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Searching for buried treasure

Monday, July 9, 2012

In a good many families there is at least one relative who marches to the beat of a different drummer. These people can be very exasperating. Sometimes the rest of the family is embarrassed by their behavior and would like to pretend that the fellow is no relation at all. But those folks certainly do add zest to life, and provide the other members with a wealth of interesting stories at family reunions. In our family this member would have to be my Uncle Joe.

Joe was married to my Dad's older sister. My Dad was the youngest in a family of eight siblings, so he was almost the same age as some of his cousins. At various times Joe farmed on the bottomland along the Missouri River in central South Dakota. He never really cared for farming, but he was a good hunter and fisherman, and my Dad looked forward to spending parts of the summers at Joe's place, where there was considerably more fishing and hunting going on than farm-work, which translated into fun for Dad and his cousins.

Joe probably carried the typical male's inclination to "never ask for directions" to the extreme. He even hated to read a map. I guess he felt that his instincts would guide him to his destination, and if he drove around long enough he was bound to come across his destination. One time, on a visit to our house, he arrived hours after his stated arrival time. It turned out that he headed toward Oakley instead of Oberlin on his way to McCook and went many miles out of his way. When he phoned to tell us he would be late, he explained, "Well, I knew it started with an O."

Another time, Joe, his wife, and a granddaughter were attending a family wedding in a strange city. Joe had neglected to pick up the invitation, so lacked the exact address of the church, so he proceeded to drive around the approximate neighborhood till he saw a church with activity. He finally came to a church with a lot of cars in the parking lot, and it was a Lutheran Church, so naturally he assumed that he had arrived at the right church, so he parked and they went into the church. The wedding ceremony had already begun. The bride and groom were at the altar, so the three slipped into the back of the church and took their seats. Soon, the granddaughter whispered that she didn't think the groom looked like Keith, Joe's nephew. But Joe knew better and advised her to keep still during the ceremony. She did, but when the newlyweds turned to face the congregation it was very apparent that the granddaughter was correct. They found that there were two Lutheran Churches, three blocks apart. Joe grumbled, but he was a good sport and insisted that they go through the reception line anyway. They arrived at the other church, the right one, just as the nephew and his wife were preparing to leave.

For a period of time, Joe operated a garage and filling station in a small town near the Missouri River. He was a good mechanic, and quite imaginative. When my folks were married, Joe altered the seats of their Model T touring car so that they could recline, turning their automobile into a very early RV Camper, which worked beautifully (and I guess, began Dad's lifelong love affair with RVs.) But, like his other business ventures, Joe tired of the garage business, and turned to prospecting in the Black Hills.

Now there certainly is gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, but by the '20s all of the good mining ground had already been claimed and Joe's prospecting turned out to be only an extended camping trip, with very little of the yellow metal for reward. A stint at selling shares in prospective gold mines proved to be little better.

But all of these ventures certainly did provide Joe with a wealth of story material, and whenever the family got together, Joe delighted in entertaining the group with tales of his adventures and misadventures, in which he was sometimes the hero, and sometimes the goat. It didn't seem to matter, just so it made a good story.

In the days just before World War I, the country was in need of potash, to be used in the making of munitions, and the Badlands of South Dakota were again the scene of feverish prospecting, and Joe, of course, was part of it.

During that time, Dad was on his summer visit with Joe and his family, and was invited to go along. The prospecting was not going very well, and Joe began to talk about Indians, namely the Indians who had traveled through the region years before. Though the Indians were now long gone Joe said that sometimes treasures, in the form of Indian artifacts, and even gold, could be found in an Indian burial site. He began to point out potential Indian burial site -- sadly, not as an archaeologist, for scientific study, but as a fortune hunter.

There were several attempts at locating a grave, but they proved to be sterile -- either someone had been there earlier or Joe was mistaken, and the little prospecting party was getting tired and short of patience as well, and had decided that this prospecting was not nearly as much fun as it had been earlier in the day.

Finally, Joe was sure that he had found a promising site, and the group agreed to try digging just one more time. The ground was sandy and the digging went quickly. At a depth of about four feet, the diggers struck something, but it was apparent that it was not an Indian grave.

Further digging proved that they had struck a crude wooden casket. My Dad was frightened. It must be the grave of one of the early pioneers, and he thought they should fill the grave again and leave as quickly as possible. But he was just a boy, and the adults would have none of it.

Joe finally entered the grave and worked off the lid of the coffin, and others carefully lifted it to the surface. Dad described the scene years later. Time seemed to stand still. As the lid cleared the top of the grave the diggers found themselves looking at the skeleton, dressed in his black Cassock and Biretta, arms folded, his hands holding a rosary on an open bible laid on his chest, but no other identification. The sandy dry soil had preserved his garments and the skin was stretched taut and very dark, but still covering the bone structure. The open Bible was very much intact, and they could make out printing. Later, Joe said that they must have found the grave of one of the early French Missionary Priests, who were an important part of all French explorations of Missouri River country, dating from 1738 in South Dakota.

The fact that he was buried in a wooden coffin at the crest of a hill on that windswept plain signified his importance.

The group just stared for a long moment. No one spoke, each lost in his own thoughts of the scene. Then, someone moved, causing a small clump of dirt to drop. A pebble hit the Bible and before their eyes that Bible, which a moment before had been clearly legible, exploded into dust, and was gone.

Joe, certainly not known for excessive reverence, captured the mood of the entire group when he said, "Dust to Dust," and without another word refitted the lid to the coffin and began the refilling of the grave. It was a silent group of prospectors that trudged home that night.

It was Dad's last prospecting trip -- for gold or anything else


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By