Sunday, January 31, 2010

Esmond, South Dakota

    On the flat prairie of eastern South Dakota, there once thrived the bustling little town of Esmond.  I had lived in the general vicinity for many years, but it wasn't until I began my genealogy quest that I really learned of its existence.  Between my own personal research and research I've done for my various websites, I've encountered a lot of ghost towns, but despite having a population of zero, Esmond is far from dead.

    It started out with the name "Sana", and like many other small towns, was impacted by the westward-sprawling railroad tracks.  The town was moved 1/4 of a mile to be nearer to the railway, and renamed "Esmond" in the early 1880s.

    My connection to this area is through my great-great-grandparents.  Thomas Lafayette Graves, his wife Nettie Bell (Lair), and their four children pulled up their roots from Stark County, Illinois, bid adieu to their parents, siblings, cousins, and lifelong friends, and headed northeasterly to the small hamlet in March of 1906.  Tom was both a farmer and carpenter by trade, really a Jack of All Trades, working with his only son, Delbert.  They lived on a farm just a stone's throw north of town.

During their years there, Tom and Delbert built many homes and barns, and most notably, a large double-wide, two story building in Esmond. This building, known as the Big Store, housed a store on the main floor level, and an opera house/dance hall on the upper level (note the "T. L. Graves, 1911" at the top of the building).  We do not believe that Tom ever operated the store portion of the building, but he was responsible for many dances, and no doubt  good times, in the upper level.

When I first started researching this part of the Graves family's lives, I assumed I'd be disappointed with what little information I'd find, but I couldn't have been more wrong.  Several books have been written, with an extensive collection of photos published, and an annual Esmond Homecoming held during the summer.

On a trip back to South Dakota a few years ago, my mother and I made a detour through Esmond.  Despite both of us having been born and raised nearby, neither of us had ever been there.  Having seen the pictures of Esmond in its Glory Days, we hoped we might be able to see approximately where the Big Store might have been located.  As we drove down the ice-packed dirt road to toward what was left of the town, the spirit of residents long gone seemed to give us a warm welcome, despite the brutally cold temperatures of a South Dakota winter.  The gravel roads through the small town were packed with snow and ice, but, not about to be stopped after coming such a long way, we persevered, and were rewarded with signs on each lot, telling what business or home had been located there in days past.  Gazing down the street a couple of blocks stood what was left of the elevators by the railroad tracks, and suddenly, my mind flashed to a postcard I had showing the same scene, with busy townspeople all going about their business.  And just as suddenly, reality was back, and the elevators were delapidated, and the street empty.

    Every other summer, those wonderful souls who have taken responsibilty for keeping Esmond alive, hold an Esmond Homecoming, and one of these years, I'm going to make it back there to attend.  I want to go where my great grandmother went to school, where Nettie purchased her family's supplies, where Tom and Delbert laid brick after brick to construct the largest store in town.  I want to see the town streets full of people, and hear the bustle of activity, and for just a moment, experience the thriving little community of Esmond, South Dakota.

"Home - Esmond, South Dakota"
"Remembering Esmond, South Dakota", 1996
Bonnie Guagliardi


  1. Another wonderful piece!!

    OKKKK, how far back have you traced the Lair clan??

  2. You're up early!!

    I have the Lairs traced back to the immigrants Mathias Lehrer (1714-1787) and his wife Catharina Moyer (ca 1720 - ca 1803). Might we have a connection??

  3. Wonderful story of the town. Wouldn't that dance hall have been exciting to visit...on Saturday night!

    Keep these ancestor stories coming!

    Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  4. This makes me want to visit Esmond. What towns are nearby?

    Oh, please hurry and find a family member that links to mine. I have had such a time tracing my family. 'Course, my guess is that your family do not link to Mississippi or Maine, but I can hope, can't I?

    ~ Yaya
    Yaya's Changing World

  5. What a great post! I live in NW Nebraska and since childhood days have many fond memories of South Dakota. We did and still do spend a lot of our summers in the Black Hills area. I am familiar, however, with much of South Dakota and have traveled to many of the old but now Ghost Town locations. This little town really sounds interesting! Makes me want to go now...

  6. I suppose the children all left for bigger better employment, or was it the times of the region that it didn't work out for farming. I saw your picture of the main street and it seems like so many others one sees and it occurred to me how alike they can be, yet each so unique to us and those who have such ties. And that is wonderful.

  7. My great grandfather David Sheets and brother Horace were founders of the Esmond Methodist Episcopal Church in 1885 after their arrival from Ill. in 1883. The Homecoming this year, yesterday, was their 125th anniversary. My Sheets grandparents met in the church social hall that is still active, also. I live in Calif. and Gramma had told the story of living in a sod house, the year of so much snow that they walked to school on the treetops, and her brother taking her to town on the railroad handcar. I am family historian and had to see Esmond and Iroquois, and did in 2003 & 2004. Marlin Clendening and family, who have kept the town alive, showed us the town and signs and where the Stormonts and Sheets had lived and farmed and taught school and married. I collected bricks and doorframes from the ruined Stormont farmhouse that I've used for decor! My gg gf and gm Sheets and Stormont and g g gm Gosper are all buried in Esmond and Iroquois, All the family left in 1902 for Pomona, Calif., where they bought orange ranches. What a change! I will always have a place in my heart for Esmond and the Clendenings. Be sure to read all the Laura I. Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie books that are about nearby DeSmet, and you'll know what pioneering in Esmond was like. Love this blog!

  8. Where your Sheets family from Stark county, Illinois by chance??

  9. My Sheets (Rawson/Gosper) were from Blackberry(now Elburn)and Batavia, Kingsbury Co., IL. My Stormont (Watt) great-grandparents were born and raised in Princeton, Gibson Co., IL and Xenia, Greene Co., OH. Both families arrived in Esmond/Iroquois, Dakota Territory in 1883 and left in 1902/3.

  10. I love this town! We make a yearly pilgrimage and poke around. Those signs are everywhere! Someone obviously spent a lot of time getting each lot's history.
    My aunt and uncle apparently used to go dancing here, probably as late as the 60s.
    I encourage anyone in SD or vacationing here to have a look. It's worth the time.

  11. I was born north of Esmond in 1938 in a farm house and during a blizzard. My father Henry Lorenz bought the farm East of town where the original school was moved to when the new one was built. I went to school in Esmond thru the 8th grade. I rememeber that Esmond made the TV show Hee Haw population 2, which happened to be my Uncle Hans and Leona Lorenz.
    Esmond was an active town when I was a kid. I always stop when I return to South Dakota, which is not as often since my parents have died but I still have cousins in the area

  12. I grew up in Esmond, SD and continue to make Esmond home! It is a wonderful place. It was a very active community and the small group that still live in the area keep activies going year round. Bible School in the summer, Community Christmas Party in December and a Homecoming Celebration every two years.

    1. Thank you for your comment - driving through the town, I could almost feel the sense of community that's still there. I hope to make it back for the next Homecoming Celebration!