Last week we visited about the front half of the history trail that Jerry Ostensoe and I took, leaving off at Sitting Bull’s grave, across the river a bit from Mobridge in north central South Dakota. From there we headed west 95 miles on U.S. 12, the old Yellowstone Trail, to Lemmon, South Dakota, to explore more history. We also found a few surprises.
Lemmon is truly a border town. Driving to the north end of Main Street, about 50 feet past the railroad tracks, puts you in North Lemon, North Dakota, an unincorporated area with gravel streets and less than a dozen houses.
A large sign made from sturdy mortared chunks of petrified wood, at the intersection of Main Street and Highway 12 points to the town’s notable collection of local petrified wood, built into dozens of conical shapes in a small park on the edge of a surprisingly busy downtown. We stopped there years ago and figured it was safe to assume that not too much had changed with those fossilized trees.
However, other things were changing in Lemon. There is a budding interest in what only can be described as prairie art. Local artist John Lopez has established a gallery from what used to be a local watering hole, known as the Kokomo Bar. He opened up the old brick building, gutting it down to the original walls and floor but kept the name. That shiny space now serves as his gallery and studio where he displays and sells his amazing bronze and innovative scrap metal sculptures.
There’s more of his sculpture work next door in a newly built park that honors the town’s founder Ed Lemmon, complete with high plains western landscape mural painted by two of Lopez’ artist friends from Lagos, Nigeria. They have stayed in Lemon with Lopez each of the last three years and painted colorful murals around the community. With a population of just under 1,400 residents, Lemon is quite a change for those interesting and chatty natives of Lagos with its population of more than 21 million.
Our interest in the Lemon area was based mainly on history but also on the collection of essays in the noteworthy book, Dakota: A spiritual Geography, by poet and author Kathleen Norris, a Lemon resident for more than 20 years. Her 1993 collection of essays about small-town life, the wide-open plains and the people who live there is insightful and sometimes a bit unsettling. That seemed even more reason to check out the area.
History seems to be everywhere around Lemmon. Besides the fossilized tree remnants, there have been significant findings of fossilized dinosaur bones in the area and a dozen miles south of Lemmon is the site where fur trader Hugh Glass was severely mauled by a grizzly bear in 1823, long before European immigrants settled in the area. His story of survival and his 200-mile crawl back to Fort Kiowa, near present-day Chamberlain SD, was made famous by the 2015 move The Revenant. Grizzly bears haven’t been seen in this area for decades but it’s always interesting to see where historic stories unfolded.
As we were rolling out of Lemmon, the town was preparing for their 48th annual Boss Cowman Rodeo and Celebration which, by all accounts, looks to be very much like Western Fest.
Lemmon was a fun stop, but more history called, and we hit Highway 12 westward through the North Dakota towns of Hettinger and Bowman toward the tiny town of Marmarth.
Before reaching Marmarth, we turned onto a gravel road a few miles northward to the Fort Dilts Historic Site. In September of 1864, a wagon train from Fort Ridgely, bound for Idaho, led by James Fisk with immigrants from the Minneapolis area, had stopped there after a multi-day conflict with Lakota warriors.
Fisk had orders to stay north of the area but instead proceeded west into unexplored Indian territory thinking that the Lakota were elsewhere. The Lakota had been the victims of an unprovoked attack by Gen. Sully’s forces in the Killdeer Mountains to the north and were out for revenge. The Lakota, which included the young Sitting Bull, intercepted advance scout Jefferson Dilts and then the wagon train. Several casualties resulted, including a badly wounded Sitting Bull. Dilts and eight others on the wagon train were killed as were two dozen Lakota warriors. After repeated attacks and the poisoning of Lakota with strychnine-laced food, the Fisk wagon train hunkered down behind sod fortifications at the site they named after their deceased scout. Sully’s troops arrived several days later and led them back toward Bismarck. That party from Fort Ridgley was another of the many historical connections between our part of Minnesota and the Dakota Territory.
We finally drifted down through the Badlands into the Little Missouri River bottoms at Marmarth, a town that is a shadow of its former self, just a few miles east of the Montana border. Until 1984, Marmarth was a railroad division point on the Milwaukee Road transcontinental main line from Chicago to the Seattle, the same rail line that goes through east Granite. Dozens of train crews laid over in Marmarth on their route between Mobridge and Miles City. That now happens in Hettinger and Marmarth has been left to dwindle into its colorful past.
Jerry and I had stopped there years ago and looked around, even shooting a game of pool with a bar owner and her bartender friend (we lost). Like most of Marmarth, that pool hall had closed up long ago. With 130 residents, Marmarth is still the largest city in Slope County, which has a population of only about 750. The other city in the county, Amidon, is the county seat and has only twenty residents. It is a very wide-open area.
Ramshackle though it may be, Marmarth does have a certain charm. The Badlands along the Little Missouri are beautiful and the prairie grass and sage were amazingly green due to unusual amounts of consistent rainfall.
A short stop in the only real business, a bar and noteworthy café, brought some friendly conversation and got us a tour of the nearby historic Mystic Theater on Main Street. The well-maintained old theater hosts occasional music performances and an annual Cowboy Poetry event each September.
Satisfied that we had seen most of what Marmarth had to offer, we headed south, past buffalo herds and a few oil wells, into Belle Fourche, South Dakota, before launching our long drive back home the next day.
Highway 212 is a lonesome route across most of South Dakota, but those long miles translate into long conversations and the miles seem to fly by. The history trail leaves you with plenty to talk about and even more to explore. It was a good trip.