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The Everlasting Bijou Hills

Jan 29, 2013

 

Midway between Chamberlain and Platte, the Bijou Hills rise 400 feet above the prairie.

 

Three square miles of hills make just another landscape in western South Dakota and in many locales around the United States, but the Bijou Hills are a geologic and social curiosity on the flatlands east of the Missouri River in Brule County.

Capped with quartzite and containing unique fossils and fauna, the hills have been explored by biologists, archaeologists and naturalists. Adventure and drama have also visited the Bijou Hills — specifically a kidnapping, murder, bank robbery (if retrieving your own money is a crime) and other craziness.

The hills jut 400 feet above surrounding corn and hay fields. Cattle keep the grass low, showing some of the quartzite exposed 10,000 years ago by melting snow from the last glacier.

Tens of centuries later, the towns of Granville, Eagle and Bijou Hills were started below the hills. Now, only the latter survives. Bijou Hills had just three residents when we visited in 2007 — Wayne and Pat Surat and Wayne’s mother, Ruth. “Somebody will drive by here in 40 years and it will be a cornfield,” said Wayne. “I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s just the way it is.”

He knows Bijou history well enough to understand that change is a surety. Two hundred years ago, the hills were on a route for migratory buffalo. Because of them, the Dakota Indians also became frequent visitors, building ceremonial pillars on the hilltops and fashioning arrows and other tools from the quartzite.

White explorers were naturally attracted to the prairie promontories, beginning with French traders and continuing with Lewis and Clark, John Fremont and artist George Catlin, who collected stone samples and was enthralled by the area’s antelope, buffalo and prairie dogs in 1832.

Catlin called the hills by their current name, which has been traced to French fur trader Louis Bissonet, known in his native St. Louis as “Mr. Bijou.” Bissonet operated a post by the river in 1812 and traded with the Dakota Indians and white trappers.

Ruth Surat, Bijou Hills' historian.

In the 1880s, homesteaders moved in. Their farmsteads soon circled the base of the hills, but even so, all the towns but Bijou Hills quickly declined. “The heyday for Bijou Hills was in the 1920s before the bank closed,” remembered Ruth Surat, Wayne’s mother, who moved there at the age of three when her mother bought the store. Photographs in her family album show a town that looked like an Old West movie set with horses, wagons and humble wood storefronts. Well versed in local lore, she even recalled old-timers who talked of Custer and his Seventh Cavalry visiting the region in 1873.

Mrs. Surat had lived the town’s history. “On Wednesday and Saturday nights you could hardly park your car on Main Street. The barber had to hire another barber in the pool hall to keep up,” she said. Her brother, Floyd Houska, ran the city bar. “He had to break up fights every once in a while.”

Natural disasters included the usual grasshopper plagues, fires and tornadoes. A gravestone in the nearby Union Cemetery memorializes the destruction of May 27, 1899, when a twister struck the Peterson farmstead, killing the father and six of his eight children. Neighbors rushed to the scene and found Mrs. Peterson in a muddy field, dazed and badly injured. At first sight, they thought she was an animal of some sort. Eleven-year-old Earl was found a half-mile away, also alive but pinned in mud by a stick that had driven through his clothing. Another son, Alvah, had ducked in the storm cellar and survived the storm while crouched in the dark hole with a big bull snake. 

A few days later, the editor of the Chamberlain Register wrote that the sight of two wagonloads of coffins parked by the undertaker’s establishment, “made even the most hardened persons contemplate the uncertainty of life, and the certainty of death.”

Tragedy has visited the hill country throughout white man’s recorded history. Dozens of families lost their life savings when the Bijou Hills bank closed in 1926. Mrs. Surat told us one man made a final withdrawal. “He took a gun and went to the bank and said ‘It’s either you or my money,’” she said. “He got his money but nobody else did.”

She also remembered the day her elderly grandmother became lost in a snowstorm in the Bijou Hills. “The whole town went out after dark looking for her. Everyone turned our lights on so she might see them. All she was wearing was a light sweater, and we thought she probably walked up into the hills. When you get in the hills in a storm you can’t see anything.” The searchers couldn’t find Grandma Novak, but later that evening she walked in the front door of her own house. She said the fuss over her absence was “greatly inflated.”

Another search had a sad ending. Harvey Burr disappeared from his farm near town in November of 1951. His bloodied body was found days later in a haystack. Burr’s murderer, a young man from Mitchell, was a distant relative who had kidnapped and raped a country schoolteacher, and then abducted and killed Burr and wrote checks on his bank account. Though it happened over 60 years ago, old timers in the hills remember every detail.

Bijou Hills residents Pat and Wayne Surat started their own vineyard.

Crimes, hard times and disasters hardly define the day-to-day history of the hills, however.  As a kid growing up in the town of Bijou Hills, Wayne Surat remembers rabbit hunts, ball games, picnics and sledding. He moved to the West Coast and married Pat, a Californian, but they returned in 1969 to raise their family even though the town was rapidly losing its population. Unlike the slow decline suffered by most towns, Bijou Hills disappeared a house at a time because an eccentric farmer from Academy bought them and moved them to his farm. “He even bought the church parsonage,” Wayne said. “He put them up on blocks and they were all rotting out there and falling down the last I saw of them.”

When we visited in 2007, the town consisted of Ruth’s house, Wayne and Pat’s place and the long-closed Bijou Hills Congregational Church. West of the church is a tidy grape vineyard, planted by the Surats with assistance from the nearby Platte Hutterite Colony.

The farms and towns are changing, decaying and disappearing, but the hills look much the same as when Indians gathered on them for ceremonies, or when the 19th century explorers passed by on journeys along the Missouri. The town of Bijou Hills may follow Granville and Eagle into obscurity, but its people’s stories, whether remembered or forgotten, are as much a part of the place as the eternal stones and boulders.

 

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the November/December 2007 issue of  South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.


Comments

12:32 pm - Wed, April 10 2013
Connie Francis said:
So glad to read your story. Some of my fondest childhood memories in the mid-50s and 60's were of visiting Everald Hoover who farmed a few miles west of the town. His parents homesteaded, he was born in 1903 and lived there his whole life...dying in 1975. He never married, but loved the land and left most of it to the DNR.
02:27 pm - Sun, June 23 2013
Shirley Girard said:
My mother Helen Brtna was born and raised south of the Bijou Hills. Went to look for the old farm last summer and saw it was removed but out buildings were still there. I had many fond memories visiting as a child.
Shirley
06:25 am - Tue, November 12 2013
Cathy Tjeerdsma Folsland said:
I was born and raised on the family farm 2 1/2 miles southwest of Bijou Hills. What wonderful memories of going to church there, making purchases at the store, and roaming the hills on a summer Sunday afternoon. My dad had his summer pasture at the west end of the Bijou Hills and most Sunday evenings after the chores were done, our family of six piled into the pickup cab and drove up to the pasture to check the cows. The family dog accompanied us in the back of the pickup. Sometimes we packed a picnic supper and sat on the rocks enjoying the view of the landscape and the Missouri River hills off to the south. I was just out to Bijou Hills for pheasant hunting in October and those rolling hills bring back so many fond memories.
03:15 pm - Thu, February 6 2014
Jean Hintze Lamb said:
Born in 1935, I remember going to Bijou Hills with my parents to trade cream and eggs for groceries at the Thwing Store located on the west side of Highway 50. Years later, we would visit Ruth and Alvin Surat and enjoy the warmth of her potbellied stove at tin ceilinged store. The taste of her "Bijou Hills" yellow cheddar cheese was outstanding! There was a post office and also a telephone office there. Mrs. Maresh would put calls through to our home by ringing "long-short". Everyone could listen in on theconversations on the country line.

In 1956 Ted and I married. His dad, Richard was glad to know someone from Bijou Hills as he had used the hills as a navigation point for so many years when he flew his Culver Cadet plane from Chicago to Rapid City and back. There was a post office there and also a telephone office staffed by Mrs. Maresh She would put calls through to us by ringing "long-short". We knew all the neighbors could hear what we said!

My great grandparents Rough are buried at the Cemetery just a mile west of the town site. We visit their graves and those of persons we have known when we are there in summer.

Since we married, we have been there only in summer when rattlesnakes could be out, so I have missed the pleasure of seeing the view from the top!
09:19 pm - Fri, February 7 2014
Lynn Chilman Pease said:
I didn't know Bijou Hills when it was a busy little town but I came to this area in 1953 when my mom married Charles Zeman Jr. I have fond memories of going to the little grocery store and visiting with Ruth Surat and picking up a few grocery items we needed. We also had hunters come up from Texas every fall and I remember hunting in that area. My friend, and sister-in-law, Linda Hintze Pease remembers coming there with her dad and visiting with Ruth and also going to the bar and getting an ice cream with her dad. A wonderful innocent time!!
02:58 pm - Thu, April 3 2014
Alana (Surat) Johnson said:
Wayne and Pat Surat are my parents. Ruth Surat is my grandmother. My grandfather Alvin Surat (and Ruth) owned the General Store when I was little. It was the only business that remained open at that time- - -the pool hall closed shortly before I was born. Me and my sisters and brother would help Grandpa and Grandma stock groceries, do chores, etc., and were always rewarded with tremendous amounts of candy and pop. I cannot have a Bing to this day without vividly recalling the store and my grandparents voices. We lived about a city block away from them, and had a well-trodden path between our houses. We had to cut through Buford Houska's yard (my great uncle), which was sometimes risky. He'd put up obstacles for us, or surprise us by jumping out from behind a tree. He always let us pick whatever we wanted from his garden. Sometimes my sister and I would just lay in between the rows of beans in the warm sun, snapping them off one by one, eating and talking sister stuff. He would also let us swim in his stock tank. Our farm was about a mile from our house. Many summer days were spent there, in fields and in Bijou Hills, themselves- - -we'd hike all the way to the peak and could see for miles. I believe I had the best childhood ever. Bijou Hills is magical in a lot of ways. I feel it every time I go home.
03:28 pm - Thu, April 3 2014
I am Harvey Burr's great-grandson. Grandson of his daughter Leila Burr and Oscar Tjeerdsma, and son of their son Lynn Harvey Tjeerdsma (middle name after Harvey Burr). I grew up in Bijou Hills as well (our farm was a mile and a half down the road from the hill in the picture at the beginning of the article) and we make it back there every year for pheasant hunting and to visit old friends and relatives. Ruth and Alvin were two of my grandparent's closest friends. I have fond memories of them and their store the Surat family and still remember there being way more buildings in Bijou Hills than there are now! We went to Bijou Hills Church until the early 80's. Rev. Adolph Johnson was our reverend and baptized me and my brother and sister in that church. Many a Sunday morning when I couldn't be quiet in church I received a well-deserved spanking on the front steps of that church (back then if you were bad, you got punished by spanking or something similar and there was no public outcry or uproar about it). We had land on top of the Bijou Hills and five of us somehow would fit on a three-wheeler (for those of you who don't know what a three-wheeler is, they don't make them any longer, probably because of the high mortality rate of their owners!) and drive up there and pick asparagus in the summer. When farmers would drive on the gravel roads near there, they would stop in the middle of the road and visit, sometimes for what seemed like hours when we were young. I remember going to the Surat's store and buying things with both my grandparents and my parents.

I would echo the Surat child's statement above that Bijou Hills is a magical place. It is amazing and peaceful and the memories I have will forever be imprinted in my thoughts.

Thank you for writing this article. It was great to read!

Craig Tjeerdsma
West Des Moines, IA
06:27 pm - Thu, April 3 2014
Judy Schubert Schulte said:
I too have fond memories of Bijou Hills and the wonderful people that lived there...My name is Judy Schubert Schulte, and my parents were Verald and Nora Schubert..I grew up on a farm south east of Bijou Hills..My parents were good friends of Ruth and Alvin Surat & Family.. ..I too remember the cheese that Alvin would cut off from a big block for us. It was sooo good..We would spend many evenings visiting around the pot bellied stove,drinking soda pop and eating ice cream. I remember having a great time running around the outside of the store with my friends, Carol and Carmen Surat...When my parents built a new home on our farm, our old home was moved to Bijou Hills. It was the home of Buford Houska. Great Memories .!!!!.
09:16 pm - Thu, April 3 2014
Roger Duba said:
I know/knew most of the people mentioned in this article. I grew up in the Academy, South Dakota area and we often went to Bijou Hills. I remember being there to celebrate VJ Day in August of 1945. One of my fondest memories is that of climbing Bijou Hills with my brother, Lyle. We lived two miles north of Academy and just took off one day on a rabbit hunt and climbed all the way to the top. What a view!
Roger L. Duba
San Rafael, CA
12:10 am - Fri, April 4 2014
Allie Cooley said:
Wow, I remember visiting Ruth as a child just to listen to her stories. I grew up on my family's farm and even went to laRoche rural school k-6th. Ruth's stories helped drive me into the field of history. I can't wait to visit back home soon!
06:05 am - Fri, April 4 2014
Hannah Cooley said:
I grew up not far from there. It's a beautiful area that I am proud to call home! I am very proud to call this place my home. Even generations later the place has such great meaning! I'm glad to see its history Being shared. Though I wasn't born in the time of Bijou Hills being a booming little town, the stories will be shared for many more generations. It's through articles like this that our history is maintained. Ruth and Wayne are to great people who I can honestly say had a great impact in my life! And these stories won't go untold. I'm excited to go home and tell my kids these great stories!
08:17 am - Fri, April 4 2014
Tracy Kuipers said:
I also grew up here. Some of my fondest memories were riding bike with my sister and cousins from our farm to the store to buy soda and candy and listen to Ruth's stories! I can't help but smile just thinking about it. We would ride bike and explore all over town and imagine what it was like as a bustling town. We would bike to the cemetery and place flowers on the graves and trim the grass with scissors and talk about the tornado that hit so many years before we were born. I feel a lot of pride calling this area home.
08:46 am - Fri, April 4 2014
Kelli Kott said:
How wonderful to hear all the fond memories of this place I call home. My parents Gary and Karen Kott as well as my grandparents Don and Georgie Kott still live on the family farm just a few miles down the road. I soo loved visiting the store with my dad and often getting spoiled with pop and candy :). Thank you for sharing our stories and keeping the memories alive!
10:58 am - Fri, April 4 2014
Suzette Novak Graafstra said:
My dad is Russell Novak Jr. and we loved going to Bijou Hills when we were kids. The pot belly stove in the store, the colby cheese, Hershey bars, cold shasta pop in the cooler. Ruth alewasy welcomed us with open arms and good food. Ruth is my dads cousin.
Thank you for this site....MY HOME is always in my blood!
09:53 am - Sat, April 5 2014
Dale Kott said:
Dales dad bought the Twing house in 1942 and moved here in 1943. It has remodeled several times. Dales parents lived here til 1959. Dale and Marlene has lived here since. Raised Randy and Sandra in this house. It still has orginal siding and looks as it did in BH. Well built house.
09:43 pm - Mon, August 4 2014
Joe Hahn said:
I am the son of Phyllis houska, the daughter of Floyd and Fay houska. My great aunt is Ruth Surat. I live in California. Every year we would go to Bijou hills South Dakota for 1 month. I have very fond memories of our family trips. By the way I am 57 y.o.. My trips were between 1957 and 1968. If I could, I would love to re-visit those days. Patty and Wayne Surat are my cousins. I have not seen them since probably 1968. I hope to return soon to visit all.
08:15 pm - Thu, October 16 2014
wayne duba said:
my name is wayne duba and i remeber the bijou hills when i was a child. my aunt and uncle are bill and ermma malady . around the corner from them was my other aunt and uncle which are gaylord duba. i remember one time we came out to my aunt ermma's place to boil chickens and one time i was picking at a rooster and he got mad and come after me and i went between two buildings and got stuck in between them in some wire and the rooster done me ajob on my behind. those were the good old days. i loved it out there. i do miss those days. havent been back there in alot of years it would be nice to do so.
05:01 am - Sun, October 26 2014
Shirley Girard said:
My post was the 2nd post back in 2013. I see several posts have been added with names I recognize.
As stated my mom was Helen Brtna who went to school in Academy. Her brothers were Joe, Frank and Miles and sister Olga. Their farm was south of Bijou Hills and across the road from Bob Foreman. I believe Mabel Duba lived to the west. As a child I visited Lou and Lottie Kott and Ben and Velma Nepodal. In later years I remember visiting Ralph and Delores Kott who I believe moved to Kimball. Also mom, Frank and I had supper at either Dale Kotts or his brothers. The Bijou Hills always fascinated me as a child as you could see them off of old Highway 16. They were a landmark back in the 50's so we knew which muddy road to take to get to grandma Anna and Vencils farm.
Shirley Bretzing Girard
07:07 pm - Thu, January 15 2015
Christian Wolfe said:
Thank you for writing this article. My grandfather lived in Bijou Hills in the 1910s. The Surat's and Houska's are relatives. I drove past the old town today and found your article on the internet. Thank you for the memories. I shall return to this place again.
04:09 pm - Thu, March 19 2015
gary helgeson said:
My grandfather, Louis Mashek,s sister was Mary Surat. Their father was John Mashek. They were from the Bijou Hills area. Louis and his brothers John, Charles and Jacob and their other sister Stella all moved to Richland County, ND in the early 1900s. My grand father got the local Brule county paper most all of his life. I think it was "Pukwana." paper.
04:17 pm - Thu, June 4 2015
Lisa Pibal said:
My grandfather Arthur Nelson (Nilsson) lived in Bijou Hills and worked at the bank. I don't know the exact years, but I think it had to be between 1912 - 1926. He grew up in the Ola area along with my grandmother Anna Mae Trank. If anyone has any additional info to share, I would greatly appreciate it. I really enjoyed the article! thanks!
06:30 pm - Sun, November 22 2015
Deb Kukuchka said:
I was at church inBillings today when an older gentleman asked if I knew where Bijou Hills SD was. He said his grandparents had homesteaded there and he remembered visiting them as a child in 1948. He said his granparents had emigrated from Prague Chekoslavakia and homesteaded there. He said they got as far as Chicago and had 35 cents. They built a sod house, but had no food. To survive the winter, the boiled their belts,boots and even straw. Their 12 year old daughter went outside in a blizzard and got lost and froze to death. He said his grandmother had wrote her experiences down and they made him cry years ago. When I think of what these young people today think of hard times, I think they should have to read of these people who made our country.
12:17 am - Mon, March 14 2016
JR Wolfe said:
My grandpa Tony Wolfe (born Antonin Vlcek) is a of Ruth. He lived there for a few years in the 1910's with his mother Teresie Vasicek/Vlcek/Plachy. Teresie and Ruth's mother are second cousins.

Back in the early 1980's my dad and I took my grandpa back to Bijou Hills. He visited with Ruth for a while and with Alvin. We took grandpa through the cemeteries around the Hills and he knew almost everyone in there.

He told me of when he was a young boy in the Eagle Presbyterian Church. He could read quit well and would read the scriptures on occasion. His brother John and one of his cousins were making fun of him as he read one Sunday, and grandpa could not recite in public after that.

Grandpa also told us how he was bit by a small rattlesnake while walking barefoot in the Hills. They lanced the bite and soaked his foot in white gas.

Many of you that responded to this article are either my cousins or married into my tree. Christian above is my brother.

When I think of all the thousands of folks that used to live in that area, it almost makes me weep. Though I never lived in Bijou Hills, it feels kind of like home because of the deep roots from there.

God bless and thank you for the article.
03:38 pm - Mon, March 28 2016
Lynn Colton said:
My husband, Ethan Colton passed away last year but he often spoke of the summer of 1944. At the age of 14, he was sent to help Harvey Colton Burr on his farm for the summer. He remembered the farm house with a windmill about 30 feet to the south and a well under the kitchen. He remembered the phone on the dinning room wall and how Harvey would monitor any call that came in. He remembers going to church every sunday and had a boyhood crush on a young lady named Barbara Houska. He never forgot Bijou Hills. It must have been a magical place enen for a young boy who only spent one summer there.
05:10 pm - Thu, September 8 2016
Angela Allen said:
I was researching my family genealogy when I came across this article. My great-grandfather was Levi Houska, son of James and Helen. He married my great-grandma Helen Ellis (Helen's mother Sarah was from the Taylor family who were in the area from the 1890s). My grandma was born and grew up in the area. I am amazed at reading the article and the comments and seeing all the people related to Houskas--what an amazing legacy. I hope to travel to this area someday, and I'd love to talk to the Surats!

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