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Life in Isabel

Even without a school, life will go on in Isabel, South Dakota.


Other South Dakota towns have heard the last bell, seen the last yellow school bus and cheered the last touchdown. But life goes on; the latest example is Isabel in northern West River. Isabel’s school closed in May of 2009 when five teens received diplomas, but this is still a town.

Isabel remains a commercial center in Dewey County, with two farm implement dealers and a grain elevator, a weekly newspaper, medical clinic, grocery, hardware store and other establishments. Isabel may also have the state’s senior barber: Marvin Bertsch has been trimming hair for more than 50 years. Ryan Maher, a young Republican state senator, runs Sparky’s Bar and Grill. He decorated the walls with blow-ups of historic Isabel pictures. Sparky’s has a full menu and the town’s favorite dessert — caramel nut apple pie.

Artist and writer Jack Reich still paints and creates novels from his wheelchair in a modest mobile home on the north side of town. Born without the use of his arms, he learned to drive and earned his way as a salesman until he fell asleep while driving near Ipswich and hit a tree. His wife, Faith, was killed in the accident and he spent a year in a hospital. Now he can stand again but he can’t walk, so he spends his days writing western novels on a Dell computer and painting — all by using his mouth and a pointer to move the keys, and a mouth-held brush to paint. His last novel was 46,000 words.

“You do what you have to do and you don’t worry about what’s wrong with you,” Reich explains. “What’s wrong with you is not important. That’s the underlying truth. You do what you have to do.”

He learned that lesson while growing up on a ranch south of town by the Moreau River. He studied art at South Dakota State University in Brookings and then drifted back to Isabel. He would have ranched despite his arms but the place “wasn’t big enough to support dad” so he made a living as a salesman and painted Old West scenes as a sideline. He also served as the town’s mayor for 18 years.

“There are not a lot of young families, and that’s why the school had to close,” he says. But the writer says the lack of a school mustn’t detract from Isabel’s other redeeming qualities. “There isn’t anybody in town who hasn’t lived here a year or more who doesn’t know everybody. And everybody helps everybody. The guy across the street repairs small engines. That’s how it works in a small town; there’s a sharing of human resources.”

Isabel also maximizes its architectural resources. The town of 200 people uses a handsome stucco city hall built in the 1930s by WPA workers. It is a relic of the Great Depression both inside and out, but a new handicap ramp is evidence that city officials aren’t ready to abandon it. Violet Rost runs a library in an even older community hall.

Les and Marcia Lindskov and their four sons have also restored and converted an old ranch house into a historic hunting lodge. The Lindskovs operate a Case-IH farm dealership and a ranch, but they still find time for the new enterprise. The Veal family built the house in 1916 at an old stagecoach stop — a noteworthy fact in a region that values western history. The Veals bought lumber from New York when the house was created, and it became one of the grandest homes in Corson County. However, it was unoccupied for 25 years before the Lindskovs put it on wheels and moved it to their ranch just north of Isabel.

Now known as Firesteel Creek Lodge, the camp draws hunters, wedding parties and family reunions throughout the year. Pheasant hunters pay $2,695 for full-service, three-day hunts. “Yes, we were busy enough already,” says Les, “but we’re meeting the nicest people you’d ever find. And we’re creating some employment.” Guests come to hunt, but many find it just as enjoyable to hang around the lodge and enjoy the clean air, the quiet atmosphere and the views of Firesteel Creek. “We’ve had some who’ll hunt a day or two and then just hang around the lodge.”

Barb Begeman, publisher of the weekly Isabel Dakotan, wants hunters and other visitors to understand that the school closed because of quantity rather than quality. “You must know that Isabel had a good school with good teachers. We simply didn’t have the number of students. One class had two students. Other classes had four. How can you run sports, which parents thrive on, with those kinds of numbers?”

A school closing is an emotional and practical setback. Some teachers move away. Businesses lose sales. Much of the town’s entertainment and culture disappears. And there is one less reason for people to live there.

“Who is going to want to move to a town with no school?” asks Begeman. “Most women like curb and gutter and a Wal-mart a couple of blocks away. And they surely want a school.”

On the other hand, few towns can attract people who will pay $2,695 for three days of prairie solitude.


EDITOR'S NOTE – This story is revised from the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order this back issue or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.


12:07 am - Sun, March 24 2013
michael orman said:
Hi, I was a foster kid of roger young.. It was in th 70 s... it is a distant memory for me.... Very distant... My brother and I were sent foster kids.... I am a 49 year old man now and I always remember Dale and Wanda... I have such vivid memories, and I want to tell them, they made a difference in my life at such a young age.. Amazing, what we keep inside our souls through life,,,, The little things that paint a life..well, if you happen to see dale or wanda... tell them, they made a difference in my life..... roger and jessie young were my parents for a time in my life.... I hope this note finds it way to a person who can appreciate it... It is these small things in life that we remember... If this note finds its way to dale and wanda.. Tell them, they made a difference in a young mans life ( of course, I am still young man at heart).... For some reason, I remember the name , craig beer? And I also remember Todd? He was the best athlete and could beat any of us in basketball
05:42 pm - Mon, May 6 2013
Terry Moran said:
I grew up in Isabel proud to say I graduated from IHS I grew up with alot of good people in and around Isabel. I grew up with people I'll never forget and be my friends for life cause these people played a big part of my life growing up in Isabel. The people were always good to my family and I, I still have family that live in Isabel today. I was sad to hear the high school closed but when i come to Isabel my son and I can look at the building and say I went to school there and tell my son all my memories. Isabel was a small town and I was proud to be a WILDCAT.
12:33 pm - Thu, November 14 2013
Dan Schell said:
I was born in Isabel on 12/27/30, the last of 4 children, all boys . My oldest brother, Erwin, died in '32 of an unspecified malady.,. 2 yrs. later the family moved to Newport, WA, then 3 yrs. later to Yolo and Woodland, CA.

It was a hard life for my parents in Isabel where my father despaired of eking out a living because of the dust storms, grasshopper invasions, and the depression. I had no interest in getting into farming. Surprisingly, I found my way into agricultural irrigation in 1960, and have irrigated my way through Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East.

My brother John still owns 40 acres of our original 80 acre farm just outside Isabel. I lived in Boulder, CO for 3 years. I now regret that I did not take advantage of visiting Isabel when we lived relatively close by. If the high school were still in existence I might be tempted to make a sojourn to Isabel and to visit my brother Erwin's grave site..

11:14 am - Tue, December 24 2013
Clelia Celia said:
I am from Brazil, and I was an exchange student in Isabel High School in 1971. It was a wonderful experience for me. I was only seventeen at that time and I learned a lot from the people of Isabel.I am planning to go there again next April. I wish I could see some of the kids that went to school with me at that time. I also would like to see my host family, Brenda and Calvin Kahl. I haven't heard from them for a long time.
09:55 am - Tue, February 18 2014
Milton Ellis said:
Michael Orman:

I knew Roger and Jessie well during 1957-1960. They belonged to the Congregational Church of Isabel and I was their pastor. I bapatized Daniel Young in1958 and Wanda Young in 1960. I believe Daniel died in an accident shortly after I left Isabel. You couldn't have had more wonderful foster parents. They were good people. Jessie was younger than Roger. Is there any possibility that she might still be living?

Milton Ellis
04:26 pm - Sun, October 12 2014
Michelle Hackler said:
Isabel was the home for the Knodels for decades. Many are buried near there. I came to live in Isabel in July/August 1960 with my step dad, Floyd Knodel. We lived here for a year while I went to the 8th grade and my brother was in the seventh grade. Mrs Backman was our teacher. My sister, Cindy was in elementary school here. I lived on a farmstead owned by a farmer my step dad had herded sheep for. When school started and we moved into a town to live in a white flat-roofed house, just down the street from the Franklin grocery store. I remember that my brother and I set pins in the two-lane bowling alley and played pool in the bar which served as a community center. where the older men played cards, the ladies visited, and the kids played pool. Grandpa and grandpa Knodel were still alive and I remember their huge garden and old German cooking at their home, as well as the outhouse. Having moved here from Deadwood, SD, where I was born and raised, this was a huge change for me moving from the mountains to the plains. We went to the Congregational Church and at the time my name was Michael Hackler. I have a lot of wonderful memories from Isabel. I visit there on Google Earth.
05:12 pm - Sun, October 12 2014
Michelle Hackler said:
The Elfranks owned the grocery store. I went to school with Ben.
05:20 pm - Sun, October 12 2014
Michelle Hackler said:
Sorry again it was Ben Elfrink, The Elfrinks owned the Super Valu grocery store.
07:55 am - Wed, January 7 2015
Michael W. Scott said:
Although I have never been to this small town or ever heard of it before today, I felt so much joy reading the wonderful comments from the people who had their lives touched and shaped by this small community and the good people in it. I am 59 and my wife is 63 and although "city folk", we have lived in Paducah, Kentucky, for a long time. Being a town of 32,000, Paducah is a huge city compared to Isabel, but small for my wife and I and we love it. Although money is always tight now-a-days, I would love to visit this place if I ever get the opportunity. It sounds wonderful and the people sound very nice. With all the evil in the world today and all the bad news we hear about, a small town like Isabel is a paradise in many ways. I hope those still living there know that. You sound like good, strong, caring Americans.
08:17 pm - Fri, January 9 2015
Alan Wagener said:
I was born and raised in Isabel from 1952 to 1966 when my parents, Thelma and Bob, moved to Seattle. My grandpa, Carl Wagener, help construct a park at Lake Isabel. My parents ran the B&B Cafe. I remain very proud to say I came a small town in the heartland of America. The values and relationships earned in this town have stayed with me ever since. Although I have now lived and travels to many famous cities of the world, I will always a boy from Isabel.
04:15 pm - Wed, February 25 2015
Giorgianna said:
Wow I read these comments and they are so sentimentally and historically rich however so sad they are all of people who have moved away.. I am a single mother with three small children from SC who lived in TN for several years who just relocated here.. My children bus to the nearby town (TimberLake) for school my youngest goes to DayCare here in town and i work at the clinic here. Its a small modest town but it is filled with the most amazing people. Folks know who I am, they are concerned for me and my children and show a genuine interest in us. Whether I stop in at the gas station or grocery store or take the kids to Sparkys for supper I feel welcome and at home.. I grew up without much roots; i want my children to grow up with good roots and a place to call home and I am really proud for that place to be Isabel
11:14 am - Wed, September 16 2015
Cleve Wright said:
I Spent the summer of "87" in Isabel, well outside of Isabel on the farm of Bill and Barb Burris. had a great summer, enjoyed the town and the people; especilly Jack who owned the service station on the edge of town.
05:51 am - Sat, October 17 2015
Sara Zumbado Segura said:
Milton Ellis & Michael Orman: i also knew Roger and Jesse Young. I lived in Isabel for a few years as a child back in the late 80's and first couple years of the 90's. Roger passed many years ago, unfortunately and Jesse just about 2 years ago after meeting my baby girl. I believe Dale is still running the farm and Wanda lives in ND. My mom still keeps in touch with them. I think it is a beautiful thing of what you both posted and comes to show the sense of community and knowing your neighbor. My dad taught music in Isabel (Ray Cornforth). I drove through Isabel a couple years ago for memories. I live in Bloomington, MN now.
06:38 pm - Tue, October 27 2015
Candy Johns Shields said:
My Mom Josephine Jacobs Johns (she was the youngest, 1928-1962) grew up in Isabel along with her 2 sisters, Caroline Jacobs Frickson (1-2006) and the oldest, Mary Ann Jacobs Lind (8-3-2015) My Grandfather Michael Jacobs (-15-1888 to 1978) ranched and sold insurance. His wife Rose Helen died from a ruptured gall bladder in about 1934, he lost the farm during the great depression and the family moved to St Lucas, Iowa, where his sister took on the job of raising the girls... I had the opportunity to see the "ranch" in about 1956,as a child of 8 and still have memories of visiting there.. I always loved hearing stories about the life on the ranch in Isabel, and I have beautiful pictures of our visit there, and a few original pictures from the old days and the actual house where the girls were born... We just lost the oldest sister, Mary Ann this summer and I; along with her son David plan to visit the homestead someday soon; its a must on our bucket list! Keep your small town values, for you are richer than most! Cherish your town and the friends about you! I can say that I was lucky to be raised by a woman who had values that were a result of your town! May God bless each of you and yours, Candy Johns Shields
06:13 pm - Mon, January 23 2017
Pete said:
Isabel is my dad's hometown. He may have known some of the folks named here as he was born in '39. His dad, Nels Paulson, had a farm outside of town. I grew up hearing stories about all the people of Isabel.
01:35 pm - Wed, August 16 2017
Delores Peterson Knutson said:
My father was born in 1903 in Minnesota. When he was 5 or 6 his mother and 5 sisters moved to Isabel, or Glad Valley for 2 or 3 years. In 1955 our family stopped in Isabel on our summer vacation to the Black Hills. My Father drove us to the country school he attended while living in South Dakota. That evening we stayed in a hotel dated 1980's in either Isabel or Glad Valley. I was only 11 years at that time so was not very excited about South Dakota history. How I wish my Father were still alive to answer all the questions I have about his life in South Dakota. I'm finding your Web site very interesting.
10:14 am - Sat, November 10 2018
Carolyn lane(Murphy ) said:
I was a student at Augustana and visited the family of Helen Young around Thanksgiving of 1960. It was a lot of fun. Later Helen's brother Chuck was in the Navy and stationed at Bainbridge, MD and visitEd me and my family in Baltimore --,so hello to Chuck and any others! I remember tumble weeds blowing across the Prairie and being told the road was an old stagecoach route--loving the West and cowboys, I thought it was grand! 39W%4
08:55 am - Thu, July 18 2019
Kyle kircher said:
Hi folks. I am a disabled veteran who is looking for a good bass dam to fish. I was told to check out the Isabel area. I will respect your property like it is my own. Anyone reading this and are willing to allow me access, please let me know. Email: Phone: 6053919723. Thank you all.
06:25 pm - Mon, November 29 2021
Linda (Dobson) Sanders said:
My grandfather was a postmaster in Isabel. Floyd and Ardale Beebe. My mom would ship us to their house every summer. The Mayer’s Ed and Dorothy and their Children were like family to us . My sister Laurel graduated from Isabel High School.
04:40 pm - Sat, August 6 2022
Joe Beck said:
I taught Math and science innIsabel from 1958 - 1961. Carol, my wife taught there also. Loved it there! Kids were great!!!! Wonderful place to begin.
Also taught band and girls chorus my last 2 years. Wonderful memories!!!
04:21 pm - Sun, January 15 2023
Knut Kenneth Ballestad said:
Ludwig O. And Anna Ballestad lived in Isabel until 1946/47 , they were married in Moorhead Minn. And settled down in Rapid City in 47.
Both dead now.
Ludwig was adopted by my great great grand parents and grew up as my great grandfather's brother.
I am trying to find some information about their lives in Isabel and where they lived, I believe they vere homesteaders.
Can anyone help me with some information about them or where they lived.
Mvh. Kenneth Ballestad
12:42 am - Mon, January 16 2023
Knut Kenneth Ballestad said:
Almost forgot:
e mail :
02:11 pm - Tue, February 14 2023
Dave Renli said:
i am looking for information about a relative M.C. Renli who homesteaded in the Isabel area in 1910. He came from Lincoln County.

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