Early promoters and settlers of Western South Dakota had big dreams as the 19th century moved into the 20th century. It was the era of President Theodore Roosevelt whose optimistic enthusiasm for this country's greatness caught the imagination of most Americans. He was a risk taker and so were the settlers of the Witten community who pursued their own individual visions of the so-called "American Dream" as homesteaders set down roots in the newly-opened Rosebud Area.
Carl Gunderson in July 1983 surveyed the land in south central South Dakota which now includes Tripp County and in December 1906 a bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress proposing the opening of one million acres of land on the Rosebud Indian Reservation for homesteaders. President Roosevelt issued the proclamation declaring the land open to settlement on August 26, 1908. The U.S. government established the townsite of Witten in the North 1/4 of Section 21, Township 100, Range 78 West on April 1, 1909. The government platted the land and lots were sold at public auction in Gregory, SD, on June 7, 1909. The townsite was named after James W. Witten who was in charge of of filling for the newly opening lands in the Rosebud Area.
But Witten was not the only town competing for prominence in the area. No one at the time could have imagined that in months "Old" Witten would have beat out rival Red Hill, a town which had been established first just across the road to the north of the new townsite. Nor could they have forecast that two decades later they would have to pull up stakes and move their buildings two miles further south to a newer townsite location, because of an arbitrary decision by a railroad.
But in those days chance, disaster, or even a flip of a coin could decide your fate as it did for the very first white settlers of the area--David Cole and Daniel Smith--who left their homesteads in Gregory County in 1907 before Witten was formed. Both were interested in buying a half section of land from the Indians. The call of a coin flip decided that David Cole would but the North 1/2. They built homes on the land and moved in late 1908. The land owned by the Smiths and the Coles bordered the north line of what was to become "Old" Witten. Other early settlers included Adam Adel, Louis Reinke and L .V. Anderson.
Dan Smith was one of three promoters to form the Red Hill Townsite Co. in the Southwest 1/2 of Section 16 just across the road from the first Witten. His pre-homestead house, well and storm cellar are still standing. The original Cole home burned down.
Orville Smith, now 94 who may have been the first white male born in Tripp County, can still recall Indians by the score arriving in the evening with horse drawn wagon teams and pitching their teepees for the night on the creek south of the Smith house as they journeyed to pick up meat at an Indian Agency ration station on further west.
The Smith house was also a stopover for homesteaders on their way to settle their 160-acre claims. Smith also hired out to locate homestead sites for the settlers and to haul lumber and other supplies on the treeless and windblown prairie where summer temperature could reach 110° and winter temperatures could go to 30° below zero. Five Smith family members were born in the tiny house. One of the homesteaders, on his way to his claim, died in his sleep on a mattress in the attic from measles. A few weeks late, infant girl, Edna smith, who would have been Orville's older sister, also died of measles. Orville was born in the house two months later. Orville and Luevern Smith's daughter, Darlene, was born in the same house in 1937. Clearly, this part of the West was not for the fainthearted. Only those who preserved survived. The others left after a year or two.
Red hill, west of the Dan Smith pre-homestead home, was the first contender for a town in the area, with promoters selling lots starting on March 3, 1909. Several business places were up and running before the Witten lot sale began on June 7 of that seam year. Red Hill businesses included, The Farmers State Bank, The Ewing Store, The German-American State Bank, The Hollenbeck Grocery and Meat Market, two lumberyards, and two livery stables (one owned by George McDonald and the other by Frank Moeller), two saloons (one owned by the Flynns) and Drees Brothers General Merchandise Store. Red Hill also had several small offices and a schoolhouse, but no post office was ever built there.
Dorwood Mercantile Co. proclaimed itself the first store in what was eventually to be remembered as "Old" Witten. The Wells Hardware Store was another of the earliest stores in the first Witten. "The Tripp County Index," newspaper volume 1, number 1, began publishing in "Old" Witten on July 1, 1908, before the commission had even approved the Witten plat. W. E. (Doc) Bridgman, its publisher, and come to Witten from Lamro (which had been beaten out for county seat by Winner, also on an arbitrary decision by the railroad to bypass an existing town.) The same newspaper, now called "The Witten Index", a year later noted Witten's population had grown to 210. It was running ads from Vanderzee and Bailey Hardware, Dorwood Mercantile Co., Hotel Tripp, Nelson Hardware, Atlas State Bank, Farmers State Bank, Montgomery Lumber Co. and several other businesses.
By now the thriving town also boasted of a land office, an auctioneer, a physician Dr. C. H. Swett, a drugstore, a blacksmith shop, Drees Brothers Store and three saloons. Businesses just built across the road north from the George Worcester home, now owned by Harold Bridgman, moved down the hill and southeast to "Old" Witten's Main Street. State Bank (later purchased by the Atlas State Bank) The move into "Old" Witten's Main Street businesses section were wells Hardware Store, Vanderzee and Bailey Hardware and the Atlas State Bank. Harold Bridgman, present mayor "Old" Witten, is the only remaining resident. The half section of the original town site on which he lives is still assessed, showing taxes paid on lots instead of acres.
Farmers State Bank, which was chartered in Red Hill on June 15, 1909, had its own series of misfortunes even adventure. Started by Ed Hood, the bank was moved to "Old" Witten with the rest of Red Hill's businesses. Werner H. Rahn had moved to Witten from Ponca, NE, and purchased Farmers State Bank in 1913. In 1915 the bank burned to the ground, but the Rahn brothers rented a saloon building and returned to business as usual. One morning in the early 1920s as Werner Rahn opened the bank he smelled cigarette smoke, so as a precaution he propped open the front door. As he walked to the rear of the building a man with a gun batted him over the head. Partially stunned, the banker broke for the door and fell outside and called for help. The would be robbers got nothing and sped away in a Buick car, with the Rahn brothers and now alerted townspeople in pursuit. Unfortunately the culprits made a clean getaway and were never heard from again.
Other businesses that moved from Red Hill to "Old" Witten included Joe F. Healy's real estate office, Dr. Dehart (who also had a drug store in addition to being a physician), Longworthy Saloon, a pool hall, the Dorwood Mercantile Co. and Doane Sear Lumber Co. Those moves from Red Hill did not come without pain, but the bitter rivalry was settled somewhat when the Witten chamber of Commerce finally agreed to pay moving expenses.
Also in "Old" Witten was a hotel owned by Mrs. Ida Fettinger, which served meals; the Howard Long restaurant; the Ray Eveleth Meat Market; Fred Rahn Ford Agency; and J. A. McDonald Store. Mrs. Eveleth (Mae) for a short time also ran a restaurant. Lewis Kennedy (father of Keo Kern) bought the Vanderzee Hardware Store and implement business in 1911 and ran that business for several years. His wife, Irene Kennedy, was a midwife and delivered many babies in Tripp County.
Fires in those days were devastating. The Joe F. Healy Real Estate Office and the adjourning building, known as the Gran-Rity Building, burned to the ground on Jan. 17, 1913. Then, on July 1915 a fire fed by strong wind and intense heat, destroyed 10 of the best business buildings in town, including The Atlas State Bank, Farmers State Bank, Dehart Drug Store, German-American Bank, Dorwood Mercantile Co., Boardman Office Building, Adel Building, Longworthy Hollenbeck Building, and the Short Building. Loss, estimated at $50,000, was termed the "most destructive fire in the history of the Rosebud area". Most of the businesses that were lost, however were rebuilt or started up again in other buildings. A new school house, built in 1921-22, burned to the ground after having been used for only six weeks. A new school building was started immediately.
Businesses and land were often sold over and over, making keeping track difficult and often confusing. Frank Harter and Frank Smith, who ran a hardware store, later sold out to Fred Kern and Fred Dusek. Dusek also worked at Framers State Bank. Lewis Kennedy sold his hardware store in "Old" Witten to the Klappals and his implement business to J. G. Evers George Thatch and John Schwarting, a son-in-law of the Fettings, were carpenters. Schwarting built the Fettinger Hotel. Foley Allison had a service station. Ray Ballenger was a garage mechanic but also had worked at the Kautz Garage. George and Charles Worcester owned the Atlas Short ran a butcher shop. Charles Dewes and Joe Bachmann both had blacksmith shops. Both Martin Reinke and Dick Bridgman ran separate pool halls. Mrs. Ada Burns bought the Witten Hotel in August 1929. Adam Adel, who had a farm west of town, also operated a saloon. In September 1922 Lewis Kennedy died of a heart attack while fighting a prairie fire near Witten. Joe Long and Ray Moore ran a freight line that was later sold to Harry Kern and H. W. Abbey.
The decision in 1929 to build the extension of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad line from Winner to Wood on a path that missed "Old" Witten by about two miles to the south sealed the fate of "Old" Witten to the dustbin of history. The Shirley-Caldwell Co. was the contractor for the railroad grade to a point five miles west of Winner. The contractor further west was England Construction Co. Mules were used to haul the dirt for the rail bed. Morganfield Brothers Engineering, contractors from Winner, employed over 300 men to build the railroad bridges from Winner to Wood during the summer of 1929.
Despite having survived the "Great Depression" and World War II, the railroad gradually lost out to truck freighting, automobile travel, a declining population and a changing rural economy. Rail service from Winner to Wood was abandoned on January 27, 1960. The depot was sold to Milo Hanson who moved it to his farm. The section house was sold several years prior to that and moved to the Otto Pochop farm east of Witten.
Witten Townsite Co., banking on economic growth, despite hard economic times, bought land for the site of "New" Witten at a land sale on May 25, 1929. Lots were allocated and their initial sale was held Sept. 17, 1929.
By the summer of 1930, most of the buildings in "Old" Witten had been moved to "New" Witten, leaving only Atlas State Bank's cement bank vault, a school house and a few homes at the "Old" Witten site. In early 1930s the "Old" Wittten School, built in 1924-25, was moved to "New" Witten.
With Elias Foster as the supervisor and John Schwarting as helper, using Work Progress Administration labor, each segment of the school was marked, then dismantled and hauled to "New" Witten where it was reassembled. The building served as a high school until 1969 when students were sent to Winner or Wood. Today it still serves Witten grade school students.
A block of new brick buildings were also built in "New" Witten. The Farmers State Bank, which later moved to Winner, owned one of the buildings. Farmers State Bank in Winner sold a recently constructed back to Northwestern Bank in the 1990s. After a few years First National then sold the back to Well Fargo, present owners. Two new elevators, two new lumberyards also were built in "New" Witten located side by side on Main Street and were in business for several years. "The Witten World", which started in 1930, wasn't so lucky closing after only a few years of operation.
"Old" Witten's three churches--St John the Baptist Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, and St. John's Lutheran Church-- were moved to "New" Witten. The first Catholic Church burned down shortly after it was moved, so the congregation latched on to the Carter Baptist Church that had been moved to Witten and converted into a hall and they reconverted it into a church. The Witten Catholic Church closed its doors in the late 1990s, but the main altar and large crucifix went to St. Ann's Church in Keyapaha. The original Baptist Church was moved to Rosebud Valley when the new Baptist Church, presently serving Witten, was built. The Baptist and Lutheran Churches are still active in Witten.
The "Old" Witten Post Office was established June 12, 1909, with Henry M. Carrol as the first postmaster. He served until Oct. 10, 1919, when Tom Worsely, who served until July 1930, was appointed postmaster. Worsely, had the distinction of serving in both the "Old" Witten and "New" Witten post offices. Other postmasters included: George Worcester, Harry Kern, and Frances Einkoff. Josie Richards served from 1943 to 1961; Roseland Jordan from May 1, 1961, until June 30, 1980, and Gayle Long, from July 1, 1980 to the present.
Bill McManigal was an early mail carrier. Harry Kern who retired as postmaster in 1937 to become a rural carrier served the Witten route until he retired on Feb. 5, 1970. Kern died in January 1984. The route was then consolidated with the Ideal route and the Late Don Roosa from Ideal was the carrier until the route was again consolidated with Winner Rural Route 2. 2 was then carried by James Osborn, then Alvin (Jake) Holthus, and presently by Allan Croston.
Depot agents included H. W. Abbey, appointed in November of 1929, Fred Deffenbaugh, Sarah (Mrs. John) Meyer, Don Auld and Betty (Mrs. Paul) Abbey. Betty served from 1946 to 1950. Maxine Chambers served in 1950 and then Betty returned to serve from 1951 to 1960.
Rural communities are different nowadays with greater spaces between settlements, but Witten can still get a crowd of a couple hundred to a potluck supper, a benefit for the volunteer fire department or out to watch its magnificent 4th of July fireworks display, put on by the fire department. So , despite all that's happened, it's still a community with just more breathing space than those places with population explosions.
Source: Tripp County Historical Society, Heritage Tour, Witten Area, Sunday September 21, 2003.