FORT PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - He almost got away with it, the little sneak.
But trust a big sister to catch him, all these years later - his initials carved on the table where their father, depot agent Ernest J. Windedahl, used to type out freight orders for cattle and wheat leaving Fort Pierre, South Dakota, on board the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.
Virginia Windedahl Hart remembers it well. She’s a 1948 graduate of Fort Pierre High School who revisited Fort Pierre this past weekend for the school’s all-class reunion. She also used the occasion to bring back some of the artifacts that her father accumulated during a 47-year career on the railroads that included several good years in Fort Pierre. She brought his old manual Underwood typewriter, his telegraph apparatus, his lanterns, his hat.
Windedahl Hart also donated $10,000 to the Fort Pierre depot project to help with refurbishing the building.
Gary and Connie Grittner - who led the effort over the past several years to bring the depot home from the ranch near Mud Butte where it had been doing duty as a ranch building - were glad to receive the financial contribution, as well as the historical items. They will add authenticity to the display once the building is completely refurbished, they said.
What caught Windedahl’s eye were those initials, right next to the spot the Grittners set down that Underwood typewriter - a cocky “JR.” It was very likely the sort of thing a little brother would do.
“He probably did it - James Robert,” Windedahl Hart told the Capital Journal (https://bit.ly/1gbLsd ).
If he really did carve those initials, it might just have been a little boy’s way of marking his territory. After all, that Fort Pierre railroad depot was home to the Windedahl family for years.
Their living space probably measured all of 400 square feet, Windedahl Hart, now of San Angelo, Texas, estimates now. They lived at the south end of the depot as it’s positioned now.
Her mother, Gladys Windedahl, never complained. She was glad E.J. had a good job, and they carved the living space into quarters for the two of them, for Virginia, and for James, who was younger than Virginia by six years.
“We came in January of ‘43 and they had just built a new school,” Virginia Windedahl Hart remembers.
She loved living in the depot because she loved the sound of trains, and so did her father. And the family liked it that their father’s work was right there in the same building - the big freight room where things came in, the waiting rooms for passengers, the ticket window. E.J. Windedahl saw the potential for Fort Pierre as a cattle shipping point.
“He really wanted to live here so he could work with the cattle and the cattlemen,” she said. “A lot of times he was up all night, writing out shipping orders and going down to the stock pens to help out.”
Cattle were profit to the railroad and E.J. Windedahl - hand-picked by the depot agent in the town where he grew up, Carthage, South Dakota, as someone who had promise as a railroad employee - was devoted to the railroad. He took his role as depot agent very seriously.
“He always wore white shirt and tie, and he had black covers that he put over the sleeves so they wouldn’t get dirty during the day,” Windedahl Hart said.
And he monitored the telegraph diligently once he had learned how to use it.
“My dad went to Valparaiso, Indiana, and studied it and became very adept at it. He didn’t ever have a problem with trains colliding around here. He kept that from happening,” Windedahl Hart said.
They were in Fort Pierre for a good many years. Virginia left in 1949 after finishing high school and went to Minneapolis; but her parents stayed on until about 1958 - maybe because Fort Pierre offered them the stability they didn’t have when E.J. was a new railroad employee.
“When you were on the railroad in those days, they bumped you around. If you had more seniority, you would end up getting the job,” Windedahl Hart said. “So he was bumped around. They’d been married two years and I think my mother said they’d been 52 places.”
Fort Pierre changed that by giving the family a chance to sink roots in one place.
Although actually, Windedahl Hart said, her father was really returning to Fort Pierre when he brought his family there in 1943.
“His parents homesteaded out here for a while when he was a baby - a few miles out, I don’t know which way,” Windedahl Hart said. “My dad was born in 1905.”
She said her family doesn’t retain many memories of that short-lived homesteading expedition to the Fort Pierre area.
“I do remember my grandmother saying that she was in the wagon, she had a load of hay, and there was a rattlesnake in there.”
That story ended happily, though. It was one to talk about when the railroad brought the family back to Fort Pierre for 15 good years in what seemed like one of the busier little cities on the Plains for shipping cattle.
Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com
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