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Dakota Days


“In the fall of 1897,” recounts Edson Carr Dayton in his memoir, Dakota Days, “an untoward event occurred of far-reaching consequences.” Dayton was no alarmist; his tone was measured; but he was deep into the sheep-raising boom of West River North Dakota, with a flock of 12,000 on grass, and he was up against the scourge of range: an infestation of scab.


In previous essays I have described how following the collapse of the open-range cattle industry on the northern plains in the late 1880s, sheep--those forgotten fleeces that, historically, we don’t seem to want to talk about much--filled the open spaces on the range, and how scab, a global pandemic of pastoral places, stalked the flocks.


As I talked about my research along these lines, I soon heard from Kevin Carvell, the Sage of Mott, North Dakota’s greatest bibliophile, who reminded me of Dayton’s little-known book--a work published in a numbered edition of three hundred in 1937, now rare and prized. In delayed reaction to Kevin’s reminder, I recalled that long ago I had acquired, through a process I will leave undisclosed, copy No. 22 in the numbered edition of Dakota Days, a volume signed by his widow.


The work is a treasure, not only for its rarity but also for its recreation, in a manner meticulous and at the same time sweeping, of the historic transitions of settlement west of the Missouri River. The big-time cattle industry was knocked back on its heels, but smaller operators still availed themselves of opportunities, taking better care of their stock and improving it. Homesteaders of many nationalities fanned out from the railroads and claimed choice spots, but did not yet dominate the land. And then there were the sheep men, husbanding flocks shipped in from the east or driven in from the west.


Dayton was a New Yorker from a well-heeled family (it would be of great help to him in the livestock business that his brother was a banker) who came to Dakota for his health. A theology student, he was afflicted with what he called “a breakdown of the throat” and “bronchial hemorrhages”--I’m not sure just what the disease was; Dayton does not call it tuberculosis. His personal physician said he was going to die. He got a second opinion, was advised to go west, and he did--first to Mandan, then to Dickinson.


The book is a reservoir of knowledge, but let me finish the story about the scab outbreak. Dayton had bought a hundred expensive rams to put out with his flocks, not knowing they were infected with scab. Soon all his sheep had it.


He knew little of the disease when it was discovered, so he brought out an experienced hand from Illinois to deal with the problem. They brought in all the sheep from his other two ranches--from the Cannonball and Black Butte--to his ranch on Cedar Creek. He dispatched wagonloads of lumber there from Dickinson to build a dipping vat fifty feet long and five feet deep. Therein the sheep would be dipped, twice, in a tobacco-brine solution heated to 110-120 degrees F. It was a tortuous operation. The flocks were saved.


Which they would not have been had it not been for the labor drawn from the German-Hungarian settlement over at Lefor. Dayton recruited a crew of fifty men there. “They were honest men,” he recalls. They kept the sheep going through at a pace of one every ten seconds, with Dayton calling out “Time!” for each one. Another hero who figured in the crisis was a new hand, a Bohemian lad named Dominik Vranna. Of him I must write more in a future essay. In fact, I am so enamoured of this book, Dakota Days, that you can be sure it will be here with us on future occasions. Thank you, Kevin Carvell.


-Tom Isern

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