That’s way back in the history of this part of the country, but only 13 years before the first fort was established at what became Fort Pierre in Dakota Territory. We celebrated the community’s bicentennial this year with parades, music, history programs and more.
The Fort Pierre celebration came 41 years — the blink of an eye in history’s timeline — after the nation celebrated its 200th anniversary. That event in 1976 was great fun, including a gathering of tall ships in New York Harbor, fireworks and all manner of historic observations. I remember it as well as the year I met and first interviewed the late John Milton, a poet and professor from Vermillion.
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Milton had just written a history of South Dakota, a highly readable, not-all-dates-and-events history. We became casual friends in a time when that meant exchanging occasional hand-written letters. Somewhere I still have one or two of those letters. I’ve misplaced them, stuck inside the pages of a book, I suppose. I’ll find them one day. If I don’t, well, there was a time when I read them, and since they were intended for me, the rest of the world needn’t see them.
Thinking of Milton and our off-and-on correspondence, I feel a bit sad letters are disrespected today as “snail mail,” and that so little of it pen-and-paper communication is carried on. I understand that composing a letter, whether with pen and paper or a keyboard and printer, and then carrying it to the mailbox is slower than dashing off an email, thumbing out a text or firing off 140 characters of tweet. Perhaps I long for a time when folks paused to lean back, tap the end of the pen against their chin and consider what they’d just written and what they still wished to say. Time to consider our words wouldn’t put an end to all the venom and miscommunication delivered by some instant messages and tweets. It would, however, provide the opportunity for some of us to pause and reflect before hitting the “send” key.
I found time to pause and reflect at the riverside park during a bike ride on a recent afternoon. It was mild but breezy. White caps covered the surface of the Missouri River as far as I could see, from beyond the bridges upstream to down past the bend of LaFramboise Island across the channel. The island shoreline sparkled with fall colors. Where the Bad River emptied, darker water showed silt still being carried from runoff somewhere out in the western plains.
Behind me to the west a few blocks and up a hill, I knew, was another marker, noting where a French explorer named Verendrye buried a lead plate as he passed through this region in 1743. School children found the plate in 1913, four years before Fort Pierre’s 100th birthday. This place has been here a while, in spite of floods, drought and the rest.
I didn’t ride to the Verendrye site. I don’t do hills often, much preferring flat trails with long, gentle rises and dips. On calm days I ride trails out of town. When it’s windy, I ride through the streets and neighborhoods of Fort Pierre and Pierre, turning here and there to find breaks from the breeze where I can, heeding Hermosa writer Linda Hasselstrom’s advice that “we all need a windbreak.”
I could tackle the Verendrye hill, maybe, but it would be no fun, and I ride mostly for enjoyment. I pause to read historic markers I’ve read a dozen times. As I catch my breath, it occurs to me how little use I’d have been as a member of the Corps of Discovery trying to push a keelboat past snags and sandbars up the muddy, mysterious Missouri.
Some are driven to explore new lands. In the retirement stage of my life, I’m content to travel familiar places charted long ago by someone else.