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Dakota Retrospect - Grandma's Life

I find myself cussing how things seem to change so quickly. It is hard to keep up with the demands of “progress.” I think of all the things I have seen and experienced in my life, and smile at all the stories I tell that begin with, “back in my day…” That in turn always makes me think of my Grandma Heintz and the life she lived.

Ethel Erwin was born in Clear Lake, South Dakota, in 1892. Think about that. The days of horse and buggy, outdoor plumbing, limited electric lighting, no running water, a true pioneer life. She married Dan Heintz in 1909, in Mound City. Lived in Pollock and Herried before moving to Marion, South Dakota in 1912.

Dan worked as a mail carrier, furniture store manager, and as an undertaker. Grandma was busy raising six children who were born before Dan and Ethel moved to Harrold in 1928.

The story goes that Grandma and Grandpa Heintz had just built a two story home in Marion, thinking this would be where they would live their lives. About that time a land agent from Harrold came to Marion and convinced several families, the Heintzs included, to pull up stakes and move to the “booming town of Harrold” on the banks of Medicine Creek, ideal for farming and ranching, abundant moisture, cheap land, on the Chicago & Northwestern Railway line, with a climate particularly healthful and free from malaria, and on and on.

The Depression, Grandpa’s failing health and the farming fiasco shot holes in most of the promises made about this land of milk and honey. They lived in and ran the hotel two blocks west of mainstreet for several years, then moved from house to house in Harrold and spent two years northwest of Canning, still trying to farm. It was in the hotel where Grandma met and became friends with an Indian lady who traveled to Bismarck every year to see family and go to pow-wows, sharing Grandma’s fresh bread and coffee when she camped outside of Harrold.

Grandma was widowed in 1943, with three of her nine children still at home. By that time, she had lived through the Cuban/Spanish American War, World War 1, the death of a president, the Depression and Dust Bowl days, the flu epidemic of 1918 and now had six of her nine children in the military during WWII. The kids were all home for their dad’s funeral and helped Grandma move into yet another house.

She worked as a cook at the school for many years, living in a small house that had a porch and bathroom added to one end and a kitchen on the other. Holidays saw most of the kids coming home to that small house with their spouses and children, crowding into the dining room, sitting on chairs and on the floor, telling stories and laughing while Grandma sat smiling, taking it all in. They worshipped their mother.

Grandma moved to Plankinton in the mid 50s to help take care of grandkids. Her son-in-law was the superintendent of the training school, and traveled across the state in a four-seater plane. Grandma loved to fly and would go with him whenever she could. Family reunions never stopped, they just followed Grandma to Plankinton. One of my favorite family pictures was taken there, with all the brothers and sisters looking young and happy, with Grandma sitting right in the middle.

In her ninety years she saw the progress in travel from horses and trains to cars and planes, then saw the first man walk on the moon. Television became part of her life. Her little house had a nice window air conditioner in it, and it was used whenever family would come to visit, otherwise she got along just fine on hot summer days by opening the windows. She said she just didn’t think about the heat, so it didn’t bother her. She loved her phone, and spent most mornings visiting with neighbors in a mixture of German and English.

Hard work was still part of her life. She enjoyed trimming her hedge and mowing her yard, and filled up shelves in the dirt-walled basement with jars of homemade dandelion wine that grandkids would sometimes sample on the sly.

Her last years were spent in Custer where her daughter Bev and family watched over her. Her grandson, Kenna, would have lunch with her on school days, and sometimes had to struggle eating burnt meals that Grandma forgot to watch on the stove. She died quietly, in her sleep, not far from her 91st birthday. The family gathered one last time with Grandma, and stories were again told about this woman who lived a hard, happy life at a time this country grew and changed in so many ways. I would love to hear her again tell stories of her life, the ones that would begin with, “back in my day…”

Gary Heintz owns an insurance agency in Pierre and writes a column for the Capital Journal. He is also co-producer of the Dakota Western Heritage Festival held annually in September in Ft. Pierre.