Childhood recollections; Part 1

Over the next few days, I am going to post an essay I wrote for publication this past summer.  It covers some happy memories of my life as a child on a farm in South Dakota in the 1960s.  I will break it into parts because it is too long for one post, and here is part 1.  The essay is entitled “Blunt is ingrained in me.”

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Throughout my lifetime in the great big world outside of the tiny little village of Blunt, SD, people will often say to me that I am very blunt in the way I speak. When that happens, I smile broadly and say “That’s because I grew up in Blunt!” They look confused and I elaborate: “I grew up on a farm and ranch just three miles from a little town on the Great Plains named Blunt, founded as a train stop in the 19th century on a new railroad system that was linking all of the new state of South Dakota with the market city of Chicago, thus enabling South Dakota farmers to ship their agricultural products to points east.” It is all true: my little hometown, where I lived for seven highly formative years, from the end of my 2nd grade year of school through my 9th grade year, was actually founded in 1881 as a stop on the Chicago and North Western Railway, which was headquartered in Chicago and ranged as far west as Wyoming and covered a bunch of mid-western states including Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and more. The newly laid track covered more than 5000 miles by the turn of the 20th century.

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In the map below you can see the train line cutting across the state of South Dakota from east to west.  Blunt is not shown on the map, but it is on the line, 21 miles east of Pierre.  Pierre is the state capitol.

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As every school child at the Blunt Elementary School is taught, our newly-founded little town was named after railroad engineer John Ellsworth Blunt (whom you can see in this picture: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/126134142@N06/14895925826/in/set-72157646054551889/), but our small community’s greatest claim to fame is that Abraham Lincoln’s former Illinois schoolteacher William Mentor Graham (1800-1886), retired here in 1883 at age 83 on the homestead of his son, Harry Lincoln Graham. Sadly Graham passed in 1886 (according to sources on the internet he passed in 1886, but the bronze plaque in Blunt states that he died in 1885); he was buried in Blunt although his remains were later translated to a cemetery in Illinois.

grahammentor4                     Mentor G

But the quaint little Blunt cottage with a few gingerbread architectural details in which Mr. Graham resided is still standing and is the town’s most visited tourist site. The Mentor Graham house was opened to the public in 1950 by the South Dakota Historical Society. In 1987 sponsorship of the house was turned over to the city of Blunt and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, the house is not open now for visitors as it has maintenance issues, but I never visit Blunt without stopping to see the outside of this charming frame structure, which transports me in my mind’s eye back to Blunt’s heydays in the late 19th and early 20th century.

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Old-fashioned lilac shrubs, with lavender-hued blossoms,bloom in the yard around the Graham house in June and, for me, a simple wooden structure covered with white-painted clapboards surrounded by blooming lilacs in warm weather is about as good as life gets. I adore the color and fragrance of lilacs and I love the fact that the lilac shrub, with its almost unbelievably tiny delicate blossoms, is about as tough a perennial plant as any that can be found, taking the punishing South Dakota winters in its stride and stretching its lifespan to 100 years or more.

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Each small flower has a four-lobed corolla and corolla tube; lilac blossoms are bisexual, with fertile stamens and stigma in each flower. Where I live today in Seattle, springtime is a riot of colors with azaleas, rhododendron, and daphnes, just to name a few. Lilacs grow here too, but they don’t get much attention since they are rather subtle compared to the colors and scents of other blooming shrubs. But, in central South Dakota, the lilac is prized for its hardiness, beauty, and fragrance. We even had some at the farmhouse I lived in for the seven years of my young life; I assume the shrubs had been there since the house was built in 1918. They required no care, luckily, because neither of my parents had time to devote to domestic horticulture, and the lilacs never failed to bloom, year after year.
As an adult, I learned much about the art of horticulture by becoming a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University and Denver Botanic Gardens combined program and I actually enjoy pruning a lilac shrub to produce the maximum number of flowers in the following season. The main thing to remember is “prune after bloom”.

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(To be continued.  What possible symbolism did the humble lilac shrub have for Graham?)

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