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The Spirituality of Hanson County

Aug 11, 2015

At 435 square miles, Hanson County is the third smallest county in South Dakota. But what it lacks in area, it makes up for in spirituality. The lazy James River quietly runs through the southwestern quarter, past the graves of two men who died defending their staunchly held religious beliefs. In Alexandria you’ll find a shrine dedicated to a modern miracle. And in between the lakes, fields and streams provide ample opportunities to reconnect with nature.

Most visitors will arrive in Hanson County driving 80 mph on Interstate 90, but that’s the fastest pace you’ll find here. Exit at Alexandria and spend a few quiet moments at the Fatima Family Shrine, an elaborate exhibit of Catholic statuary started in 1987. It pays tribute to the 1917 appearance of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children at Fatima, Portugal. The shrine features an image of Mary modeled after the statue at Fatima. At the base is Portuguese rock and soil from the very ground by the oak tree on which Mary was seen.

St. Mary of Mercy Church in Alexandria.

The shrine is next to Alexandria’s historic St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church. Across the street is a cloistered convent called the Monastery of Our Mother of Mercy, where 14 Carmelite nuns work and pray for world peace in relative isolation from the public.

Another powerful spot is burial site of Michael and Joseph Hofer, two Hutterites who died after refusing to fight during World War I. They rest in the cemetery at Rockport Colony, 8 miles southwest of Alexandria. The Hofers were drafted in 1918, but as pacifists they were conflicted. After consultation with elders, they decided to report for training but to abstain from any activity that furthered the war effort.

They were jailed, taunted, beaten and starved until they both contracted pneumonia inside the prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Hofers died within days of each other. Their bodies were returned to Rockport and buried in the tiny colony cemetery.

Today the story of the Hofers is well known among the North American Hutterite community, though few others are aware. Hutterite children learn about the brothers as schoolchildren, and families from across the continent come to Rockport to pay their respects at the grave.

Michael Hofer's gravesite at Rockport Colony.

Rockport Colony sits on the very first townsite in Hanson County. The first settlement grew in 1865 when the U.S. military sent soldiers to keep peace between Indians and encroaching settlers. The men used quartzite, which is plentiful along the banks of the James River around Rockport, to build Fort James, one of the only stone cavalry forts in the West.

Fort James was occupied for only two years. All that remains are quartzite foundations and a marker placed at the site following an archaeological investigation of the area several years ago.

Hanson County was originally created in 1871 and named for Major Joseph R. Hanson, one of Yankton’s earliest residents. Hanson was born in New Hampshire and moved west seeking better business opportunities. He arrived at Sioux City in 1858, crossed into Nebraska and set up a winter camp just across the Missouri River from present day Yankton. At the time, only four white men lived in the area, and all worked at the Frost, Todd and Company trading post.

Fort James was occupied in 1865 and 1866.

Longtime state historian Doane Robinson credits Hanson as being the second actual settler of Yankton behind John Holman, who had built a cabin there a month before Hanson’s arrival. He served two years as chief clerk of the territorial legislature and helped secure the fledging town against Indian raids by direction construction of the Yankton stockade in 1862. Hanson became a prominent citizen with a successful farm just east of town.

The first civil settlement in Hanson County occurred at Rockport, when Peter, Samuel and Michael Bloom, Jerry Flick and Frank Foster arrived in 1872. A small post office was built and a town platted in 1878 in preparation for Rockport’s designation as county seat. But the county’s boundaries were adjusted in 1879 and the railroad chose a route through Alexandria. Voters moved the county seat to Alexandria after the election of 1880. Rockport became the site of a Hutterite colony in 1894 and remained so until 1918, when nearly all Hutterites in North America moved to Canada in opposition to the war. The present Rockport Colony was created in 1934.

Lake Hanson, southwest of Alexandria. Photo by Christian Begeman.

In that same year, the Depression-era Works Progress Administration built a dam along Pierre Creek 2 miles southwest of Alexandria. The resulting impoundment became known as Lake Hanson, a popular spot for water recreation. Another fishing hole is Long Lake, just north of Farmer. Anglers catch bluegill, sunfish and largemouth bass there.

Hanson County is largely rural. Alexandria is its largest town, at about 630 people. Emery, just southeast along Highway 262, is a town of 450 people. In Fulton (pop. 94) sisters Mary Wipf and Elizabeth Soladay run Con Brio Studio, a business specializing in restoring and re-hairing bows for stringed instruments. Only 10 people call Farmer home, but the community still manages to hold a grand antique tractor parade the weekend following Labor Day. Their slow procession contrasts starkly to the traffic zooming along I-90 just 5 miles south. Maybe those cars should get off the freeway and experience the laid back and reflective life that Hanson County can offer.

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth installment in an ongoing series featuring South Dakota’s 66 counties. Click here for previous articles.


06:24 am - Thu, August 13 2015
Diane Plagmann Hansen said:
I lived in Hanson Co. all my childhood, leaving when I moved to Mitchell with my parents and attended Mitchell Vo-Tech the first year it was open. I loved living on our farm. My great grandfather settled in Hanson Co and is buried in the Lutheran Cemetery where our church use to stand. Now the church is in Alexandria, St. Martin's Lutheran Church. I'm proud to say he helped start that church and gave some of his land where the church stood.
What wonderful memories I have of living on our farm, attending the small rural school Wayne 1 where all of us kids attended as did my father and then attending Alexandria High School. I went from a class of five to a class of I believe 42. Good times that I wish I could go back to again.
05:37 pm - Thu, August 13 2015
Debra (Boggs) Hohn said:
My parents Lawrence & Marcella Boggs moved to Alexandria in the early 50's. He started a plumbing & excavating business in 1957
Until his death in 1990
He too was very active in the St Martins Luteran church. They raised 9 children. My 3 brothers still live in Alexandria
Tom carried on the plumbing. Dennis worked for the city. Roger worked for Hanson County.
And are all retired.
My mother of 94 is living on her own in Mitchell, SD. Alexandria is a very small knit community.
06:08 pm - Thu, August 13 2015
Denny LaDue said:
I grew up on a farm 7 miles south of Alexandria. Just across the James River from Rockport Colony. Have had many friends from Rockport over the years. The main part of the house I grew up in was a prefab house from Sears shipped by train from New York.
I attended a one room country school for 4 years before the county incorporated and we had to go to "town school".
It was a great place to grow up. I have three sisters. Jolene, my older sister, lives on the farm. My younger sisters, Lee and Peggy, both live in Minn. I live in Lincoln, Ne.
08:43 pm - Thu, August 13 2015
Monte Mowry said:
I am the son of John (Bob) and Rita Mowry. We moved out of the Alex area in 1966 to north of Epiphany. Myself like several of my siblings as we got older and able to raise a "little hell" seemed to like to do it in Alex. Great community and a lot of family still there, I may have lived in MN for most of my life, but South Dakota "hands down" is still home!!!
10:59 am - Sun, September 18 2016
Sandra J Krantz said:
I lived in Hanson County and attended Farmer School for 5 years. I cherish the memories of that school. One of my husband's relatives, Father Scheier built the Grotto in Farmer in 1926 called St. Peter's Rock. It has been restored and is on the list of things to see in SD by Father Scheier is also a part of the Spirituality of Hanson County.

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