Judith Nakken

© Copyright 2003 by Judith Nakken


Photo of tulip poplar leaves and blossom.  Copyright (c) 2003 by Richard Loller
We all have childhood comfort spots - places we return to in our daydreams of less complicated days. I have a Nebraska pear tree and an untamed corner of the Hotel Del Coronado’s grounds - disparate sanctums that dissipated many a subsequent adult terror. And Osceola. I have Osceola.

It is said you can’t go back; that it’s best to keep the childhood memory sacrosanct. I write this story of Osceola, of the ambience of its general store, its icehouse and The Grandpa, to hold out hope to you. Perhaps we can return, if only we’re willing to do it often enough.

Father Wessman’s shiny green Ford turned south and slowed. “This is it, Mildred,” he said to Mama. “Across from the school.” I swiveled my almost-four-year-old head, taking in the sturdy white schoolhouse on my right hand and the small house opposite. He drove into its driveway.

Little Sister snuggled on her half of the scratchy back seat and sucked a couple of times on the thumb in her mouth. I was wide awake, and confused. We were going to see The Grandma-Grandpa, and this wasn’t where they lived.

“Aren’t we going to the farm, Mama? Where the sheep buck beat me up?” I fingered the bumps on my upper lip where the year-old scar was white. It was lumpy inside my mouth, too, and I sometimes thought I could taste the copper penny flavor of the blood, but I could no longer remember how bad it hurt.

Mama was mean today. I didn’t think she liked the hot, July drive from Madison. We lived there, upstairs over a noisy place where she worked at night, and our house was hot, too. Little Sister and I had a small bed in a big closet and we’d lived there since Father Wessman and Mama came to the sheep buck farm and took us with them, when the winter was over.

“They live here now,” she told me and pointed up the road. I expanded my gaze to include a cluster of four or five houses in that direction, and a brick building with a Nesbitt’s Orange Pop sign. Beside it was a gas station, its red flying horse sign unmoving in the heated South Dakota air. “This is their house, and that’s Grandpa’s store.” She scrambled out of the car when Grandma came through the screen door and stood on the cement front steps.

“You stay with Nancy until she wakes up,” Mama told me. I got on my knees and looked through the rear window at the schoolhouse. It sat on the opposite corner in the middle of a gravel parking lot and there wasn’t a tree or a flower. There were two white outhouses in the rear and in the front was a merry-go-round. I poked Little Sister until she opened her eyes. “There’s a merry-go-round across the street,” I announced, but just then Grandma came to Little Sister’s door and scooped her up. “Grandma’s got cookies,” she told us, and then noticed my glasses.

I hated them. They were round and silver and the right one was patched. The whole outside half was covered, to make that lazy eye exercise by having to look toward my nose if it wanted to see anything. I didn’t mind so much what the glasses looked like, but they bent easy and Father Wessman already warned me of the licking I’d get if I broke them. They cost a lot of money.

“Gonna fix that eye, are we?” Grandma crossed her two pointy fingers at me. She did that a lot when we stayed on the sheep buck farm, too, and in this summer of 1940 I didn’t know why. I kind of liked it, because it seemed to be special for me. “That’s good. Come on in the house, now.”

We walked on the lumpy grass beneath the only tree in the yard, a fat cottonwood. Big white-painted stones surrounded its scabrous white trunk and the dirt inside the stones was nearly invisible because moss roses of every imaginable color twined there. Their spiky vines looked cool as they shrank carefully away from the searing white rocks that surrounded them. Mama loved moss roses, and had a little pot of them in our back kitchen window. I guessed I loved them, too.

Still carrying Nancy, Grandma eased the screen door open with her hip. Her black hair was in one braid, wrapped around the back of her head, and her wraparound apron had flour streaks on the sides. She had deep, black eyes that looked right through a little kid. I didn’t think she liked me much.

In the house I looked around for Grandpa. He liked me a lot. “He’s down at the store, Judy,” my mama answered my searching eyes. “He’ll be home for supper.”

Father Wessman decided that he and his two girls would go down and see the store and walk home with The Grandpa. Off we went, on the path that went into and then up the borrow pit beside the road. About half a city block, it was, to the heart of Osceola. Hansen’s Grocery.

Osceola, South Dakota was on the prairie, only three generations removed from the virgin, six-foot sod encountered by its first Scandinavian settlers. Dry land farming was the only industry in the countryside, backbreaking work that yielded meager 20-bushel wheat and 40-bushel corn in the rare years that drought or baseball-sized hail didn’t erase the year’s income. Its eight or nine houses and thirty residents were in Kingsbury County, just this side of the Beadle County line. About a dozen miles east was the spot where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s little house on the prairie is still remembered. Twenty-two miles west was Huron, a big city of nine or ten thousand and home of the South Dakota State Fair. Seven miles south, down the steep-sided County Line Road, sprawled Iroquois, a hamlet of three hundred whose homes were in both counties. A Medal of Honor winner would be born on a farm near there in ten years or so. And in between, in exact mile squares divided by narrow roads of dirt and gravel, was the farmland. Each section had its cluster of red outbuildings and a white house.

It had once known prosperity, had Osceola. The deep, rubble-strewn hole on the right side of the street beside the store was a Guarantee State Bank before the Great Depression that was recently, officially ended. Behind Hansen’s Grocery was a large, gray building - gray boards, not gray paint - that was twice as tall on the right side as on the left. Steps and a high porch invited entrance on the tall side, and there was a regular door down at the other end. It was the old Opera House where I was to spend a lot of solitary hours, abandoned now except for the lower end, in use as the community icehouse. Grain elevators loomed a block past the store, across the Great Northern railroad tracks and across from the long red train depot, their metal roofs flashing in the fierce sunshine.

I didn’t know any of this yet, in the summer of 1940. I just raised more dust scurrying ahead of my stepfather and little sister, anxious to see The Grandpa. When I reached Hansen’s Grocery I hooked my arm around the yellow light pole at the corner of its raised cement front porch and swung around it self-consciously, because there was a kid with his mother sitting in the chairs there, sharing a pop. I always felt funny around other kids. Finally I got my nerve up and burst past them, through the screen door and into the store.

It smelled so good, of cheese and apples and that red, floor-sweeping sawdust stuff. Cigarette smoke and pipe tobacco and a faint odor like the dairy room at the sheep buck farm were also in the air. Glass and silver kerosene lamps hung from the rafters and a huge pot-bellied stove dominated the middle of the square room. Too big to take down for the summer, I figured. A few dark spots on the wide, oiled boards of the floor around it attested to the occasional hot coal spill. In the winter to come I would blunder against the red-hot iron and be left with a long, arrowhead-shaped scar on my left forearm, still visible sixty years later. But I would never have changed it, if it meant not being in the store with The Grandpa. I loved Hansen’s Grocery at first sight and smell.

He was behind the left hand counter, counting out change to a straw-hatted farmer, and his eyes lit up when he saw me. “Judy, Judy! You’ve come to stay with Grandpa!” He began to brag to the customer about his oldest granddaughter, “smart as a whip,” while I basked in his presence and wondered if it was true. Did I get to stay?

Hans Peter Hansen was a formidable man, a big and wide, gruff son of taciturn Danish immigrants. Born in a sod house there in Kingsbury County in 1883, he was schooled as the strapping sons of farmers all were - they went to the one-room country schools when they weren’t needed in the fields of wheat and corn, oats and barley. Usually they “graduated” eighth grade and some ventured to Iroquois or De Smet to high school, their spotty attendance forgiven as part of life on the harsh prairie. Grandpa married Zilpha Matheny and raised four daughters on a succession of leased farms in the years from 1905 until he became a storekeeper. My mama was his next-to-youngest girl, the only one who didn’t live on a farm within three or four miles of here.

I looked the store over good while Grandpa finished with the customer. Straight in front was a glass case with long tubes of cold meats and big oblongs of orange cheese and lots of brown and white eggs. Shelves with canned goods and bread lined the walls behind it and behind The Grandpa. In the right hand corner was the post office, a cubicle of its own whose upper front was made completely of rows of little brass, numbered boxes surrounding a brass grill and counter. Behind the meat and cheese counter was a closed door, and that’s all I could see of the room. I read the numbers on the mailboxes, one through sixty, as Grandpa walked the man to the front door and his waiting family. Mama wondered where I learned to read numbers and little words. I didn’t know; just one day I knew how to do it.

Father Wessman and Little Sister were in the store now, and Grandpa and Father shook their hands together and talked loud to one another. Grandpa gave me and Nancy a bottle of Nesbitt’s Orange to share and said I could look at the back of the store, but not to touch a thing. I left her on the counter with the pop to go stand in the door of the post office and marvel. There was a shiny counter inside, under the brass grill, and a small, open wooden box behind each of the numbered doors. Some of the boxes had letters and papers in them. On the side wall was a huge, roll-top desk. I could fit under it easily, I thought, if I wanted to hide. A long, walk-in safe was at the far end, its thick, iron door standing open to reveal more pigeonholes and little cubicles. In the spring I was going to experience the mail order chicks that sat in that post office until the farm wives came to town to collect them. Stacks of flat, heavy cardboard boxes with round holes in the sides were filled with downy yellow and the endless peeping of baby birds. I would lie beside them, filling my fingertips with their softness, and coo back at them for hours at a time.

I opened the closed door behind the meat counter. This was where the dairy odor came from. Silver cream cans and big egg crates lined the cool walls, and there was a long counter with test tubes, shiny equipment and piped-in water. It was here that Grandpa was to teach me about centrifugal force, as the tubes full of cream rotated in the testing equipment. The price of the cream depended upon the butterfat content, he would tell me, and when the tubes were through whirling the notches on the side told him what that content was. Every day the dairy truck came from Huron to pick up the eggs and cream that Grandpa had brokered for the farmers, and then he paid them. Sometimes he gave them money, but usually he asked if he could “put it on the bill.” The bills were fold-over books of tickets beside the Copenhagen rack at the main counter, one for each family that traded at Hansen’s Grocery.

I stepped out the cream room’s back door. An outhouse stood a discreet distance back with the old Opera House behind it. The weeds were already brown, high against the gray of the icehouse, but across the side street I could see green trees surrounding a huge, unpainted house. The garden was ablaze with midsummer flowers, the clumps separated by iron tools that were antique even then; there were a dozen boot scrapers shaped like different animals, a harness maker’s bench and huge, cast iron pots for catching rainwater from South Dakota’s sudden, violent rain storms.

Ed Currier was an ancient man and the inside of his home was to prove a boon to my early education. His collection of Native American artifacts, picked up right there on the Osceola prairie, was unparalleled by most of today’s small museums. Hundreds of arrowheads were mounted on felt boards in his living quarters, some smaller than a dime, and ax heads with rope-worn grooves made a pile by the woodstove. He wove stories around the willow backboard and the birch travois that stood against his parlor wall.

Ed cherished his trees and his garden. The only trees in this part of the country were the occasional cottonwood, its stubborn seed probably dropped by a bird, or rows of planted windbreaks whose owners had to be willing to lavish time and water on them. Ed spent all his outside time with buckets of water, but always had time for a glass of lemonade with a polite child.

The Ford and my family were gone when I got up from the floor bed Grandma made me that first night. She hugged and kissed me and gave me a cookie for breakfast and talked about my birthday next week, July 23. I stayed in the house with her that day, but every other day I went to Hansen’s Grocery with The Grandpa.

It was a nice house. The main part was two rooms, open to one another with colonnades between to separate the parlor from the kitchen. A kerosene lamp hung above the round oak table in the kitchen and clear glass lamps stood on the table and beside Grandpa’s chair in the living room. Grandma heated the curling iron for my long curls by poking it down in the lamp chimney. The kitchen boasted a huge, oak icebox. Grandma was always willing to stab a sliver of ice from the block that lay in the lower compartment, her green-handled ice pick flashing as she chipped something cool for me to suck on. Yesterday she had bragged to Mama about her shiny bottled-gas stove. “The woodstove’s in the basement and never coming back up here,” she vowed.

The pantry floor lifted up and became the entrance to the basement! It was about 4 x 8 and hooked to the side to reveal steep stairs and a musty odor. A large, brick cistern for the catching of rainwater dominated the basement room. A pump at the square sink in front of the back yard window in the kitchen brought the liquid upstairs for boiling and bathing, but not for drinking. Grandpa brought jugs of water from the store for that. Two bedrooms completed the solid, square house that would not have electricity until 1946 or an indoor bathroom until 1950, long after Grandma’s untimely death. Even without a bathroom, I loved it.

I counted the days until the grocery shipment arrived on the Galloping Goose. It was the train with the big, leaping goat on its engine and came through Osceola every day, although it didn’t always stop. Some days the depot agent put the mailbag on a tall contraption beside the station and some other contraption on the train would reach out and, whoosh, grab the bag! When the section crews worked on the tracks, Grandpa would take me to supper with him in their dining car. The dishes were thick, like in a restaurant but not ugly, and there was as much food as my aunts prepared for the threshing crews.

I’d watch the store while Grandpa wheeled the big handcart down to the depot’s long wooden platform and loaded our order. Bananas came in baby-coffin-sized blackened wooden boxes whose lids had to be prized off. The stalks were as tall as I. There was always a couple of fragile cardboard boxes of candy bars that we had to keep in the ice-cooled meat counter in the summer time and Grandpa always slipped me one, like it was a secret he was stealing from himself. I dusted with the feather duster before I put new cans away.

The Grandpa was proud of two things. He didn’t have to weigh anything, and his blood was black. “Half a pound,” he’d say. “Watch this.” His big knife would slice the cheese or bologna in one whack and when he placed it with the waxed paper into the silver-scoop scales it was never a quarter of an ounce off. I learned how to write the abbreviations in the books that summer when I was four; bol, chs, candy, and could wait on customers who put their purchases on the bill. Grandpa would list the prices later. He bragged on me to everyone who came in. “My four-year-old clerk will help you,” he’d grin. “She’s a real smart one.”

On the rare occasion that he skinned a knuckle or cut himself, The Grandpa displayed the seepage to anyone who would look. His blood really was so dark as to appear black, and flowed ever so slowly from a cut or scrape. It was, of course, harbinger of the arteriosclerosis that was to end his life.

The summer passed. I got a book and a green dress for my birthday and Grandma made a cake and Grandpa froze a big tub of ice cream. All three aunts and uncles and my two boy cousins came, and I threw up from too many root beer floats. We played on the merry-go-round across the street, and Cousin Gale talked about coming to town to school pretty soon. He was going to be in the fourth grade. Gene was only three, but about as big as me.

Sure enough, after the Labor Day celebration the kids came to school across the street. Grandma said I couldn’t go over so I stood in the borrow pit and peeked at them when they played outside. The schoolteacher had an old, black car and she stayed in the school building all week, driving back to Huron on Friday after school. The cottonwood leaves were floating in the air when I first ran away to school.

I waited until after the bell rang and crept quietly up the inside steps. On the right side was the classroom where all twelve children got to read and write and stuff. Alongside the classroom was a long, narrow cloakroom. I was hiding at the end of the jackets, listening to the reading and counting, when Grandma came to get me. She and the teacher laughed and patted me and I had to go home. But I went to the cloakroom every morning that I could escape Grandma’s baleful eye. Mrs. Long soon began to look for me in the mornings, and would lead me to the front door of the school with a pat on my fanny and send me home.

She came to supper once. Grandma had pheasant in gravy (we ate it the year around as the fields were always in motion with their ring-necked beauty; when it was not hunting season we called it stubble duck) and an apple pie. I read and wrote numbers for Mrs. Long and she went home across the street when Grandpa began to listen to The Lone Ranger.

It was frosty the next time I hid in the cloakroom; there were more coats and sweaters to hide in, but she found me anyway. She was not mean, but today Mrs. Long stood in the doorway of the narrow aperture in her stocky black dress, her hand held out. I was scared at this departure from our morning routine.

“Come on, Judy. I have a desk for you.” She escorted me into the classroom with a dozen other children from six to fourteen, and my first grade education began. I learned of Washington and Lincoln and Old Ironsides and Rosa Bonheur, and to sing songs like My Country ‘Tis Of Thee, Solomon Levi and Beautiful Dreamer. Bigger words came easy with tutelage and I read everything I could get my hands on. Mrs. Long let me take books across the street but Grandma made a rule about no reading at meals and none after dark. The kerosene light was just not good for my eyes, she explained.

I missed being at the store with The Grandpa, of course, but I ran down there nearly every afternoon. One day he had a secret box from the Galloping Goose shipment. I teased him all the way home to supper about what was in the box.

He assembled it at the kitchen table after we ate. It was a Coleman lantern! When its two, flimsy wicks were combusted it seemed to turn the nighttime kitchen into day! “Now you can read after supper if you want to,” he told me. He didn’t hug a lot, but The Grandpa really loved me.

I had investigated the old Opera House that first summer. There was a high peg on the ice house door but two kids could get it open if they wanted to, and sometimes when it was real hot we went in just to lay on the cold, damp straw that insulated the slabs of ice. The upper door wasn’t locked. Inside was a giant black piano on a broken-down stage, and remnants of wooden chairs that hook together. I sat alone at that old grand piano many, many hours, coaxing an occasional sound from the dilapidated keys and pretending I made music. My mama played the piano.

There was a blizzard before Christmas, and no one got to town for three days except Santa Claus. I put all the little candles in their shiny tin holders and clipped them carefully on the Christmas tree branches, but Grandma wouldn’t let us light them. She was too afraid of a fire. Then it was mid-winter, and time to fill the empty icehouse. All the farmers came on Saturday to Lake Osceola, built during the depression by the WPA to give employment to the jobless. They drove the teams of big horses that were not long retired to their pastures by International and John Deere tractors. The teams loved having something to do. Aunt Loie’s Doc and Don pranced and kicked up like colts as they pulled a stone boat. All the town men went out to the lake, too, for it took a lot of cross-cut sawing and ice-tonging to load the 2 x 4 blocks onto the flat, runnered wooden stone boats and more manpower to drive the teams back to town and unload the ice. Everyone who used it in the summer months worked to gather the several tons of ice. As load after load of ice blocks were removed, I worried that there’d be no lake left to swim in when next summer came!

The women had their work on ice harvest day, also. The sloping gravel from the bathhouse to the water always had a couple or three cars with women and children, bringing hot coffee and sandwiches and sometimes cocoa for us kids. It was like a big party, but even at 4 ½ I remember how important it was. The ice had to last us all the next summer. When that next summer came I had a different feeling for the icehouse. It wasn’t a playhouse. It was too special, and I didn’t sneak in there anymore.

They came to the Labor Day picnic in the round, green ‘39 Ford, not so shiny as it had been, and took me away from Osceola. Mama hugged me a lot and called me her big girl and Nancy squeezed under my arm and sat close to me every chance she got. I cried that Grandpa really needed me in the store, all the way to North Bend, Nebraska. We lived in a dark basement and I was enrolled in kindergarten as the school laws prescribed, having just had my fifth birthday.

I became the discipline problem that I was not to outgrow until I was about forty years old, right there in that baby-stuff kindergarten. Morse Bluff, Nebraska and Watertown, South Dakota schools followed, for World War II was roaring and Father Wessman had steady work. Grandma died and we went to an auntie’s farmhouse at Christmastime where everyone was crying and Grandpa didn’t want to talk to me. When we went back I tried to run away, to Osceola. Father caught me on a country road in the green Ford, and said I was going in the wrong direction.

We all went there again, in 1945, and lived in the little square house with Grandpa for most of two years. It was crowded, for we now had Baby Keeto, but I was overjoyed. Father dug a well and wired the house and the store and the auntie’s farms for Delco Plant electricity, for no one knew when the Rural Electrification Agency’s utility poles were going to get this far out. Now we had a refrigerator and ice cream at Hansen’s Grocery! Mrs. Long still taught in one room of the schoolhouse and lived in another, and there were Erickson and Odom kids my age, behind me in school. Grandpa ordered books for me, twice a month, from the traveling library. They were mailed all the way from Pierre, the state capitol. I spent a week painstakingly removing all the “ivory” from the Opera House piano and presented it proudly to Mama, only to see it go up in flames when she threw a kitchen match into the pitiful pile of celluloid I’d deposited in the back yard. Kenny Erickson quit me for a little, blonde first-grader who kissed better than I did and Father Wessman got his final job, in Iroquois. We moved for the last time as a family, in a maroon ’38 Chevy. The green Ford had given up its ghost.

I went back in 1975 and broke my heart. Osceola was virtually abandoned. The train tracks were overgrown and the depot rusty with disuse. Hansen’s Grocery had been renovated into a garage with a corrugated metal overhead door before it was burnt out, and only its scattered bricks remained. Rural electrification finally happened in 1948, so the icehouse was gone. The weeds grew tall where Ed Currier’s home and gardens had been, and Mrs. Long’s schoolhouse was a pile of rubble. In the country all the auntie’s farm buildings were disintegrating. Mennonites from the colony near Iroquois were diligently coaxing bountiful crops from lands my uncles had “soil banked,” but their mode of communal living brooked no use for the buildings. I looked at row after row of hames and harness in the top of Uncle Gib’s tall red barn and remembered the horse-powered threshing machines and magnificent meals I’d had there during harvest. I took a stone or a brick from everywhere I had loved, and was sorry I returned.

Thus it was tarnished, my childhood happy place, in the middle years of my memory. Grandpa had married again and died Out West in the mid-sixties and I had no reason to think I would ever return. But Y2K fever infected Iroquois High School alumna, and they had an impressive all-class reunion in July 2000. Nancy and I attended from the Pacific Northwest.

“You live in Osceola, don’t you?” My cousin, Gene, questioned the waitress in the neat little roadside café on Highway 14. “Where ‘bouts?”

She giggled, notwithstanding her plain clothes, and replied. “One place north of the dirt house!” Gene explained that one of the Mennonite settlers now living there had built a house and then covered it with earth for ecological purposes. One house north, he went on, was our grandfather’s old home.

It was twenty-five years since my last, unhappy visit and I turned off the County Line Road with a pounding heart. I saw trees and gardens, a church and a school, and my eyes were misting even before we made the last corner and saw The Grandpa’s solid white house. The cottonwood was now a giant, still ringed with stones, and a hill of dirt with windows did, indeed, loom just beyond it. Mrs. Ada Odom still lived across the back field, about to celebrate her 90th birthday, and there was an addition to the field.

The Great Northern Depot, strangely shrunken but repainted in red splendor with its square, black-lettered OSCEOLA screaming at the countryside, sat in front of Odom’s compound. “They were going to tear it down,” the spry old gal told us, “and my Gil, God rest his soul, couldn’t stand it. He put it up on skids and hauled it down here. And here it will stay.”

And here they will stay, my memories of Osceola. Children play, Monday washes hang on summer clotheslines, and the Great Northern depot sits in a trackless field forever. The spirit of home is undaunted, and surely revived in each generation or two. I’m glad I went back again.

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