Timber Lake, South Dakota is a small town 40 miles west of the Missouri River and less than 100 miles south of the North Dakota border. Growing up, the population was well over 600. Today, it is just slightly over 400 residents. It measures maybe 1 square mile in size with some streets paved and others in gravel. Regardless of its size in people or measurement, it played a big part in my small life growing up and holds an even bigger piece of my heart still today some 22 years since I moved away.
Small towns all across the country have annual celebrations all their own. Timber Lake is no exception. Formed in 1910 next to the railroad line, the little prairie town comes alive the last full weekend of each July in an event formally known as “The Days of 1910”. Some simply call it “The Days” while to others it is “The Celebration”. For those who have moved away, it is the best time to return home to see friends, high school classmates and family who have stayed and others who have moved in other directions across the country.
I graduated in 1980 and my wife, Mary Reinbold, in 1982. There was never a question whether or not we would go back for The Celebration in 2010. We were living and working in Timber Lake during the 75th anniversary. The centennial version of The Celebration could not be missed. It was also my 30th high school reunion. There would be no better time to visit people we hadn’t seen in years and may not see again.
I am told there was a half marathon held back in 1985. Running was not on my radar then so I can’t say for sure. In 2010, I would say running was definitely on my radar. Mary would tell you it is my obsession. Regardless, I reserved my spot via email shortly after I read the announcement in the Timber Lake Topic. There was no payment required. A simple email stating I intended to run was enough to reserve a race shirt. In small town fashion, they trusted you to keep your word and pay the $15 fee when you showed up at the race.
Anxious to get back home again, I actually started counting down the days to departure at the start of July. Finally, we (Mary, Collette, Leah Schmerheim, a friend of Collette’s, and I) left Michigan early on July 20th. Driving north around Lake Michigan and across Wisconsin, Minnesota and eastern South Dakota, we arrived in Aberdeen, South Dakota late that day to spend the night with our oldest son, Zach. He was living there while attending college at our alma mater, Northern State University.
While the others slept in and showered Wednesday morning, Zach and I took a short jog over to the Barnett Center on the NSU campus. The Barnett Center was the athletic hub of the university that was nothing more than a design on paper when I attended college there. In fact, I had done a marketing class speech in 1982 on why the university needed to build a center for its athletic activities. The building was now nearing 25 years old and Zach showed me the plans for expansion that would begin in 2011. I wondered to myself if anybody in marketing class had used these plans for their presentation!
After lunch, we continued on to Timber Lake. We stopped for a couple hours at the nursing home in Mobridge to visit Mary’s folks, Francis and Anna Reinbold. Francis had been a dairy farmer and was operating the local grain elevator when I met Mary in February of 1980. He was the one skeptical of “the Anderson kid” when we started to date regularly. During the summer of 1980, he didn’t think I needed to be at the house every evening. I eventually wore him down. Anna, however, I think I had her at “hello”. She was always good for a smile and an occasional snack. The years had made the smile and hug a bit shakier but still just as warm and comfortable as before. Seeing them in the nursing home was hard but they seemed happy and as healthy as could be expected.
I also took some time to visit Ginny Cudmore who was the mother to my best friend growing up. Sitting next to her in the nursing home as a 48 year old man, I easily recited her home phone number (865-3667) and wondered how many times I had called it since I met her son Scott in Kindergarten decades ago. I silently rubbed my crooked lower teeth that were made so in a friendly football game outside her door one day after school in 5th grade. Ginny was who I turned to, bleeding and in near tears that day. When it came time to go, I turned to the small woman once again for a hug as I held the tears back for other reasons remembering the strong woman she once was and all the encouragement she had given me over the years.
We crossed the Missouri River just outside of Mobridge, South Dakota. We were now officially “west river”. All South Dakotans know there are 2 sides to the state, east river and west river. West of the Missouri is primarily ranching country. It is home to wind-swept prairies, cowboys, cattle and Mount Rushmore. East of the Missouri is primarily rich farm ground, abundant pheasant hunting, higher populations and the Corn Palace. When 2 South Dakotans meet for the first time, one of the first questions is always which side of the river did you grow up on. If the sides are opposite, the conversation is immediately muted to generic pleasantries as both look for an opportunity to escape. If the sides are equal, the 2 are immediately bonded and friends forever. Obviously, everyone who grew up in Timber Lake grew up west of the river. I do have good friends on both sides due to going to college in the east but the friends I can count on to “have my back” at anytime and for any reason are those I grew up with in western South Dakota.
Our first stop in Timber Lake is always the Dakota Silk Screen store. The store sells shirts, coats, jewelry and other items all of which can be imprinted with the name or event of your choice. Housed in one of the oldest buildings in town, it is operated by the husband and wife team of Mary’s sister, Ann, and my cousin, Roy Crance. When I was a kid, it was Thompson’s Grocery and later Kelly’s grocery. The wooden floors still creak the same way. My eyes always drift to the right as I enter the door. During its grocery store years, there was a revolving rack of toys for kids to drool over such as army figures, cap guns, bubbles, squirt guns, Hot Wheel cars, marbles, Duncan yo-yos and more. This one rack of toys served every little kid’s birthday party until we were too cool to be interested in kid stuff.
Thursday morning, I laced up my running shoes and waited for the GPS watch to find a signal 1,000 miles from home as I stepped outside the home of Joel and Sarah Crance Schweitzer, our niece and nephew. Dean and Marian Fett used to live across the street to the west. Their house was always a must see at Christmas because they had a set of wooden reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh that rocked in unison with Rudolph’s nose lit up in bright red. Many a December night, mom would scrap the windows on the car and load us up for a trip by the Fett house to check in on Rudolph before bed. Behind me to the east was the Baptist Church where my parents were married and I was baptized. It was no longer a church. Several years back, it had been converted to hunting lodge. I had no desire to look in and see the changes. Closing my eyes and remembering Sunday school and church services was enough.
Continuing to stretch while turning back to the west, I could see Leo Goldade’s old house on the corner to the right. Leo was a lineman at the electric cooperative. I met him in high school when I cut down the power line at Grandpa Rusty’s farm while shooting sparrows off the wire. I still hate bird crap. Ole Hulm used to live to the left of the Fett house. Ole operated the Chevrolet dealership and was friends with Grandpa even though Grandpa only drove Fords. Left of Ole’s was the small house Ginny and Grover Cudmore used to live in. I still send a birthday card to Scott every year even though I haven’t shopped the toy rack at Thompson’s Grocery for his gift for almost 40 years. Left of Cudmore’s used to be Ed and Mary Schweitzer. Ed’s niece Patty lives there now. (I had a huge crush on her my sophomore year.) Ed and Mary had the only trampoline in town during the early 1970s so it was an occasional hotbed of kid activity.
Zach joined me and we started jogging north to Highway 20 on the edge of town. After a brief turn to the east, we went back north on the gravel road that split the 2 shallow lakes on the northern outskirts of town. Prior to the re-routing of the highway in the 1990s, this road was paved and the start of many a car race. It was a good mile to the first turn, then another mile to the second sharp turn and a little over a mile to the 3 mile corner. If you survived all of that, you were on the straight away and could actually get all 4 wheels off the ground if you were brave enough to really punch it east for a mile or so to the hill by the Quinn farm. It’s no wonder the new road is wider, straighter and safer today.
At the old 2 mile corner, we met up with the new highway and ran the shoulder south and west into town to complete a loop around the eastern lake. You can see the Timber Lake skyline the entire way in. Zach ran up ahead and I made no attempt to keep up. The water tower, grain elevator, cheese plant and rodeo grounds are all within view. To Zach, Timber Lake has been a place to visit family since we left when he was 2 years old. To me, it’s the birthplace of who I was, who I am and who I will be. I know I will see this skyline again but I don’t know when that will be. I was in no hurry.
Later, Mary, Zach and I went out to Grandpa Rusty’s farm 15 miles south of town where we lived when we were first married and Zach was born. I milked cows with my brother Gordon and also worked at Moreau-Grand Electric Cooperative as the Billing Clerk and later the Accountant. We lived in a shack of a mobile home for a couple years until Mary graduated and landed a job as a kindergarten teacher in town. We quickly upgraded the shack for a new 16×80 home with a shingled roof and 2×6 walls. That home is somewhere up in Montana today as we took it with us when we moved in 1988.
Having recently been introduced to the TV show, American Pickers, we hiked over the hill to the junkyard where all the old cars and farm implements found their final family resting place. We found a few “treasures” amongst the junk and old cars my dad had wrecked in the 1950s. Up in the old granary, we found what appeared to be an antique baby scooter. By the end of the weekend, I gave it to my cousin Talitha Martin from Kansas after visiting with her (seems like “picking” is an Anderson thing!). Leaving the junkyard, I look all around and could easily write a story about something in every direction. I silently promised, “Someday” and headed back into town.
We got back to Main Street just in time to see the horses come in. The rodeo contractor had trailed them in more than 30 miles for an impromptu parade of wild horses surrounded by wagons and mounted riders. Led by a racing wagon and a cowboy (friend Doug Maher actually) carrying an American flag, it was a scene right out of the old west. (They would do it all over again in the dark the next night when the horses were spooked by fireworks and escaped!)
Friday, I umpired a couple softball games. Mary, Zach and Leah joined nieces, nephews, cousins and friends on a team put together by Mary’s sister Deb Linderman. Collette worked the food stand for Deb and kept an eye on her 2 little girls. Zach hit 1 home run and his cousin Lance Linderman hit 2. They lost to the eventual champions by 1 run and won their second game by a lopsided margin. Mary spent the rest of the day helping Deb with the tournament and I spent the day visiting around town.
Friday night found us in the tent on Main Street. Since 1985, the local Rodeo Club has put up a tent that covers about 75% of a city block and easily holds a thousand people or more if they keep their drinks held to their chests. It is the hub of the celebration. We visited family and friends until late into the evening. I was supposed to work the 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift at the concession stand but I got Zach to fill in for me so I could go to bed early and run the half marathon in the morning.
Saturday morning, I was first to arrive at the football field on the west edge of town prior to the 6:30 a.m. start. The half marathon, 5K run and 2 mile walk were all organized by Steve and Donna Aberle. Mary went to school with Donna and I went to school with Steve’s brother Wayne. The Aberle house is the second phone number I can recall from my days growing up in Timber Lake (865-3612). Steve had run the half marathon 25 years earlier and his son Brian was running this one. Brian was tall, skinny and one look told me I had no shot trying to hang with him.
Runners gradually started to arrive. My niece Theresa Crance Stangle from Rochester, Minnesota was there training for the marathon we planned to run in together in Illinois in September. Other runners were a Lindskov from Isabel, a Johnson from Firesteel, Jenny Quinn Mercado, her husband and a teenage Cook girl from Eagle Butte. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Karyl Kraft get out of her car. Karyl and I graduated together in 1980. I hadn’t seen her since graduation. Karyl was one of the athletes in high school while I studied, drank a few beers and was voted most talkative. It wasn’t looking good for me but she quickly informed me she was present to watch her friend Mary from Minneapolis run. I was still in trouble as Mary had run 20 some marathons and looked to be a real runner. She was also over 40 so I would have to settle for the male trophy and not the overall 40 and up title. We all had a good visit prior to the start and soon we were simply runners and not strangers like every other race I had been in from New York to California.
After a few group photos (remember, there were only 9 of us), Donna gave the signal and off to the north we went. Steve Aberle went out ahead in a four-wheeler to stop traffic at Highway 20. He also traveled up and down the route dispensing water and overall times. This was my first half marathon with only 1 water stop and a moving one at that but it worked quite well, especially on the out and back course. Brian Aberle and Mr. Johnson quickly disappeared out ahead. Theresa, Karyl’s friend Mary and I were solidly in third position.
After crossing the highway, the course took the gravel road between the lakes. After a quick left and right in mile 2, we were heading straight north on a gravel road with rolling hills. It was a perfect morning with temperatures in the high 60s, no wind and dust settled by the previous day’s rain. Visiting and talking about running, the 3 of us clicked off the early miles at 7:57, 8:22, 8:29, 8:20 and 8:16.
Somewhere near the end of mile 5, Theresa decided to back off and we parted company. About then, a boy from the Mobridge high school cross country team caught us. He had arrived about 5 minutes late and was pushing hard to catch the leaders who were mere specs out in the distance. He slowed for a time to visit until we broke the news that we were not out in front! Mile 6 was an 8:21 and then I started to look for the half way marker. I soon realized we were not in a half marathon when my GPS measured 6.5 miles and the turn-around was still way ahead. Finishing mile 7 with an 8:03, we headed back to town with 7.1 miles showing on my watch. Donna would have some explaining to do!
Young Mr. Johnson in second place started to draw ever so closer to us. Posting miles of 8:27, 8:20 and 8:11, Mary and I passed him around mile 10. The Mobridge runner was also getting closer but I wasn’t confident I had enough left to catch him. I also suspected maybe he knew he had 2nd place locked up and had slowed his pace to rest. We finished the next 2 miles in 8:16 and 8:01 respectively. I let Mary go ahead at that point as I began to lose some steam.
After hanging on for dear life to post a 7:57 over mile 13, I began to catch the 2 mile walkers who were heading back into town. I passed my mother, her twin sister Deanna Munsch, Uncle Don Hieb, friend Rita Long, Mary’s classmate Brenda Kuhn, Theresa’s parents (Roy & Ann) who were waiting on their 4-wheeler for their daughter and a few others. It was a little Timber Lake reunion on the go of sorts on the gravel between the lakes. I took the little boost to finish the final mile in 8:36, crossing the finish line with a total time of 1:57:61 and the watch showing 14.22 miles. Brian Aberle had earlier posted the winning time of 1:30!
With 10 total competitors due to the one late arriving and eventual 2nd place finisher, I had finished 4th overall and 1st in men over 40. I also was last in men over 40 but the record will always show me as the fastest old man on the 100th birthday of Timber Lake. Years from now, some may be impressed with the feat and not notice that I was also the only man over 40 to run that day. After 10 years of running, I finally had a 1st place trophy! Was it my fault nobody else showed up?
Showered and refreshed, I ended up back at the football field to visit and watch the street sports. Donna and Steve Aberle were in charge of those as well just as Steve’s dad Andy had been 25 years earlier. There were 50 yard dashes, human wheel barrow contests, sack races and three-legged runs. Mary and Collette ended up in 3rd place in the women’s open division of the three-legged race. Street sports are a great place to see friends with their kids because it is an event for the entire family.
The Class of 1980 was meeting in the tent for lunch so that was the next stop. Gradually, people began to gather. Our class was over 40 people strong but some had never returned and nobody knew what to expect for a turnout as RSVPs aren’t required in Timber Lake. Some in attendance included Wayne Aberle, Scott Cudmore, Mary Pat Maher Cudmore, Danette Lipp Hoffman, Pat Schweitzer, Bill Welder, John Winterberg, Steve Opp, Kip Marshall, Casey Kraft, Benton Salzer, Dennis Hulm, Marcie Keller, Deb Biegler Porter, Faron Schweitzer, Nyla Dahlgren Moak, George Stavnes, Nancy Biegler and Tim Quinn. I had visited with Nancy Ducheneaux and Roger Aberle the day before so counting them brought the total to nearly half the class. We ate, sat, talked and laughed for a good couple hours while catching up on all the lost years.
Later, several of us walked up to take a self-guided tour of the high school. It was truly a step back in time. We shared stories and too many “do you remembers” to count. There was the room with the spit wads on the ceiling, the class where Wayne tried to glue Mr. Isaac to his chair, the gym where George broke the backboard using the mini-trampoline at play practice and many more. For a brief couple hours, we turned the years back to 1980 when we had no worries other than where to go on the weekend and the main responsibility was getting home safely without any liquor forgotten in the car. Good kids? Yes. Angels? Not all the time! It was a wonderful time and a great way to celebrate what we had in 1980. It was a priceless couple hours to say the least.
Saturday evening, I had the honor of co-hosting the all school reunion celebration in the gymnasium with classmate Danette’s sister, Diana Lipp Holzer. There must have been 1,000 people at the start. We held a trivia contest by the decade with period musical performances in-between each. While there were some technical difficulties with the AV equipment and the night ended up longer than planned, those present seemed to have a good time. It was a fitting way to honor the school and say good-bye to the 1939 vintage WPA old high school building portion that was scheduled for demolition in August. The town was preparing for the next 100 years and had held off on the start of construction for the 100 year party.
Sunday morning, I headed out for one more run around the eastern lake and the town. Tired from the previous day’s hard effort, I was also slowed by the knowledge that our time back in Timber Lake was ending. We would head back to Aberdeen after the Sunday night rodeo performance later in the evening. Nearing the town limits, I ran south on the road between the rodeo grounds where I had collected pop bottles for the deposit money as a kid and the now closed cheese plant where I vomited on a grade school tour in its heyday. I don’t eat cheese curds to this day.
I continued south past the old trailer park where we lived until after my 5th grade year. The old propane tanks that mom could see out her window while doing dishes were still there. She was always so happy because she had a window to see out of while doing a seemingly never ending stream of dishes. The rest of her view were more mobile homes and a Laundromat that are now long gone. I think the optimism I have today was born out of her positive attitude towards that narrow look at our Timber Lake world. She was a single mother of 3 young kids with the weight of that responsibility on her shoulders every day yet she found happiness in a small window that to me was a reminder we had no garage to protect our car from the South Dakota blizzards and the simple task of washing clothes involved hiking across the parking lot to share the appliances with others.
I continued on past Wayne Aberle’s house silently hearing his mother yell at him for one teenage transgression or another. There are many Wayne Aberle stories to tell and I marvel today that I survived several of them. They require a chapter all their own and don’t deserve to get condensed in any summary in this one. Wayne is one of a handful of friends I have now that has truly been a friend for as long as I can remember. Family aside, I never worry about being alone or with no place to turn because I have his number in my phone today and his friendship forever.
Heading west, I crossed Main Street with a left hand glance down the block at the low income government housing project we moved into that 5th grade year. I spent 7 school years in that house at the end of town, playing in that yard and shoveling snow in that driveway. It gave us room to spread out in our teenage years that a 10×50 mobile home could not. I watched my first Green Bay Packer game lying on the floor looking at our first Zenith color TV in the fall of 1972. I played catch with myself by throwing the football up on the roof and waiting for it to roll off. I had a BB gun shoot out with next door neighbor Calvin Kraft. Most importantly, I got down on one knee and proposed to Mary in that house. A long list of other life events rolled through my mind while I wound my way back across town to the start of the run at Joel and Sarah’s. I had more to take back to Michigan than the gravel dust on my running shoes.
The last class event for the weekend was the Sunday centennial parade. Wayne had secured our entry weeks earlier and the plan was simply to show up and jump into Pat Schweitzer’s truck. We ended up with about 12 of us climbing over the Class of 1980 banners Pat and Wayne had secured to the truck with duct tape. Marcie Keller arrived with the banner from our 20 year reunion and quickly secured that to the back end. One by one, classmates arrived, people shifted seats and down the parade route we went.
The biggest surprise was the arrival of Kelly Landis who lived about 30 miles away but hadn’t been to The Celebration EVER. He didn’t go in high school and hadn’t gone since. While I had talked to his brother in the tent many times, called on the phone over the years and even went to visit him while he harvested a field of flax 5 years earlier, Kelly had remained a “no show”. Almost in unison, those on the float yelled, “KELLY!” All aboard knew the story as Wayne and I had earlier debated whether or not he would show up. With handshakes and back slaps, he slipped into the group. He was one of us once again and everyone was happy to have another connection to our shared past.
After the parade, we parked in the alley to share a beer and more conversation. All knew time was short and one by one people drifted off just like graduation night 30 years earlier. At 18 years old, we didn’t hug, talk sentimental and handshakes simply weren’t cool. At 48, the grips were firm, hugs were real and wishes for continued happiness heartfelt. I left early on to find my family, attend a Reinbold picnic and re-assume my grown up life. The rest of the day, I repeated, “Has it really been 30 years?” over and over in my head. I still don’t believe it.
Lord willing, I will make it back to Timber Lake again. Somewhere in the future, there will be more runs around this home town on the prairie. 2010 was more than I expected. Mary and I both headed east towards our home in Michigan with worn out vocal cords and glad that we took the time. We love our life in Michigan but will always treasure our home in Timber Lake.
I was reminded of the Miranda Lambert song, “The House That Built Me” as I saw the lights of Timber Lake in my rearview mirror that Sunday night. I thought to myself, “There is the town that shaped us all.” If you take the memories with you, does one ever really leave home?