The best source on Hamlin Garland is, of course, the author himself, whose own life was his major preoccupation. For his formative years, his autobiography makes it clear that three geographical nodes played a decisive part. True, the countryside in western Wisconsin drew him back again and again, when he chose West Salem for his parents’ retirement, then summered there himself. His daughters would later claim to have spent the happiest hours of their childhood in “coulee country” as well.
Two other communities “own a piece” of Hamlin Garland, however, and in one way or another continue to claim him as a native son: Osage, Iowa, where he received his schooling and learned about farm life, and eastern Dakota, where he faced up to his career alternatives and began to write.
Resettlement in Iowa added 125-or-so miles to the family's westward movement but cannot be said to have taken the Richard Garland clan into more rugged conditions than those they had left behind in Green (Green's) Coulee near Onalaska. The contrary was true. Hamlin's father was seeking richer, less hilly country on which to farm and believed he had found it not very far from the Wisconsin line in the north-central part of the 29th state. The community of Osage dated from 1853. Its location “on a grassy plain” must have been propitious, for the town had quickly burst into young life with a post office, land office, saw mill, two churches, and four general stores in its first decade, delivering wheat and livestock to Chicago markets.
By the time the Garlands and their possessions arrived in the vicinity in 1870, Osage had become the county seat, boasting four schools, a library, a hotel, and a stop on the Illinois Central Railroad. Compared with "life in the woods" in Wisconsin, Osage was a metropolis. Small wonder the young lad was thrilled when his father moved all the way into town in 1875 and equally disappointed when they moved back to their farm when that year came to an end.
Hamlin Garland, age 12 USC Garland Collection
The Seminary in Garland's day USC Garland Collection
Still, the greatest asset in the life of the young man proved to be the Cedar Valley Seminary, a high school/junior college of singular distinction, which Hamlin was able to attend from 1876-1881. The school had been founded by public-spirited citizens as early as 1862, who invited one Alva Bush, a pastor and teacher from Fayette, Iowa, to establish an academy in the lower rooms of the Osage courthouse. Starting with “seventeen gentlemen and fourteen ladies,” the Seminary soon acquired its own buildings and a population of more than a hundred young men and women by the time Hamlin Garland graduated with honors in 1881, having been exposed to history, the classics, Latin, and rhetoric, much as if he had attended an East Coast school.
Osage clearly played the central role in Garland’s education both inside and outside the classroom, and the author reciprocated by means of numerous Iowa-based stories, his Boy Life on the Prairie and especially the central chapters of A Son of the Middle Border. For their part, students in the Osage high schools would form a “Hamlin Garland Club” in 1938. Nine years earlier, the local D.A.R. had sponsored a plaque honoring Garland at the entrance to the old Seminary (today the building houses the Mitchell County Historical Museum) which reads:
AS A STUDENT HERE - 1876-1881 - RECEIVED HIS FIRST LITERARY
INSPIRATION, AND FROM THIS ENVIRONMENT
CAME MUCH OF THE MATERIAL FOR HIS EARLY FICTION, HIS POEMS,
AND MIDDLE BORDER CHRONICLE
A three-page letter from the author, dated 26 June 1929, acknowledging this honor, is framed and displayed at the Osage Public Library.
In addition, the Hamlin Garland Collection at USC owns a program for the town’s centennial pageant, “The Osage Story,” held at the fairgrounds in June 1956. (One of the eight historic tableaux lists speaking parts for both Hamlin Garland and the venerable Professor Alva Bush!) On the outskirts of town, finally, at 3924 Noble Avenue, the old Garland farmhouse is still standing though unoccupied in recent years. There, a plaque reads:
ON THIS FARM LIVED
HIS LIFE IN THIS COMMUNITY
FURNISHED MATERIAL USED IN
A SON OF THE
Trees on the property reportedly include the very ones planted by young Hamlin and his father during the decade the family spent there.
Garland farmhouse, 1999 Courtesy, W. E. Aisenbrey
H. G. Wildlife Area (Osage) Courtesy, Laurie Patterson
Preserving the author’s name and memory for more recent generations, the Hamlin Garland Wildlife Area, located a few miles north and west of Osage, consists of 112 acres of hardwood and recovered marshland with access to the Cedar River set aside for hiking, recreation, and nature study.
From the rapidly consolidating farming lands in Iowa, Richard Garland had sought to overtake the leading edge of the virgin prairie once again by moving to Ordway (near Aberdeen) in the Dakota Territory in 1881. This occurred just after his son's graduation from Cedar Valley Seminary, and for a time their paths separated. Hamlin, age 21, set out eastward for a series of itinerant and temporary jobs which led him eventually to Boston and Chicago. In between, though, in 1883 young Garland returned to the rugged life in Ordway and even staked a homesteading claim in adjacent McPherson County, still contemplating a life on the Border. (The Dakota Territory would achieve statehood in 1889.)
If grasshoppers and drought had often soured the experience in Osage, now it was the rigors of the prairie winter, the uncertainties of finding a fair price for his crops, and the unscrupulous business dealings he saw around him, together with the grim evidence of what farm life was taking out of his parents which came together to dissuade Hamlin from remaining on the land. At the same time he had begun to grasp the potential of his frontier experience as the “stuff” of literary realism. Significantly, he penned the first of his stories, “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip” for the classic collection Main-Travelled Roads while on a visit to his father’s property at Ordway, now fading in the shadow of rapidly growing Aberdeen, in 1887.
Years later, while writing A Son of the Middle Border, Garland sought out his father’s old store for the photograph shown above. Across the bottom, Garland has written "The house in which Main-Travelled Roads was begun, 1887". Here too he would have remembered the grave of his sister Jessie who was buried a few miles away near Columbia after her untimely death in October 1891, aged 21 and newly married, from "St. Anthony's Fire" (severe erysipilas, an acute inflammation of the skin). Her weathered grave can still be seen at the Parkview Cemetery outside Columbia. The store, the only remaining structure recalling the Garlands' presence in the Dakota Territory, burned down in 1922, five years after Garland saw it last.
Despite his brief tenancy as a homesteader and despite the generally harsh light cast by his stories on the growth years in the Territory (and some ruffled feathers among the populace for his partisanship toward the Indians), the citizens of Brown County chose to honor Hamlin Garland in 1936. In a ceremony on July 12th of that year, the local community club of Ordway dedicated a native stone memorial and bronze plate in his honor, while the county commissioners officially designated a ten-mile stretch of the adjacent County Road 11 as “The Hamlin Garland Highway.” The plaque reads:
HAMLIN GARLAND WHO ROSE TO DISTINCTION IN AMERICAN LETTERS
RESIDED HERE 1881-1884. HERE STOOD THE GARLAND HOMESTEAD
WHERE HE BEGAN HIS FIRST BOOK, “MAIN TRAVELLED ROADS.”
While declining their invitation from his home in Los Angeles, owing to his wife’s ill health and his own frailties, the seventy-five–year-old author cannot have been less than gratified by this unexpected initiative on the part of “old friends and new readers,” as he described them in his journal. At the same time there appeared a biographical WPA booklet about the author, attributed to local journalist Audrey Ellyson and described by Garland (who up to that point had had only himself as biographer) as “very complete and entirely accurate.” This useful short biography was reprinted in 1939 and again in 1962.
Too late for his active participation, but with his name among the incorporators, the Friends of the Middle Border was formed in 1939 in Mitchell, SD, on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University, a regional cultural project “imbued with the spirit of the Great Plains.” After her father’s death, Garland’s daughter Constance presented the Friends with an assortment of books, letters and memorabilia for permanent display in the Garland Room in College Hall. The donated items are listed in the Spring 1942 issue of the Middle Border Bulletin. This collection was lost to fire in 1955.
Mural at the Middle Border Museum, 2002 Courtesy, W. E. Aisenbrey
The “Friends of the Middle Border Museum (of American Indian and Pioneer Life”) continues its existence today on the DWU campus and has recently embarked on a fundraising effort to build a new museum building. Garland’s name is attached to their history exhibits, and there is a small assortment of Garland materials gathered since the loss of the first collection.
Garland Highway, 2001 Courtesy, John Ahouse
Garland Memorial, 2001 Courtesy, John Ahouse
In Brown County, Garland’s stone marker remains to this day as does the designation “Garland Highway.” The memorial was formally rededicated in September 1998. At present, the “Hamlin Garland Memorial Society,” a group under the guiding hand of W. E. (Gene) Aisenbrey, maintains the memorial site, meeting on a regular basis to discuss Garland and local history issues, and to welcome guest speakers. In the spring of 2001, the statewide South Dakota Magazine devoted an entire issue to Aberdeen, including an article, “This Isn’t Hamlin Garland’s Aberdeen,” purporting to show that the rough-and-ready “boomtown” had amounted to something after all.The assistance of Ramona Morse (Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce), Barb Francis (Osage Chamber of Commerce), and Gene Aisenbrey (Hamlin Garland Memorial Society, Aberdeen) is gratefully acknowledged.
Centennial Tributes | Garland's Trail of the Goldseekers
The Garland Homestead | The Hamlin Garland Newsletter