Delmont, South Dakota, is situated not far from Armour, or from Parker, or from either of the two Siouxs (City or Falls) that count for metropolises in the minds of Delmont’s residents. While the vast majority of human beings don’t even know that Delmont exists, for its residents, its location and even existence are just part of the assumed state of the world, just like the unremarkable aroma of oxygen and the temperament of cattle. For the natives, Delmont simply belongs there.
A railroad ran through Delmont, but it doesn’t anymore. While the depot helped provide a little activity, its impact would be easy to overestimate. It did not attract automobile factories or grand capitalist plans, but on the other hand it did not attract dance halls and gunfights, either. A depot is a fine thing to have, but it does not alter the primary natural resource of Delmont, South Dakota, which is dirt for plants to grow in.
And pheasants. Time was, people would arrive at the depot carrying shotguns from big cities. They came from all states to hunt the beautiful ringnecked pheasants, with their glossy bronze and green plumage.
The guy who sat next to me at the Steakhouse Lounge (a separate building from the Steakhouse, which was across the street) told me how, when he was a young man, the blizzard of ‘68 had been particularly fierce. It was his job to plow the roads connecting the farms and towns of that region of South Dakota. His boss, a pheasant hunter himself, attached a huge pile of seed corn to the plow and ordered him to toss a couple bags out every couple miles so that the pheasants wouldn’t starve in the snow-covered fields. “Back then,” he said, looking forward at the beer taps offering Budweiser, Bud Light, and PBR, “you could road hunt your limit in 10 or 15 miles. Now you can road hunt for 75 miles in any direction, and you aren’t going to get your limit. You might not get any at all.”
I asked him why the peasants had disappeared. (He didn’t offer his name, and I didn’t ask it.) He said that the raccoons and opossums ate their eggs. His friend next to him piped in, “It ain’t the raccoons. There’s always been raccoons. There ain’t no cover for them anymore. The farmers work right up to the fence rows. Back when we had pheasants, they couldn’t get the tractors right up to the fence line, so they left some ground where the pheasants live. With the new equipment, they can get right up there.”
My first drinking buddy nodded. “That’s it. It’s the loss of habitat. ”
On Highway 18, the road you turn off on to get to the road that takes you to the entrance into Delmont, I saw a motel with a huge statue of a pheasant with an open beak and panicked eyes. The motel was closed.
I was sitting with a group of four men at the bar, and I ordered the two piece chicken dinner for $6.99. It came with a side salad, my choice of potato (tater tots, thank you) and a side salad. I had the bleu cheese dressing on my salad, and the guy a few seats down ordered his with French dressing. My father, who grew up in Delmont, used to like French dressing.
Everyone in my newfound group of friends kept an eye on the road except the one guy at the corner whose back was to the road. The traffic was a source of wonder and conversation. “Now where she going?”, interjected one of the guys in an exasperated tone. The others seemed to know exactly whom he was talking about and why he voiced the question. Again, I didn’t ask.
They had also noticed a sharp looking Mustang convertible. They discussed its looks, and the rollbar it had, before one of the men gestured to me and suggested I might know something about it. Their suggestion that I had perhaps sat there silently as they discussed my car reflected their respect for taciturnity. When I told them my car was a boxy purplish bluish thing, one of the men turned to another and said, “The one with the Wentworth sticker.” They had noticed.
When I rolled into town, I stopped to take a picture of the entrance monument, cruised down Main St., over to second, and meandered a bit. I was looking for a Catholic Church, where my father would have learned the faith he stuck with through World War II, Korea, a life of selling insurance, and eight years of paralysis and near muteness because of a stroke. His circulatory system gave him fits as long as I knew him, commencing with surgeries for arteriosclerosis in his legs when I was still in grade school. He wondered if the cause was the food of his childhood. “This was during the Depression, and the farmers didn’t have any money to pay my father. So they brought in pheasants and butter and cream, and paid him with that. Nobody had any money, but man, did we eat well.”
During my meanderings, I found the public school, which was closed. It is still a grand, brick building with “public school” carved into the stone lintel over the broad front doors. I stopped to take a picture or two, and that attracted the curiosity of a man down the block. His tone made clear that he was really asking “what the hell do you think you’re doing?”, but couched in a more hospitable manner. When I explained that my father had attended this school until 1936 or so, he told me that the people who own the building lived a few blocks away, and I could probably get them to let me in to look around if I wanted. I told them I didn’t need to get inside and thanked him.
I never did find the Catholic Church. Later, on the way out of town, I found a sign listing the churches of Delmont, and there was no Catholic Church listed. Fortuitously, the conversation in the bar took a theological turn when a guy named Ed (name changed to protect the lovelorn) complained, in a jocular tone, that he was not going to date any more Catholic girls. One of the others concluded that the Virgin Mary wasn’t letting him get anywhere. He didn’t dispute the conclusion, and another of my beer buddies told him that Christians shouldn’t date Catholics anyhow. From the comfortable, jostling tone of the conversation, I gathered that one of my drinking buddies was a Catholic, and I felt confident I had not stumbled onto a den of virulent anti-papists. Having already explained the nature of my visit, I told them that my father was a Catholic. One of my companions, the Catholic one, had been born in 1941 and reported that, in those days, a priest came to town three times a year to give communion and take confessions. “You had to take notes on your sins, because everybody else was waiting, so you wanted to be quick.”
The 1930 census records don’t list a home address for the Ryan clan. My grandfather had, according to the census records, owned his own barbershop there, but no address was provided, and the town no longer has a barber. My Catholic drinking companion, the oldest one in the group, was surprised that there ever had been a barber in town, and suggested that perhaps my father was really from Armour, down the road a bit, because they had a barbershop when he was growing up. I told him that my grandfather left in 1936, and my family never seem to have a nest egg, so he had probably let the shop close rather than sell it. I took a couple pictures of the older – seeming buildings on Main Street, though I have no idea whether any of them house my grandfather’s business, nor which of the frame houses around town had been his home.
After I finished my meal, I paid my tab and left a $20 bill to pay for a round for my 4 friends. A round for four came to $12.50 (my frustrated friend/Catholic suitor was drinking a cocktail made from Crown Royal and amaretto).
On my way out of town, I stopped by the community cemetery. It is on a hill about a half mile out of town. They guy who had offered to summon the school owners had told me there was also a Lutheran Cemetery and a reformed cemetery. I didn’t ask what the second cemetery was reformed from, because it seemed that any deceased Ryans would have wound up in the community Cemetery, in the absence of a Catholic one. I wandered around, but didn’t see any Ryan graves. There were, however, many graves with no markers.
It would have been great to have found some evidence of my father’s time in Delmont. He lived there from 1922 to 1936. There was, of course, nobody in the bar old enough to remember him, and there were no faded signs for a barbershop. There is no hard evidence that I could find during my visit that any Ryan ever lived there. Census records and family word-of-mouth are the only things that tied my probing into my father’s past to this particular town in this overlooked part of the world.
My trip to Delmont didn’t add any data to my knowledge of my father. I gained, however, a sense of where he came from. A place where people notice a new car on the street and where a stranger can ease his way into the group at the corner of the bar if he chuckles at their humor and doesn’t ask too many questions. I think I found what I was looking for.