South Dakota, Different in Good Ways

A bleak Christmas season is in store for South Dakota families suffering from the worst economy since the Great Depression. History tells us that memories of the hardships will fade with time, but kindnesses shown are long remembered.

In the 1930s, down-on-their-luck families sometimes lodged in county poor farms. Herschel and Hilda McKnight ran the Charles Mix County Home for the Poor in those years. It was housed in a four-story building that was once the Ward Academy in Academy, S.D., south of Mitchell. Before her death, Hilda told of her experiences to Marian Cramer, a Bryant farmwife and teacher who has written several articles for South Dakota Magazine.

Several times through the years, we've related Hilda's story of a 14-year-old girl's Christmas at the Home for the Poor. Here's an abbreviated version.

Hilda said she always remembered the day that Carol arrived with her mother. "It was never easy to welcome people to a poor house. Herschel moved quickly to the door and opened it. He had a special way of putting people at ease."

The McKnights strived to provide clothing so the kids wouldn't look out-of-place at school. The mothers and two WPA seamstresses sewed and repaired donated clothing. Carol befriended the McKnights and offered to help in the laundry and sewing room as well. But one day in the fall she told Hilda, "I know how hard you and Mr. Mac worked to get us nice clothes. It really doesn't matter, I guess. I have this lovely skirt and they still call us 'poor house kids' at school."

Hilda gave Carol a hug, and to hide her tears she fussed with a missionary barrel that had just been delivered from a church in the East. "Let's see what treasures we can find," she said. Together, they laughed as they pulled out wool pants with the seat worn thin, a pair of long underwear with holes in the knees and elbows, and other useless things. But way at the bottom, Carol pulled out a chiffon scarf. Though threadbare, it seemed lovely to her eyes.

"Would you like to keep it?" asked Hilda. Carol's answer was to hold it closely and nod. The scarf was her doorway to dreams. She would sit on her bed and finger the soft chiffon. She was not in the Charles Mix County Home for the Poor. She was far away. She always neatly folded her scarf and put it away.

The holidays came in 1933 despite the dust. Hilda and the women baked cookies and decorated the poor house with paper chains. The county allowed one clothing gift for each resident, so the McKnights shopped carefully to make it worthwhile.

A few days before Christmas, Carol tapped on the McKnights' door. "You have been so busy for all of us, but you won't have any Christmas presents, any Christmas," she said.

Hilda assured the girl that they would celebrate Christmas together as one big family. "You are all our family, Carol. We are happy."

On Christmas morning, Carol hesitantly returned to the McKnights' room. First, she approached Herschel. "I don't have a present for you," she said. "Just a hug." Herschel was a big man, and he enfolded the slim girl in his arms.

Then Carol said, "Mrs. Mac, I have something for you." She handed Hilda a box wrapped in paper, and watched like a hawk as she untied the string. Beneath the crackling paper was the girl's chiffon scarf.

Hilda fought back tears as she fingered its softness.

"It's all I have, Mrs. Mac," Carol said.

Hilda told our writer that she treasured it forever: "The frayed chiffon scarf is forever my symbol of Christmas and a true gift of love."

Katie Hunhoff is an assistant editor at South Dakota Magazine, published in Yankton. For more history, travel and culture visit www.southdakotamagazine.com.

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