Ohio to South Dakota: Warren Garton Moves West
Christmas weather is often very cold, although “cold” is a relative term. My brother, who lives in San Diego, often suffers through Christmas temperatures right around 60 degrees F. I have a good friend in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Christmas often does not get above zero F. Relative cold, indeed.
December temperatures in Ohio are good or bad, depending on the year. One Ohio farmer named Warren B. Garton, who moved to Plankinton, South Dakota, was likely drawn there by free or cheap land. But he found the climate in his new home frigid, dry, and dusty. A string of mild winters came to an end right about when they arrived, and then winter showed its true face.
Like many emigrants, Warren B. Garton was a habitual letter-writer, and his story of cold weather is documented in his letters his brother Elmer in Wyandot County, Ohio. Born in Ohio in 1834, Garton served in the Civil War from 1863 to 1865 as a sergeant in the 12th Ohio Cavalry. He married a girl named Salene Johnson, and they had several children, including Waldo, Perry and Ormond. Until the 1880s, he lived in Crawford County’s Tod Township, not far from Bucyrus.
We do not know exactly why this Ohio farmer picked up stakes and moved to the wilds of Dakota Territory. On May 9, 1887, he applied for a veteran’s invalid pension, and that may have inspired, or financed, a change of scene. In 1889, Garton began sending chatty letters home. On May 23 of that year, he wrote:
We went fishing . . . we had lots of fun and caught lots of fish . . . Pickral [sic], Sunfish, Bass . . . Mr. Duram caught a young wolf the other day. I think I will go down and see it this afternoon if nothing further happens.
But even at that early date, the weather was showing itself to be a bit problematic:
The weather is very dry this spring; we need rain very badly….
One steady source of both food and income was the white-tailed jackrabbit, which flourished on the dry prairies. On May 14, 1891, Warren sounded suspicious of both rabbits and gophers:
Waldo has Just Came in has caught a Young Jack Rabbit they are Very Pretty But mischevious as Blazes for they cut our trees Down in the Winter and I Wish sometimes they were [on] the other side of the Attlantic Yes and the gophers Could Be spared all the same…
By January 11, 1892, he had declared war:
Perry does the work at home - that is when he is not out Killing Jack Rabbits there is plenty of….
In December, he elaborated:
They have killed a good many [jackrabbits]; most all that are caught here are shipped to Chicago….
Jackrabbits aside, the combination of cold weather and drought was making farming nearly impossible. On December 21, 1892, after complaining about President Grover Cleveland, he wrote:
I suppose if Our Cropps [sic] would have turned out good we would have had a far different Tail to tell now - But as it has Ben the farmers has had nothing But a sorry time of it. . . .
Been so dry the Past 3 seasons our wells have all dried up . . . I cant stand the cold like I used to. . . . Don’t expect ever to go back to Ohio again to live. If I go at all it will be further west or away down south where it has a Warm Christmas.
Warren’s son Ormond picked up the refrain on February 19, 1895:
Well I hope we can sell out this year and leave this country of wind and blizzard and hot wind. . . .
Ormond Garton got his wish. By the time his father died, Ormond was living in Russellville, Arkansas. Warren Garton, however, lived on in South Dakota. The United States Census of 1910 showed him to be a 76-year-old widower, living with his daughter and son-in-law. He died on February 7, 1914, still in Plankinton, perhaps never seeing another warm Christmas.
Ohio gets roughly 38 inches of rainfall yearly. South Dakota gets around 20 inches, with both states getting some regional and yearly variation. Warren Garton, like many pioneers who moved west, probably did not understand how much drier and colder the Dakotas were than his birthplace. Some geologists claimed that rain would follow if fields were plowed – the so called “dry farming” movement. But the dry farming of the 1890s never amounted to anything but misery for would-be farmers. Warren Garton would have agreed.