Capa and O'Connor to be part of BBC program

Philip O'Connor (photo by Chad Coppess, S.D. Dept. of Tourism)

by Nancy Haigh

A town may be down to one resident and his dog, but there's always someone interested in its history, in this case the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Philip O'Connor found his "town" and himself as part of a BBC show regarding the town and the Dirty Thirtys. O'Connor noted that on January 8, 2009, he received a phone call from Emily Curry of the South Dakota Department of Tourism in Pierre. She related that the BBC had contacted her regarding towns that had been affected by the Depression and drought in the 1930s to extent that those factors had decimated the towns. She gave them several names and after sending them photos of Capa; they wanted to include it in a documentary series, How the Earth Made Us.

Curry said she called O'Connor about using his land and the town of Capa for the filming. O'Connor agreed to help with the project in any way he could.

O'Connor said he then received a call from Alexis Freeman, BBC, London, on February 13, and a date was set to film at Capa.

O'Connor met the film crew in Midland, about 9:00 a.m. on March 18. The crew included Paul Williams, researcher, Nigel Walk, director, Adam Prescott, sound, Tim Cragg, cameraman, and Ian Stewart, presenter. O'Connor noted the first four were from England, while Stewart was from Scotland. O'Connor said the crew filmed until about 5:30 p.m., when the sun started to set. Part of the filming included O'Connor and Stewart walking down the road as O'Connor related Capa's history. At 2:00 p.m. Stewart and O'Connor were equipped with hidden microphones and they walked east on Main Street, said O'Connor. "Prescott held up what looked like a large roller paint brush, called a boom, with which to catch the voices," he added. The crew also filmed the buildings, inside and out, as well as the surrounding countryside.

In the afternoon Curry and S.D. Department of Tourism photographer Chad Coppess joined the group. Coppess took several photos of the filming.

O'Connor wrote an article about the filming and items he discussed. "Leading them down the road to Capa, I stopped at the Joe and Katie (Biwer) Thorne house. I told them that it was a Sears and Roebuck prefabricated house that Sears sold from 1908 until 1940. I also told them that there had been a very similar house, possibly another Sears house, at the southeast corner of Capa, on the Bob Walsh quarter, that had been destroyed by fire in August of 1933.

The Capa Bank also closed in the fall of 1933. The Capa Hustler newspaper, published by Al Thorne, ran from 1906 to 1916, when Al moved to Pierre. The Chicago and North Western Railroad ran its last passenger (train) on October 24, 1960.

I told the film crew that Joe and Katie's cattle brand was Diamond JO and that forever afterward Joe was known as Diamond Joe.

I also related to them the story of Nick Biwer, who was putting up hay on the future site of Capa in 1883 and lost a gold coin known as a Luxemburg gold pocket piece. In 1913, while conversing with a Capa merchant in front of the merchant's store, the merchant moved his foot, unearthing the pocket piece. So, 30 years later, Nick recovered his gold coin.

In the 1890s, Erick Kleven and his sister, Inga, from Norway, dug into the south bank of Capa flat and homesteaded their first winter here.

In the early 1940s, the Reverend C.E. McKinley moved the Presbyterian, then Methodist Church, to Midland. The church stood north of what is now Capa Road. In 1924, a tornado came through, damaging a shed on the northeast corn of the church. Then it proceeded southeastward, missing the Capa Bank, the Capa Hall and Tony Konst's store. It then turned left, missed the depot, went between the hotel and the railroad water tower, and ran into a huge ramp the railroad had built. The ramp dwarfed the hotel, water tower and depot. (Railroad locomotives could be backed up on the ramp and coal cars could dump coal into the coal bin in the ramp.) The twister tore wooden railroad bridge beams, called stringers, off the top of the ramp and hurled them south across the railroad track and two side tracks, into the railroad stockyards, killing some pigs. The stringers were eight inches by 30 inches by however many feet long they had been cut.

As best as I could, I explained that settlers came to the area thinking that they could live on 160 acres of land as people did in Illinois and Iowa. The semi-arid climate, the unpredictability of the weather, lack of money, and outright droughts forced many of the homesteaders to leave. The land often reverted back to the county for unpaid taxes. Many of these acres were purchased by those who remained for as low as 50 cents to $1.50 an acre.

When the drought of the 30s came, the grasshoppers were sometimes so thick that they blotted out the sun. They would strip the ground of grass and crops, and if they could gain access to a house, they would eat curtains, tablecloths, clothing, rugs and bedding. When they had done all the damage that they could do, they waited for a good, windy day, and ride the wind to another destination.

I told Ian that I thought the dust storms were caused by leaving the fields bare of any stubble or foliage. The dirt would drift like snowbanks, covering machinery and other objects, and filling road ditches. From more recent dust storms, I could tell the crew that one can smell the dust and dirt, and the dust storms created a dusty haze in the air."

The town of Capa, which means beaver in Sioux according to one report, was started in 1906 on about 70 acres of land in what is now the northeastern corner of Jones County. It is about 40 miles to the southwest of Pierre and about 20 miles east of Midland along the Bad River Road.

A well tapped by the railroad was found to be of the artesian type and had 118º water. This water was piped to the Capa hotel in which a plunge was located. Many people once stopped at the hotel to swim in the waters, which were said to have medicinal values.

An Internet site included a note written about Capa about two years after its founding. "Lots can be had at reasonable figures. Has an artesian well and mineral spring, supplying hot mineral water with excellent medicinal qualities. Has a bank, hotel, newspaper and progressive business firms. Population 75."

Businesses listed in the story included Atlas Lumber Co., G.C. Derr, manager; Bank of Capa, John Hayes pres., J.E. Thorne vice-pres, John J. Oesch cashier; P. R. Blanchard, blacksmith; Capa Drug Co., J.J. Oesch pres., J.H. Roberts sec.; Capa Hustler, Al L. Thorne publisher; Catholic Church, Rev. Father O'Hara, priest; Frank Cook, general merchandise; Dakota Land Co., Ben Hansen, proprietor and manager; B.G. Dorothy, general merchandise; N.W. Edwards, agent P R C & N W Ry, American Express and Western Union Telegraph Co.; Ben Hansen, proprietor and manager Dakota Land Co.; John Hayes, lumber, farm machinery and hardware; Oscar Hemenway, livery, feed and sale stable, transfer and express; Frank Hlousek, shoemaker; Hotel Thorne, A.L. Thorne proprietor, T.V. Joseph, manager; Inga Kleven, dressmaking; J.M. McGraw, meat market and restaurant; Methodist Episcopal Church;

James Montague, pool hall and lunch counter; John H. Roberts, real estate, loans, investments and insurance, notary public, secretary; A.P. Scheib, physician; A.L. Thorne, postmaster, notary public, proprietor Hotel Thorne and publisher The Capa Hustler; R. K. Thorne, dray and express.

The town supported a school, which eventually became a three room building. It also had a two-year accredited high school. In later years it became a smaller school, which closed in the 1980s.

O'Connor's history with the town goes back to his great-grandparents, Arthur and Kathryn McConnville. His grandparents, Arthur and Kathryn Poler, purchased the hotel, a house and pasture in 1916. The house is currently occupied by O'Connor and his dog, Buddy. His parents, Henry and Helen (Poler) O'Connor, eventually took over the hotel and the house. Henry worked for the railroad bridge crew. O'Connor graduated from high school and college in Iowa and came back to this area. He taught in the rural schools for 20 years. After that he worked for various ranchers and farmers in the area.

O'Connor noted that while the depression and drought of the 1930s took a toll on the town, other things figured into the town's demise. O'Connor noted that the first automobiles couldn't traverse the hills surrounding Capa, so the highway was built elsewhere, leaving Capa in the dust. The town lost most of its remaining residents, he said, in 1957 when the railroad pulled the section crew from the town. The post office was closed February 27, 1976.

Curry said an air date has not be determined as of yet, but it probably would be early in 2010. It is expected to air in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States.

O'Connor noted that the crew was very interested in the town of Capa as well as the area in general. "They were wonderful fellows," he said.

A town, no matter how small, nor no matter how long of a life it lived, is not forgotten. Someone, somewhere will have a memory, even if it is in a history book or part of a television series. Those small towns are part of what brought settlers to this area and made this place a home. Those towns deserve remembrance.