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Old Settler’s Day

Annual reunion event held in De Smet, South Dakota. The first official event was held in 1890, as a way for early homesteaders and settlers to come together for a picnic and other amusements.

The Old Settlers of Kingsbury County are invited by H.J. Burvee to attend a reception at Spirit Lake tomorrow afternoon in memory of the organization of the county. – Lake Preston Times, June 17, 1887.

Although the first official Old Settler’s Day in De Smet was held in 1890, there were celebrations as early as 1887. The first was a March 1887 gathering of over a hundred old settlers invited to the farm of George Sherburne (the SE 9-109-57). By 1889, Sherburne’s gathering had increased to over 3000 visitors, and Governor Arthur C. Mellette spoke. Shortly after the success of the Sherburne event that year, all old settlers were invited to a reception on June 17 at the home of Henry J. Burvee to honor the organization of Kingsbury County. Lillian and Henry Burvee had settled on the south shore of Spirit Lake in 1878, coming from Sioux Falls with their two small daughters. They brought lumber with which to build a claim shanty; this shanty is now on the grounds of The Ingalls Homestead. Burvee was one of the first Kingsbury County Commissioners, appointed in 1880.

Although Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t mention the Burvee family in any published Little House book, they do appear in a manuscript version of By the Shores of Silver Lake:

Pa paused with the fiddle bow poised above the fiddle. “Do you realize, Caroline, that our nearest neighbor to the east is sixty miles away and our nearest west is forty miles? They say there is a bachelor living to the southeast, somewhere around Lake Thompson, and Burvee, the cattle man is nine miles northwest, but there are no roads and when winter shuts down, they might as well be farther off.” [page 135]

One of the organizers of the first official event was Charles Ingalls, who, in a report about a 20th wedding anniversary (1889) celebration held in honor of Robert and Ella Boast, said that the event had turned into a regular “old settler’s association,” and that the men decided to form an official committee:

We, the undersigned, committee on permanent organization, would respectfully recommend that such organization be effected today by electing a president, two vice presidents and a secretary, also an executive committee to consist of three officers and committee to perform their respective dutries as such for the period of one year, the organization to be known as the old settlers’ association of central Kingsbury. It shall be the duty of the executive committee to determine the time and place for holding the annual meeting of the association, and making full arrangements of the same. At each annual meeting the officers above mentioned shall be elected for the ensuing year. Respectfully submitted. R.A. Boast, R. Greenman, D. Bunn.

After the reading and adoption of the above resolution the election of officers was proceeded with. R.J. Ross was chosen president, Mr. Ensign first vice president, Amos Whiting second vice president, and C.P. Ingalls secretary, Messrs. Boast, Bunn and Peck, executive committee.

The minutes of the meeting was then ordered published in the Kingsbury Co. News, De Smet Leader, and Lake Preston Times.

Old Settler’s Day was first officially held on June 10, 1890, in De Smet. June tenth was declared the official date of Old Settler’s Day (although now look for the event on a Saturday close to June 10). Also note that the name of the celebration has been given as Old Settler’s Day, Old Settlers’ Day, but now is usually written as Old Settlers Day.

And what a celebration the first Old Settler’s Day was:

Last Saturday, June 10, will long be remembered by De Smet and Kingsbury county people. It was the greatest day ever seen within our county. The occasion was the annual reunion of old settler’s associations of Esmond and central Kingsbury, and a general county picnic. Extensive preparations had been made by the committee for the entertainment and amusement of the visitors, and the program was carried out in its entirety, without a perceptible hitch. The weather was simply perfect. The morning was gray and cool, just right for the long drive many had to take. At times through the day it was very hot, but the heat was broken most of the time by light clouds and a cool breeze…

Hundreds and hundreds of lumber wagons, carriages, and buggies arrived. Special trains arrived from both east (Brookings) and west (Huron). Every citizen from the town of Esmond came, led by a team of six white horses carrying a wagon of 42 young ladies, each dressed in a costume representing a state of the union. It was estimated that thousands of people were in De Smet to celebrate. There was a carnival, parades, multiple bands, a procession of old soldiers. All headed to the courthouse grounds. Reverend Brown delivered a prayer, followed by speeches, including ones by Dakota’s first governor and the current Speaker of the House. Later in the day, there was singing at the Couse Opera House, including songs by Mrs. Bradley and Mr. Seelye.

It was decided to make Old Settler’s Day an annual event, and if no grand scheme could be organized, to have an annual picnic each year on June 10.

Over the years, the “main” celebration was usually held in De Smet – it being the county seat – but the event was occasionally held in Lake Preston. As time went by, settlers were honored for decades of residence: 10, 20, 50 years or more. In 1903, 462 “Hard Winter” residents attended and signed a register (many were thought to be there who had lived in Kingsbury during the winter of 1880-1881 but they failed to sign the book), including Henry Hinz, Ella and Robert Boast, Charles Tinkham, Mr. and Mrs. Bradley, Charles Ely, Banker Ruth, Carrie Ingalls, Grace Ingalls Dow, Mary Power Sanford, and Delos Perry.

As original settlers died off and time went by, Old Settler’s Day became the date that high school class reunions were held. In 2010, word was spread that the Chamber of Commerce didn’t have the thousands of dollars needed to pay for Old Settler’s Day that year, and it will probably be cancelled. For good. I think the scare tactics worked, because the event hasn’t failed to be celebrated in some fashion that year and since then.

The photo above was taken at an even earlier celebration. Note the speakers’ platform set up in the middle of Calumet Avenue in front of Couse Hardware. The photo below was taken at the Old Settler’s Day celebration over 100 years ago, in 1910. If you know your Little House characters, you might be able to identify a few faces! I spy Mr. Tinkham, Mr. Boast, Mr. Couse…

While it’s sad to think of an annual event almost as old the county itself being done away with at some point, one can hope that there will still be residents and fans of Kingsbury County who get together to picnic on June 10 in honor and remembrance of those who came before them, not only the homesteaders and other settlers we love to read about in the Little House books, but every person who once called Kingsbury County home. Those of us who can’t attend the official celebration in De Smet can always raise a glass of lemonade in their honor at our own June 10th picnic, and it seems like a donation to the group organizing the event would also be a very good thing to consider.


Old Settler’s Day