The Holidays Are Upon Us

The holidays are upon us. We’ve lit the Christmas tree and decorated the Cultural Heritage Center in such a way as to put anyone in a joyful mood. If you are in Pierre on the day after Thanksgiving, be sure to stop by the center for the State Historical Society’s annual holiday open house. We’ll have live music, holiday treats, and living-history demonstrations. Santa will also be here to pose for pictures with the children.

I was recently looking through the SDSHS Press titles for descriptions of Thanksgiving past and found a letter in Dancing with Colonels: A Young Woman’s Adventures in Wartime Turkey, the letters of Marjorie Havreberg, in which Marge greets her family in South Dakota, half a world away from where she is stationed in Ankara, Turkey, during World War II.

Marge began most of her letters with the salutation “Dear,” but when corresponding with her immediate family, she always used “Dearest Family.” In her letter of 23 November 1944, she asked what her family planned to do for the Thanksgiving holiday. While she didn’t say it in so many words, the tone of her letter made me think that she was missing the smells, tastes, and conversations of home. She wondered whether the family would have dinner at Lillian’s or “mother’s” and mentioned the pies her mother would likely bring to the festivities.

Marge also described the meal she would enjoy in Ankara, one complete with turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and almost everything else that goes with an American Thanksgiving. The holiday football game between military and embassy personnel had been called off on account of rain, so her Thanksgiving would include movies and dancing. She then wished for snow in Ankara, as “it’s nice and makes me think of South Dakota.” The essence of her letter, though, lay in its salutation—“Dearest Family.” Amidst all of the socializing with those in high places, seeing new parts of the world and the excitement that goes with it, she recognizes what was dearest in her life.

Seventy years later, Thanksgiving Day is much the same—still a day for family, friends, and food. I’m thankful for that. My mother-in-law just telephoned to make sure I knew which pies she was baking, and we will gather as a family on Thursday, just as Marge’s family did. Like them, we will talk about the weather and miss those who are not present. Thanksgiving can still be summed up in Marge’s salutation from many years back—“Dearest Family.” I hope you enjoy yours this holiday season.



Just before Halloween, my eight-year-old son Jacob asked me if ghost towns were where ghosts live. My first thought was that in South Dakota, ghost towns seemed to be places that had lost their courthouses.

I’ve begun researching courthouses for a book that will be out next year, and I am struck by the fact that when a town lost the “county seat war,” it didn’t just lose pride, prestige, or economic advantages, it also lost people, buildings, and often its place on the map. Here is an incomplete list of former county seats that do not appear on the current South Dakota highway map: Bon Homme, Medary, Buffalo Center, Minnesela, Wheeler, Kampeska City, Firesteel, and Bangor. My best guess is that of these eight, only Wheeler, possibly, has any former residents still living. Quite a few of these county seat contestants suffered a tremendous economic blow when railroads decided, for whatever reason, to pass them by. Efforts to move the county government to a town that had railroad service usually followed soon after the railroad’s plans were known. Wheeler’s case was actually unusual—it managed to hold on as the Charles Mix County seat for about two decades after its multiple rivals gained railroad links. In contrast, Kampeska City’s lifespan was only a few months, and its former site is now part of Watertown’s park system.

The citizens of communities contesting for the county seat knew the game was being played for high stakes: how else can we explain the actions of Selby partisans who were not content merely to seize Walworth County’s records from rival Bangor in 1904 but literally tore down the courthouse as well? In 2013, Selby lives on, but Bangor has been reduced to a monument alongside Highway 83. My, what tales the ghosts of Bangor could tell.


Editorial Decisions

A couple of months ago, a reader named Mark H. commented on an editorial decision that had actually been made back in the 1980s about how we treat women within the pages of our publications, using their last names, rather than their first names, when they are the main focus of an article or book.

Specifically, Mark was questioning the usage in Pamela Smith Hill’s biography Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. Mark wrote:

Laura seems like an old trusted friend to me. As I read her biography, I always felt strange at her being referred to as “Wilder” throughout the entire book and it appears she will be the same in “Pioneer Girl” according to blogs and references on this website. I don’t know if it’s a professional Writer’s thing or a formal biography thing, or what but I always felt distanced from her being called by her last name. To me, Wilder is Almanzo, or any of his family members. To me, Laura is Laura, whether in her own books or any written about her. Referring to her as Laura, to me, creates a more warm, inviting, and even intimate relationship with her. Many times I had to briefly pause wondering if “Wilder” was referring to Laura or another member of the family.

Mark had asked a great question, and I replied that by referring to Wilder by her last name, both in the biography and the forthcoming Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we are striving to show the author the respect that she is due as a professional writer of national stature.

Through the years of editing South Dakota History and many books for the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, we have found that our writers almost always refer to a male subject, whether an author or a cowboy or a politician, by his last name within a critical study of his work or life. As editors, we made it a policy that our authors would treat a woman no differently within a critical commentary on her work or career. In this case, then, Wilder is always Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Almanzo Wilder or any other Wilder goes by his or her first name­­—Almanzo or Eliza Jane, for example.

In the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote autobiographical fiction, there is an added bonus in the practice. It is a useful way of differentiating the author herself from the character in her books.


Tis the Season of Festivals, Associations, and History

When I started at the South Dakota State Historical Society Press in June, I was warned that the last two weeks of September and the first couple weeks of October would be a mad rush of travel, books, and the normal day-to-day compacted into 24-hour periods that never seemed long enough to get everything done.

But what fun!


I have just returned from the last conference of the 2013 season—the Western History Association conference in sunny Tucson, Arizona. And, after donning my jacket to combat the cold South Dakota wind, I am looking forward to next year’s rush.

This year I was able to meet members of the book and history communities, speak with scholars about their current research, and sell South Dakota State Historical Society Press books. Though the economy and a record-breaking blizzard at South Dakota events slowed attendance and purchases, this season was an overall success. Interest remains high for South Dakota history, and there are many reasons to be excited.

Book-A-Million Booth - Come into the Water

A South Dakota Festival of Books attendee looks at “Come into the Water” at the Books-A-Million booth.

Next year we are looking forward to the publication of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography, as well as a forthcoming biography of Hugh Glass that will join the SDSHS Press Biography Series. From never-before-seen letters about the construction of Mount Rushmore, to new research into the importance of plains politics, to a bilingual children’s book, the Press will offer new resources and stories on this diverse area we call home.

Our attendance at different conferences throughout the year enables us to cultivate new publications and expand knowledge of this region. So, beyond the excitement of meeting new people, I have truly enjoyed spreading the word about the importance of South Dakota history and the Press’s role in its promotion.


The Story of Two Brothers

SD STAVIG PB Cover - FINAL REVISEDEarlier this week, the latest title from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press arrived on the loading dock here at the Cultural Heritage Center. Packed inside the heavy boxes that we transferred to the warehouse shelves were copies of “Dear Unforgettable Brother”: The Stavig Letters from Norway and America, 1881–1937. Having gone over the manuscript several times in the course of editing the book, I continue to be struck by how poignantly the collected letters of Lars and Knut Stavig convey the course of life as it passes from the possibilities of youth to the infirmities of old age. 

Lars Stavig emigrated from western Norway in 1876 and eventually settled with his wife and children on a farm in Day County, Dakota Territory. Back in Norway, Lars had left behind many family members, including a half-brother, Knut Stavig. Over the next fifty years, the two corresponded—sometimes frequently, sometimes waiting months between letters—sharing news of life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Their descendants collected and translated their correspondence, which is published for the first time in “Dear Unforgettable Brother,” compiled and annotated by Lars’s great-granddaughter Jane Torness Rasmussen and her husband John S. Rasmussen.

Readers of the brothers’ letters learn of the births of children and then grandchildren, of weddings and funerals, of business successes and failures, of the loneliness of living without a spouse, and, finally, of life dependent on others in a world that seems foreign once again. They also learn of family ties that have endured over time and distance and how the brothers’ letters have brought together new generations of Stavig descendants.

To hear the Rasmussens discuss their new book and have your copy signed, make plans to attend the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood September 20–22.