I Found My Grandpa

My grandfather was Harry Hughes Smith. He was born August 27, 1886, in Chicago. His father was Harry Smith from Currie, Scotland, and his mother was Annie Edgar from Stranrair, Scotland. He had two brothers, Jim and Tom. He died August 6, 1963, in Berwyn, Illinois. To the world, he was an ordinary Harry Smith, but he was my Grandpa Smith, and I’m going to tell his story.

When I was a boy, people would ask the usual question: What do you want to be when you grow up? I would always answer that I wanted to be a baseball player. And when I needed a model for how to be a baseball player, I didn’t have to look far. It was Nellie Fox, the great second baseman for the Chicago White Sox. He wasn’t flashy. He wasn’t a superstar. He was just a good, steady, dependable ballplayer, and he made it into the Hall of Fame. In my heart, I knew being a ballplayer was a dream. But in my head, I can remember thinking when I grow up, I just want to be a good, steady, dependable man. And when I needed a model for that, I didn’t have to look far, either. It was Grandpa Smith. Good, steady, dependablethat was him.

But he was more than that. Without being showy, you could see how much he and his wife loved each other, how much they took care of each other, how much he loved his children and grandchildren. When I was in his home, he wasn’t a stern, respected old grandfather. He was fun. He would talk to me like a friend, not like an adult. We would go for walks and we would play gamessimple games like “Buck-Buck.” He would raise a few fingers and tap my back while saying “Buck-Buckhow many fingers have I got up?” If I guessed right, I got to Buck-Buck him. If I got it wrong, then he Bucked me again. Today it sounds kind of silly, but it sure was fun for a little boy. And don’t think I’m writing this because I was his favorite. No one would say that, because he was the same with all his grandchildren and even with my friends from down the street.

But there was one phrase most grandparents use that I never heard him say. He never said, “When I was a boy…” He never talked about his childhood. I only learned about it because my father told me what little he knew.

Harry’s mother died when he was small and, in the Chicago of the 1890s, it was pretty hard for a father to be a single parent to three small boys. The boys got caught by the police stealing fruit from a street vendor. They were unsupervised and they were hungry. Eventually, they were sent out to Miller, South Dakota, to be adopted out as orphans. Yes, I know they really weren’t orphans, but in 1890s Chicago, social service agencies (as well as parents) thought they were doing children a favor by taking them out of smoky, dirty, dangerous Chicago and sending them to the fresh air and clean living of the American West.

It was a theory that often didn’t work out as planned. They would send a trainload of Chicago kids out west and announce it in the small towns. The trains would arrive and the children would be brought out for interested farmers to take a look at. It was sort of like a slave auction, but no money was exchanged. You just walked up and picked out the kid you wanted. Harry was picked by Thede Brown, a farmer in York Township, 11 miles from Miller. My father said that it was not like Harry was an adopted son; he became more like a combination of a servant and a hired hand. It was not an easy life. But in 1890s Hand County, South Dakota, no one’s life was easy.

After my father died, I wanted to find out more about my grandfather. I went to a branch of the National Archives in Chicago and tried to find Harry Smith in the 1900 South Dakota census. I had no luck. I tried to find Thede Brown. Again, no luck. Then I guessed Thede must be short for Theodore, and I looked for Theodore Brown. I couldn’t believe it: there was Theodore Brown, in York Township, Hand County, South Dakota, and in his household was Harry Smith, 13 years old, born in Chicago. In that quiet National Archives room I shouted out, “I found my grandpa!”

Harry lived with Theodore Brown, age 44, Thede’s wife Mary, age 38, Thede’s father Adlaxandre, age 73, and Thede’s mother Cathrine, age 70. I then contacted the Hand County Historical Society and they sent me a copy of the 1900 plat of York Township, Hand County. There on the map was the Brown farm on the west 320 acres of section 21 of York Township. I thought I would go see the farm some day, but 20 years passed before I did.

This past June I took a wonderful family vacation to Glacier National Park in Montana. We took the Amtrak train and I loved it. However, on the return trip the air conditioning was broken in the railroad car I was riding in. It wasn’t bad through Montana and North Dakota, but it was sure uncomfortable through Minnesota and Wisconsin. When I was back home, I called Amtrak and complained. They sent me a certificate worth $150 towards future Amtrak travel within the next year. Well, two people can’t get very far on Amtrak’s $150, so the question was what to do with it. It seemed like my chance for a trip to Miller had arrived.

But that trip seemed more like an expedition. My wife Lee took me to Union Station. I left on an Amtrak train at 2:00 P.M. and arrived in Fargo, North Dakota, at 4:00 A.M. I took a taxi from downtown Fargo to the Fargo Airport, where I waited around for two hours until the car rental office opened. Then I drove 275 miles to Miller, arriving at 11:00 A.M. I went to the Miller Chamber of Commerce, where I was told they would get someone to open the McWhorter House History Museum, which was closed for the season. It was the restored house of Dr. McWhorter, Miller’s doctor in 1905. It was a wonderful museum, but Grandpa Smith wasn’t there. However, behind the museum was the Miller Railroad Depot. It was filled with interesting artifacts, but more interestingly, I knew this was the depot where Harry Smith arrived in Miller.

After leaving the museum my plan was to drive to what was once Thede Brown’s farm. If there was a farm house there, I would knock on the door and talk to the residents. If there was no house, I would find the nearest house and talk to them. I had a county map and I knew where the farm was. I thought it would be easy.

Well, it wasn’t so easy, but to explain why, I have to describe the difference between Hand County of 1900 and Hand County of 2005. In the 1880s, Hand County was sold to people as a good place to homestead. People had successfully homesteaded Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, etc. South Dakota was the next place. Each homesteader would get 160 acres or 320 acres, plant their crops, and prosperity would follow. The land was so flat that roads were laid out for miles on a one-mile grid. After every mile there was a road as straight as an arrow running north/south or east/west. They were just dirt and gravel roads, but they were good enough.

In the first few years of homesteading, rain was plentiful and farmers did fairly well. But South Dakota isn’t Illinois, and plentiful rain was not the norm. But since there were no historical weather records, people didn’t know that. Soon, drought years outnumbered wet years and crops were not just bad, they often failed completely. More and more homesteaders gave up and sold their land to neighbors. When the depression came, it was even worse and only the lucky few survived.

The result is that there are considerably less people in Hand County in 2005 than there were in 1900. In 1900 York Township had 86 households. Today it has only 16, and those 16 households contain only 22 people. That is 22 people in an entire 36-square-mile township. It works out to 0.6 people per square mile. The land is still farmed, but now instead of a farmer with 320 acres, it is a farmer with 2,000 acres or even a farming corporation with 10,000 acres.

The result of all this Hand County history is that some of the roads that existed every mile are not there any more. Most are still there and they are still gravel or dirt, but some are just paths or even less. I tried to get to Thede Brown’s farm from a couple directions, but the roads were fenced off or nonexistent. I was able to get to the northwest corner of the farm, but the road only went about 200 feet before dying out. I was going to walk, but it was raining. I gave up for the day.

When I got up the next day it was 22 degrees outside with dense fog and thick frost on everything. I drove to the same spot I got to the day before and started walking south. There was a path running south as straight as an arrow between the fallow grass on my left and corn on my right, later followed by a crop of sunflowers. The path was full of frost covered sagebrush, but it was easy to follow. The grass on the left was Thede Brown’s farm. I walked the entire property for a mile and found no house.

As I walked, I kept thinking “I’m walking where Grandpa walked.” I tried to think of Grandpa, but I realized I shouldn’t be thinking of the Grandpa I knew, that wonderful old man. I should be thinking of the Grandpa I didn’t knowyoung Harry Smith, little Harry. With each step I took through that frosty sagebrush, I tried to think of little Harry Smith. What was it like when he was six years old and his new baby sister died after a few days and his mother died a few months later? How did he feel when the cops caught him and his brother? It must have been something for him and his brothers to get on that train with dozens of other Chicago kids. Who cried for Harry when he stood on that Miller Depot platform and saw Thaddus Simmons step up and take his brother Tom, and saw John Andrews step up and take his favorite brother, Jim, and saw Thede Brown come up to take him? Who cried for Harry when Thede told him he had to sleep in the barn during the summer and could only sleep in the house with the family during the winter? It was bad enough that he ran away once. He walked six miles south to the railroad and then headed east on the tracks because he knew that was the way to Chicago. Who cried for him when he had to give up and go all the way back? I’m embarrassed to say that in that cold, quiet South Dakota field, I cried for Harry. His life didn’t seem fair.

But it wasn’t all a sad story. In 1905 Miller got electricity. It built a small generating plant with a boiler that made steam and the steam made electricity. It didn’t work 24 hours a day, but it did work. Harry was a young man and he moved to town and got a job at the electrical plant. He learned to be an electrician, saved his money, and eventually was able to return to Chicago to visit his father. His father was remarried to a woman named Jenny McClure Miller, a widow. Jenny had a daughter, Merne, from her first marriage. You could say Harry and Merne were step-brother and step-sister, but they had never lived together and didn’t even know each other. Harry and Merne fell in love. He returned to Miller, wrapped up his business, came back to Chicago, and married Merne. They moved in next door to his father and Merne delivered a baby in the house.

That’s the whole story. It’s all based on a few words from my father and some facts from government records. I may have got it wrong. Harry may have loved South Dakota. He may have slept in the barn because it was too hot in the house. He may have run away because every kid tries to run away once. But I don’t think I got it wrong. He didn’t talk about it for a reason, and that census record didn’t show Harry Brown in Thede’s house. It was Harry Smith who went to Miller and it was Harry Smith who came backand I’m glad he did.

He came back and made a life for himself with a wife and children. That might not seem like much, but his brothers never did that. His brother Tom married but never had a family. He eventually settled in Mountain Home, Arkansas. The few times I met him, he seemed like kind of a grouchy old guy. It may have been because of the crippled leg he got when he fell out of the loft of a South Dakota barn. Harry’s brother Jim never married and never settled down until he was an old man in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He rode the railroads as a hobo during the depression. But he did visit us every summer to get away from the Arkansas heat. He took me on long walks and we talked a lot. I know why Jim was Harry’s favorite.

Harry came back to Chicago and made a life for himself and Merne and his children. And in doing that, he made a life for me and my children and his other grandchildren and his great-grandchildren and his great-great-grandchildren. It even affected my son-in-law and daughter-in-law. I know I’m making him out to be hero when he was just an ordinary guy, but Grandpa Smith was a hero to me. But speaking of heroes, I shouldn’t forget Merne, Grandma Smith. It was she who brought Harry back where he belonged.

I’m thankful to Harry Smith, but I’m also thankful to my father, another Harry Smith, and my great-grandfather, still another Harry Smith, and his father James and his father William and his father George.

Well, I finally had my trip to Miller, and I’m glad I went. I stood in the depot where Harry arrived. I walked the railroad where he ran away. I stood in the field where he worked. I found my grandpa!

Images: All courtesy of Graham Harry Smith, except Nellie Fox image, which is courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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