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Bernie Hunhoff spotted the green ash trees sprouting from this Hutchinson County silo in 2006.
Bernie Hunhoff spotted the green ash trees sprouting from this Hutchinson County silo in 2006.

Rural Decay or Handy Tree Shelter?

May 10, 2012

A bunch of us South Dakota Magaziners were talking about the recent New York Times article “Amid Rural Decay, Trees Take Root in Silos,” which hints at the failure of farm life on the Great Plains by using phrases like “the landscape of rural abandonment” and “a region laden with leaning, crumbling reminders of more vibrant days.”

The article admits that times have changed, and so have farming methods. It's true. My family still farms, but they no longer store hay or shelter livestock in the barn that my great-great grandfather built shortly after coming to South Dakota in 1869. The old chicken coop is full — not of poultry, but of objects that might come in handy for something someday. Why tear down a structure when you might think of a new use for it? Saving what looks obsolete may be Depression-era thinking, but I come from a long line of jury-riggers, experts at finding a use for a discarded object decades after it first hit the storage shed.

The author of the Times piece, A. G. Sulzberger, cited cost as one reason why abandoned silos still stood. We wondered if he’d ever attempted to knock one down. Bernie Hunhoff told us about his experience at an attempted silo demolition near Gayville. The farmers had read that a few well-aimed blasts from a high-powered rifle could knock out a brick or two and cause the whole structure to tumble. An intense hail of bullets was unleashed and many beers were consumed, but at the end of the day, the silo stood. It’s still standing today. 

Rather than view rural ruins as a sign that our prairie civilization is falling apart, I choose to admire nature’s ability to repurpose and reclaim that which we no longer use. There’s a reason why South Dakota photographers love taking shots of ghost towns and old farmsteads. Those abandoned structures have a poignant beauty. They encourage us to think about those who came before us, of the lives they lived and the dreams they had, and perhaps make us a little more aware of the fleetingness of our own time here. But that’s life. It’s nothing to get too worked up about. Here today, gone tomorrow. Unless you’re a silo, that is.


06:29 am - Fri, May 11 2012
John Andrews said:
There's a silo just north of De Smet that's been leaning heavily to one side ever since I was a kid. I always look for it when I'm driving Highway 25. It'll be a sad day if it ever comes tumbling down.
07:45 am - Fri, May 11 2012
Rebecca said:
Nice column, Laura.
09:19 am - Fri, May 11 2012
Bernie said:
The silo pictured here is at Miltown. Readers of my vintage will remember the wonderful weekend dances at Milltown, when this tree was probably a little sapling. You can still drive to the dance hall site, across a rickety bridge. There was a ball diamond still being maintained there when I visited last, and a memorial to a well-liked local fellow who I believe died while playing ball.
04:53 am - Sat, May 12 2012
Ed Goss said:
John, I just went by that silo just North of DeSmet last Friday and she was still standing then. I looked for it as well, Tried to remember who lived there when I was dating the gal that became my wife. They called him a wolf hunter and I should know the name. Come on DeSmet let me know what the fellows name was that lived there. Thanks in advance.
03:23 pm - Wed, May 16 2012
Shelisa Davis said:
Read both articles and it is amazing the mindset difference of someone from the west/midwest America compared to NYC isn't it? The NY Times article was sad and almost depressing with the outlook the author took; quite the contrast to what most of us who live in the "decaying rural America" see it! That history is still alive and loved by folks who can appreciate it...thanks for putting a "real" spin on it rather then the gloom of a New Yorker. :)

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