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A Conversation About Vanished South Dakota

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When she’s not discussing public affairs with South Dakotans Thursday nights at the FOCUS desk, SDPB producer Stephanie Rissler is typically traveling on and off the state’s beaten tracks. Interviewing local residents for reports and documentaries throughout her 20 years with SDPB, Rissler noticed a theme: folks wanted to talk about the places they knew growing up. Rissler shares the process and surprises from her latest project.

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Katy Beem: “How did Vanished come about?”

Stephanie Rissler: “While working on several different documentaries throughout my time with SDPB, I often interviewed South Dakotans who talked about old towns they grew up in. Some smaller than they are today or have completely disappeared. I told myself that someday I’d like to go back and do a story on some of these ‘vanished towns.’ It started with a Dakota Life segment in 2016, focusing on the towns of Okobojo, Light Cap, Miscol, Crandall and DeVoe. We received such positive feedback from viewers with additional suggestions from those who reached out that we decided the topic warranted a full hour documentary.”

KB: “How many miles do you estimate you’ve logged for this project?”

SR: “Thousands and counting!” Though not all portions of the state are included in the documentary, we’ve traveled to every corner looking for remnants and stories.”

KB: “How is reporting on a project like this? The history must be fascinating, yet how may discussing the ends of life for towns also be bittersweet?”

SR: “Change is inevitable. I never felt sad with the stories we heard or places we visited. I felt honored to have been given the opportunity to look for these old places, people and stories. A few locations felt cold and the history seemed so distant and hard to find, such as Texas Town in Union County, Ardmore in Fall River County. Other vanished locations still felt alive with historical signs and old buildings welcoming us and giving some sort of glimpse into their past. The hardest part is the fact checking. Many stories have been passed down from generation to generation and they don’t always match with other families or historians. That has been the biggest challenge.”

KB: “Audiences of 100 and more have been at the preview screenings. Why do you think the screenings have been so popular? Why is this project hitting such a nerve?”

SR: "Audiences have been extremely supportive and positive. All the screenings have provided opportunities to hear from folks who were connected to some of these towns. Many attendees provided additional facts or corrections, which has helped with our biggest challenges of fact-checking so many stories. The screenings also allowed attendees to share additional towns for our growing list of vanished towns. I think people have connected with Vanished South Dakota because so many want to hold on to a piece of their past. We all know times will forever change and nothing will stay the same. But being able to talk about ‘yesterday’ and remember what ‘yesterday’ used to look like is a warm feeling for many. This documentary has brought to the surface memories in folks they forgot they had. Many also want to share the history and stories they know, but have never really known how to do that – other than oral stories within their own communities and families. Vanished is providing a vehicle for folks to share and remember the past for a much bigger audience. South Dakotans appreciate that."

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KB: “What are your favorite stories?”

SR: “The story of Texas Town is one of my favorites. While the history behind African American slaves escaping the Civil War and finding freedom and a life along the Missouri River in Union County is vague and historians know little about the facts behind Texas Town, it’s one of my favorites. The towns of Terry and Trojan in Lawrence County were mining towns and their history is so interesting. Terry was a huge community with close to 1200 people. Calamity Jane died there and without Terry, Deadwood would not have been the major mining town it became. Trojan, although a mining town, reinvented itself a couple of times. And the town of Harding/Nashville in Harding county has a fun story about Teddy Roosevelt traveling and staying in the area and no one knew who he was.”

KB: “What has been most surprising about this project to you professionally?”

SR: “This project has changed my life, in a way. I’ve always enjoyed travel and the great outdoors. This project has given me a new respect for travel and a new lens to look through life with. I find myself taking as many backroads as I can, looking for humps across the landscape where a railroad once lived. Documenting deteriorating homesteads so I can go back and dig up history on them. Small town South Dakota has become my favorite place to be and visiting with the locals about their lives growing up is one of my favorite things to do, on the job or not. Even more exciting, my kids are enjoying the travels and discussions with the locals, as they’ve asked me to take them to a few of these vanished locations. If we encourage our youth to explore history, document it and share the facts with others, preservation of ‘yesterday,’ will be more accessible into the future.”

KB: “What are the ‘less glamorous’ details about the project people might not know? Hours spent shooting in the field? Contending with rattlesnakes and/or wasps? Hours spent editing? Logistical issues that folks who don’t do this for a living may be surprised by?”

SR: “We did have a few scary moments with rattlesnakes, mean dogs, deer, and rough roads and scary terrain. Many of our video shoots took us away from home for weeks at a time – which meant for long work days and little sleep. Our goal is to not only gather the stories, but we like to match it with great video and oftentimes the weather didn’t cooperate. We worked in extremely hot days, very windy days, snow, rain and sleet. Even so, I don’t ever remember us complaining – just appreciating those days that were perfect. Capturing what those towns look like today is the easy part – finding the old photos of what towns looked like a hundred years ago, that has been the difficult part. But, if those who homesteaded across this great state could do what they did, we can certainly keep looking for the perfect photo to help tell their stories.

We’ve come across so many more Vanished locations since starting this project. Locations that won’t make it into this documentary, as there are so many. Folks have been kind to share what they know. They’ve sent photographs, provided great feedback and more. I know there are so many more stories to tell and I wish I had more time to tell all those stories that deserve to be told. Vanished South Dakota: Towns of Yesterday has created a community and a place through our Facebook page. I encourage folks to continue to turn there with their stories, images and suggestions. My hope is that we’ve just scratched the surface with this project and we can do more projects like it moving forward. In the meantime, all of us can do our part to help preserve those memories and visuals of yesterday.”

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