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" …traces of their passage still remain."

As we neared Watertown, The Muse started musing about her grandmother's heritage. Her mom's mother's birth family had lived in and around Watertown for a few decades around the turn of the last century, and since we were in the area and running early, she proposed that we exit from the eighty mile per hour rat race route and toodle over to see what we could find while she reconstructed some history. That side of her family were what was then derisively referred to as bohunks, Sudaten German Catholics displaced from Germany following religious wars a couple of hundred years before. They'd immigrated in through Baltimore then migrated inland to central Minnesota before settling into what was then Dakota Territory, before statehood. We don't know exactly what these people did for a living, but it's a good bet that they were laborers. Most migrants into this area at the time worked at least part time for the railroads who had recruited laborers by the thousands from their home countries.

The South Dakota countryside on the third of July easily passes for an extended park stretching further than any eye can see.
The German farmers have trimmed the grass surrounding their homes and their fields have settled into the middle of their growing season. Heavy rains overnight left the furrows between soybean rows glistening with volunteer streams. The corn stands three times taller than the requisite knee high by the fourth of July. We drive out to the first of two recorded residences of these ancestors to find the remnants of a prairie village, rusting grain elevator crumbling along a trunk railroad line, gravel road the only access route. No sign remains denoting this as the town it once was. No church. A very few houses. Little sign of life.

This is pothole country, little lakes and ponds punctuate the plains, pelicans floating placidly. The gravel was obviously saturated in last night's deluge. No dust haunts our passage. 'Tiz the season for thunder storms, violent lightening-infused tempests that make or break a farmer's growing year. The storms tend to hit the same parcels through a season, shunning the drier land in favor of the previously favored. Should a storm turn into hail, a whole year's efforts get trampled in an hour or two. Should the storms shun your section, no irrigation could replace the missing moisture. Nobody can predict any of this, the whole farm economy subsisting upon serial Hail Mary passes into an unforeseeable future. The probabilities favor without guaranteeing success, or even subsistence. These ancestors faced the same odds made longer by the cluelessness any absence of history brings. They were the pointy end of a stick now blunted by a hundred and fifty years of humbling experience.

In the second town, one large enough to still have an intact Catholic church and a gas station/minimart, we found what we'd come looking for. In the most ancient far corner of the cemetery, the stone of one Joseph Struhfus, late of Bohemia, Austrian Empire, expired June 24, 1886, aged 51 years, and his wife Amalia (Molly), who'd outlived him by over thirty years, The Muse's grandmother's grandparents. Another sliver of the story comes to life in that cemetery, made real by the presence of an ornate lichen-covered monument. The craftsmanship says much about how these people felt about their forebear. A carved wooden paddle might have sufficed for a family of bohunk immigrant laborers, but a doubtless very expensive stone stands there as testament to something more. We remain clueless about the details.

Whole families came before us, struggled to simply survive, and we idly toodle by to show homage to their sacrifices, which doubtless seemed more simply necessary than sacrificial. We each do what we seem to need to do without long considering those who might stumble upon evidence of our earthly remains a century and a half later. Like them, we cannot credibly imagine the world our antecedents might inhabit. These people lived in a world powered by horse flesh and steam yet they still carried optimistic dreams about an even better future. They were no smarter or wiser than we are today, though they might well have been physically considerably stronger and perhaps emotionally more secure. Their stories were lived, written, then largely forgotten, though traces of their passage still remain.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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