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A Time To Remember: Bill Merkel

Serr, Bonnie. "A Time To Remember: Bill Merkel." Northwest Blade, 6 October 2011.


William A. (Bill) Merkel Jr. is a wealth of information and a delight to visit. We started the interview talking about his grandparents and parents. Bill’s maternal grandfather, Wilhelm Joachim, after settling in South Dakota, would have gone back to Russia. However, his wife said they were going to stay in this land of milk and honey. He ended up losing his eyesight when he was dynamiting rocks to clear fields. Bill’s paternal grandfather, Adam Merkel, would walk to Ipswich in mid-winter to buy flour to feed his family. His first wife died in a fatal farm accident. Soon after the death of his first wife, he wrote to a woman in South Russia that moved here to become his second wife. I was shown an intricately woven rye straw basket that was made by Grandpa Merkel.

As a young girl, Bill’s mother, Magdalena herded the cattle, rain or shine, because there were not any fences. Her father bought her material to sew a wedding dress. It was a black skirt and blouse. William Sr. and Magdalena (Joachim) married on April 6, 1913. They loaded their belongings into a box car for travel by rail to their new home in White River, SD. The young couple lived in one end of the box car and the animals occupied the other part. Interestingly, Bill’s mother recalled how the horses tended to drift northeast while grazing, seemingly yearning for their former home. The Bible was the only book they owned. In a couple of years, the couple decided to move back to the Greenway area. When the horses got closer to home, they started to pull better and whinny. They knew they were going home!

His father read daily from the Bible after breakfast. The entire family pulled their chairs back from the table, kneeled and prayed together. To this day, Bill and Estella read devotionals at their breakfast table. Bill’s father conducted many services at their country church. The young boys sat in the first pews and their conduct was monitored. When they became older, they sat in the back of the church. Some traditions are hard to beat. Bill recalls everyone sat in the same spot in church just like we do today. Sunday was reserved for rest and worship. He enjoyed playing softball in the afternoons with his neighbors. The bases were sacks filled with dirt. Bill’s team was named the Coop Shoppers and they played against the Odessa Giants. One Fourth of July at Greenway, he remembers winning 20 cents in a foot race.

In 1934, the drought was so extreme that there was not any grass. Dust storms roared across the prairie, and the dirt blew against the fence lines. The government paid a farmer 3.00 per head for their cattle. They were shot and thrown into pre-dug ditches.

1936 was the year of the grasshoppers. The government issued sawdust laced with strychnine to help control the infestation. His family was able to save 30 acres of wheat. While they had left the farm for a short time, the horses broke into the shed with the sawdust. Two horses died, but they felt fortunate that they didn’t lose all of them.

In May of 1945, Bill was drafted. His group of 41 men was the last draftees that left from McPherson County for World War II. Crossing the ocean, many men suffered from sea sickness. There would be a basket of lemons on the ship that the soldiers could eat to help ease the queasiness. He will never forget the devastation he witnessed at Frankfurt, Germany, after the war.
The major change he has witnessed in agriculture is the transition from horses, to a hand plow, to a tractor. A one-bottom riding plow was pulled with three horses and a two-bottom with five. He owned a 1020 McCormick tractor with steel wheels. The plow had a hitch release. When a farmer hit a rock, it would release, and you would have to get off and rehitch. This was a very frequent occurrence. His first car was a used 1940 green Dodge. His first diesel tractor was purchased in 1959. #2 tractor fuel cost 14 cents a gallon.

Crop production has increased immensely to date. Bill is amazed at the no till/no plow philosophy practiced today. It has put an end to land erosion. He marvels at the fact that a farmer can spray for weeds but not kill the plant.

Bill and his wife Estella’s focal point in their lives is a strong Christian faith. Their lives are a testimony to hard work and a well grounded faith. Bill and Estella practice their faith and genuine love of the Lord-extending kind hospitality to all.

Story courtesy of the Northwest Blade, Eureka, SD.
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