by Erhardt Hehn
We could see it parked in the weeds behind a filling station. We, that is Burl Dartt and I. Both of us were away from home for the first time in our life, attending Southern State Normal School in Springfield, South Dakota. Acquaintanceship soon led to friendship and the sharing of dreams and feelings. Spring came and aroused feelings that led to dreaming about the value of an automobile in the pursuit of coeducational outdoor activities.
Burl said, “Maybe we could buy a car. My brother bought an old Dodge for forty dollars. How much money do you have?”
“Well,” I said, “I sure don’t have any 20 bucks but maybe by going without beer for a week I could spare ten.”
Burl vowed that he could make an equal sacrifice and contribution – so come Saturday we hitchhiked to the nearest larger town, Yankton, and there was this gem, a 1921 Model T that had been customized. It was the forerunner of future sports cars; no fenders, no running board, no top and no doors, but a windshield six inches high and modified spring shackles that lowered the body to within ten inches off the ground.
Casually we sauntered around behind the station for a closer look at this marvel of design. In due course of time the station attendant noticed our presence and asked to know the nature of our business.
“Ah. just looking over this pile of junk.”
“Might you boys be interested in this treasure?”
“We might if the price is right and it runs.”
“Run it will. What’s your offer?”
We had discussed our strategy and agreed to offer fifteen dollars so as to allow us to bargain to twenty if need be. “We will pay fifteen dollars for it.”
“No, you won’t. I can sell it for twenty-five.”
“We think we should see if it will run before we go any farther.”
He assured us it would so we pulled the gas lever halfway down, the spark lever all the way up and pulled the choke. Having had much experience with cranking a Fordson tractor I gave the crank several quick turns, it fired, and after several adjustments of the spark and the choke it sprang to life. We were ready to play our trump card. “We will pay twenty for this heap with a full tank of gas.”
“It’s a sale! Bring it around to the front and I’ll fill it with gas and find the title. Then you get it out of here!”
Pleased with ourselves we rolled the “Silver Streak” up and down the Missouri River coulees into the setting sun and Springfield.
The next day being Sunday we had time to soberly examine the Silver Streak with a resulting diminishing of the previous day’s euphoria. The paint job was a dusty gray rather than the silver of yesterday. The design was something less than that of the latest aerodynamic Studebaker. The tail part of the body was bluntly rounded, similar to the end of an Idaho Russet potato.
Burl said, “Well, what’s the big deal. These things won’t keep this old Model T from running.” I conceded that this was so, and someday the flaws could be corrected, but of a more serious nature, to our dismay, was our discovery that on several spots the tread on the rear tires was showing canvas.
Now Burl sang a different tune, “What will we do? We don’t have any money for tires.”
On pondering the problem we conceived the idea of a never-before-tried retread job. If we could find two discarded casings slightly larger than the bald 30×3 1/2s, we could possibly slip them over the worn tires something like overshoes. A scavenger hunt through the town alleys did produce two casings that we thought might do the trick but no amount of prying, sweating and skinned knuckles produced the desired result. As a last resort each “retread” tire was cut through at a right angle so that it could indeed be slipped onto a mounted casing like an overshoe. This, of course, left two loose tire ends which were fastened to the wooden spoked wheel with ever available baling wire.
“Do you think this will work?” Burl asked.
I replied, “Only one way to find out.”
Cautiously we made our way out of town to the north –couldn’t go south because of the river. Except for slight slapping noises all seemed well. We turned around to go back to town. I was driving and decided to give this innovative solution to our tire problems the final test by pulling the gas lever halfway down. The slapping of the tires turned to a rumbling and suddenly at possibly forty miles per hour one end of the split casing on the driver’s side came loose and proceeded to beat me over the head and shoulders with every turn of the wheel. Why I wasn’t severely injured, even killed, I do not know. This and following events gave me the eerie feeling that the vibe between me and this machine was not good.
How did this vehicle meet our expectations of expanded coeducational outdoor activity opportunities? Expectations must have exceeded reality since I remember only one occasion which offered any promise. We had enticed two young ladies to crowd into the front and only seat for a ride down the Missouri River bluff and into the expansive flood plain, now covered with water by a Corps of Engineers main stem dam. I recall it as a pleasant, warm spring day and Burl the Cassanova and his girl soon disappeared into the willows, but I, on the other hand, had my usual problem with the girls, who wished to relate to me as a brother. That may have been because of my slight build and youthful appearance, but that does not explain why other girls should wish to burden me with their problems as though I were a surrogate father. I do believe my wife, one of a family of four daughters, would alternately relate to me as a brother she never had; a father, whom she adored, and in between an indulgent husband.
Teenagers who own a car are usually broke. This was as true in 1935 as it is in 1990. Burl and I were no exception. Gasoline sold for twenty cents a gallon and even a stripped-down 1921 Model T may have gone only twenty miles per gallon. Teenager’s and bum’s wages were one dollar a day.
Burl’s oldest brother had graduated in the fall quarter from the University with a degree in education, and had immediately landed a teaching position in Badger, South Dakota. Burl reasoned that by now he must have collected at least three pay checks. Brother Gale was known to be close with money but Burl felt that if he could approach him eyeball to eyeball, he would surely lend kid brother a few bucks. The problem now was how we were to accomplish this eye-to-eye contact. Consulting a map we determined that the distance between Springfield and Badger was 130 miles, one way. That would require an expenditure of $1.50 for gas and a possible $3.00 round trip if the foray was a failure.
Sometimes help comes from unexpected sources. Busty Redman, a high school classmate, and Harold from south of the Jim River and I were practicing light house keeping. Harold had not won our total acceptance of him as a member of our group. Listening to our discussion he volunteered that he had a kindly grandmother living in Kaylor that just might spring him a fiver if he were to drop in on her. Kaylor was only a few miles off our road to Badger. With some misgivings we agreed to include him in our adventure.
Burl, being a bit of a worrier, questioned the reliability of the Silver Streak in covering all these miles. Due to my experience in keeping a Fordson tractor running ten hours a day, latched to a plow, I had fallen into the role of mechanic and assured Burl the Streak would likely run from here to there and back.
The weather was not too favorable for a launching — April showers were in progress, but the die was cast. The first leg of the journey to Kaylor was covered as smooth as silk and Harold’s grand-mother did shake loose with a five spot. The gods were smiling on us!
Burl volunteered, “Hey, this guy may be useful.”
Our next lap was a short run to my home town, Menno, and a stop at my girlfriend Mildred’s home, a quick song fest around the piano and we were off again to the tune of “Singing in the Rain”. The next town, Freeman, was sixteen miles down the pike. It was raining hard and to compound our discomfort the last eight miles of road were a maze of ruts in a sea of mud. A mad jouncing, mud slinging pace had to be maintained, if we were to have any light by which to drive. This was so because the electricity was generated by flywheel magnets, thus the brightness of the lights depended on the revolutions per minute of the engine, which translated into the speed of the Streak. Without the protection of fenders, a standard windshield, doors, a top and side curtains, we were a sorry sight as we finally putzed down the empty, locked and bolted Main Street of Freeman. We were in need of shelter to lick our wounds and regain our cool but feared if the night watchman spotted us we might spend the night in jail on a vagrancy charge. In desperation we slipped into the fire station, hung up our wet outer clothes and crawled into the engine cabs and curled up on the seat cushions. Fortunately the night watchman was a sensible fellow and stayed under cover long enough for us to recover our composure and get back on the road. The skies had cleared and dawn was breaking on a day bursting with life released from the bonds of winter. Only the Streak was not bursting with energy. It was misfiring profusely — possibly from moisture in the ignition system. The parts of this system were the magnets, a high voltage coil for each of the four spark plugs and a tricky timing device consisting of a roller on an arm that rotated around the inside of a cup-like device. Several fine tuning stops were required to get the Streak humming and in harmony with the world.
As we were approaching a major town, Madison, Burl was telling us that his mother had told him about a girlhood friend of hers that lived on a farm in this area. We didn’t have any idea where, but did see up ahead an exceptionally prosperous looking farmstead.
I said to Burl, “What do we have to lose? Let’s turn in.” It has been a life-long contention of mine that to have luck you must give it a chance to play. To our absolute amazement this was the home of the friend of Burl’s mother. Breakfast was on the table and such a spread I had not seen before nor since. Bellies full and round as puppies we cruised the rest of the way to Badger.
Gale and Edna had settled into an older home, sparingly furnished. We were fed and somehow bedded down for the night. The next day being Sunday we started the trek back to Springfield. No money from Big Brother to Little Brother! It may well be that Gale had been paid in warrants for the three months of teaching. Many school districts were without funds and issued warrants which probably could be sold for a fraction of their face value. The only source of money for school districts were personal and real estate taxes which many citizens were unable to pay.
Harold’s five dollars covered our expenses. The trip was not a loss. We had a memorable experience. Somewhat indirectly but again I suspected the Silver Streak of trying to do me in. Shortly after this adventure I had a slight case of measles and developed ear complications, possibly a result of the severe exposure to the elements while riding in the Streak. The ear problem developed into a mastoid infection, followed by surgery and rest for the Streak and me well into the summer.
Burl and I scattered to the three winds along with most of the student body at the end of the Spring quarter of 1935. None of us were from the south because of the Missouri River barrier. Burl’s destination was Wall, 300 miles to the northwest, whereas mine was to Menno, only 40 miles to the northeast. No doubt this difference in distance was a prime factor in my falling heir to the Silver Streak. Our partnership was not formally dissolved and I don’t believe that he was ever paid for his half interest in the machine. It must be that prior to the end of the school year we drove the Streak to Menno where it was parked in the empty stall of my parents’ double garage. This had to have been so because when we scattered it was not parked in Springfield. Instead of going home to begin the summer routine of staring horses in the rear as they labored in the fields, I decided to hitchhike to Wall to visit Burl in his home environment. To finance this trek I approached a fellow student, Fred Lichtenberg of Dutch descent from Corsica, for a loan of ten dollars. Forty years later I learned from his sister in Corsica that Fred had gone into ministry in Michigan. My debt had to be paid to his widow.
The Silver Streak rested in the luxury of the garage stall while I was recovering from my ear problem. With the advent of fall the catfish become active along the banks of the James River. Going to town on Saturday night to sell the past week’s production of cream and eggs, buy groceries, socialize at all ages, and for many, assemble at the home of the grandparents at the close of an evening was an entrenched country institution. Since my girlfriend was not available for socializing because she was clerking in her father’s store, the Streak and I went fishing. Legally you were allowed two attended poles, but this was the Dirty Thirties and I was as much interested in meat as in the sport of it. To meet the meat interest my system of fishing required a minimum of eight short willow poles that could be stuck in the mud at the water’s edge. Fastened to the poles was a line only long enough for the baited hook to rest on the streambed. The Streak was parked on moonless nights so that the lights would shine along the bank for remote pole behavior observation. If the pole was bent over towards the water or swayed and trembled then something was on the end of the line, hopefully a catfish, but it could be a pesky bullhead or an angry snapping turtle. On a good night the hours of vigilance would be rewarded with a Sunday evening meal of crisp, fried potatoes and golden brown morsels of catfish.
During the course of the summer the promised aerodynamic redesign of the back half of the Streak’s body was undertaken. The result was a fishtail profile with a rumble seat. The lid of the rumble seat hinged on the back and when raised provided a back rest of sorts for the occupants. The entire body was given several coats of aluminum paint. Now it was worthy of the full name, Silver Streak. Many evening rides were enjoyed to and from the mailbox one and one-half miles distant. Frequently the return trip was climaxed by a dramatic entry of the farmyard. A short distance from the right turn into the farmyard was a slope steep enough to reach the desired momentum. On such occasions the machine and I were as one. We would sweep into the driveway and pass between the granary and the garage like a sailing ship tacking into a gale and around the yard light pole like a frightened horse tethered to a post. I enjoyed teasing my mother. If she happened to be outside enjoying the evening air, I would, after the dust had settled, say, “Mother, be a sport, come on, let’s take a ride.”
Her reply was always some variation of, “Never, do you think I’m crazy?”
Our farmstead was situated one-half mile west of a north/south farm-to-market road. In the first days of tractor powered road building a contractor was paid for so many rounds per mile with an elevator grader. This machine scooped soil out of burrow pits on each side of the road into the center for the grade whether a grade was needed or not. This indiscriminate earth moving resulted in a hump on top of a hill where the east/west country lane intersected with the north/south farm-to-market road. One evening on my return trip from the mailbox it occurred to me that crossing this hump at sufficient speed could generate a mini roller coaster-like thrill. Why wait? I drove about a quarter of a mile east on the country lane, turned around, pulled the gas lever all the way down and gathered speed for the anticipated thrill. I hardly had time to congratulate myself on not having met another car at the intersection when I realized we were airborne. The machine and I were suspended long enough for the thought to flash through my mind, that if we did not land right the Silver Streak and I would likely go out together. Rah-whoomp, a perfect landing on all four with the precision of a space shuttle. Subdued we putted down the lane into the driveway and around the light pole and came to a gentle rest.
In Southeastern South Dakota the last continental glacier left the flat James River valley fifty miles across between two lateral moraines. These moraines were left behind with huge blocks of ice imbedded in a jumble of clay, sand and rocks. As time passed the ice melted, forming lakes of various sizes fed by the surrounding knolls of clay, sand and rocks.
Why my great grandfather Gottlieb Quast homesteaded among these pot holes, as the lakes are called, and piles of rocks when flat land was available in the valley, I can only speculate. No doubt he went searching for suitable homestead land early in the spring. It may be that he was favorably impressed by the abundance of water impounded in the potholes. The lack of a good source of potable water was often a critical problem on the Russian Steppes from whence they came. Even the rocks may have been regarded as a valuable resource as building material.
I am glad that he made this choice and that my grandfather Andreas Hehn homesteaded nearby and my father and mother built a new farmstead on 80 acres of grandfather’s land. From the highest hills some 200 feet higher in elevation than the floor of the James River Valley I could see the hills of the glacial moraine on the west side of the valley. Before the drought of the thirties the distant horizon appeared to be forested. This was an illusion created by the blending of the profiles of hundreds of ten-acre groves of cottonwood trees that had been planted as qualification for an additional homestead of 80 acres. In the valley I could see the plume of smoke trailing from the stack of the branch line, coal fired locomotive. To the north and east I could not see beyond the nearest neighbors because of the continuing rolling landscape. But to the south I could see the tallest of all hills visible to me. I gave it a great deal of attention. Do mountains look something like this? What would it be like to stand on top of this highest of hills? A cousin of mine who lived south of the river was closer to the hill than we. He told me that it was called Mount Piston. That seemed to be a strange name for a hill. I didn’t know how it was spelled. It occurred to me that this might be a crude joke since there was said to be a lake at the foot of the hill. I made no further inquiries. Even at a tender age one guards against being marked as being gullible.
There was a strong desire to know what lay beyond the hills to the north and east and the distant horizon to the south and west. In the summer of 1936 the Silver Streak played a role in extending my geographic horizons.
As far back as I can remember my father and his two brothers, Soloman and Richard, owned a threshing rig in partnership. Their first threshing machine, commonly called a separator because it separated grain from chaff and straw, was a Case. The logo was an eagle sitting on a globe. The tractor that provided the belt power was also a Case with the unique mounting of the engine at a right angle to the main frame. The exhaust pipe went straight up with the last foot being bent to the side at a 45 degree angle to keep rain water from dripping into the engine. Towards the close of a day of threshing we would keep an eye on this pipe because when the flash of the exhaust became visible it would not be long until Uncle Solomon, the separator man, would call a halt to the day’s work.
The threshing rig being stationary, the straw bundles had to be hauled to the machine with hay racks drawn by horses. The bundles were fed into the machine from two sides. A minimum of six wagons was needed to satisfy the appetite for straw of the smooth running Hehn rig. During the threshing run the hay racks became bundle wagons. The bundle wagons were manned by younger men and older boys and sometimes girls. They were called pitchers. Extras hired to help load the wagons in the field were called spike pitchers. The pitchers took a pride in a load of bundles stacked neat and high. It was somewhat of a disgrace to have a side of bundles slip out and fall on the ground on the way to the separator. It was a challenge to get loaded and to the separator in time for a break in the shade of the wagon. Harold Milke, my former high school classmate friend and competitor for the favors of my girlfriend, Mildred, had been hired on as a pitcher. Possibly during one of these breaks in the shade of a wagon we may have lamented the heat, dryness, dust and the miserable lean crop.
He may have said, “I wish I were back in the Black Hills where there are trees and green grass, running water and cool night air.”
Now he knew all this because since graduating from high school he had been in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the Black Hills. Even though I had been to visit my friend Burl Dartt in Wall, I had only seen the Hills from the distance.
I said, “You know, the corn is all dried up and it will be too dry to plow until it rains. Man, I could sure enjoy trees, green grass and running water. I’m tired of saving saliva all day for one good spit!”
Harold’s response was, “Well, when we finish this threshing run let’s go. But how? We don’t have a car.”
Without hesitation I said, “Of course we have a car.”
“You mean that broken down old Model T?”
“That is exactly what I mean, but it isn’t broken down. I’m sure the Silver Streak will get us there and back.”
The harvest was gathered in, the corn crop was a total loss, it hadn’t rained, you couldn’t plow and my dad, who wasn’t enthused about my wandering off, didn’t say, “No.” So we packed our gear in the rumble seat (it wasn’t much — old pots and pans, strap iron grill, piece of binder canvas, discarded blankets and an extra connecting rod) and we were all set to go. But not quite; Mildred, learning of our plans, wondered if we couldn’t route ourselves in such a way that we could drop her off at her cousin’s farm home near Burke, South Dakota. This we could do and we were off with the prettiest girl in four counties sitting between us.
It must have been early in the morning when the three of us rolled down the Menno main street and headed the Silver Streak west on U.S. Highway 18. Perfect touring, 360 degree vision, cool air and the song of Meadow Larks heard above the background of the crunch of pebbles as the high pressure tires passed over the all-weather gravel surface. We crossed the Missouri River at a point which became the site of the Fort Randall Dam in 1957, one of four on the main stem of the river in South Dakota.
The Missouri River divides the state into two distinctly different areas, East and West River. Topographically much of the East River was sculpted by the glaciers into a flat plain, interspersed with mounds and ridges of glacial debris. In contrast the West River topography of undulating knolls, life threatening bad lands and black hills is the product of ocean bed uplift followed by eons of water and wind erosion. Likewise, it is a state of two cultures. The East River land was settled by a massive immigration of homesteaders from North and Central Europe during the last quarter of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth centuries. They were largely agrarian people that were in search of land to continue doing what they understood best — farming. There were few opportunities for amassing wealth. Luxury was not prized, work was good for body and soul, cleanliness was Godliness, save today and you shall not want tomorrow; politicians, professionals and businessmen were not to be trusted and the Lord is to be worshipped on Sunday.
The semi-arid West River lands were not kind to homesteaders of 160 acres of land. Most of them failed, leaving behind their tar shacks and farm implements. The permanent inhabitants were the employees of large cattle ranches, often financed by British money, the miners in the Black Hills and the Native Americans. The surviving vast open spaces, the ethnic mix and the early pockets of wealth have molded a subculture that to me is discernibly different from that east of the river. There seems to be a sense of freedom to do your thing; a special zest for life whether it is meeting a friend on a back country road and sharing a beer out of the cooler in the back of the pickup or doing an impromptu two-step with the lady running the crossroads bar. It seemed that after we crossed the river and ascended the river valley bluffs I could sense the mood change. In the course of the following decades I have experienced a similar sensation at each of the five crossings of the Missouri River in South Dakota.
After crossing the Missouri River you are on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, home of the Ogalala Sioux. The names of the towns, such as Bonesteel, Burke, Gregory, Winner and Mission were familiar to me as hometowns of classmates at Southern State Normal School in Springfield in 1934-35. With special feelings do I remember the Indian girl, Blossom Steel. She was our homecoming queen. To the tune of a Nickelodeon she was my first dancing partner, ever. Well before the noon-hour we saw in the distance a strange cluster of the standard, steel constructed water pumping windmills. These windmills and the wells on which they stood provided the private water supply for single family residences in Burke. On my last trip through the town the windmills were gone — such is a kind of progress. Mildred’s cousin lived west of town on the farm of her husband’s parents. They had moved to town and opened a Ma & Pa restaurant. This was 1934 and they must have tired of selling wheat at two bits a bushel and were going to try coffee at a nickel a cup. On driving into the yard of this farm it was obvious judging from the disrepair of the buildings that this operation had been in trouble long before 1929. Out of the doorway, with the sagging screen door, came this beautiful young woman with a baby in arms. A depression/dust bowl picture that could have been taken anywhere on the Great Plains from Texas to Canada.
We left Mildred to her mission and headed west to the town of Mission where we turned north across the White River and the eastern breaks and buttes of the Badlands. The river always runs a milky white as it carries suspended particles of clay into the Fort Randall reservoir. Without incident we rolled into Wall before dark and found Burl and Velma in charge of a set of tourist cabins on the Highway 16 Gasoline Alley strip. Wall Drug was then the usual long narrow Main Street space with the unique distinction of pitching free ice water to the tourists. We spent our first night out sleeping on the floor of an empty wooden grain bin.
In the morning we nosed the Silver Streak in the direction of that black line of hills on the western horizon. On our approach to Rapid City Harold could point out Harney Peak at an elevation of 7,242 feet. From this distance I was not impressed. It didn’t look any larger than Mount Piston from one of the knolls back home in the eastern part of the state. Harney Peak disappeared from view as we neared Rapid City, not to be seen until we again saw the Black Hills from the distance. This was a lesson in geometry. Rapid City was nicely sited in a hollow with a stream of clear water running through town. We cruised Main Street primarily to view the magnificence of the Alex Johnson Hotel. It was reputed to be the best of its kind in this part of the world.
Leaving Rapid City on the way to what was to become the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, we were surrounded by tree covered hills. Often the road was divided into one-way single lane trails. I liked what I saw. Harold worried about my driving because I was always looking off somewhere other than down the trail. A short distance past the village of Keystone we caught a glimpse of the scarred granite cliff of Mount Rushmore. It was here that the sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his crew were with dynamite, hammer and chisel shaping in stone the likenesses of the 60-foot tall faces of four United States presidents — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Construction begun in 1929 had not been completed in 1941 when Borglum died. His son Lincoln completed the massive carving. A period of planning must have preceded 1929 as I recall us as elementary students bringing pennies to school as a contribution to the realization of a dream. Given the current concern for the preservation of the natural state of the earth, the proposal of such a project today would be treated as a nightmare.
After touring the Needles area around Mount Rushmore we drove north on high ground, known as Strawberry Ridge. I think our destination may have been the Lead/Deadwood area of gold mining, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock fame. Before getting there we crossed a clear gurgling stream that led to a sheltered cove bounded on the open side by an oxbow of the stream. In this idyllic spot we would spend the remainder of the day and night. We chanced being sufficiently secluded to escape Forest Ranger detection of a small fire for cooking and gazing.
As we sat gazing into the coals Harold mused, “If the Black Hills are this wonderful, what must the Rockies be like?”
My response was, “Let’s go and see!” and that is how and when we decided to go on to Yellowstone National Park.
The next day we visited the workings of the Homestead Mine in Lead and Deadwood and paid our respects to Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock at the gravesides. The red light districts were given a curious look and we were on our way to Spearfish and points west. On arriving in Sundance, Wyoming, we decided to call it a day and find an off-road spot outside of town for the night’s camp. Barely had we started our cooking fire when we heard a car approaching. We guessed it would be a local rancher who had noticed the wisp of smoke from our fire. We had built a good fire pit and decided to assure whoever it might be that we were well aware of the hazards of an open fire in a drought stricken area. We were right. Our visitor was a local rancher prepared to chew out the ignorant Eastern dudes. We didn’t quite fit his expectations and took advantage of the moment to make our pitch, offer a cup of fresh brew and talk his language. It worked — we stayed the night.
After a breakfast of eggs, several slices of bacon cut fresh off the slab, bread and coffee we were back on combined U.S. 14 and 16, headed generally west. In 1936 this was not the straight shot that I-90 is today from Spearfish to Gillette to Buffalo. A few miles out of Sundance it made a swing to the north within eight miles of Devil’s Tower. Glimpses of this 865-foot monolith were enough to entice us to drive the extra miles for a closer look. What an awesome sight, this pedestal of huge, four to five-sided, irregular lava columns. At the base of the tower the columns flair out like the roots of a giant cottonwood tree. On many subsequent visits have I gazed up in awe as I walked around the base of this wonder of the natural world.
The Silver Streak was asking for no more than an occasional stop for gas and a quart of used oil. If a kick off the coil box would not correct a spate of misfirings, then a tune-up was in order. That meant touching up the coil points, cleaning the spark plugs and applying a thin coat of new oil on the timer wall. At any sign of possible engine failure Harold would stroke the Silver Streak body on a spot just below the right windshield post. The silver on this spot was beginning to lose it’s lustre.
After leaving the savannah-like landscape of the Black Hills the trees disappeared and the sage brush took over. Even after six years of drought in the Central Plains this country struck us as absolute desolation. It was no place to have a car failure and the lusterless spot by the windshield turned black. I supposed possibly as a work relief project an effort was being made to replace snow fences along the highway with a single row of trees. It seemed that whoever conceived of this idea was either an idiot or had gone mad and was determined to defy the elements. After several dry, normal summers, winter deer grazing and a grasshopper outbreak, sagebrush had again taken over the space.
At Gillette 1-90 makes a bee-line for Buffalo but the old U.S. 14 and 16 made a large loop to the north and split at Ucross. I never could remember the accepted pronunciation of this fork in the road. At this point U.S. 14 went on to Sheridan and U.S. 16 to Buffalo. Here we spent the night — possibly because we were not certain which route we should take to cross the Big Horn Mountains looming in the west.
I suspect that on the basis of advice from the filling station attendant, we chose to cross the Big Horns via Buffalo to Worland. Having in subsequent years made the crossing from Sheridan to Greybull, it was advise well taken. Model T’s had only two speeds forward, low and high. Alternating between these two gears the foothill approach to the mountain pass was negotiated with ease. The grades became progressively steeper as we entered the mountain front and our pace settled into a steady grind in low gear. We were showered with gravel by the wheels of the passing Ford V-8’s, six cylinder Chevies and those fancy Buicks, Dodges and Chryslers clawing their way around the hairpin curves and up the mountain side.
But lo; what was that plume of gray vapor up by the next hairpin? Surely not a Stanley Steamer. As we entered the curve we saw that it was not one but several of those fine automobiles with steaming radiators. At our snail’s pace it seemed we passed them all at least once and some several times. We relished the situation and hardly gave any attention to the stalled autos, as though this was old hat for us.
There was no longer any question in my mind about the wisdom of our decision to go to see the Rockies. I was thrilled by every new vista and the changing ecosystems with increased elevation. Imagine a snowbank in August and flowers springing up in the wake of the melting snow. My gawking again led to my being relieved of the steering wheel. Harold may have regretted this change of positions because the steep descent down Ten Sleep Canyon turned out be more difficult for us than the ascent. The Model T’s did not have any brakes on the wheels. The emergency brake was a drum and band on the drive shaft and the foot brake was a drum and band in the transmission. In making the descent the foot brake, hand brake, low and reverse had all been used to slow our descent. On arriving in Worland it was obvious that the transmission bands were going to have to be replaced.
We were able to buy new bands at the Gamble Store and proceeded to replace the worn bands on a vacant lot. The word spread around town and we soon had an audience of curious boys. In getting organized we had laid our only suitcase on the ground along with other supplies. They carefully took note of our gear and wanted to know what was in the suitcase.
We said, “Rattlesnakes.” They doubted but never dared to open the suitcase.
Mechanically the repair job was a success but financially a catastrophe!
Without replenishment of our coffers, touring of Yellowstone National Park was out of the question. We were not going to give up so easily and decided to look for work. In 1936 the country was still in the throes of the depression. Work was not easy to come by but we started our search by locating the Unemployment Office. An interesting activity of society in recent decades has been the renaming of institutions so as to enhance their image. Unemployment Offices have become Employment Centers, Insane Asylums are now Human Resource Centers, Reform Schools are Rehabilitation Centers and the local slammer is the Detention Center. The emphasis on science in the wake of Spudnik elevated colleges to universities overnight. Established professional fields, such as Agronomy and Animal Husbandry, became Plant & Soil Science and Animal Science.
Well, on with the story — We were in luck. A Mr. Sweeny had just called in the need for two experienced hands to assist him with stacking alfalfa hay. His ranch was located on the edge of town and it did not take us long to report for work. There was a choice of jobs. You could either operate a buck rack or stack. I do not remember the hourly wage but I do recall that stacking paid two-bits more than bucking. I had not had much experience stacking because at home the position was always preempted by one of our dads. It was impressed upon us that building a stack that would not fall over and was so formed internally as to shed rain and snow water required a high degree of skill. I accepted this only as a half-truth because it seemed to me that it also was the easiest job in the entire operation. On the basis of this observation I opted to stack for Mr. Sweeny for the extra two-bits a day. Woe be to me! I was in for a surprise.
Harold had no experience with a buck rake but I assured him I would help him get the team hitched and on his way. A full understanding of this situation requires an explanation of this haying operation. The hay was deposited on a pile by a machine called an overshot stacker. This stacker was basically a huge wooden fork which was raised into the air by a rope and a system of pulleys working through the appropriately placed trusses. As the end of the rope was pulled forward by a team of horses the fork was raised into the air and hopefully the hay slid off the fork in the vicinity of the intended stack. The stacker resembled the catapult used to batter fortress walls with rocks before the advent of gun powder. With the buck rake the hay surrounding the stack was brought to and deposited on the stacker fork.
An understanding of the functioning of the buck rake requires some description of the machine. The basic geometry of the machine was similar to the frame of a king size bed. On each of the front corners of the frame was an 18″ in diameter wheel in a fixed position. On the rear corners of the frame were similar wheels that swiveled. On the front of this frame was mounted a fork that mated the stacker fork. A horse was hitched to each side of the frame and the driver sat on a seat between the swiveling dolly wheels. Thus, the direction of travel was determined by a control of the different rates of forward movement of the horses — a tricky business. There was concern about Harold’s ability to manage this ungainly contraption but he learned quickly.
I was not so sure that I would survive my assignment. This was an irrigated field of well managed alfalfa. Never had I seen windrows of hay that close together and in place were three buck rakes to serve one stacker. Would I be buried alive by a deluge of hay! To my relief a second man was assigned to be on the stack with me. All set to go and here comes the first load — kerplop — in the middle of the stack area. It was a tangled and twisted mass that resisted my efforts to pry off a forkful of hay for proper placement. My partner seemed equally inexperienced and before we had accomplished anything here came the second load.
Our Mr. Sweeny came to the rescue. “Don’t tear it apart. Just roll it around. We will tear it apart next winter when we have more time.”
My partner and I soon learned the technique in spite of an attack of the alkali water scourge. Mr. Sweeny had an answer for this too — ginger tea. We saw the job through to its completion. Pay time came and we thought we were dealt a low blow. We had eaten our noon meal at the family table and were not told until pay-time that this was not a fringe benefit.
I suspect our first stop after being paid was a grocery store and then to the sage brush flat on the edge of town. This was our night-camp area and provided an abundance of dead sagebrush for our cooking and evening fire. Our night’s sleep under the binder canvas lean-to was of short duration. A violent Rocky Mountain rain storm forced a quick retreat to the shelter of a filling station canopy. Daylight was breaking when the rain quit and we headed out on the road to Yellowstone Park. We had barely cleared town when Harold fell asleep and not much later I woke up driving in the barrow pit on the left side of the road with Harold still sound asleep. Looking ahead down the barrow pit I could see a driveway leading into a field. I reckoned, if I could get to the driveway it would be possible to be back on the road without him waking and nobody needed to know. In the tall grass I could not see a narrow irrigation ditch dug at right angles to the barrow pit — quickly catastrophe struck. The front wheels dropped into the ditch, the hood became dislodged and Harold awoke with a start followed by strong language. We got out to assess the damage to the Silver Streak and found that the hand crank for starting the engine, which hung in front of the radiator, had been bent and shoved through the radiator. This was bad news.
Harold’s verdict was, “You’ve done it this time. Now we can walk.”
Well, maybe not. We pushed the Streak to the driveway and back on the road. It seems we had brought all of the essentials with us. The used hay stacker rope stashed in the rumble seat was tied to the front axle and the rest of the rope laid out in front. The first car to come by stopped and the Good Samaritan offered to pull us into Greybull. He dropped us off at a wrecking yard, the proprietor was an early riser, he had just the radiator that we needed and in an hour we were off to Cody. The weather was unsettled, we were tired, our clothes were dirty, we hadn’t had a bath for a long time and we had jingle money in our pockets so we rented a cabin for the rest of the day and coming night.
After a restful night in a bed and without mosquitoes, feeling clean all over we pulled out on the road, headed for Yellowstone Park in high spirits. The cliff-hanging road and the grotesque rock formations along the Shoshone River Canyon were exciting new sights, but we were unfavorably impressed by the tree stump studded mud flats of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir on the Shoshone River. Yellowstone Lake, the Fishing Bridge, the placid water of the river before the falls, Donraven Pass and Tower Falls were all crowded into one never-to-be-forgotten day of sight seeing. The feelings of serenity of the quiet waters, power of the waterfalls and grandeur of the canyon walls at each repeated viewing has not diminished over the decades. The gurgling, spitting and fuming Dragon’s Mouth had never failed to raise a chuckle from me. We went to sleep after this full day at the Tower Falls campground to the tune of bears rattling garbage cans. There did not seem to be any concern about being molested by these animals.
My recall of the following day in the Park is not clear. I believe we made the complete loop because I remember that Harold soon tired of my frequent stops at the geyser basins from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful. I could not agree with his conclusion that the various geyser basins and the thermal features within each were all alike. It was my impression that here was an exciting range of variation in the manifestation of a geological phenomenon.
It must be that we elected to exit the park through the northeast rather than the east gate so as not to back-track on our road into the Park. It may also be that we had learned something about the fabulous Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge, Montana. What we had obviously not heard about was the miles of new road grade which was covered with rock shards that looked and acted like quality raw material for arrow head flaking. In short order it had cut our high pressure, front wheel tire casings to ribbons and punctured the inner tubes. There was no alternative but to keep going and hope the flat casings would protect the rims all the way to the town of Cooke City. The casings held out but there were no 30″ x 3-1/2″ tires to be found. Again the possibility of slipping balloon tire casings over the wheels to protect the rims came to mind. Firmly wired in place it did the job. In this manner we flip-flopped over the 10,940-foot Beartooth Pass into Red Lodge — no tires in Red Lodge. After spending the night in an abandoned house on the outskirts of Red Lodge we limped on into Billings and found a new pair of casings and tubes at the Gamble Store. Again being low on cash we decided to strike out for home via the shortest possible route. Somewhere between Hardin, Montana, and Sheridan, Wyoming, a thumping engine noise developed. The stroking area below the right hand windshield support turned darker. The thumping developed into a definite engine knock. Something had to be done. Harold was certain that this time we would have to abandon the Silver Streak by the side of the road. We found a wide spot in the road and dropped the oil pan to find that a nut had come loose on one of the bolts that clamped the lower half of the rod bearing to the rod arm. It happened that we had an extra rod in the rumble seat. The replacement cup was bolted to the problem rod, the pan replaced and the old oil poured back into the crankcase and away we went off into the Wyoming sagebrush.
On arriving in Spearfish, South Dakota, we were low on food and short on money. We estimated that our financial resources would barely pay for the gas back to Menno, South Dakota. Harold said, “Not to worry.” Having been in the Civilian Conservation Corps and being a man of the world he would take care of the food problem. He requested to be dropped off at the west end of Main Street and vowed he would have food when I picked him up at the east end. He disappeared into the alley and went to back doors soliciting handouts at cafes, bakeries, butcher shops and grocery stores. True to his word, he reappeared back on Main Street with a sackful of vittles, mostly bread and pastries but it would get us home. To avoid backtracking over the same road, we drove south of Spearfish to Custer and on to Hot Springs. My parents and a cousin of his and her husband had taken the time one late summer to drive to Hot Springs to bathe in and drink of the curative hot spring water. I found the goldfish population in the warm water flowing through town of greater interest than the bathing.
At Hot Springs we latched on to U.S. Highway 18 which would take us back to Burke to pick up Mildred and on home to Menno, 325 miles down the pike. Two hundred and fifty of those miles were through the Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Yankton Indian Reservations. By 1936 the white presence was so strong in the Yankton and eastern half of the Rosebud Reservations that the Indian culture was not felt. This was not so in the Pine Ridge and western Rosebud Reservations. The difference in the culture of the two areas was most likely a reflection of the differences in the agricultural potential of the land. Many acres in the eastern reservation area were found suitable for cultivated crop production. This intensive use of the land and the associated service industries resulted in a large influx of whites. Not so in the western reservation area; the prospects of successful cultivated crop production on these lands was marginal and most of it has remained in native grass. Carl Ham, a long time South Dakota State University alumnus friend, a conservationist second to none, was raised on an irrigated and dryland cattle ranch on Rapid Creek south of Rapid City, South Dakota. He could expound well past midnight on his teenage experiences of trailing cattle across the Badlands to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for summer grazing.
The severe drought of the 1930’s was dramatically exemplified by a stretch of newly graded road. The new grade could not be maintained because the dry soil flowed away from the automobile wheels like water in the wake of a boat. The carburetor on the Silver Streak would surely have been plugged up had there been an aircleaner. The only provision for “clean air” was that the opening into the carburetor faced to the rear of the vehicle. The principle being that in going forward the larger particulate matter would sail on by as the air was drawn into the carburetor intake pipe.
My only previous exposure to Indians had been to students at Southern State Teachers College, Springfield, South Dakota, High School-age girls at a boarding school in Springfield and an occasional male Indian wandering through the countryside. Having been raised in a work oriented culture, this Indian culture of apparent idleness was perplexing. The settlements, such as Wounded Knee, Oglala and Pine Ridge consisted of a cluster of dilapidated residences, the Trading Post and tree branch, shade canopies. Horses and wagons outnumbered cars. No one was seen working, the adult males leaned against and lounged around the shade shelters and under the Trading Post canopy. The older ladies were sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position, motionless except for fly flicking. The arrival of the Silver Streak did cause a stir among the male population. We could easily have traded it for two ponies; saddles and all. We could have made a spectacular return entry into Menno, South Dakota, riding two Pinto ponies had we not lost our nerve. Instead we picked up Mildred in Burke and rolled into Menno without fanfare.
In the fall of 1936 I enrolled in South Dakota State University, Brookings, South Dakota, as a major in Agricultural Education. In the course of the school-year I was approved for part-time work in the Agronomy Department under the National Youth Administration program. This led to a full-time summer job with Dr. Stan Swenson, the cereal breeder in the Agronomy Department. I am guessing that for financial reasons the Silver Streak did not accompany me to Brookings and it stood idle in the extra stall of my parents’ garage.
My father tired of seeing the Silver Streak setting around idle, included it as an item of trade in acquiring a new car for himself and mother. The Streak had not lost its appeal. My cousin, Elver Hehn, believes that it was acquired by a Leo Sayler. Elver and our mutual friend, Oliver Redman, purchased it from Leo. They believe that they sold it to a Wilbert Schaeffer. This Schaeffer was a former student of mine in a rural school. Judging from the vagueness of their recollections, I fear that this was not a period of great adventures for the Silver Streak. I only hope that its final resting place was not in the weed patch of some farm hog lot. Hopefully at least the rear wheels were salvaged by someone building a two-wheeled trailer and thus a part of the Silver Streak may have continued to travel.
“I” is – Erhardt R. Hehn
© 1990 Erhardt Hehn