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Chamberlain and Me: Growing Up Together

by Merrie K. Fuller, granddaughter of Melroy Fuller

Many tales have been told about the origins of Chamberlain and Brule County. This is one such tale, seen
through the eyes of Nellie Louise Fuller Carey. A prolific letter writer, she left behind many accounts of the
country and community, along with those of her own family. Although her family had a home in Chamberlain,
they lived and worked on several of the local Indian reservations.
The family arrived in the Chamberlain area in 1880; they moved on sometime around 1892. Nellie’s father,
Melroy, was one of the first town officers, and started one of the first newspapers in Chamberlain, the Chamberlain
Chief
. Never content, he seemed to alternate between the newspaper industry and carpentry throughout his life. The
following are excerpts from some of the letters written by Nellie Fuller Carey to her daughter. They have been provided
by Lois Reimers, granddaughter of Nellie.
“My father and mother were living in Spring Valley, Minnesota in 1879. There were already three of us children:
myself (Nellie), Mabel and Hattie. My father had a carpenter shop there, having learned the trade from his father,
David Fuller, a carpenter and Dean of the Baptist Church in Chautauqua County, NY.
My father decided to head west so the family moved to Marion Junction, South Dakota. There Father built a
two story building. The first story was a printing office, and the second story was our home. After building it the
town was surveyed and it was found that Father’s building was built in the center of the street. The building had to be
moved back on a lot he bought. I can remember how my father made a big croquet ground right back of his office. Half
of the town people came there to play croquet.
My father began to get restless and said to mother that he thought the town of Marion Junction would never grow,
and he still wanted to go farther west-clear out to Chamberlain, SD on the Missouri River. Father went on ahead and
sent for us to come on behind. Mother took one of those old time omnibuses. They had great big bands of leather
under the body of the bus to hold it up and was used for springs. The bus would swing back and forth. The driver had
a seat right up in front while we were in seats down lower in the back. There was a man passenger who sat with the
driver and we could hear the driver telling about the Indians who lived five miles from Chamberlain, down on the
Missouri River. The stories frightened us girls.
It was a long journey. The last town we reached before Chamberlain was Kimball. At last we could see some
hills in the distance and were anxious to reach them. The coach driver told us they were called “The Hog’s Back”.
When we reached the top of the hills, we could see the Missouri River and look down onto the town called
“Chamberlain”. The coach driver stopped for us to enjoy the sight. I will never forget the scene; standing there as a
seven-year-old child, as  I looked down upon the many shanties and tents of the settlers, who had come to build
homes and settle down.
We started down a long steep hill and soon met our father, who took us to what they called “the hotel”, which
was part shanty and part tent. Here we stayed until Father could find a place for us. The only place our father could
find for us to live in was a “dug out”, which was a cave on the side of a hill. We lived in the dugout until father could
build us a shanty like some of the settlers were living in at that time.
He had started his newspaper printing office, the Chamberlain Chief, so he only had odd times to work on the
new home. We decided to move in one night when a big storm came up, even though only three sides were finished.
We had straw ticks on the dirt floor, and the rain brought many toads in, hopping on our beds.
Father did enough business with his newspaper to build us a nice little home of our own eventually. There were no
railroads so all supplies were brought up from down the river on big steamboats and when we heard a boat whistle,
everyone in town would run down to get their supplies, mail, and hear the news. The boats burned wood so they
would  bring great big loads of cut wood to the boats and store it down in the boiler room. Then the boat would pull
out from the shore and start up the river.
I will never forget when the first railroad was built in l881, which was a freight train that came into Chamberlain.
Everyone in town was down to welcome them and even if it was a freight train with red cars and the caboose at the
end we thought it was wonderful. It was the end of the railroad track. It was a good many years before they built a
railroad on the other side of the river.
Before the railroad was built the freighters used to come up with great big wagons and mules, with freight for the
Black Hills and camped down near the river in tents until daylight. They were called the “Bull Whackers” and were
a hard bunch. When they dressed for the evening to have a good time, they wore bright red shirts and would ride
their mules up and down die streets and as there were saloons, they would get to drinking gin and whoop and holler
half of the night. Then, in the morning before day light. they were all packed up and took their mules, wagons and freight
across the river in big flatboats on their way to the Black Hills.
The settlers began to build a small school house, church, and a store, and of course Father had his small newspaper
office. Some people named Pilger built a building and they called it the  Pilger Hotel. It began to look like a little village
and we lived there for a while. There were a few who farmed around the hills near town but up north was government
land and had never been opened up for the settlers.
Some people talked my father into going down to Wheeler, in Charles Mix County, on the Missouri River to set
up his printing office there. Father sold his newspaper and moved us to Wheeler. This was 1881. Wheeler was a small
place. There were no schools. There was a white man married to an Indian woman and had several children, who we
used to play with. Their father ran a store, the only one in town. There were only a few buildings in the town.
I remember how frightened we were when the Indians decided to have what they called a war dance near town.
They dress up in plenty of feathers which hung in long strips from the crown of their heads clear down their backs
and went down to their feet. They had all kinds of fancy articles such as bells, ect., fastened to their ankles and at that
time it was nothing to see a whole belt hung with long hair scalps, fastened to their belts. Some were black and some
were blonde and even little scalps from babies.
They first built their fire and each Chief that takes part has a long piece of sinew that has been cut from a buffalo
or some kind of animal, then they drive stakes into the ground in a circle around the fire. They fasten the string of sinew
to the stake and they take the other end and cut a slit in their own bodies and fasten this to themselves. When they dance,
the blood nuns down and if they are faint or give up, they are branded as a coward and are made to leave and ever
after that, they must wear squaws clothes. We saw this dance while living in Wheeler. It was the last war dance they
allowed them to dance at Wheeler.
There were no railroads leading into Wheeler. The steamboats came up the river with supplies, or things were
freighted down from a place called Bijou Hills. One time, my father heard that a steam boat was coming up the river
and was going to stop for fuel, and that they were bringing Chief Sitting Bull. Father gathered us all up and we all went
to see him and shake hands with him as he was one of the most noted chiefs in the Battle of Custer out in the Little Big Horn.
A few miles from Wheeler there was a small place called Greenwood. My father was asked to come over there and
set up a printing office for the Sioux Indians. He took mother and the baby and went to build the printing office.
The winter came on and it was hard. We ran out of supplies and the snow was so deep that the men decided to take
a big bobsled and go to Bijou Hills for supplies. On their way back, the barrel of coal oil leaked onto the flour and half
of the potatoes froze, so we ate a lot of beans. Father ran out of printing paper so had to go down to the store and buy
some wallpaper to print his newspaper on.
After a year in Wheeler, Father once again sold his newspaper and decided to go back to carpentry again, taking con-
tracts. He won a bid from the Benedictine Monks to build a school for the Indians about 20 miles north of Chamberlain
at Crow Creek. He got ready and we packed our belongings in a big wagon and started for Crow Creek. It was all
prairie land with only one lonely shanty. There Father Willard. a Catholic priest who came from Fon du Lac., Wisconsin,
did his own cooking and washing and held church in a tent for a while. My father had a crew of men lay the foundation
which was made of stones for the big Catholic school. Then a crew of carpenters came to finish the building. When
it was finished, they called it  Stephan.
As children, we roamed over the big wide prairies where there were places called prairie dog towns. They were
little thick mounds of dirt where the prairie dogs had dug their holes. One thing that seemed queer to us was there
were so many rattlesnakes that seemed to live with the prairie dogs. We liked to go down to the creek best for there
were all kinds of trees for shade, and also berries such as wild gooseberries, Juneberries, and buffalo berries. There were
also wi1d choke cherries, red and yellow plum trees, and grapes. In some places along the creek there were wild
potatoes which are very small and grew on a vine, there were also wild onions and small turnips. Of course this was in
the early days and there is hardly anyone living now that ever saw any of these vegetables that I have mentioned. but I have
picked them and eaten them myself.
It took my father 10 months to build this big Catholic School. When finished, they sent more priests, about five,
also Catholic teachers and nurses. Then they opened the school and the Indian children all came in groups. It was like
a big boarding school.
Having finished with the school, we started back to our home in Chamberlain. At last we thought we were settled
down in our old home for good, but it was not for long as my father was asked by the government to move down to
Lower Brule and onto an agency to teach the Indian boys the carpentry trade. Not long after he had started teaching,
one of his married students had an infant die. Father offered to build a coffin and Mother took her white satin to line the
coffin; backing it with cotton to make it soft. After that, Father made coffins for all who asked, since he said what he
did for one he must do for all.
There was a store there, where the Indians could buy or trade for goods. Mostly they traded different kinds of animal
hides. This small village had just one street. The man who had charge of the agency lived in the first house; the doctor
lived in the next house, then we lived in the third house. Next to us were the two men who taught farming, then a small
building like a restaurant for the people who traveled around sightseeing or cared to stay all night. Next was a blacksmith
shop and last, the store.
There was a big space between the town and the Missouri River where the men played ball or could camp. There
was a nice little church as well. The minister was an Indian who was married to a white woman.
When the Indians came in on Saturday and received their rations, they all drove out to a big corral about a mile from
town. Here the officials would have some steers ready for the farmers to set in motion inside the corral. As the steers
would begin to run around in circles, two men who were standing upon a platform in the center, would take turns shooting
the steers as they passed by. When all were killed the corral gate was opened and each Indian would bring in his Indian
pony and drag out the steer that he wanted to butcher and take home for the family. Sometimes the squaws would help
the Indian men as they were butchering their steers.
I well remember when President Arthur opened the Government land for settlers and caused a lot of trouble. The
people just rushed in from all directions to file on a claim. They could not touch any of the land where the agency was,
but they came to look it over just the same. Then Cleveland was elected President of the United States. He recalled
the Government land and held it until the Indians had first choice as they wanted to take land down on the river bottom so
as to have plenty of water and fuel. People who had settled made trouble for the Indians so the government sent men down
on the river bottom right in front of the agency to build barracks for the soldiers. When finished there was a big army
sent to take charge of the settlers and drive them off. The soldiers where stationed there about a year when all the bar-
racks were taken down and moved away. The Indians took over the land they wanted and the reservation was open-
ed up again and the settlers had to take what was left and things became settled once more.
My father and mother began to plan on sending my sister Mabel and  me over across the river to Chamberlain
to go to school, which was five miles north from the agency. We still had our own home and they fixed us living quarters
there so we could go to school. Once a month we would walk down the five miles on this side of the river and when we
were straight across we put up a white flag and my father would come over in a row boat and get us. When it was winter
we could walk across on the ice or go over to the island, which is right across from Chamberlain. An Indian named
Good Heart who lived on the island would take his Indian ponies and take us across the island. Then, on the other side we
had a boat to go across and was met with a team to drive the rest of the way to the agency.
We would go up into the hills and watch the buffaloes in the distance grazing on the buffalo grass and wandering down
to the Missouri River to water. While riding our ponies we would scare up prairie chickens, grasshoppers or run into a pile
of Russian thistles and maybe see a skunk or two, and sometimes scare up a prairie dog or two.  Then again, we would see
a sod shanty and tepee where the Indians were located. We would ride over there as the Indians were quite friendly.
We would get off our ponies and say “How-Cola” which means “How do you do friends” and shake hands. The squaws
were making moccasins, and sewing on small colored porcupine quills which is quite a sight. The squaws would take a
porcupine quill in between her front teeth two or three times to flatten the quill which the Indians had colored. They had dyes
they used which is a secret to the white people. Their colors are very bright, especially red. They do some fine work with
the quills, sewing them down flat in rows. Some of the squaws were getting dinner out in the open in fires built of wood pick-
ed up along the river bottom. They hung a kettle on some long sticks which stuck up and fastened together over the fire and
thus, they cooked their food.
Indians raise a lot of dogs to eat so it was nothing to see them cooking some of them. We had to refuse, because it look-
ed like a big storm was coming and we thought we should head for home. This storm carne all right and turned out to be a
big cyclone which had a big spout hanging down to the ground and it tore up the earth and grass and made a big roaring
noise. But while going across the prairies, it soon lifted and did not do much damage.,
The last year that we lived at Lower Brule was one we will never forget. We were living among the Sioux Indians and
word came to us from the Rosebud Reservation that the Indians had gone on the war path. They were a different tribe of
Indians than the Sioux Indians and they commenced to kill the white people with their guns. The government sent out their
soldiers right away and a good many were killed with their bows and arrows. We heard terrible stories about the battle and
things that took place. Little Indian babies were found alive on the battle fields while their mothers were lying dead. All kinds
of scalps of the soldiers were found upon the Indians who had killed them.
Night after night, we were kept awake as the Indians were going through the town and giving their war whoops. The war
cry of the Indian just goes through a person like a cold chill and we could hardly stand it, but the soldiers were too much for
the Indians and they were stopped. I believe that was the last outbreak of war the government had with the Indians.
Soon after this we left the reservation, going back to our old home in Chamberlain. Father went back to his carpentry.
The town seemed so much more genteel by this time; not resembling nearly as much the shanty and tent town we had first
seen 10 years before.
A short, peaceful time in Chamberlain was soon interrupted with another move. My sister Mabel had met a young man
who worked carpentry for Father. Emory Knotts and Father started talking, and decided to flip a coin. The coin landed
heads up, and the family headed to Salem, SD, to start another newspaper with Emory Knotts as a partner.
Nellie’s story continues on, telling of several more moves and several more newspapers Melroy built. The saga leaves
the Chamberlain and Brule County area, and moves to other locales.
   This letter,one of several, was written by Nellie Louise Fuller Carey to her daughter in 1940, as a way of remembering
the history of both the country and the family. The Fuller family left the Chamberlain, Brule County area, but not with-
out contributing to its history and development. In “A Short History of Brule County”, Melroy (M. A. ) Fuller is listed on
page 51; “The first town officers were George Wright, J. M. Lane, S. W. Duncan, as trustees; M. A. Fuller, J. M. Long,
Attorney; S. D. Stoddard Treasurer.” He built the Greenwood Sioux language printing office, the original Catholic School
at Stephan, and taught carpentry for many years  to members of the Lower Brule Reservation. He went on to build
schools and more printing offices in other places, always wanting to go further west. He passed away in 1932, in Baker-
sfield, CA, having spent his life traveling slowly from NY to CA. Nowhere did he make an impact on the community,
though, as much as he did in Chamberlain.
Melroy’s son Fred homesteaded in the Slim Buttes area in NW South Dakota, and was a founding member of the
newly designated Harding County, where he served two terms of office as County Treasurer. He also was in the news-
paper business, which hascarried down through the family. However, carpentry has not!
(Signed) Merrie K. Fuller Sodder, granddaughter of Melroy Fuller’s son Fred.