Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Cistern From Hell

Few things terrified me as a kid like the thought of the cistern out at the farm.  We used to love to go out there with Grandpa and search around the concrete foundation where the house once stood, before it was burnt to a cinder by a fateful bolt of lightning.  We'd look for remnants of Uncle Don's melted marble collection or whatever other treasures might have been thrown from the burning house in an effort to save what they could.  But every step around that concrete foundation was made cautiously, after an over-abundance of careful looking, lest we fall in the dreaded cistern.

Grandma, besides being small in stature, was outnumbered by us so she'd frequently tell us "little white lies" to help enforce the rules - except with the cistern - besides being true to a certain degree, she went out of her way to tell us what would happen if we didn't heed her stern warnings.  "Don't get too close, or you'll fall in!"  "The ground around the cistern is soft and it'll suck you right in!"  "You'll be stuck in a small little dark space with nothing but water!" and the worst - "We might not be able to get you out!"  It's still hard to even think of all the things she told us about the cistern without a little panic setting in.  I didn't even know what a cistern was, but I didn't care.  I wanted no part of it.  It was a hole right down to hell itself, as far as I was concerned.

A few years ago, I was looking at an old photo album with my mother and we ran across this photo - and she said, "There's my grandma holding my sister, there's Dorothy, there's me, there's Teddy the dog, and the cistern..."  My blood ran cold and my heart rate skyrocketed.  I had not thought about the cistern since I was about 10 years old.  I was horrified at how close they were all standing to it!  And how near it was to the house!  And the dirt - the soft dirt around it!  And no one seems to be terrified! 

Once I settled down, I fully understood why Grandma said what she said.  My first thought was, "I wonder what it looks like under that board!?"  Which is probably why someone put a heavy rock on it and started telling tall tales.  Love ya, Grandma, and I miss you every single day.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Sunnyside School - Readin', 'Ritin', and Romance

Sunnyside School, about 1920
Little Sunnyside School.1  If it wasn’t for that little rural schoolhouse, I wouldn’t be here.  And if you’re one of my cousins, you wouldn’t be here either.  It was where my grandparents, Bill and Lillian Knutz, met and fell in love - and the rest is history.  Not only did Bill and Lillian (and their siblings) attend here, but their children did as well.  It was right here, in this little schoolhouse, here where Bill and Lillian “laid claim to each other” in the 3rd grade, according to Bill.
The white X at the top of the map shows the location of Sunnyside School; the turquoise X below sits just to the left of the Christensen farm; the yellow X is just above the Will Knutz farm; the pink X is just above the farm where Bill and Lillian Knutz raised their family 20 years later.

When Bill and his brother Howard went to school, they went past the Christensen farm.  One morning, Bill and Howard, in their horse-drawn buggy, ran into Lillian and Raymond Christensen, also in a horse-drawn buggy.  A race ensued, but unfortunately, the wheels of the two buggies became entangled and locked together.  Needless to say, the next day (and every day thereafter), Bill and Howard could be seen riding a single horse to school.  The same thing held true for Lillian and Ray.  But down the road a distance from the Christensen farm, out of sight of everyone else, they would do a switch; Ray and Howard would end up on one horse, and Bill and Lillian on the other.

Interior of Sunnyside School, 1997

On one occasion, when the kids were in third grade, Bill got sick and missed a few days of school.  The teacher asked Lillian to sit next to him and show him the lesson.  Bill said, “I got a feeling all through my body, like I wanted to put my arm around her waist and give her a hug.”  That pretty much sealed the deal.

Lillian is the dark haired girl at the end of the row, and Bill is 3 kids to the left.

Years later, Bill and Lillian purchased a farm just one mile east of where Bill’s family had lived.  Their children also attended Sunnyside school.

The whole student body in the Young Citizens' League Parade -
four of the five students were from the same family. 
From left, Teacher Mrs. Tanger, Betty Knutz, Wilma Knutz,
Billy Knutz, Don Knutz, and other unknown girl.

After the kids were grown, P. C. and Ella Christensen sold the farm to Paul Meyer and moved to California.  By this time, the school had been known more widely as the Meyer School.  When the school was no longer used, it was purchased, presumably by Paul Meyer, and moved to that property, where we saw it in 1997.


©Karen Seeman, 2018.  For personal use only.  Do not republish or post elsewhere without permission.

1This school was also known as Meyer School and was located in Clyde Township, not to be confused with another rural school known as Sunnyside, in neighboring Dearborn Township.

Personal Photos
Google Earth
Interviews with Bill and Lillian Knutz
Interviews with Betty Hammer
A People’s History of Beadle County, SD, 1986
A Place-Name Study of Beadle County, South Dakota (Leta May Janes), 1929

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Bill Knutz Orchestra and the Barn Dances of the 1930s

In the 1930s and 1940s, with dust in the fields, worries galore, rebuilding what was lost, and war, It was a time to put your worries aside.  It was a time to socialize with your neighbors, tip a few, kick up your heels.  There was no shortage of these dances on the prairie, and on any given weekend one could have their pick of where to go and what band to enjoy.  Ladies often were admitted free, while the gentlemen might have to pay 25 to 30 cents to get in.

Among the popular local bands in and around Huron, South Dakota were such groups as the Golden Pheasants; White’s Red Jackets; the Rhythm Ramblers; Doyle and His Old-Timers; the Sod Busters, and the Bill Knutz Orchestra, in whom I have a vested interest.   While these bands did sometimes play in larger venues, such as the Band Box east of Huron, they frequently booked their jobs in the barns of their neighbors.  Henry Meyer, who lived north of Wessington, Ed Langbehn, near Wolsey, Bill Schwartz, west of Huron, and Albert Baum, southeast of Huron, were frequent hosts of these weekend escapes. 

I’m not sure when my grandfather, Bill Knutz (pictured at left), first became interested in being a musician.  As a young man, he farmed himself out (pun intended) as a hired man, and did some traveling around the midwest during harvest time.  He lived frugally, and when the season was over, he treated himself to a saxophone he’d found in a pawn shop in Nebraska, as well as a ring for his favorite girl.  Both the saxophone and the girl ended up being “keepers.”  He was a self-taught sax player, and eventually formed his first band, “Bill Knutz and His Harmonians”, including his future brothers-in-law Ray Christensen playing the fiddle and trumpet; Clarence Christensen playing the clarinet and Bill’s brothers Howard playing the bass fiddle, and Richard on the drums. Bill’s mother, Virta, kept track of their bookings.

The Harmonians were rearranged to form the Bill Knutz Orchestra, when the band leader discovered his girlfriend was also a mean piano player, and a good-looking girl in the band never hurt business…  Unfortunately, it was not so easy where the drummer was concerned, and he had to settle for a fellow without much rhythm, who liked to keep a bottle by his drums for an occasional “swig”.  When the drummer would speed up or lag behind with the tempo, fortunately all Bill had to do was wander back to the drum set and blow the sax into the poor man’s ear until he was back on pace.  Realistically, none of these people were professional musicians, just working folks with a day job, most of them dirt-poor farmers looking to make a few extra bucks for groceries and have a little fun in the process.

Both my mother and my mother-in-law grew up on South Dakota barn dances, and described similar situations throughout the 1930s and 1940s.  Large crowds, comprised of whole families, would attend these outings, and often it was here that youngsters learned to dance.   Sonny Baum taught both his daughter and my mother a three-person dance called the Butterfly Dance; similarly, my mother-in-law, a lifelong dance fanatic, would dance with her father, Casper Kluthe, when he wasn't busy on stage with his accordion.  The smell of hay, the noise, the applause, the rowdy activity, with the younger children curled up and sleeping blissfully in any available corner, all while the band rocked out “Swingtime In The Rockies” and oldies like “Little Brown Jug.”  “I’ll never forget those dances in our barn,” my mother-in-law said.

The Bill Knutz Orchestra, after a nearly 20-year run, eventually dwindled to just the two main members, Bill and his favorite pianist, and an occasional granddaughter (moi) warming the piano bench next to her grandmother, learning the chords to such favorites as “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” while the the more talented of the duo played the melody.   The leader of the band always tooted along on his sax.  I was blessed to be a late part (although a very small and unofficial part) of their orchestra.  I’d love to have seen them in their heyday, and experienced the excitement of one of their dustbowl-era barn dances.