A Sampling of South Dakotans

This is South Dakota Magazine's 25th anniversary year, and we're celebrating with special features about people and places we've visited. I was lucky enough to travel with my dad while growing up, so I had the chance to meet some of the great characters who have graced our pages.

I'll never forget meeting Gladys Pyle in her Huron home in 1986. I was eight years old, but she treated me like the U.S. senators she served with a half-century earlier. She showed us her beautiful home, which had been built by her parents, and lamented that no one would probably care for it when she died. Fortunately, she was so wrong. The community of Huron has lovingly preserved the house as a tribute to her public service.

Tub Rath of Wasta was one of the sweetest men we ever met. Every Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Easter and Christmas, He delivered flowers or candy to every lady in Wasta (population 72). When he was healthy and able, he delivered the gifts to the ladies' front doors; when he was old and connected to an oxygen tank, he honked his pickup horn and the women hurried to the curb with a smile and a thanks. Holidays in Wasta are quieter since Tub died in 2007.

Alvin Carlson of Trojan was as spirited as Tub was sweet. Carlson was the last man living in Trojan, but no one seemed to notice. The tiny Black Hills mining town had officially ceased to exist in 1959, and some in Lead had taken to promoting it as a ghost town. That's when Carlson visited the Chamber of Commerce. "I told those people if they didn't stop tellin' folks this was a ghost town that this old ghost was gonna start shooting a few people. They'd come here with out-of-state license plates, walk-in, snoop through my stuff and just take it. I come unglued when people take my stuff and that's when I decided to move the whole town back down the road a ways," said Carlson. And board by board, that's exactly what the ghost of Trojan did.

Some of our favorite characters died before the magazine was started, but we feel like we know them. No doubt Archer Gilfillan (who died in 1955) would have loved being acquainted with both Tub Rath and Alvin Carlson. Gilfillan was a Harding County sheepherder and philosopher who kept extensive notes on the people he met and then became a noted writer and humorist. After studying Latin and Greek at the University of Pennsylvania, he squandered his investment in a sheep ranch, but he loved South Dakota and herded for other ranchers for 20 years. Gilfillan was known for his three Secret Sorrows — ranchers who knew less about sheep than their sheepherders, the notion that cowboys are superior to sheepmen, and women. Of the latter he wrote, "You profess sincere and unbounded admiration for the beauties of the opposite sex and you practically lay your heart at their collective feet; and then you meet some individual who combines the poorer qualities of a mama wildcat and a bitch wolf, with a voice like a buzz saw, the temper of a slapped hornet and a disposition that would curdle the milk in four adjoining counties."
 
Gilfillan would have softened on women had he met Katharina Redlin. In 2005 she told me of her experiences as the widow of a German officer when Allied Troops occupied Munich in 1945. Already starving, she thought she and her son would be assaulted and killed. Instead, the American troops persuaded her that she was safe and they delivered groceries for them.

U.S. troops encouraged her to come to the United States for a better life, but she needed a sponsor so she participated in a match-maker program. The pretty brunette's photograph appeared in a St. Paul, Minn., newspaper and soon her Munich mailbox was overflowing. As she sorted the letters, she was charmed by a note from Alfred Redlin, a Summit, S.D., farmer who said he would build her a house and send her son to college.

They met at a New York harbor, where Alfred told her he'd rented two rooms and she didn't have to marry him to stay in the U.S. They married in Dell Rapids on the way home to Summit. Katharina loved farm life, and especially enjoyed tending the Redlins' popular purebred Hereford herd. On Veterans Day and Memorial Day, Katharina often called David J. Law's popular Watertown radio show to remind listeners of America's greatness. "The good Lord put me here," she said.

 Katie Hunhoff is the assistant editor of South Dakota Magazine. Read more about these and other South Dakotans in our January/February 2010 issue or our book South Dakota's Best Stories. To order, call 1-800-456-5117.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>