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The Ides of March - South Dakota Style

I’ve known since I first moved to South Dakota in 1968 that the state had quite a reputation for March blizzards, attributed to the fact that the state boys’ high school basketball tournaments were held during that month, and kids were often stranded around the state as a result! Our pioneer and Native forebears were known for their fortitude, and it appears that that inbred quality was still very much with us. Stories abound about teams being caught in some remote hamlet - or more likely on remote rural roads before the interstate was completed in the 1970's (and even afterward!)

Although I am in the travel business, groups don’t much travel here during the winter. But I still hold my breath with all other South Dakotans until March is safely in the rear-view mirror. I must admit that the mountains (our “Black Hills” are - alas - misnamed) cannot be counted on to stick to the calendar, and weather records abound, at least at the higher elevations for virtually any month of the year. The latest snowfall in my personal experience was June 10, 1970.

But back to the blizzards. The most notorious one was chronicled in an excellent book entitled “The Children’s Blizzard” (by David Laskin, 2004). This storm blew in from nowhere after a balmy January day in Dakota Territory, 1888. It was so named because of the terrible death toll among school children who were unwisely sent home by their rural schools in an attempt to beat the storm.

That particular storm didn’t happen to take place in March, but my favorite story related by my mother in law, Evie Lee (then Dawson) was a very apt example. She was a high school drama coach in Rapid City, and for some reason one-act play contest was scheduled that year in the same month as the boys’ basketball tournaments - in March. Her little troupe of thespians had performed well, and were headed back home to celebrate their accomplishment. Unfortunately, they were caught by an incoming blizzard just forty miles from home, at a small hamlet called Wall (today famous for a world-renowned tourist attraction called Wall Drug). In those days though, it was far from famous, and my mother-in-law shepherded her students to the largest building in town: the community hall. They were not alone.

There were cars of every description, buses, tractor trailers, and cross-country semis parked around the huge building. Small town hospitality kicked right in, and food started arriving to succor the unintentional visitors. But boredom eventually closed in, and Evie knew exactly how to handle it. She requisitioned a record player and somebody contributed some square dance records, which kept everyone occupied and entertained for the long hours ahead. Exhausted, but well-fed, everyone eventually bedded down with donated blankets on the basketball floor until dawn.

I no longer recollect how many days they were stranded there (Evie told this story far better than I ever could), but everyone eventually dug their way out and went their separate ways, having experienced a memorable Dakota Blizzard with dozens of their new friends.

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