20150629-DSCN1983I mentioned in my post about the Dakotas my opportunity to follow the journey of my ancestors through the Midwest. I’m finally in the mindset to put pen to paper (please excuse the antiquated colloquialism).

While chatting with my dad a few months ago I mentioned that I had a trip coming up to South Dakota. His eyes widened and excitement flashed on his face. “You know your grandad was born there, don’t you? Our family is from there,” he told me. In fact, I did not know – but I set my mind to finding out.

Train Museum Sacramento 1981
My grandpa, Russell Wilcox, was an amazing man. He worked for NASA and was part of the Apollo missions. Among the projects he was on – the Lunar Rover, the car they drove on the moon. But his story starts in the cattle country of Faith, South Dakota. I remember him telling me stories about calling square dances, and singing to the cattle to keep them calm. (I never knew if that was true or not. A friend says it is.) It seemed he could play any instrument with strings, piano included, and he sang like an old-fashioned cowboy. Which makes sense because, basically, that’s what he was. My parents often describe how much I adored him with this example- when I was a baby, every time grandpa would walk into the room, I would break out in applause.

He died far too young, and now I was going to stand in the place where he spent his early life. I was beyond excited.

wilcox farmI did the logical thing and started an Ancestry.com account. I’m not a paid spokesperson for them (however, if they’d like to talk…) but, that was a great idea. I plugged in the family information I had, and was soon connected to all kinds of information. There were pictures of my grandfather’s parents and grandparents and the family farmhouse in Huron, South Dakota. There was also information on their start in Wisconsin. Gasp! Wisconsin – where my trip would be starting out! How fun it was to see that where my Midwestern trip was starting is also the spot of the earliest accounts of my family. I didn’t get to see the exact county in Wisconsin but I was close.

From Wisconsin, the family traveled through Minnesota to the Dakotas. So did I, right in concert with one family line to Buffalo, Cass County, North Dakota. While searching for the cemetery that held my distant relatives, I stumbled across this fun street sign and a stone church.

Sidebar – while walking across the grass to get the church picture, I got stung on the foot by one heck of a bee! It hurt so much, I nearly gave up trying to find the cemetery.

wilcox stone-2


A little more driving soon revealed the cemetery and a quick walk around turned up plenty of Wilcox markers. If you believe that everyone with the same last name is related, then I’m probably related to all of them. But, I’m not sure about that line of thinking.

After a day in Buffalo, I had to spend several days working (that is, after all, why I got to go).

If you’d like to read about my actual work, you can do so here.

As it happened, work those days took me right through several of the places I had tracked my family line through, including Huron. While the early Wilcoxes made a home and farmed in Huron, I only drove through. I was traveling with a friend and colleague who served as my guide on my work trip. But, it was understood that I would need a photo from Huron. The question was: Where do I take it? What would capture not only me following the past, but me being myself?

And then we saw it.

The World’s Largest Pheasant.

It was perfect.
A memory I’ll treasure from Huron – because being silly and loving life are part of who I am.

A few more busy work days and long miles on the Dakota highways, and then Independence Day Weekend. Where else in South Dakota would you spend Independence Day but Mount Rushmore? (You can read my earlier Dakota blog to get more details and photos of the other places I went).

I spent the day visiting Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park.

Photo fail.
Photo fail.

The evening’s entertainment featured miles of fireworks over Rapid City, viewed from the comfort of my hotel parking lot. It was an impressive show that lasted for hours.
But I never did figure out the fireworks setting on my camera.



The next day, it was finally on to the place I was most excited about: Faith. I’m not sure how many people get thrilled about Faith, South Dakota, but from what I’ve seen they have a big rodeo and livestock show every year that must be pretty exciting.

Every mile of the South Dakota pastoral landscape is inviting. For a shutterbug, it can make for a long drive but a wonderful experience. (It really must be hell to travel with me sometimes.)
Driving through the state, I kept wondering – why would anyone leave this? I had that thought often in Wisconsin, too, because it’s so beautiful. I took this photo just a few miles outside of Faith, so I could show my dad what his dad’s homeland looked like. The photo doesn’t do it justice.
Then, finally, I made it.
Faith is a tiny town, compared to what I’m used to in California. It was around noon on Sunday when I was there. Faith, though lived in, felt almost deserted. A tour of the town’s empty streets took only minutes, and after dropping a post card to my dad in the mailbox, I settled in at the local bar for a plate of fries and a toast to my grandpa. The people I met briefly at the bar and at quick stops at the gas station and market were all very welcoming and friendly. I didn’t take pictures of the homes (because that’s a little creepy), but many were very charming. Some looked like they were probably there when my grandfather was born many years ago.

I was so wrapped up in thinking about him, my dad and my family roots, that I nearly left town without seeing one of the things I had found in my research and knew I needed to see.

Sue, the t-rex.
Don’t leave Faith without seeing Sue. Thankfully, the road out of the town led me right past her.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit the places your ancestors walked, do it. Maybe it’s because we’re the first in my family line to live in California and I’d never had that sense of family history here, but the trip was incredibly special to me.

Know what else is special? Enjoying the time with people in the present. My trip wasn’t only about the past. I got to spend time with great friends, who did a great job sharing their states with me. Let me know when I can return the favor.

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