When the men got to the banks of the Rock River, what they found rose before their eyes like a nightmare. The oxen Gerrit Keuvers and Dirk Jan Wesselink had driven down to the river stood there grazing in a kind of reverent silence, the two of them still yoked to the front wheels of the wagon.
But there were no back wheels and no men. It was early in the 1870s, and a couple hundred Sioux County pioneers lived in sod huts or dugouts cut from and in an immense field of grass slowly being opened for business and settlement. No great love songs were ever written about dugouts, no memorable poetry honored the memory of a sod house. People got out of them as quickly as they could because all kinds of creepy, crawling things found them far more homey than the humans who tried to live there.
All that thick sod kept temperatures from extremes, but the dirt floor turned to mud with every rain. Snakes turned moms and kids "zero at the bone," as Emily Dickinson wrote, with entirely too much frequency.
What's more, a homesteader had to improve the land he claimed. There was every reason to build a house, every reason to traipse down to the Rock River for wood and, with it, put up some decent domicile. That's what Keuvers and Wesselink were doing. They'd left the neighborhood that would one day become Sioux Center to get wood from the Rock River, and then they'd not returned.
One can only imagine the concern. A search party was commissioned, the men who found the oxen still hitched to the front wheels. A man named Bellesfield ran a tavern, an inn, you might say, on the rutted path along rivers between Sioux City and Sioux Falls. Bellesfield had a row boat. With the boat, they found the bodies.
The Rock was a force to be reckoned with back then. The men speculated that Keuvers and Wesselink drove the wagon in and the oxen panicked in deep water. The rig somehow smashed and snapped in half and the two men were thrown in the deep water that claimed them.
A couple of days had passed. One can only imagine that those bodies weren't pretty. So the men took them to Bellesfield's tavern, cleaned them up well, then dressed them in new overalls and shirts before delivering them and the news to their families. Time, it seemed, was only a secondary concern. The brutality of death itself was lessened by that act of kindness.
Charles Dyke tells that story in The History of Sioux County. Many of the stories he tells in that book are sagas he remembers, but not this one. He could only have heard this one, and how he tells it is both interesting and wonderfully human. The deaths of Keuvers and Wesselink, he says, in an opening line, was "the first great tragedy of the settlement," the first breath-stopping horror no one saw coming. Two men die unexpectedly, leaving their families in dugouts cut into and out of the dirt.
People must have been shocked, stunned. The funeral was in Orange City, hardly a town yet, but a church at least in and at the heart of the brand new Dutch settlement. Kleuvers left a wife and three daughters "almost grown." Wesselink and his wife had eight kids. "His widow bravely carried on and raised her brood in decency," Dyke says.
But he doesn't know how to end the story really. Charles Dyke can be a little arrogant as a writer. He knew how to spin a story. My mother-in-law, who remembered him, claimed he shouldn't always be believed. But in the face of this first tragedy, a story he must have heard a dozen times, he has some trouble--as we all might--knowing what to say.
Mrs. Wesselink eventually married a second husband, a widower named Harmen Jan Wissink, who already had 12 children. You do the math. Neither of their "shanties," Dyke says, was big enough for this wholesome brood, so they simply nailed them together.
And then, as if he doesn't know exactly what to say, Dyke just goes on with images that never left his memory. Because eventually, he says, "all was well."
"The ceiling in one shanty was so low that a man had to put his pants on sitting down," he writes. Then more random facts. "They baked every day and in the morning they had pancakes." That's not all. "The table and stove were partly supported by bricks, and they burned hay and corn stalks," which, of course, would not have been all that unusual.
Still not over. Later, when the first Sioux Center church was built, Wissink stood up in assembly and moved they pay for it in cash, and the motion was carried," just in case you were wondering.
And file this away too. "Wissink was a kind and genial man who always wore wooden shoes, even to church. For the latter purpose they were scrubbed and polished until they fairly shone."
And that, oddly enough, is where the story of "the first great tragedy" ends. All of which is to say, once more, I suppose, that "all was well."
All of that doesn't sound like Charley Dyke, but the stories each of us know, and maybe the ones we can't or won't forget, are simply not easy to tell.