Close your eyes KELOLAND and imagine, a general store, a meat market, a hotel, a bank, and a pool hall! In Esmond, South Dakota, a town that was dissolved in 1976, I can open my eyes and I can still see it.
“Anybody that’s ever lived here. And anybody who’s still here. That’s our motivation, is because we know the history of Esmond. We know what went on here. We know the spirit of the people that lived here. And they might not all be here, but the spirit still lives on,” said Marlin Clendening.
Marlin Clendening was born and raised a mile and ½ south of Esmond, South Dakota. He is known as the town historian and is the oldest living Esmond native. His hometown was incorporated in 1913 and was dissolved back in 1976.
“1976, which everyone remembers is a very dry year. Was when you dissolved the town,” said Marlin Clendening. “When we were dissolved, it didn’t really mean a whole lot to us, because we kept on. They didn’t matter if Pierre didn’t record us anymore. We stayed just the way we were.”
He means it. Folks around these parts won’t let this town and its history die. It really came to fruition in 1985 when towns’ folk were planning for the 100-year anniversary celebration of the Esmond United Methodist Church.
“What can we do special? And we said, well, let’s put a sign up where everybody had lived or where every business had been. And everybody said, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’ So, we ended up down at the penitentiary. They printed the signs for us,” said Marlin Clendening.
Signs designating prior businesses, schools, merchants and residents of old Esmond are everywhere, in their historically accurate spot. Joanne Schlueter has been attending church here her whole life and remembers the sign project and the work to make it happen.
“All of a sudden, there were a bunch of farmers around with tractors and things to help put these signs up. And others, attaching the signs to the posts and things. So, I think it’s really a good community, working together,” said Joanne Schlueter.
Even though the physical structures are no longer present, just close your eyes and you can get a picture what old Esmond was like way back when.
“You would have seen the general store there. The bank there. The hotel sat here. And this is mostly residential area. And of course, you go down the recreation hall, the pool hall, the elevators, the lumberyard, the stockyards,” said Marlin Clendening. “You turn the corner and look that way, and you’re seeing the church and the hall.”
The Esmond United Methodist Church remains a fixture has been the catalyst for the town since 1885. It remains very active today. Pastor Kris Larson served at the church for 21 years. He was welcomed with open arms from his first sermon there.
“I was so nervous. My mouth got so dry that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. And I finally finished the message, and then I looked over and Marlin stood up and started clapping,” said Pastor Kris Larson. “I said, ‘Why? What? Why are you applauding? I’ve never seen it. Was it that good?’ He says, ‘No, but you needed it.’.”
The 135-year-old church, just like this old town, is plumb full of memories.
“There was a revival meeting here, and the Reverend Bernard that wrote ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ was here. And he taught everybody, he had just written that song, and he taught everybody to sing it,” said Joanne Schlueter.
And still today, on every Sunday, music surrounds the walls of this beautiful church, even though the pews are not as occupied as they once were.
“We used to have a choir, but then it got so when the choir went up to the front to sing, there were only a couple, three people sitting. So now, we don’t do the choir anymore,” said Joanne Schlueter.
Every member of the church is singing and also does their part to keep things going. During Sunday worship, Esmond gets stuff done.
“They’ll start doing a business meeting right in the middle of the worship during announcements, and they’ll take care of who’s going to paint something, or something’s going to go on at the hall or some changing here. Whatever it is, and it’s taken care of right in, right in worship,” said Pastor Kris Larson. “It’s a minimal design, but it does get everything done. It’s a commitment to not only to the church, but to the Esmond community to keep this going. And the doors are never locked. To have this continuous worship for 100 and almost 135 years now. Faith has been a central focus of Esmond from the very beginning. And in that spirit and that idea, and that value is, is gone down through the generations, to the people of Esmond themselves.”
Even though the official town was dissolved by the state in 1976, this old town is certainly alive in so many ways. For example, a highly anticipated celebration of Esmond and its historic church happens every two years. A bunch of folks from near and far can’t wait to attend and share stories with friends and relatives.
“I go around with a mic like this, and they basically, people share their memories of Esmond. And so that keeps that, the stories alive and being retold and told again,” said Pastor Kris Larson. “Their stories of Esmond and how Esmond is important to them yet.”
My goodness this town fights to stay alive in ways that Taylor and I have rarely seen.
“When people say, ‘Oh Esmond is just a ghost town’, you’re not going to take, you’re not going to deal with that, are you?” asked Mike Huether.
“Well, no. No,” said Marlin Clendening. “Different stories and magazines we’re just sort of listed as a ghost town in South Dakota, of which there are numerous ones, of course. But… but Esmond isn’t on that list. And come visit us anytime and you’ll see why.”
On Sunday, the church bell is rung so everyone can hear that Esmond is having worship. When the bell subsides, the pastor says “Good morning Esmond”, and folks respond back “Good Morning” with vigor and passion, just like they have been doing there for 135 years.