the end of the railroad land grant, and which naturally the railroad would make its chief city for that part of the territory.

Deuel County was established about that time and Gary made the county seat. The town grew rapidly, a news paper, The Inter-State, was founded by Fred J. Bowman, an enterprising young man from Wisconsin-it being the third or fourth newspaper established in the territory of Dakota. Everything looked favorable for a prosperous town. Father felt much enthused over the prospects and after spending a couple of months in Gary, and holding down his homestead, he returned to Wisconsin to arrange for re moving the family to the "final home" as he termed it. It required no further argument than father's glowing accounts about the new home in the west to enthuse every member of the family over the proposed move. He quickly planned for the move of the family in September and he returned to Gary.

Therefore on a September evening in 1878 mother with five daughters, (including the baby Mayme, added to the family that year), took the west-bound passenger train, while brother Will and I (each in our teens, but I four years the older), took charge of the immigrant car that our Uncle Dave Aiken had supervised in loading with our belongings (household goods, some lumber, two horses, a cow, and various necessities for establishing a home in the western fron tier country). The car was packed full, as we boys realized before completing that three or four days' trip. Our bed, consisted of springs and mattress with plenty of bedding, had been made on top of some lumber piled near the freight car door. Here we would have a good view of the country as the train chugged slowly along. Close to the foot of our bed was a barrel of water for stock; just above the barrel a nail driven into the side of the car held a lan tern. The start was made after darkness had come, the lantern had been lighted, nobody evidently thinking of fastening it so that the bumping of the car might not jar the lantern off its hook. The result may be anticipated. Will and I were sitting on the bed waiting for the approaching freight train to which our car was to be attached. The abrupt crash finally came and behold we were in total darkness. The splashed water from the barrel informed us what had happened. I managed to fish the lantern out of the barrel of water, but we had no lighted car that night. Fortunately the water was not contaminated enough to spoil it for the stock. That rather rough start, together with the new experience of traveling - the rumbling, banging freight train, a thunder and lightning storm giving us an occasional flash view of the Mississippi river as we passed along close to its banks - all was sufficient to prevent any drowsiness to come to the two boys who had never been away from home or the care of their parents. Daylight was never more welcome, somewhat west of Winona, Minnesota.

Through the Indian Region

Only a few years before we had heard frightful stories about Indian outbreaks in Minnesota, and here we were next morning passing through that very region. The "lantern-slide" views of the massacre soon after they occurred, show ing scalping and all kinds of Indian outrages upon the white settlers upon the plains helped us to visualize what these pioneers had endured, and it did not tend to calm our boyish, excited nerves. However, that first night and day's travel, probably not covering over a couple of hundred miles, took us to and through an attractive landscape. Viewed from our wide-open car door the pretty groves of trees that had been planted in spots upon the rolling land, making that part of Minnesota so inviting, helped us to anticipate what might some day be the same in that part of the west we were going to help develop. I recall thinking as we passed along through that well-developed farming country that one could hardly blame the Indians for being savagely mad when they were driven from such a fascinating region. But since then I have been fully impressed with the fact that, even though justice may not have been fully done the Indians of those days, the west would never have been developed and civilized, making splendid, prosperous homes for millions of people, had not those sturdy, struggling, pioneer settlers pro ceeded as they did, encouraged by the government, forcing the Indians to move on to the wilds further west, and accept allotments upon reservations, or remain where they were and join in helping improve and make habitable and profit able that inviting section of the nation.

Mother's Good Food

One of the impressed incidents of this journey in the immigrant car was the feast of good things that our dear mother had prepared for us, sufficient at least for a week. It seemed a real picnic for us at the start, but unlike most picnickers we boys could do our own sorting and take first what most appealed to us. Being under considerable ex citement, the first day we were not very hungry, but a big, full pan of fruitcake looked good to us, and it served as our first meal. Next day for breakfast, dinner and supper we enjoyed fruitcake, together with milk that our accom panying cow provided. The picnic trip lasted another day and the fruitcake was pretty good again in the morning, but when noon came we found that we had had plenty of fruitcake, and nothing else looked good. That was long ago and somehow fruitcakes have never again appealed to us.

Expanse of Treeless Prairie

The third day the immigrant car was rumbling over that endless expanse of treeless prairie, where settlements were sparse, with only occasional homestead shacks and spots of broken prairie land to relieve the monotonous vastness. We began to wonder if father's apparent enthusiasm over that portion of the west to which we were going had not somehow got the best of his usually good judgment. How ever, as we sped along later in the day the country looked better to us; there were occasional little streams of water, bordered with timber, and there were indications of real farming in spots, but the land was still unattractively level. Where we were going was described as rolling hills-the "coteaux"-and we hoped to see that change before night again overtook us. In that we were disappointed, but some time after darkness had come and we were sitting upon our bed trying to figure out from our railroad timetable when we might be crossing the Dakota line, our train stopped. We had been warned not to make a practice of getting out of the car at stations, and especially never to do so at night. Therefore, at this stop we had not planned to alight, but looked anxiously out of our car door observing the move ments of many people about the station platform-among them immigrants like ourselves. We noticed the station sign read Canby. We knew that was the last station in Minnesota, and we would soon be crossing into Dakota and landing at our destination. Our hearts were beginning to palpitate more enthusiastically, and while the long train lingered at Canby a man stopped at our car door and a kind ly voice called out, "Hello boys, where are you going?" It was an unusual occurrence for us, no one, excepting the train men, had talked to us in all that three-days' trip, and as we bounced to the car door there stood a strange man, with a smiling, pleasant face. We told him our destination was Gary, where our father was expecting us. Learning our name he said, "Oh Dr. Stanley's boys?" What a thrill it gave us to hear him speak that name, way out so far away from where we knew anyone. He said he was a real estate man, and that he knew father very well, his name was Sam Bowman. He cheered us by saying we were going to a very attractive part of the west.

Pioneering Along Railroad

Incidentally, Mr. Bowman had been pioneering along the railroad as it built westward-locating settlers, dealing in real estate, etc. The next year he moved on ahead of the railroad to the Jim river valley, to what developed into Spink county, where he established the town of Ashton. Later when the railroad reached the Jim river valley it missed Ashton and started the town of Redfield several miles away. A contest of course was on at once for the lo cation of the county seat. The railroad won and Ashton remained just an ordinary prairie town without a railroad. But Sam Bowman was not a man to be downed, even though sometimes he did not win. He later became state commis sioner of school and public lands, and for several years, both before and after his election to that office, he was connected with it in an official capacity and selected a large portion of the school and state lands west of the Missouri river, including thousands of acres in Fall River county, (to which we had moved), that came into the hands of that depart ment as a grant from the government.

Our train moved on west from Canby and about ten o’clock that night reached Gary. Never were there two happier boys-greeted at the station as we were by all of the family. After a quiet night's rest in a real bed, Will and I were up with the sun, delighted to see such a pretty valley through which flowed Lac Qui Parle creek bordered by a con siderable growth of elm, oak and cottonwood trees whose leaves were being beautifully tinted by autumn frost. We had not expected to see much of a town, and were not disappoint ed, but it was growing, a new schoolhouse being built, and a spirit of hope and enthusiasm was prevalent. My elder sis ter was chosen as one of the teachers and all of us children of school age attended-for the time being in the upper part of a store building, there being only two departments. It seemed very much like a demotion for us youngsters coming from the fine schools for which Wisconsin was always famous.

Making New Home and Farm

The winter passed quickly, and to our surprise was a very mild, pleasant one. As spring approached I became uneasy to get out and do something on our homestead. Father had been planning that the first thing needed was a well, for it was two miles to the nearest water. Finally along in March he said he had arranged with an experienced well digger to do the job. I was delighted, but father thought I should continue at school. After several days discussion I prevailed upon him to let me help. After a hole had been dug as deep as a man could throw the dirt out, I was as signed the job of handling the windlass. The well was to be four feet square and to be curbed with lumber all the way down. We had two good-sized buckets and while the well digger was filling one at the bottom I was engaged in pull ing another up to dump. That process went on day after day, hauling out dirt, bucket after bucket, frequently send ing it down loaded with curbing. We soon found out that winter was not over and the temperature some days got down below zero, which with an occasional thirty or forty mile breeze over the prairie was not very inviting for the boy on the surface. We drove out from town two miles to the work every morning, took our dinner and kept it from freezing solid by tying our dinner pail to a rope and letting it part way into the well. After several days, when the well had reached a depth of twenty or twenty-five feet we began to hope that we might strike water, as others had done in some localities-but no well had yet been dug with in several miles of this place and we had nothing to base our hopes upon excepting the wisdom of this professed "water witch", who was doing the digging. He had not given much encouragement under forty feet, but, like old prospectors for precious minerals, he was sure he was on the right lead and would make the hoped-for "strike" soon. Every time he sank his shovel I hoped for a streak of water to gurgle up. After carrying on for a couple of weeks or more the man at the bottom gave his first real encouraging out-burst, declaring “that shovel-full looks more like it”. I noticed that he then seemed to be digging just a fair-sized posthole, moving faster. Suddenly as he sank his shovel again I could see from my elevation of about fifty feet a silvery spot while at that moment the old well digger yelled out, “Eureka." We had hit the vein. Within a few days we completed a well of fine water, curbed all the way down and were ready for carrying out the plans for the buildings-the first farm home within a radius of three or four miles in the region south of the town of Gary. Many others in that newly settling region had been anxiously waiting the outcome of a well on the Stanley homestead.

First Family on Prairie, 1879

I had hauled a small load of lumber from town daily while digging the well. A 16x24 house, two stories high, with a kitchen addition, was built, besides a small stable and the Stanley's established their homestead residence in Dakota Territory in April, 1879-the first family to settle on the prairie between Gary and Cobb's creek, which was four miles south of town. Moving expenses, with a large family, had reduced our cash on hand and plastering the house was postponed until after harvest, hoping for a good yield and a good price for wheat, which was being planted on sod broken the year before. There had not been very severe windstorms thus far, although they were naturally expected on the prairie at that season of the year. However, it was not long before the wind came, on a memorable Sunday morning the latter part of April 40 to 50 mile gale hit the plains, at first only slightly shaking the house. As the day progressed so did the wind, until about two o’clock in the afternoon, when it was decided best to vacate the house. The situation seemed ominous; not much con versation was indulged in-the whole family looking ser ious. Father and we two boys went out and among some lumber found a few 2x4's and 4x4's which were placed as braces from the ground against the side of the house. We had observed that the yet unused house was swaying two or three inches with every strong gust of 'wind, but our braces seemed to steady the building-and our nerves. But the manner in which the house continued to creak and shake finally drove us all out. Mother had gathered a roll of blankets and some canvas, prepared a lunch, and we went for a "picnic"-as we children felt. Like a parade of In dians with their belongings on their backs, the family pro ceeded with difficulty, to a nearby ravine. There we remained for three or four hours, with a hurricane wind howl ing furiously all the while, we not knowing whether our home and belongings were being scattered or not. Toward evening the wind began to subside, and finally its angry blasts ceased and we were permitted to go home, where, somewhat to our surprise, everything was intact, unharmed.

Planting Groves on the Prairies

It was an unforgettable day, a lesson that impressed the settlers with the importance of planting trees, and why the government had enacted what was called the "tree-claim act"-which permitted all citizens to acquire 160 acres of government land by planting ten acres of trees, cultivating and properly caring for them for a period of five years. They had to be planted in rows four feet apart. Within a few years (and those were favorable seasons, with plenty of moisture) that broad expanse of Dakota prairie was dotted with groves four and five feet high-although there were many poorly planted and badly cared for-like the crops planted by many at that time.

On father's tree claim, the second year after the sod had been broken, we planted one-year-old seedling trees from our own nursery, consisting of walnut, butternut, elm and ash. They were tiny things, but healthy, six or eight inches high, and were planted by sticking a sharp pointed rod of iron about one inch in diameter into the ground, making a hole into which the roots of the little trees were sunk a few inches, pressing the soil about them with the foot. Thus our ten acres were carefully planted, a tedious job for we chil dren in our teens. Between each row of trees a row of corn was planted and the lot was faithfully cultivated one way, growing a good crop of corn, the trees also growing marvelously, reaching a height of two feet the first year, nearly every tree living.

Those trees continued to thrive for the five years, when "final proof" was made and the government gave its deed to the 160 acres. The Stanley tree claim, before I left the place after living there eight years, was rather a conspicu ous spot in that prairie region. During that first year (1879) on the (homestead) farm additional acres of native sod were turned over and planted to crops, wheat, oats, barley, corn and flax, most of which proved profitable. However, in those early days of cultivating the native soil corn did not do very well-the pioneers concluding that "way out there" it was too cold for successfully growing corn. However, that notion was wrong, for later it proved to be a profitable crop to raise.

Dakota's Mild Winters

The following winter, like the previous one, (our first in Dakota) was, fortunately, also mild and open, with very little snow, four of us children drove from the farm into Gary each morning to attend school, being accompanied by father, who had an office for his medical practice. We were conveyed in a horse-drawn lumber wagon, the box filled with straw, with plenty of robes and blankets. It proved to be rather a hard grind day after day to do the chores, get the team ready, drive two miles to reach school by nine o'clock, care for the stock, do the milking and other chores. Such was the routine until spring work (1880) demanded atten tion of myself as well as the team, "Prince and Charley."

Hail Storm Destroys Crop

By this time we had about 75 acres ready to plant. Occasional snow and later rains had put the ground in fine condition for planting and all crops came forward marvelously. By August our 50-acre wheat field promised a won derful harvest. It was a beautiful August afternoon that father had us boys get the binder out ready to cut the crop. After all was in readiness to go the sun was considerably passed the meridian and it was decided to wait and begin the harvest fresh and early next morning. Soon after mak ing that decision dark clouds began gathering in the east then raindrops fell, coming down thicker, heavier; suddenly a devastating hailstorm was covering the land as far as the eye could reach. After ten or fifteen minutes of that terri ble pounding hail, just as suddenly as it started there was a lull and we started out to investigate the damage. The wind shifted and the storm came back, hailing harder, if possible, than before. It roared, fiercely pounding the fields of grain into a flattened mass of straw. It was a shocking, sickening experience-to have our seasons labor all lost in a few minutes, that wonderfully promising crop destroyed when the family was so desperately in need of the proceeds. The prospects seemed hopeless, but many clouds have a silver lining, and within a few days the straws of grain began to straighten up and sufficient heads of wheat showed themselves to encourage us to bring the mower into use. The wheat field was cut (exceedingly close to the ground) raked and threshed, and to our delight yielded ten bushels to the acre (leaving the other possibly forty bushels scat tered over the ground.)

The framework of a large shed was built with heavy posts sunk in the ground, the roof being made of poles and tree limbs, while around and over the structure an immense amount of straw was stacked-that being saved from thresh ing the hailed-out wheat field, making it a wonderfully com fortable place in the winter for the cows and horses, even though there could be no windows for light.

Blizzardy Winters

We had been told of occasional blizzards in winter and were therefore prepared for the worst. Brother Will and I had taken a load of wheat to a custom flour mill located at Goodwin, further west about thirty miles, which was pro pelled by a huge windmill-certainly an ingenious novelty for running the machinery of a 25-barrel a day flouring mill. There was usually dependable wind to spare in that prairie region. It was a long days drive, but being a sunny autumn day, with but little air stirring, we greatly enjoyed the new traveling experience, reaching our destination before dark. The mill was not difficult to find, for there it stood by itself upon the prairie just outside of the small town, the great wings of the wings spreading out to the full size of the building. A little, old, one-armed man, the sole proprietor, miller and business head of the place, aided in unloading our grain, casually informing us that we would have to take our regular turn in having our grist ground and that there were three or four grists ahead of ours; that there had been no wind for a couple of days and that the chances did not look good for our getting away with our flour very soon. He assured us, however, that ordinarily at that season of the year wind was not lacking to keep the grists taken care of. We had not come prepared for lingering more than a day, so that arranging for our lodging and board, and caring for the team, until the wind might blow was likely to cause us some financial embarrassment. The miller evidently de tected that we boys were worried, for he kindly informed us that we were welcome to occupy the floor of the office for sleeping purposes. The blankets and buffalo robe, which we brought for protection in the event of a cold storm over taking us in our travel, came in for good use. Two other waiting customers were sharing the floor space, having al ready spent one night there. They were sleepy and tired enough to soon become embraced in the arms of Morpheus, while Will and I were endeavoring to adjust our bodies to the floor. About the time we forgot all about our dilemma the other floor-fellows aroused us by their angry discussions about the intense quietness that prevailed and the hope lessness of getting their grists very soon. We survived the night, were greeted by another delightful, windless, sunny September morn. We scrimped on our meals at the only restaurant in town. The day was spent in strolling about, and visiting with the happy miller, who apparently was sympathetic with us young "kids", as he termed us. He expressed his belief that there would be some wind before the next morning-the gathering of a few floating clouds indicating it. We all retired for another night (on the floor) quite ready for some sleep, and it was not long before our worries were forgotten. Late in the night we were all suddenly aroused by a loud rumbling, and were not long in realizing the situation and got out into the mill where the old miller, with a broad grin on his face was busy sacking grists. The wind was blowing a gale-the only time that I recall of being delighted with a howling wind. It was run ning the machinery in a steady, powerful manner. By day light our grist was ready and loaded, and we drove home, not complaining about the windstorm. We planned that we had sufficient flour, shorts and bran for at least the win ter's supply for the family - not anticipating six months of violent winter weather, with much snow and blizzards.

"Hard Winter of '80 and '81"

It was a glorious autumn season and we had the farm work well advanced, when on October 15th (1880), an other date that is unforgettable, a drizzling rain was most acceptable to everybody. That evening, just as darkness was settling over the scene, our elder sister, Angela, and her husband, (she having been married in June of that year to William H. Donaldson, a land locator and real estate salesman), arrived to spend the night. There was no place to shelter their buggy and it was left outside. A new, long whip was left in its place in the buggy, its tip reaching several feet above the ground. It was a pleasant evening within that farm home, with the children all-present again and with the welcome rain pattering on the roof and against the windows. Next morning a different scene covered the landscape, the rain having changed to wet snow, and the wind blowing terrifically-we were experiencing our first blizzard. So fierce was the storm of wind and snow that not a thing was 'visible outside. The chores were not done as usual before breakfast. Fortunately our new brother-in-law was a native of the prairies of Minnesota, and was familiar with blizzards. When I was preparing to make an attempt to go to the stable to look after the stock he warn ed me against going out without tying a rope (clothesline) about my waist, with someone in the house to look after the other end of the line, so that in the event I failed to and at the stable I might be directed by the line hack to the house. I had the confidence of youth and really thought it was ridiculous to intimate that I couldn't run to the stable in a direct line, not over 100 feet eastward. However, fol lowing his advice, I permitted him to rope me and I made the run, but instead of reaching the stable I bumped against the familiar hitching post that was directly south of the house about 75 feet. I had not fully straightened out the clothesline, but realized I had gone wrong. I then made my way directly to the house without trouble. Undaunted, I made another effort and suddenly dropped several feet, finding myself (feeling rather than seeing) between a snow bank and the stable-the wind having created an eddy that kept the snow from banking solidly against the stable. For tunately the stable door was close by and I was able to en ter. The season's hay had been stacked outside only a few feet from the door, but the drifted snow had entirely cov ered it. Consequently the stock had to subsist on the straw (there being more than enough for all winter) with which the pole shed had been covered and surrounded. The shed was attached to the board stable and provided a good, large run-way for all the stock, they being loose therein, but had temporarily to do without water, the blizzard continuing all day and far into the night with no letup in its fury. Finding the stock all getting along nicely I returned to the house without difficulty. Next morning dawned bright, clear and still. It was a strange, beautiful sight-far as the eye could reach the whole landscape seemed a level blanket of snow, every depression and ravine being filled-a strange new world, sparkling in the sunlight. The tip of that long buggy whip was the only evidence as to where the buggy stood - the snow having drifted around and entirely over the buggy.

The weather was not very cold, and most fortunate it was that the blizzard started late in the night when people were mostly at home, resulting in no loss of life although such a sto