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Hometown USA: Langford, South Dakota
A scene from the Baltimore-based 1990s television drama Homicide: Life on the Street opens with a bird’s-eye shot of one its detectives. Frank Pembleton, readying himself to report back to his homicide unit after a stint elsewhere, peers upward at the police station’s doorway with a wide-eyed look of anticipation and angst.
I thought of Pembleton last May as I eyed the entrance of the Langford Area School in Langford, South Dakota. Nearly 40 years had passed since I graduated from my hometown’s school. Sometimes, it feels like 400 years. Other times, it seems like four years, or even four months – or four days.
Fortunately, any angst I had before entering melted when I thought of Mr. Wattier, the school’s superintendent from 1964 to 2000. I swear I could hear his cheerful whistle echo in the doorway, challenging me to a game of H-O-R-S-E. (That was just my imagination, not his ghost. For more about a real school ghost, read on!)
I visited Langford as part of our July Hometown USA cover story. Recent media reports of farm consolidation, drug abuse, and limited economic opportunities paint a sketchy picture of rural America.
There’s some of that in my home area, of course. Still, there are many positive factors I found occurring that aren’t initially apparent.
Driving around my old neighborhood west of Langford, the reality of farm consolidation hits hard. The farmsteads within a 1-mile radius of my family’s farm – Gilbert and Leone Bistodeau, Herbert and Arlene Foote, George and Edith Hanson, and Joe and Annie Tunheim—are vacant or gone.
My old neighborhood fits Bruce Likness’s description of growing up in Langford in the 1950s and starting to work in his family’s farm implement business in the 1960s.
“If somebody had four or five quarters back then, they were a pretty good-size farm,” says Likness, who with his wife, Jean, is a lifelong Langford resident. “There were a lot of one- or two-quarter farms that had chickens, hogs, cattle, everything.”
There wasn’t a better time to have been in agriculture than in the 1960s and the 1970s, he says.
“We sold lots of machinery,” says Likness. “It was exciting, it was fun.”
Agriculture’s go-go years in the 1970s were accompanied by one caveat: inflation. Inflated land values that many farmers borrowed against made them seem wealthier than they actually were. Paul Volcker, who then served as Federal Reserve Chairman, announced steps in October 1979 to break inflation, which at that time was running 9% annually.
Unfortunately for farmers and agricultural businesses, this came in the form of high interest rates.
“We were paying 21%, 22% interest,” Likness says. “It just absolutely devastated everyone.”
This was the environment that a former classmate of mine, David Planteen, entered when he began farming with his family in the mid-1980s. “Back when I started farming, we were really conservative with our farming practices,” he says. “If we couldn’t afford it, we didn’t buy it. With the interest rates and commodity prices back then, we just held together what we had.”
No-till – then a new farming practice – also played a part in Planteen’s strategy.
"One of the first things we noticed when we started was how much fuel we saved,” he says. “We also saved moisture, soil, and the cost of more machinery. We were dry in drought years like 1988, and we had some fairly decent yields compared with those who were using tillage.”
The 1980s also molded Roger Williams’ farming and ranching philosophy. He graduated from Langford High School in 1975, just enough to savor a few years of high commodity prices before the plunge.
“I’ll never forget this,” he says. “I had 500 bushels of wheat that I sold in the fall of 1975 for $5 a bushel. With that, I paid the tuition for going to South Dakota State.”
Timing played a role in Williams’ ability to persevere during that dismal decade.
Starting out, he hadn’t incurred the debt that producers who expanded years earlier had incurred.
“We just tried to keep our costs low,” he says. “I also had family support. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
Looking back, he says the times made him more conservative from a business standpoint than he wishes.
“If I could change anything, that would be one thing I would change,” he says. “But it’s been fun.”
Even in tough times, opportunity awaits. Retiring farmers with no farming heirs present opportunity for those who have children wanting to farm. Likness recalls talking with two brothers with young sons during the 1980s who were deciding whether or not to buy a larger combine.
“They didn’t think they were big enough to have that combine,” recalls Likness. “I told them, ‘How many neighbors do you think there will be a few years from now in a 3- to 4-mile radius?’ Well, there weren’t going to be many, so they ended up buying that new combine. The land is there, it’s going to be farmed by someone. They had the manpower coming up to farm it.”
School classes and the town’s population are smaller than when I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s. Still, it’s stabilized. In the 2010 census, the population crept up a little, to 313, from 2000’s 290. Nearly 20 years ago, there was a big community controversy over building a new high school building. Since then, though, student population has remained steady, bobbing from the high-190s to the mid-220s for K-12 students.
Had I closed my eyes when I visited, I could have sworn the year was 1978 rather than 2018. The chattering of grade-school children’s voices at recess echoed down the street. The buzzer in the high school signaling a change in class rang as loudly as it did when I attended.
Upon my eyes opening, though, it’s apparent change has occurred. A new schoolhouse has replaced the 1926 building I attended. High-school kids going from class to class are still polite, but the dress is more casual than in my day. The omnipresent Mr. Wattier is no more, having retired in 2000 before he passed away in 2012.
If there ever was a Mr. Langford, it was Larry Wattier. There. I finally said it! Even though I graduated in 1979, I still have a tough time saying his first name. That’s indicative of the respect he commanded in the school and community.
Wattier came to Langford as principal in 1961, after a stint teaching industrial arts in Alexandria, South Dakota.
“When we came here, we said, ‘Well, we are only going to stay here five years,’” says his wife, Leona. “But we just loved it here so much. All of my four kids had their own special friends. And everyone here was just so welcoming.”
While the 1960s were peaceful in Langford, it wasn’t so elsewhere. Alabama Governor George Wallace turned state troopers loose on civil rights protesters on a Selma, Alabama, bridge in 1965. Police and Vietnam War protesters clashed at the calamitous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
Langford? Well, it had a more tranquil disruptor. One of my earliest memories viewed from my first-grade window were a dozen high-school boys exiting the building for having excessively long hair.
“A teacher could make those demands back then,” laughs his daughter, Kris Tobin. “He always wore white shirts and ties. I think he did that by choice, even when other people would come to work a little more casual and relaxed. Over time, he just kind of adjusted. He was not judgmental.”
He ruled the school with a velvet fist. During lunchtime, excessive talking by students was verboten. A chatty student would know they were busted when silence suddenly reigned at the lunch table. Turning around, the student would hear their name and the snap of Mr. Wattier’s fingers as he would point to the end of the table. There, the gabby pupil would turn glum eating in exile.
“What kind of shoes did he have?” chuckles Chad Hardy, who runs Langford Lumber. “You’d never hear him coming when he was behind you.”
Conversely, there are times I still break out laughing when I think about his razor wit. “Come again and bring more money,” was the cheery line he’d give students dropping off money for their school lunch meal ticket.
And the H-O-R-S-E games! During the summer of 1978 when I worked at the school house, I – and pretty much no one else – could ever beat him.
“He liked his work at the school so much that when he retired, he used to sit at the front window and watch the busses go out in the morning,” recalls Leona. “It took him a couple years before he didn’t do that.”
Athletic excellence at Langford still abounds. Tucked away on the gymnasium’s south wall is a banner for the 1976 nine-man South Dakota championship football team, of which I was a member. Complementing that team is the Langford one that won the 2015 9B football championship. The Langford basketball team has also appeared in eight of the last 11 South Dakota Class B basketball tournaments.
Equally heartening is the education level. “You look at how many doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists, and high-level professional people have come out of this little school,” says Hardy. “It's pretty amazing.”
“The teachers instill that level of excellence,” says Paula Jensen, a Langford native and vice president of advancement with Dakota Resources, a nonprofit community development organization. “Kelly Weiser stepped in for Mr. (Trevor) Osborne as music teacher over 20 years ago. He was a tough act to follow, and she’s done a fabulous job. She raises the bar for those kids.”
Langford’s niche is its ability to form tight bonds between students and faculty, believes Monte Nipp, the current school superintendent, who succeeded Mr. Wattier in 2000.
“When we hire teachers, the first thing we talk to them about is developing a relationship and a connection with the student,” says Nipp. “You can have all the fancy technology, all the materials you want. It’s not going to matter to the kid if you don’t have a connection.
“I have always made the comment that if your child wants to fade into the woodwork and kind of just be a bystander, don’t come to Langford because you won’t be able to do that here,” he adds. “Here, you are going to be noticed, you are going to be called to participate, because that’s what we do.
Langford doesn’t have all the offerings of a bigger school. Still, it offers some things that the suburban school my children attend – with an average class size of 650 – does not.
“One of the things we started about 10 years ago is a buddy program, where seniors are matched with a kindergartener,” says Nipp. “Once a month, they do an activity together with them. Sometimes it’s a craft project, sometimes they go out and play a game. I just can't believe how strong a bond that forms. We were at a wedding in Langford last summer, and I remarked to my wife that I wondered why a sixth-grader was in the wedding because they (the girl and the bride) weren’t related. Well, it was her buddy from when she was in kindergarten.”
During my conversation with David Planteen, we both were thankful there was no social media in our day. We could do boneheaded things that would be forgotten about in time.
Today? Well, it’s on social media in minutes or even seconds.
“Basically, our students grow up in a world with a screen in their face,” says Nipp. “They are so in tune with it that it is second nature to them.”
From 8:30 to 3:30, though, all screens are off at the Langford school. “We tell them, if your mom or dad need to get ahold of you, they can call here, and we will tell you,” says Nipp.
Family backgrounds differ from when I lived there, too. Nipp commented in in our magazine story that just one student in his high school class came from a single-parent family, and that was because the father died. After I came home to Des Moines, I paged through my high-school annual, and I could only think of four students in our class of 37 who didn’t have two parents, or parent and a guardian. Two of them had a parent who died, while the other two were foster children.
“The world we live in has forced them to change,” says Nipp.
In Langford, teachers these days often double as unofficial counselors, he says. “It may be that high school girl who really likes English, and so she’s going to really stay after school to work on the yearbook and confides to her English teacher about a problem that’s been bothering her. We just can’t turn our back on that. We are here to help them.”
Opportunities Langford students pursue after graduation vary. “The biggest surge I’ve seen are tech schools,” says Nipp. Four-year schools, though, still are popular. South Dakota State University leads the pack (which warms my Jackrabbit heart), with some students attending North Dakota State University in Fargo. Over time, students have also enlisted in the military.
Rachel Hoops, a 2018 Langford graduate, is heading to Black Hills State University this fall to major in elementary education.
“I actually was going to major in photography,” she says. “But in our senior year, we did K buddies (the senior-kindergartener program) and after doing that, I changed my mind. I also grew up with six other siblings, so I have a love for helping other kids.”
Hoops also won this year’s Fossel Brothers scholarship. The Fossels were four bachelor brothers (Eldred, Iden, Marvin, and Reuben) who lived 1.5 miles from our farm. It’s fitting she won it, because Eldred always wished he could have been a school teacher.
Mr. Fiebelkorn’s Ghost
Mr. Fiebelkorn’s ghost is still haunting the Langford school, just as it did when I attended. Gary Fiebelkorn taught and coached in Langford during the 1960s. His horn-rimmed glasses and crew cut mimicked comedian Drew Carey. He was killed in a car accident in the early 1970s after he left Langford.
His ghost, though, lives on.
Hardy says the late Roy Pulfrey, a 1972 Langford graduate and a coach, was in the gym late one night when a man came out of a door and said, “Hey, coach, how are you doing?” before disappearing.
“I only have one story,” says Nipp. “I was printing off some things to a printer in the lunchroom, and I went there and found nothing. So, I went back to the computer, printed it again and when I came back, not only was my second printing there, but the first printing was laying right beside it. I just looked down the hallway and said, ‘Fiebelkorn!’”
There’s a stereotype about small towns being a dead end for professional jobs. I was heartened that there are opportunities in Langford and nearby communities. Todd Sell, Langford’s mayor, worked as a carpenter before he began working for Precision Wall Systems in nearby Britton. “I thought about going somewhere else, but I ended up right back here,” he says.
Ditto for local boredom. “Most of the school kids are so busy during the school year and the summer that they don’t have time to think about being bored,” says Jensen.
Her children are into hunting, fishing, and auto sports. The plays that retired English teacher Diane Hoines directs still pack the gymnasium.
“You may call my dad Mr. Langford, but she’s Miss Langford,” says Tobin.
“You see a lot more participation than in bigger schools where you just maybe pick one thing,” says Mark Nelson, a farmer and a loan officer with Grow South Dakota, a nonprofit economic development group. “Here, you’re almost expected to do just about everything, just to make it a viable program.”
Oftentimes, my wife will call me while I’m 200 miles away or farther while doing farm interviews and ask, “You aren’t coming home tonight, are you?”
“Well, of course,” I say.
Being able to drive long distances is wired into the DNA of rural residents. Planteen notes residents don’t flinch about driving to Minneapolis for shopping or a Minnesota Twins baseball game or Minnesota Vikings football game. “They can drive in for the day and drive back the same day if they want,” he says.
Nelson points out that civic organizations ranging from the Langford Community Foundation to the Britton Shriner’s Club are also a focus. Britton also sports a golf course. “There’s always something to do,” he says.
Langford is located in northeast South Dakota.
There’s a seamy side to rural areas, even when I lived on my family’s farm near Langford. A still unknown assailant robbed and killed Langford resident Arden Anderson at a rest stop near Webster, South Dakota, in 1983. If you wanted to buy marijuana, you could. A high-school classmate of mine is serving a life sentence for murder.
Still, I grew up in a simpler time. Dale Elsen started out his law enforcement career as a Marshall County deputy sheriff in Langford, mainly busting underage drinkers and drunk drivers.
Elsen now sees a sharper edge in rural crime. Some people moving into rural areas are running from a sketchy past in urban areas, says Elsen, who’s served as Marshall County sheriff since 1983. Whether you call them deplorables or undesirables, these folks can take advantage of the trusting nature of farmers and rural residents, he says.
Meanwhile, methamphetamine use is a scourge for rural areas. Meth has ancillary effects in that users quickly bankrupt themselves and steal property to fund their addiction, Elsen says.
Rehabbing meth addicts is challenging. “You can’t just take someone on meth and try and correct them within 30 days or 60 days or 90 days,” he says. “It can take up to two years of intensive therapy. Even then, users are still at risk.”
Challenges and Optimism
Churches have and still continue to support the spiritual and social fabric of Langford. It’s changed, though, with local churches relying much more on lay ministers.
“As the population shrinks and the congregations get small, it’s hard to afford a pastor,” says Planteen. “If you want your church to survive, you need to adapt and be able to change.”
Looming in the background, too, is continued farm consolidation.
“My dad and I were talking one day that when he started the lumberyard (in 1968), there were X number of farms,” says Hardy. “When I took over managing the lumberyard in 2000, there were half that. And if my kids take over, there will be half again. Will they (the farmers) live 50 miles away, and come in here and knock things out in 24 hours a day with big equipment? My biggest concern isn’t so much population of the community or the school, but the rural population on the farms.”
Langford likely won’t grow much in future years, believes Sell. But he sees it maintaining very well, five, 10, and 15 years into the future. Even with consolidation, agriculture and surrounding businesses in other towns help economically anchor Langford.
“I think that a lot of people also like to live in a small community,” he says.
Kris Tobin concurs. “I love being in Sioux Falls (South Dakota’s largest city) for a few days, but I don’t want to live there,” she says. “I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else but here."
Over lunch at The Front Porch, a new restaurant and bar started in 2015, Roger Williams reflects on his lifetime of living and farming in Langford.
“I’ve had a very good life,” he says. “I got to raise a family (two daughters and a son) here in this little town. I got to spend 40 years with several very good friends.
“You know, that’s priceless,” he says. “How can you not enjoy that?”