Minneota memories

“Farmers in Minnesota laugh at us here in South Dakota,” my grandpa Nelson often proclaimed to me when I was growing up. “They think we’re foolish for buying all that fertilizer.”
Grandpa related how Gopher State farmers would plant a field to alfalfa, hay it for two years, then plow it under in the spring of the third year.
“But first they let the alfalfa grow up to their boot tops,” he added in a tone which implied that this was top-secret information.
I once asked Dad why Grandpa was so fixated about Minnesota.
“We lived in Minneota for a while when I was a kid,” he replied. “Grandpa had cousins who farmed in that area. I suppose that’s why we went there.”
This was during the Great Depression. Back then, on the first of March, it was common to see wagonloads of household possessions trundling across the prairie as farmers who lost their lease or were foreclosed upon relocated, hoping for a fresh start in a new place.
“But if things were so much better in Minnesota, why did Grandpa leave?” I asked. Dad replied that he didn’t know.
That conversation must have triggered some memories because a few days later Dad related a story.
“Pa and I had gone into Minneota,” Dad began. I tried to imagine the scene: the dirt streets, the stark Dust Bowl landscape, the sepia sky. Grandpa was in his prime, a strapping man of about 35 years; Dad was maybe 6 years old.
Dad had been playing with other kids when a commotion erupted down the street. A man who was hitching his team of horses to his wagon had been kicked in the head.
I could see it in my mind’s eye: the man bending over behind his workhorse as he had a thousand times before. Something causing the horse to kick at the exact wrong moment. The explosive flash of the horse’s rear leg, the sickening “thock” of bone shattering beneath the powerful, steel-shod hoof.
“Pa was friends with the man, so he ran over and knelt beside him. He talked to the guy and even had him smiling, but he died anyway.”
The small, hushed crowd gathering in the gritty street. The sunken area in the man’s skull, the trickle of blood from his ear. The horse standing patiently nearby, oblivious that anything was amiss.
Dad said it was the rule that killer horses had to be killed. A group of men led the horse out to a straw pile near town.
“We kids were told not to watch so of course we did,” Dad said.
A wavering shotgun being held up to the horse’s head, the startling boom! The horse crumpling onto the tinder-dry straw. Moments later, acrid smoke spiraling into the copper sky as horse and straw are consumed by flame.
I passed through Minneota on business a while back and decided to stop and poke around a little.
The farmland in the Minneota area is rich and black and level save for the shallow vale where the Yellow Medicine River has carved its bed. The town of 1,400 is tidy and emanates a friendly vibe. A chamber of commerce marquee advertised an upcoming city-wide rummage sale and rubber duck races. A billboard on Highway 68 trumpeted Boxelder Bug Days, an annual town-wide celebration.
I stopped at the city offices and asked the genial lady behind the counter if she knew of anyone who could shed light on my family’s history with Minneota. She said the man I should talk to was Bud Bernardy. It was the epitome of small-town niceness that she phoned Bud right then and there.
After hearing my story, Bud said, “That certainly could have happened. It was fairly common for people to be injured or killed by horses back then. I don’t have any personal recollection of that event, but it’s certainly possible.”
Is it true that killer horses had to be killed?
“That’s correct. What you described sounds like something they would have done.”
I chatted with Bud for several pleasant minutes. I left Minneota feeling satisfied even though I hadn’t gleaned any new insights regarding Dad’s story.
I often wonder why Grandpa returned to South Dakota when he thought so highly of Minneota. Perhaps it was because an opportunity opened up for him here in South Dakota, where he had been born and raised. Or maybe some shocking event, such as the sudden death of a friend, caused Grandpa to pack up his family and go west.
Nobody knows. But it’s entirely possible that I owe my South Dakota citizenship to the random flick of a horse’s hoof.
    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works full time for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at jerry.n@dairystar.com.


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