Rosalie and I will be returning to Mobridge for the Fourth of July this year, probably for the last time. What used to be our hometown isn’t there anymore. Rosalie (Zimmer) and I have only a few relatives still living there. After my brother Dick Travis died and his wife Doris (Larson) moved to Minneapolis, and after Rosalie’s two sisters, Phyllis Harris and Bonnie Scott, died, we have only Jackie Hanson and Barb Keller living in the area. And the Mobridge we remember from our youth has changed to such an extent that almost no one there remembers who the Travises and Zimmers were. My dad and my two brothers owned and ran a grocery store for years and years. My Uncle Ray Travis owned the Coast-to-Coast hardware store for years and years. Rosalie’s dad, Bill Zimmer, was the projectionist at the Mascot for almost forty years. Rosalie’s aunt, Edna Hand, played the organ at the Mascot, starting back before “talkies.” All are now gone along with silent movies.
Some of you may have read excerpts of my Mobridge Memories, so I’ll try to avoid repeating myself. I’ve already written about the Mobridge city park, the golf course, and all the “vacant lots” we had.
What about the trees? The joke about South Dakota trees was always, “What’s the South Dakota state tree? The telephone pole.” Mobridge at one time had almost exclusively American elms for street and yard shade. These were not particularly nice or attractive, with rough bark and unremarkable leaves, but they grew tall and made welcome shade and they were what we had. That is, we had them until that year in the mid-sixties when Mobridge was invaded by Dutch elm disease. And there went all the elms. What else was available after that? We’d always had quite a few cottonwoods, a tree that was the king of trees down along the Missouri River. But how annoying they were when they decided to distribute that white stuff for which they were named. The ground would be white as after a December snowfall and people would track the stuff into their homes. Other trees: that peculiar boxelder tree that gave us another annoyance, the boxelder bug, those slim red flying bugs that in their season seemed to be everywhere; the crabapple trees that many homes had which produced those bitter little green apples (thus the designation “crab”); silver poplars and birch, the trunks of which made ideal places for carving hearts and initials; a few pines in a few yards; even a black walnut tree in Doc Lowe’s front yard that produced little walnuts with meat that was distinctly black and not like normal walnuts. Were there any oak trees? I remember how we all called a stand of trees in a hollow north of town Oak Forest. Only in South Dakota would we call maybe twenty trees a forest. And I’m sure they weren’t oak. I know I’m missing some tree types but I’m now old and may have forgotten them.
What about bushes and flowers? There were Russian olive bushes that were kept short of treedom and used as hedges between houses. There were lilac bushes also used as hedges. We had honeysuckle bushes that produced those lovely yellow flowers that kids always plucked and then sucked out the juice. We had chokecherry bushes/trees that must have been related to the crabapple trees because the red berries were as chokeable as the apples were crabby. We had wonderful, tasty wild raspberry and strawberry bushes/plants. Many Mobridge yards sported one or two tall sunflowers and a line of hollyhocks along the garage. Kids always picked the hollyhock flowers to make little flower dolls. The flowers of choice in Mobridge were almost always petunias and daisies. My mother planted a row of moss roses in our backyard, which thrived in the hot dry South Dakota soil.
The population in Mobridge hasn’t changed much from the 1930’s to the present, always hovering around 4,000. For some weird reason I seem to remember the census figure for Mobridge in 1940 as being 3,946. I looked at more recent censuses which show it as now around 3500. But the housing has expanded mainly north and west. In my youth, the Lutheran Academy was far out of town to the west. Now, it’s right there along the highway. And other than a few houses, the land north of the high school was empty. Housing to the east grew a little but not nearly like that to the west.
What did we do during those hot, dusty summer days? We pretty much had the run of the town for games like migs, rubber guns, run-sheep-run, and kick-the-can. We had fishing in the Muddy Mo and a few lakes and stock dams not far out of town. And on weekends we had the Mascot. Most Saturdays showed double features, and with all the short comedies like Tom and Jerry and the previews and other shorts before the movies, it was a three hour afternoon. The features were mostly Westerns with cowboys like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tim Holt, the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy and his sidekick Gabby Hayes. A whole stream of Johnny Weismuller Tarzans, war flicks with John Wayne and Gary Cooper, comedies with Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges, all the Hope and Crosby Road shows, and the horror movies (Oh, yes, the HORROR!) such as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Black Panther. And my two favorites of all—King Kong and Gunga Din. We went for the movies, but also the popcorn and popsicles. Then, around 4:00, we’d stumble out squinting into late afternoon sunshine, with bellyaches and red eyes. And long before television came along to take us captive, we had radio shows to listen to in the afternoons and evenings—Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy; Inner Sanctum (with that awful squeaking door); The Shadow (“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man? The Shadow knows.”); and The Green Hornet. In the evenings we had Amos and Andy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and, of course, Red Skelton. In a time when cigarettes were not only not unhealthy but were considered healthy, we had the Phillip Morris Playhouse with its distinctive theme music, “On the Trail.” I can still hear that slow “bum-pee bum-pee bum-pee” down and up passage that began the show. And now we know the truth about cigarettes. Does anyone remember the slogan, “Lucky Strike green has gone to war?” I was always too young to figure out what their green had to do with the war. Remember “L.S./M.F.T.?” Nearly everyone in Mobridge smoked and thought nothing of smoking in their homes or the homes of anyone else.
What else has disappeared from our early days in Mobridge? The Beadle School is now a college extension; the Lincoln School is now apartments; the old Middle School and High School are now only memories. The bars and saloons and watering holes along Main are gone (but then, that may be a blessing instead of a loss)—the Rustic Inn, The Arcade, The Whitehorse, the Monogram, the old Moose Club at the south end of Main, the pool hall. The Silver Dollar and the Palace Lounge are still there, but not as they were back in the old days. I remember hanging out in the Palace Lounge when Pat Morrison or Evert Bachelor would go down to Weigum’s Kernel Korn and buy for a buck a grocery bag of popcorn for us on the bar stools to share. The bottle beer back then was either Hamm’s (“From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters”) or Schlitz, maybe an occasional Pabst, but never a Bud. And the draft beer was low-point or high-point (3.2 or 4 percent). The cocktails of choice were Tom Collins (always with gin, never vodka, and lots of edibles like cherries and orange slices), whiskey sours (with that same cherry & orange slice), 7-7’s (Seagram’s Seven and Seven-Up), and sloe gin fizzes. A South Dakota bloody Mary was a mug of beer with tomato juice added. The bottle booze back then was almost always a pint or half-pint of Four Roses, Schenleys, or Canadian Club. No one then drank Scotch.
No one had cell phones then, only land lines with three- or four-digit numbers. Almost all the dogs in town were as free to roam as the kids were. No one ever locked their house doors. No one ever removed the keys from their cars. The streets now are all paved instead of the dusty gravel we had back then. The infestations of bugs and beetles and mosquitoes was far greater then than now. What was once a river is now a huge reservoir.
What things are essentially the same? Kids in cars dragging Main, the Mobridge auditorium, the Mobridge rodeo which is different only in the annual improvement of its shows, the beauty of West-River sunsets. And, of course, Pat Morrison, who may just live another hundred years to keep track of Mobridge memories for everyone.
Was life back then better than it is now? Certainly not, only different. And those differences are what make the present-day Mobridge no longer our home town. That place is tucked away in the minds of oldsters like Rosalie and me (and, of course, Pat Morrison). And after this Fourth of July, that place in our memories is the place to which we’ll return.