Esther Palmer recalls good time and bad
The daughter of Ollie and Phoebe Eggebo, Esther was born at home in January 1924, and grew up halfway between the Perkins County towns of Bison and Reva, near Strool, which no longer exists.
Ollie had emigrated from Norway in 1910. Homesteading, he built a little sod shack. By the time he married Phoebe Nelson, born in Dassel, Minn., he had built a comfortable little wooden house. Esther was the second of six children.
The Dirty Thirties she can vividly recall, she said, but sometimes like to forget. In addition to being in the midst of the Great Depression, the Great Plains was in the midst of a severe drought. Grasshoppers came by the swarms and ravaged the vegetation that survived the drought. Dust was everywhere.
There were no trees close by to serve as a source of firewood, she said, but there was a small coal vein just across the South Grand River.
Corncobs and even cow manure were used to augment the coal for fuel in the big cook stove.
“We always had enough to eat,” Esther said, “because we had a big garden – even in the midst of the drought. Dad would irrigate the crops from the river.”
In the winter their dad would cut blocks of ice from the river and place it in a small cave cut into the hill. Meat, fish, and even hand-cranked ice cream could be safely stored using straw for insulation.
“Mom had always insisted that we all take a tablespoon of cod liver oil every day,” she said. “It was awful tasting stuff, but mother insisted – hoping it would help us grow up strong!”
Because there was little grass, the government paid the sheep ranchers $1 per head to kill them. Their dad skinned them and dried a lot of meat for jerky. He trapped coyotes and tanned their hides, supplementing the family’s meager income.
Tragedy struck, Esther said, when baby Ruthie was only nine months old. Their mom, only 34 years of age, became extremely ill and was rushed to the hospital at Hettinger; however, she died of a ruptured appendix. Penicillin was not yet developed.
“Ruthie became my baby,” Esther said, “and remained so until the day she died.”
When Esther’s older sister, Irene, went off to school in Hettinger, Esther took on all the chores of running the house, including cleaning, ironing and baking multiple loaves of bread a week.
Following Christmas break after their mom had died, their father had taken Irene to a neighbor so she could get a ride back to school in Hettinger.
“I was supposed to keep the fire lit,” Esther said. “When I was younger I had heard the adults talk about a terrible fire that had killed an entire family. After that I was terrified of fire. I was so scared that I almost let the fire go out.”
The children walked more than four miles to attend the Glenco Country School. In the winter, their dad would put a large stone in the oven. After it was thoroughly heated, he wrapped it in a blanket and placed it in the bottom of the horse-drawn sleigh. The rock kept their toes toasty until they arrived at school.
One day their dad brought home a Shetland pony in the back seat of the Model T car. Darky took the children to school and back, Esther said, although his specialty was bucking the children off and racing for home.
“But he was smart and saved Ruthie’s life,” she said. “Ruthie was riding Darky home from school when a blizzard came up. Darky stubbornly refused to turn the way Ruthie thought and finally took her safely home.”
When Esther was in her early 20s, polio was epidemic in the United States. A viral and highly contagious disease, it affected the nerves, causing partial or total paralysis.
“I jumped out of bed one morning, and my legs wouldn’t support me,” she said.
What followed was months of therapy at a Hot Springs hospital, relearning how to walk. Still, she remains grateful that she made it. Many others did not.
Even at 88 and living comfortably with her daughter, Deb, in Mobridge, every time she flicks on a light switch she is grateful she doesn’t have to light the wick of a kerosene lamp. Every time she turns on a faucet to get a drink of water she is grateful for not having to venture to the well to fill up the bucket.