Plains Folk


“The average individual, in order to maintain good health and keep his emotional balance, must have some release for the energies which find no expression in his every day work,” explained the writer of the report. “Recreation provides this release.”

The report is Recreation in South Dakota, published by the state in 1936. More and more I’m convinced that whereas people used to define themselves according to their work, they are coming now to define themselves by what they do for fun. It may be that today, to be a plainsperson is to partake of the recreations characteristic to the region.

Which raises the obvious question, What do we do for fun and renewal around here? Lately I’ve had opportunity to explore the question in historical documents of South Dakota.

In the 1930s officials took stock of what the state had to offer along these lines. There was a distinct urban bias to their inquiry. “It is generally conceded [by them, I suppose] that small towns and villages everywhere are usually lacking in healthy, constructive recreational activities,” they said at the outset.

Ninety percent of towns, however, had baseball diamonds. And you know, on the nights when the signboards on the main drag said there was baseball, there was BASEBALL, not just a bunch of guys lobbing softballs.

Swimming pools were present in 25 percent of towns and had been “gaining in favor rapidly in the past few years,” the researchers said. “Even many of the smaller towns now boast of pools that rival, and in many instances surpass, the pools of larger towns nearby.” So whereas the great spate of swimming pool-building was a generation away, the roots of prairie pool culture go back, surprisingly, to the Great Depression.

Fishing, the authors noted, was poor on account of long-term drought, but hunting was coming on. Hunters accustomed to the wealth of game of all kinds on the plains today have no recollection of the poverty of game in the early years of the twentieth century. Large game had been essentially eradicated; the abundant prairie chicken populations associated with early settlement, too, were gone.

Pheasants, however, were increasing in the 1930s, to the extent that farmers complained of crop damage. Such complaints were offset first by the convenience of being able to bag a pheasant for supper with ease, the more so by the revenue brought by hunters pursuing “a pheasant population that is unrivaled by any state in the union.”

Here’s something striking I noticed about this early report on prairie recreation: it is concerned mainly with what men and boys might do. The assumption is that men have the hard jobs and thus need recreation. (You may have noted the masculine possessive pronouns in my first quoted sentence above.)

Another notable omission is discussion of what farmers might do for recreation. This is the urban bias again, the assumption that farmers are leading simple lives and don’t need to blow off steam the way townspeople do.

The world of play on the plains at this time was categorically different than that today—two ways in particular. First, mobility was limited. Sure, most families had autos, and Sunday drives were fine, but people didn’t often drive long distances just for recreation.
Second, opportunities for outdoor recreation—and I know this is counter-intuitive—were sparse relative to today. The construction of the great lakes of the upper Missouri are just the most spectacular example of the efflorescence of recreational opportunities that took place in the second half of the century.

As for how we have learned to play in more recent years—that’s another column.


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