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From the Archives to the Pages of South Dakota History

by Matthew T. Reitzel — published 2022/09/16 09:07:00 GMT-5
From the Archives to the Pages of South Dakota History

The latest issue of South Dakota History, the quarterly journal of the South Dakota State Historical Society, features an article on a travel journal written in 1933 by Earl Neller, who—with six children, ages eight to thirteen—tramped, hitchhiked, and railroaded through South Dakota and western North Dakota. We asked author Matthew T. Reitzel, the Manuscript/Photo Archivist with the South Dakota State Archives, his thoughts about the Neller travel journal.

Picture, if you will, a thirty-nine-year-old high school teacher from St. Louis taking six children, three of his own and three of a fellow teacher’s, on a hiking tour through South Dakota during the Great Depression. The trip, covering 850 miles over twenty-seven days, seems unreal. Fortunately, Earl Neller recorded this journey through the Dakotas in the summer of 1933. The manuscript of his travel journal made its own trek to the South Dakota State Archives and has finally been published in South Dakota History.  

In June 2020, I was contacted about adding Earl’s travel journal to the collections of the South Dakota State Archives. The more I learned about the collection, the more it piqued my curiosity. Earl remarked several times that he wanted to give the children a “valuable experience.” Mission accomplished: the group interacted with an array of characters on their journey, including migrant workers in a railcar, cowboys, war veterans, a forest ranger, Civilian Conservation Corps workers, local historians, and numerous farmhouse owners. They stopped at tourist camps and tourist destinations such as the Corn Palace, Mount Rushmore, Harney Peak, Wind Cave, and the Homestake Mine.

Earl wrote in the manuscript, “Little did we dream of the struggles and labor and self-denial that we would have to go through before reaching our destination about 850 miles away! To hike and hitch-hike with six children in rain and sunshine, to have blistered feet, to sleep out under the stars, to wash our clothes, to cook our food, to get hungry and thirsty and sick, these were some of the experiences that we had not fully reckoned with.”

I had two memorable moments while processing this collection. The first was discovering nine black-and-white photos of the trip that no one knew existed. The original typed eighty-six-page manuscript was crudely wrapped in a multilayered brown paper bag. As I removed the wrapping, a small envelope containing the photos fell out. Finding these photographs of the children, most of which appear in the South Dakota History article, was a considerable stroke of luck. The second was locating a short newspaper article about the group of travelers printed in the Lyman County Herald on 29 June 1933. Earl mentioned the reporter from Presho briefly in his travel journal: “a newspaper man came up and asked about me.” While there was no reason to doubt the authenticity of Earl’s manuscript, the newspaper article, which mentioned “a family of hitch-hikers in the city,” provided further evidence of this incredible journey.

Earl Neller left St. Louis in mid-June 1933, hoping to provide the children with an experience they would never forget. The summary of their trip, found in Earl’s travel journal, details not only the struggles and hardships the hitchhikers endured, but also their uplifting experiences and friendly interactions with countless individuals. The expedition was a priceless experience and the trip of a lifetime for Earl and the children, and the journal provides modern readers with a valuable record of the Depression-era Dakotas.  

Matthew T. Reitzel

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5203_cover-final.jpgTo read this article, become a member of the South Dakota State Historical Society or purchase a copy here

Image at top: The children of the Neller/Kincaid party cool off in this photograph taken during their epic trip from Sioux Falls to Hebron. Courtesy of the South Dakota State Archives.