SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — On June 21, 1933, six kids and one adult left Sioux Falls for an 850-mile trek through South Dakota and into southern North Dakota.
Despite days when their shoes rubbed their skin into blisters or the wind would pelt them with heat, a dad, Earl Neller, and his three children along with three children from a neighborhood family in St. Louis, successfully finished the trip.
Nearly 90 years later, the walk made its way officially into South Dakota history as Matthew Reitzel of the South Dakota State Historical Society shares the adventure in a story in the latest edition of the South Dakota History journal. Reitzel, the manuscript and photograph archivist, has also placed Neller’s trip journal and photographs in the archives at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. The journal and photographs were donated by Lois Quilligan, the daughter of one of the hikers.
“Once I got it and took a look at it, I knew how historically relevant and important it was for the history of South Dakota, especially at this time (1933)…,” Reitzel said.
The U.S. and South Dakota were in the thick of The Great Depression in 1933. Drought plagued ranches and farms, people were out of work, money could be scarce. Neller and the six children walked through this landscape where strangers gave them rides to a town or shared their eggs and milk.
“I do think this is a good representation of South Dakota during the drought and Depression of the summer of 1933. You can see that as you are reading through the journal,” Reitzel said.
The journal mentions crop fields bent over and struggling in the drought and seeing grasshoppers splattered across the front of cars.
“I do think South Dakota is the star, the people of South Dakota,” Quilligan said. Quilligan’s mother, Carolyn, was one of the oldest children on the trip. Carolyn was Earl and Lydia Neller’s daughter.
South Dakota could be the star of the story but it’s the recorded words of Neller and the children that tell the story.
Neller wrote his own travel journal/diary and the children did the same. Adventures included stops in Montrose and at the Corn Palace in Mitchell.
Reitzel writes, “Earl regarded the cattle (rail) car ride through Badlands of South Dakota accompanied by a group of migrant workers as a ‘priceless experience.'”
Quilligan, who lives in Danville, Kentucky, recalls her mother talking about the rail car ride and of sleeping in rail cars with migrant workers or homeless persons.
The group of seven hopped a rail car in Vivian.
“These were men, late teens and early 20s, traveling from town to town looking for work,” Reitzel said. There were 40 men and Earl and the six kids talked with them during the ride.
Her mother also told her children stories about “hanging on the running boards of cars,” as they hitched rides with drivers. Most of the roads were gravel and Quilligan said she can’t imagine hanging on the running board while a car traveled 30 miles per hour on a gravel road.
The children were Carolyn, 12, Elaine, 10, and Virgil, 8, Neller and Dora, 13, Mildred, 11, and Albert, 9, Kincaid. Neller was a high school teacher in St. Louis.
Reitzel, Quilligan and Neller’s own diary words said the hike was a chance for the children to experience the state and people in 1933. He didn’t discourage them from interactions with adults or other children. The children also needed to be resilient in their 27-day journey as they each carried packs and walked for many of those miles.
But they also saw South Dakota’s sites including Sylvan Lake, the Badlands — what was then called Harney Peak (now Black Elk Peak). Although they were travelers and now, historians, they were also tourists.
Harney Peak and Sylvan Lake
On July 3, the group hitched a ride with a man in a “big sombrero” who provided a scenic ride to the lake in the back of his truck.
Carolyn referred to him as the “jolly cowboy,” Reitzleff wrote in this story.
The group hiked then Harney Peak on July 4, 1933.
Reitzel noted that the children “bombarded” the forest ranger with questions on then Harney Peak. It illustrates how the group interacted with adults during the hike.
Reitzel’s story includes some of the exchange between the forest ranger and the children.
The hike up the peak was demanding and dangerous, Neller wrote. The forest ranger said his food was brought to him.
“I’d hate to be the one who brought up your food,” said Carolyn. “I was carrying only a loaf of bread; and believe me, the next time I’m going to throw it over a cliff.”
The group returned to Sylvan Lake after the hike where several of them watched a man fish. The group ate potatoes and butter for supper. Earlier that day they cut a loaf of bread into seven pieces and cut up an onion for lunch.
A similar journey 30 years later
Carolyn took her three children across South Dakota in the summer of 1963, Quilligan said.
They didn’t hike but traveled the state in a 1963 Volkswagen van that went 25 mph up hills, she said.
“I would have been 10,” Quilligan said, two years younger than her mom was in 1933.
Sylvan Lake was a highlight in the Black Hills as she and her siblings loved climbing on the boulders.
“We did see the Corn Palace at midnight,” Quilligan said. “She liked to drive during the night.”
When they got to Mitchell, “she woke us up….” The Corn Palace impressed them.
“We all went, ‘Woah, that’s really neat,'” Quilligan said.
Her brother Rob brought his family to South Dakota in the 1990s.
Quilligan said she and her husband recently bought North Dakota and South Dakota maps to trace the 1933 journey. It’s possible she will return to the state.
As a kid, Quilligan didn’t understand the depth of her mother’s hike in 1933. But as she grew older, she knew it fostered her mother’s love of nature and travel. It also fostered resiliency and tolerance, she said.
“We camped exclusively,” Quilligan said of her family. “My brothers and I could put together a tent and camp in the dark and rain in 15 minutes.”
Neller had to trust the children in his care to be capable of the journey. Often, two of the children would start the day’s hike ahead of him so that he and sometimes, the older children could catch up.
Quilligan said that trust must have made an impression. Her mother trusted her kids and Quilligan joked that “they ran feral in the woods” on camping trips.
Her mother was a psychologist who was key in the development of crisis briefings for first responders, Quilligan said.
She also worked for social justice and accepted people for who they were, Quilligan said.
South Dakota love story?
Quilligan said Neller often referred to the kindness shown by strangers throughout the hike.
Neller was straightforward in his accounts and if he would have found people cold, mean or worse, he would have written that, Quilligan said.
“I do think it’s a bit of a love story of South Dakota,” Quilligan said.
Reitzel’s story has breathed a new life into what could be a dry journal with many references to the food eaten on the journey, Quilligan said.
The context Reitzel provides with photos from 1933 or close to that year of various sites in the state is central to the journal’s story, she said.
Reitzel said he searched state archives for photos of Vivian, then Harney Peak and dry fields. He discovered the Neller photos when he opened an envelope included in the package with the journal.
Family members are pleased with Reitzel’s story and the preservation of the journal, Quilligan said.
Reitzel is pleased the journal found its way to South Dakota after nearly 90 years.
The journal with Reitzel’s story is available to members of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Copies for non-members are also available at the South Dakota State Historical Society. or its website.