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Eureka, South Dakota: The Journey Home

Bender, Aimee. "Eureka, South Dakota: The Journey Home." Travel and Leisure Magazine, April 2003.


Note: This article about our hometown appears in the April 2003 issue of Travel and Leisure magazine, as part of a series of articles called "Small Town U.S.A." It was written by Aimee Bender, about which Travel and Leisure wrote the following: "After years of hearing about her father's childhood in Eureka, South Dakota, Aimee Bender decided it was time to experience the place for herself. Bender is author of a short-story collection, "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt," and the novel "An Invisible Sign of My Own". Her work has appeared in Harper's, GQ, and the Paris Review. Travel and Leisure magazine also printed several photographs from Eureka, including an interior shot of the Lyric Lanes.

In 1906, Joseph Bendersky of Odessa came to America at the age of 16. Unlike many Jewish immigrants at the time, he sidestepped the big-city population of New York, Chicago and Boston and headed instead to the cold, wide plains, where the government was donating 160 acres of land to folks who promised to farm them. North Dakota was too rocky, so he moved south with his wife, Mary, and there raised a family of five, including my father, in the very small town of Eureka, South Dakota.

Eureka, with its knifelike winters, the last spot on a branch of the Chicago-Milwaukee railroad line. Over the next 30 years, my grandpa Joe owned a general store, worked for the Soo Line Railroad, volunteered as a fireman, ran a farm, managed the movie theater, and was mayor.

When the kids grew up, everyone moved away. One to Minneapolis, one to Canada, one to San Francisco, two (my father and his sister, Saralee) to Los Angeles. My father told us stories about his fond memories of Eureka - how the Eureka Trojans took on and defeated the taller Mobridge Tigers in basketball; how when Joe owned the movie theater, my father cold see westerns free on Saturday afternoons - but in my mind, Eureka existed only in sepia tons or in the dog-eared pages of classic literature. We never visited. The town of 1,100 that had produced my father's entire side of the family could not have seemed more unreachable.

It might as well have been Brigadoon.

In fact, had it not been for a conversation with my mother one afternoon, it never would have occurred to me that an actual person could visit Eureka. We were staring together at a map of the United States. She picked it out with her fingernail.

"Someone should go there and see it," she said.

"You?"

Dr. Bender and wife, Meri

She shrugged. "I could go in August," she said, "But until then I'm busy teaching and besides..." She smiled at me. She liked to go places with my father, and he liked to vacation by the trees and the ocean.

It was a subtle baton, but I felt the pass and I took it.

That June, I set off on something of a pilgrimage. I didn't want to do it alone, so I asked my friend Miranda to join me. A trip like this felt too intimate to share with most people, but Miranda and I are close, and we talk about our families incessantly anyway. In exchange for her
companionship, she had three requirements of her own: she wanted to go swimming, she wanted to play a little basketball, and she wanted to find a dress.

We left from San Francisco, camped in the gracefully lumpy Badlands, gawked at Devils Tower, and on the fourth day found ourselves winding through yellowing cornfields, looking for the turnoff. I was nervous. It felt like a first date. I wanted to make a good impression on the land itself. And even as we approached within 10 miles of the town, I was surprised to see the Eureka sign on a background of green. Until that moment, I hadn't really comprehended that all you needed to get to Eureka was just a car and some gasoline. I was half-expecting a tunnel with a magic code, or a lone door waiting in a cornfield.

In 1887, the goal of the railroads was to connect Pierre to the Southwest and Bismarck to the Northwest. Eureka, born in 1887, was known for a bit as "the end of the track." German and Russian immigrants came over to settle. At its height, the end of the 19th century, the town produced $2 million worth of wheat a year. (This seems amazing now, considering that the place is so small.) It promised its visitors fine pheasant hunting and nearly 20 saloons.

As Miranda and I drove deeper into the fields, passing the WELCOME! sign, a small blue lake came into view. On its grassy shore stood the first landmark I had been told to note: a large gray boulder with a plaque commemorating Dr. Gerdes, who had birthed most of the town through the twenties and into the Depression. Years later, another doctor, McIntosh, made winter house calls on a motorized snow sled. He also built a house by the lake, with a bowling alley that generated a minor controversy in that modest and practical town.

At the sign of the lake, Miranda perked up. We'd had no luck so far fulfilling her three requests. And directly across from the lake was what had to be a new establishment: the Lakeview Motel, a friendly blue-painted building, with a basketball hoop at the playground across the street. The owner, we discovered, hailed from Iran.

While Miranda swam and shot hoops, I went driving.

Downtown Eureka consists of two main shopping streets, set in a T shape. Lining the streets are the flat storefronts of two hardware shops, a clothing store, the Lyric movie theater, a couple of diners - "German specialties" on Wednesdays - and a bank; I had instructions about the
bank. Inside, I found Elda, a high school classmate of my father's, who was as warm and welcoming as if I had been a relative, as if she had expected me, as if this were an everyday occurrence, suddenly meeting the daughter of a high school classmate she hadn't seen in 50 years. Elda called up her friend Darlene, also a classmate, who offered to give us a tour of the town.

In her dusky gray Cadillac, Darlene drove Miranda and me down tree-lined streets, past clapboard houses and the Pioneer Museum. We admired the golf course, breezy upon a hill, proud of its grass greens and nine holes; we toured Eureka High School and noted the shiny new gymnasium. Darlene showed us her photo album of all the sporting events Eureka teams had won; she was sisterly in her appreciation of my dad and his family. I got the feeling that her all was relevant, all was noted.

That said, there was a quietness to the streets I hadn't expected. No one was out. No groups chatting on the corners, no small-town bustle. Children grew up and often moved away now, to nearby Aberdeen, or Bismarck. Malls pulled at business, and the train tracks had been removed in 1985 after the line was abandoned. The town is something of a Brigadoon, then, a dusty, friendly place, off the beaten track, literally, with a calm blue lake and a kuchen shop.

Darlene drove back to the bank and let us out of the car. Around a corner, I saw a man sitting on a lawn chair in front of a house who looked about the right age. He eyed us curiously.

"My father grew up here," I said, walking over. "David Bender?"

The man introduced himself. He said, sure, he remembered the Benders. "I went to school with the Bender girls," he said. "You look like Saralee."

Saralee was my father's older sister, hazel-eyed with a wide smile. She loved painting and played both clarinet and piano, and her future husband wooed her with a powerhouse piano performance. She had settled in Los Angeles, just 10 minutes from where I grew up, but had died 30 years earlier of an aggressive cancer. I had never known Saralee, and had grown up with the loss of her, but here in Eureka I could inhabit her for an afternoon. She would have been the nearby aunt I'd have seen all the time, but instead we met here, Saralee and I, inside this man's memory, standing at the edge of downtown Eureka right near where she had helped my grandparents out at the Bender General Store.

Together, Darlene, Elda, Miranda and I ate noodle soup, grilled cheese and rhubarb custard pie at the Luncheonette, "Home of the Weber Steak," a diner with a few booths and counter seating. Elda showed us photos of her class reunion; there were pictures of candles for each classmate who had died. She had taken great care to make sure every single person was remembered. We talked about our driving route and where we would go next, and they both recommended an outdoor musical in North Dakota. In the drugstore, I bought up as much Eureka merchandise as I could find: shot glasses, baseball caps, T-shirts. Refrigerator magnets of the state with a solid dot on the EUREKA! Spot.

Miranda found her perfect floral print dress in the consignment shop. She is six feet tall, and it fit her exactly. Something had been completed.

"I'm done," she said.

We left the next morning, headed north toward Bismarck, lake receding, cornfields swaying, radio off.

Reprinted in the Northwest Blade, Eureka, South Dakota, May 7, 2003, Page 3

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