One Woman’s James River Basin Pioneer Spirit Lives on

On The Road

We’re 10 miles southwest of Letcher, SD right here on the James River Valley where an 86-year old rancher not only maintains history, but is creating South Dakota history of her very own.

“We are trying to put up hay.  And how do you put up hay when it rains all the time,” said Dvonne Hansen. “Rains all of the time,” added Mike Huether. “That’s been a real struggle for the farmers and the ranchers,” said Dvonne Hansen, “You have to cut it. You have to bale it. You have to haul the bales in and, and you don’t do that when it’s wet out.” “No,” agreed Mike Huether, “And you’re still doing that today?” “Yes. How else is it going to get done?,” laughed Dvonne Hansen.

Dvonne Hansen is a cattle rancher on her family’s homestead that now encompasses about 1000 acres.  She has lived on the James River basin for all but one of her 85-year old life’s journey. “Her dad met up with a band of gypsies that were camped on the river bottom when she was about 14. And he bought a stallion from them and she broke that stallion to ride and also ended up with a set of Crocket spurs that she traded from those gypsies,” said Cindy Van Laeken.

Dvonne’s daughter, Cindy, and her son, Doug, relay the virtues of their tough and determined ranching mom. “Our mom was born in the heart of the depression. The oldest of seven children. She had to be out helping her dad on the ranch, she was always on horseback. And she always thought, no matter what it was she wanted to do, she could do it,” said Cindy Van Laeken.

“It’s a pioneer spirit that comes from growing up in South Dakota. And you know, from her time period that she grew up, you had to do everything,” said Doug Hansen. “She doesn’t own a computer. She doesn’t own an iPhone, you know, and so that’s the period she grew up in.  And you know, that’s her lifestyle.  And she loves that lifestyle,” said Doug Hansen.

When visiting the ranch, Taylor and I found much more than we could have ever expected. Dvonne loves the land, her livestock, her family and has an incredible love of history, including restoring saddles and leatherwork and telling each piece’s story. 

Her saddle restoring and yes, saddle making days started early in her life. “She built her first saddle in her late teens when somebody stole her saddle, and she said, ‘Well, I’ve made all these other items on leather, I want to make a saddle now.’ And so, she did. Yeah, that was kind of unheard of in that, that day. Most girls were doing embroidery in the house. And you know, my mom was out checking cattle and then coming in and building a saddle,” said Cindy Van Laeken.

“It’s slowed down since four-wheelers come in,” said Dvonne Hansen. “Explain that Dvonne,” prompted Mike Huether. “Well, that’s my excuse. The cowboy, he don’t have to catch his horse, throw a saddle and do all this stuff.  He can go out and jump on his four-wheeler and away he goes. But don’t try roping off a four-wheeler.”, joked Dvonne Hansen.

“You collect, not only saddles, but in a way you kind of collect these historic buildings. Talk about the three buildings that are on your ranch,” said Mike Huether. 

“Don’t you hate to see these old school houses burnt to the ground? I mean, a lot of us went to school in them. But there aren’t hardly any left anymore,” said Dvonne Hansen.

Other buildings saved by Dvonne are the Letcher Town Hall and the Forestburg Depot. Her love of history doesn’t stop there. Dvonne writes a weekly history column for the local Sanborn Journal. “A lot of people nowadays, they don’t really want to know anything about the past, they only care about what is going to happen tomorrow.  You really care about the history,” said Mike Huether.

“Well, I mean, this week, I wrote about people coming here and the grass was tall and wavy, and it reminded them of the ocean. Just place yourself back here, then, can’t you?” asked Dvonne Hansen. “Yeah,” said Mike Huether.

“History is who we are. If you don’t know where you, you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going. And so, that identity is, is who she is, and the history that she digs up is who we are in the KELOLAND area,” said Doug Hansen.

Below the tough and hardened skin of this determined South Dakota woman lies the heart of a caring mom and grandma, too. “She always made sure her grandkids, her grandkids and great grandkids have had horses to ride amongst all the other leather projects and just fun things that we’ve done here on this home place. Family is everything to my mom,” said Cindy Van Laeken.

KELOLAND, the pioneer spirit that is deep within us is alive and well in Dvonne Hansen. “She just doesn’t turn away from anything. She’s going to go do it and she going to go do it, you know, that’s the way it is until she can’t do it. That how it’s going to happen. You know, we’ve told her, ‘Mom, it’s time to retire, sell the cows, get rid of the tractors. Just kick back, put your feet up.’ But it’s not working,” said Doug Hansen.

“No, it’s not working,” Mike Huether agreed. “Actually, it’s part of you. The land, the river, it’s part of me. I mean, I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t here.That’s the way it is,” said Dvonne Hansen. “You are truly a James River Woman,” said Mike Huether. “Rat,” added Dvonne Hansen. “Or rat,” laughed Mike Huether.

“How are you going to get her off her ranch someday?” asked Mike Huether. “The back of a funeral caisson. That’s when she’s gonna quit,” said Doug Hansen. “Yeah, yeah. agreed Mike Huether.

Dvonne’s been running the ranch on her own for more than 20 years. Her husband, Richard, passed away in 1998.  These days she has 250 head of cattle and, of course, she has horses, too.

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