The June Harter Waterfowl Production Area
This is the story of the June Harter Waterfowl Production Area. Like all good stories it has many threads. The land itself has its own story. The migrating birds have their story. The Harters who ranched here have their story. The Hansons who came to South Dakota and whose daughter chose to stay have their story. June Harter, that remarkable woman, has her own story. Her children who preserved her heritage have their story. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has its story. Above all, the many people who have loved the prairie and its wildlife and who wanted to see it preserved have their story.
The Land Itself
The land was here before us, before our fathers and their fathers, even before the first Native Americans who hunted mammoths. One hundred eighty million years ago a great inland sea spread across central North America. Giant marine reptiles swam there while dinosaurs roamed its shores. The great sea receded; it returned; it receded again, and returned again, until at last it left, never to return. Where mosasaurs once swam, great herds of triceratops grazed.
Sixty five million years ago scientists believe a stone fell from heaven, a stone ten kilometers wide traveling fifty thousand miles an hour. Man in all his arrogance could create no greater disaster. When its work was done the dinosaurs were gone and the world was changed. Mice-sized mammals sat up, looked around, and seized the world.
The world turned cold. Glaciers grew in the North and marched south, great walls of ice scraping the land, seas of ice instead of tropical inland seas. The world turned warmer and the glaciers retreated. It turned colder again, and the glaciers returned. Back and forth they went, long ages of ice and geologically brief interglacials, until twelve thousand years ago, when the great glaciers melted and freed the land.
When the glaciers melted they left behind a landscape of low rolling grass covered hills, meandering streams, shallow wetlands, and glacial lakes called the Missouri Coteau, a 25,800 square mile area that stretches from eastern South Dakota north into Saskatchewan. The Missouri Coteau is mixed grass prairie country.
Before settlement it was rich with wildlife. Grasses dominated the landscape; tall grasses along the state’s eastern edge, changing to mid- and short grasses as one went westward. Great herds of North American bison roamed the prairies. The bison and the grass were partners; the bison grazed the grass down, removing the old growth, and then moved on, giving the grass a chance to put out new growth. Wolves harried the herds. There were elk and foxes and prairie dogs. There even were prairie grizzly bears that ended their hibernation fast upon bison that had died during the winter.. Coursing through prairies were streams, and potholes of water dotted the landscape. Today, as in ages long gone, these shallow wetlands have specialized local ecosystems, filled with life forms adapted to the periodic filling of the wetlands followed by drying out. The combination of shallow wetlands and short grass prairie makes “the best of the best” habitat for breeding waterfowl.
This is particularly true of Hyde County. Northern Hyde County, prime Missouri Coteau country, is a major North American waterfowl production area. Much of southern Hyde County lies in the Southern Missouri Coteau slope, where the land slopes down to the Missouri river breaks. However, the June Harter Waterfowl Production Area lies in a band stretching across south central Hyde County that is more suitable for waterfowl production. Here the native prairie grass plants, such as Green needlegrass, Western wheatgrass, Blue grama and Little bluestem co-exist with the shallow wetlands plants, such as Sago pondweed, Spikerush, Pink smartweed, and Coontail.
Hyde County is particularly important for Northern pintail ducks. Pintail ducks prefer to nest in short grass prairie near shallow wetlands. It is not unusual to find nests one-half mile from water, a trait shared by mallard and gadwall as well. Population studies have shown that Hyde County is, so to speak, the pintail nesting capital of the world.
The Harter Ranch, Founding and Family History
The Harter Ranch, 1934
George Harter and Mary Wilson, daughter of Frances and Martha Wilson, were neighbors. They wooed and were married in 1905 in Stockham, Nebraska. Both were of pioneer stock; George had been born in a log cabin, and Mary in a sod house. In 1906 George joined an excursion of “homeseekers” who went north to South Dakota where he bought an improved farm of 160 acres in Eagle Township in Hyde County. “Improved farm” meant forty acres broken, a tree claim, and a one-room claim shack with two lean-tos.
In 1907 Mary came north, and the couple began life together in Hyde County. Life in those days was hard. Their initial quarters were a one room building with a lean-to used as a kitchen; the kitchen ceiling was an oilcloth tacked over the stringers. They persevered. In 1910 they built a story-and-a-half ranch house, and in 1913 they built a big new barn.
George Harter was industrious, a good farmer, and a good man of business. He raised cattle, horses, and hogs, and was a dealer in livestock. He received a Service Award for his promotion and sale of Liberty bonds during World War I. During World War II he ran an iron scrap yard, buying scrap iron that was sent east to be recycled. He also dealt in hides and furs during World War II.
Over time he increased their land holdings. The core was the main ranch, consisting of nine quarters in Eagle Township and one quarter in Chapelle Township. There were three additional quarters in southern Eagle Township and three in Highmore Township.
George and Mary had two children, Morris born in 1912, and Frances born in 1916. When Morris and Frances were old enough they became partners in the family enterprise. George and Mary moved from the ranch to Highmore in 1918. When Morris married June Hanson in 1934, the newlyweds moved into the ranch house. Morris and June lived there until 1949, when they built a house one mile south of Highmore. They had four children, Richard (b 1935), Lynn (b1938), Nanci (b 1945), and Lois (b 1950.)
Frances dropped out of the partnership when she married Hugh McKelvey in 1946; they received the two quarters Frances had operated (the “Franfarm”) as a wedding gift. Frances and Hugh had two sons, Robert and Wayne.
Morris and George continued as partners until Morris’s untimely death in 1964. When George died in 1966 the bulk of the property passed to June Harter. She never remarried, being certain that she could never find a man that could replace her beloved Morris.
At that time the Harter lands consisted of the ranch and the Highmore farm. The ranch consisted of nine quarters of virgin prairie and one quarter of reverted farmland. (The nine quarters contained the original 40 broken acres, long reverted to native grass.) The Highmore farm consisted of three quarters of farmland just south of the city of Highmore.
The Hansons Come to South Dakota
Hans Hanson and Anna Brita Johnson were born in Sweden in 1845 and 1854 respectively, Hans near Göteberg, and Anna near Stockholm. When he neared the age of 18, Hans left Sweden for Denmark to avoid conscription. Anna’s father was a poor woodcutter who lived in a hut by a lake. When Anna was quite young her mother died, and her father remarried.
One winter’s day she walked across the frozen lake to the village to buy supplies. On the way home wolves closed in on her. She ran as fast as she could until she fell from exhaustion. Then she remembered that there was a box of matches in the groceries. She struck matches and flung them at the wolves while calling desperately for help. Her father heard her cries and came and rescued her. However, her stepmother scolded her for wasting the matches.
When Anna was 14 she and her brother left home for Denmark. There she became a dairy maid in Viborg until she met and married Hans in 1880. They lived in Aarhaus for 8 years where their four children were born. Times were very hard so they emigrated to America, first to Momence, Illinois, and then to Indiana where Hans, a victim of alcoholism, left Anna to manage making an income and raising a family on her own.
Hans and Anna had three sons, Carl, August, and Axel, and a daughter Clara, who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. August Hanson and Mary Naomi “May” Nichols married in 1913. May was one of five children of William Nichols and Luella Potts. She was ten when her family moved from Indiana to Oklahoma. May and August met when she was visiting the Indiana home of her uncle. They had eight children, Vera Eileen (June), Ruth Ellen, Arthur Woodrow, Brita Belle, Robert Leland, Nina May, Clara Jeanne, and Raymond Theodore.
August Hanson moved around a good deal and worked at a number of occupations. He was a successful barber until a doctor told him that he would have to quit the trade to save his eyesight. During the family’s years in Oklahoma, he successfully operated several businesses, including a grocery and meat market, and a garage and used car business, and served as the mayor of Guthrie, Oklahoma. (June always claimed that she was an “Okie.”) In 1928 the family moved to Hand County in South Dakota , and August tried his hand as a farmer. His timing was terrible. South Dakota farmers were hit with the Great Depression, extremely low prices, ravenous grasshoppers, and dirt storms. Looking for a steady income, in the thirties he began working for the Farmers Union in Mitchell. The rest of the family stayed on the farm until he transferred to Watertown to manage the Farmers Union warehouse there, an operation he eventually bought and operated. In 1942 the family left Watertown and moved to Washington state. The Hansons had come to South Dakota and had moved on; June, however, had chosen to stay.
Their eldest daughter had been christened Vera Eileen, for two of her mother’s closest friends, but her parents used the nickname June because their names were May and August. The nickname became the name that everyone knew; many years later she changed it legally. For a long time even her children didn’t know that she had been Vera Eileen.
A Brief Biography of June Harter
June was born May 13, 1914 in Chicago. When her parents moved to South Dakota in 1928, June found herself finishing the eighth grade at a Hand County country school. She began high school in Miller and later transferred to Redfield High School, graduating in 1933.
June earned her way through high school by working for room and board. She became friends with Frances Harter who introduced her to Frances’s brother Morris. June and Morris found each other to their taste; they were married on January 2, 1934. They began their family on a ranch in Eagle Township of Hyde County. While there, June served on the Eagle Township school board and was a member of the Social Hour Extension Club.
In 1949 they built a house on the Harter farm lands one mile south of Highmore, a house that June designed herself. June was actively involved in school activities, 4-H, and the Congregational Church. In later years she was a member of the Hyde County Historical and Genealogical Society, serving for six years as editor of The Tumbleweeds newsletter. June became a Director of the Highmore Cemetery Association in 1969 and served as secretary from 1979 to 1999.
June always had a strong interest in conservation. She subscribed to organic gardening journals in the 1940’s, long before organic farming became trendy. She took a strong interest in farming techniques such as contour plowing and crop rotation that reduced erosion and preserved the vitality of the soil. Having lived through the dirty thirties, she was keenly aware of the need for keeping the farm “on the farm” and out of the air. June respected the land. After her husband’s death in 1964 she rented the pasture lands out. She was always careful to ensure that the renters never overgrazed the land. To paraphrase author J.R. Tolkien,
“There’s earth under her old feet, and clay on her fingers, wisdom in her bones, and both her eyes are open.”June’s curiosity about the natural world was unending. Flora, fauna, weather, geology, archaeology, … all aspects were fascinating. She would observe, keep detailed journals, study, and willingly share her passion and knowledge with others.
June had a lifelong interest in birds. She observed them, she studied them, and wrote about them. A long-time member of the South Dakota Ornithological Union (SDOU), for six years she served as editor of the SDOU’s quarterly journal, Bird Notes, which had an international distribution. Long-time Hyde County resident Deborah Rinehart discovered this, to her surprise, in the early 1970’s when she was a student at the Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One stormy evening she ducked into the university science library to get out of the rain. She looked around for familiar faces and saw none. She glanced at a publications rack, however, and was startled to find a copy of South Dakota Bird Notes by none other than the mother of a school girl friend.
June’s interest in birds led her to complete an ornithology correspondence course with Cornell University. Over the years, June fielded many inquiries regarding bird identification from those who knew of her skill and knowledge. Two of her daughters are avid birders today.
Trying to understand a world that at times was distressful, joyous, unpredictable, simple, or complex led June on a life-long search. Her home was filled with books and magazines. The radios and TV were tuned to public broadcasting stations. Long conversations with friends and family covered topics from politics to religion to everything in between. She copied favorite quotes and predictions, and they were found with her notes throughout the house. While June’s willingness to try new things kept her lively and vital, she also understood the value of learning from history.
June’s appreciation of history included family history. For over 50 years, June extensively researched both her and Morris’ family history. The results of her labors can be seen in publications she wrote, reams of material she has shared with others, and documentation that has since been transferred to the Internet. What June gained, however, was so much more than mere facts.
In a letter to his cousin June in February, 1956, Gerald Born wrote:
“…It is very easy to let values become confused when working with family trees, for if not careful the tree becomes an end in itself. To me genealogy is a great means of understanding not only history, but our religious heritage, our social customs, our way of life, indeed our philosophy of life. By looking at the lines of our ancestors we should be able to form a better life for ourselves and the world, for we can profit from the mistakes of generations. Our family tree brings us much closer with the past, and makes it a reality rather than isolated facts. But to let it become the end itself is a mistake…”When her Grandmother Nichols gave June photos and records and asked her to keep the family history, she had no idea what years of pleasure she was giving her granddaughter. Hours spent researching family history puzzles kept June inquisitive mind sharp. Life-long friendships and family ties developed that transcended the intervening miles.
While June had her serious side, she also enjoyed having a good time. She had a wicked sense of humor! Jokes were shared; stories were told. Her passion for reading mysteries was inherited by her daughters, and for years boxes of books crossed between South Dakota and California. Watching British mysteries on TV, especially Prime Suspect, occupied many nights.
Her interests and activities were so wide-ranging: farming/ranching, gardening, flower arranging, sewing, wine making, quilting, collecting (barbed wire, salt & pepper shakers, cups & saucers, coins, stamps), bird watching, photography, art, cake decorating, furniture refinishing, canning, tanning hides, travel, genealogy, ecology and conservation, music, reading… The diversity of her life ensured that those who knew her were enriched.
In 1999 she had a serious bout of pneumonia, and in August of 1999 she entered the Good Samaritan Prairie View Center in Miller, South Dakota. She was quite prepared for the end, and insisted that no one get her a year 2000 calendar because she didn’t plan to be there for the celebrations. Life wasn’t done with her though. Her body had worn out but her mind was sharp. She died on January 25, 2002.
Acquisition of the Ranch by US Fish & Wildlife Service
June had left the property to be divided equally between her four children. Her three daughters all lived in California and had lives of their own. Her son Richard had moved back to South Dakota in 1999 to help manage her affairs, but he also had no interest in operating a ranch. There was no real choice but to sell the Highmore farm and the ranch.
The sale of the Highmore farm was fairly straightforward. The disposition of the ranch land was a different matter. In recent years much of the remaining native prairie has been broken up. June’s children respected and shared their mother’s views. They did not wish to see the land broken. They wanted to see the wildlife habitats preserved. And they wanted the ranch land to remain as a single unit.
A number of people expressed interest in purchasing the ranch land. The sticking point was that the family wanted to ensure that the land not be broken and that at the same time they wanted a competitive price. When Richard heard about the grassland easement program run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service he visited the Huron, South Dakota, office to learn more about the USF&W; programs. At first it seemed that the USF&W; programs would not be relevant because the heirs wanted to sell the land in the near future, whereas there was a long lead time for placing an easement on the land.
After the USF&W; representatives, Rich Madson and Bill Mulvaney, had explained the available programs, they asked where the land was. When they looked at maps showing waterfowl production rates in the Hyde county area, their interest peaked. The map showed that the regions of high waterfowl production rates were all in northern Hyde County EXCEPT for a band through southern Hyde County centered on the Harter ranch.
Although USF&W; typically acquires smaller areas, they realized this was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Virgin prairie is rapidly vanishing; lands that once hosted nesting waterfowl are being plowed under. This was a chance to preserve a prime block of virgin prairie particularly suitable for waterfowl production. The US Fish & Wildlife Service purchased nine quarters (1440 acres), almost all of it virgin prairie, in the summer of 2002.
Since acquisition, USF&W; has made improvements on the land to enhance its waterfowl production value. These include the construction and rehabilitation of several water impoundment dams and boundary fence repairs. Future goals for the property include managing the land to provide wildlife habitat and maintaining the diversity of native plant species.
The West Dam, July 2004
This page was last updated August 1, 2005.