My maternal grandfather, Dan Dean Myers, was born in Onawa, Iowa, on 5 December 1886. His life story is compelling enough, I think, to interest even those who may not be directly related to him. I know very little about his childhood and early life in Onawa. In 2011 I received a childhood picture of Dan and his younger brother Henry. Click here to view Dan’s place in the family tree.
The earliest documents to surface, which tell nothing about Dan himself, are a pair of letters to him from his brother during the Spanish-American War. From the MeMe tapes came a couple of anecdotes about his courtship with Lillian Drayer.
Dan Myers, part I: Thunder Hawk
Dan married Lillan Drayer in 1909, and moved to a homestead in southwestern North Dakota, near Leipzig (now called “New Leipzig,” after the whole town was moved a short distance). They didn’t stay on the homestead long, but soon sold or traded it, and acquired the general store/post office in the tiny village of Thunder Hawk, SD, on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation.
Some of their children, including my mother, were born in the living quarters behind this store. In 2003, I visited Thunder Hawk and photographed the ruins below, which I believe to be of the same building. Some local residents told me that it had housed a general store until after World War II, then was a tavern until the 1960’s.
The building to the left of the ruins, also abandoned, had been the post office after it was separated from the general store, according to my informants. There are today no businesses or public facilities in Thunder Hawk, only a handful of run-down homes and a large, abandoned Indian Agency schoolhouse.
From time to time, religious revival meetings were held on the reservation or in the nearby farm country. Dan was a confirmed skeptic, and was known to argue with or heckle the preachers. His preferred pastimes were hunting, fishing, and motorcycle racing.
Dan Myers, Part II: Come to Zion
Lillian Drayer (Myers) was a tiny woman, well under five feet tall, whose weight even in her prime never reached 100 pounds.
In addition, her health was unstable, and one can imagine that giving birth must have been an ordeal for her, even under the best of circumstances. Nevertheless, by 1917 Dan and Lillian boasted four little ones. Clockwise from top (oldest to youngest): Bernard, Helen, Reatha, Velma.
In 1919, the birthing of their fifth child was especially critical. The baby was very large, and complications ensued. The midwife believed that Lillian would not survive it. She told Dan that if he knew any prayers, he had better say them. Dan the skeptic got down on his knees, the story goes, and promised his life in the service of God, if only the lives of his wife and baby were spared.
Mother and baby Esther did survive, and Dan was true to his word. He sold the store and moved with his family to Zion, Illinois, a Chicago suburb which, as its name suggests, was an important center of the Pentecostal revivalist movement.
In Zion, Dan trained for the ministry. It was not a formal, seminary-type education, involving no diploma nor ordination. As best I can ascertain, it was more like “on-the-job” training, preaching and working in places like the temple pictured above, and at storefront missions on Chicago’s Skid Row. My mother recalled singing and worshiping with him at these inner-city revivals.
After two or three years in Zion, Dan the preacher was ready to hit the road.
Dan Myers, part III: Travels
For more than two decades, Dan Myers the preacher traveled the length and breadth of Montana, venturing as far west as Ontario, Oregon, and east across the Dakotas. Apparently he felt a special calling to minister to Native Americans, possibly because of the years he spent in Thunder Hawk. Some of his “ports of call” included the Absarokee mountains of western Montana, and St. Xavier, on the Crow reservation southeast of Billings.
Lillian and their five girls traveled along, seldom spending two school years in one place, while the eldest child, Bernard, stayed behind and went to boarding schools. Apparently Dan considered education more important for a male child, a prevailing attitude in the early 20th century.
Dan must have cut quite a figure as a preacher, with his commanding stature, his booming voice, and his ability to play a variety of musical instruments “by ear,” with no formal training.
Like many Pentecostals, Dan held some pretty strong and sometimes unorthodox opinions. He never took up a collection at his meetings, instead relying on odd jobs and personal gifts from his “converts” to sustain his family. Apparently his voice came in handy for other things besides preaching and singing, as for a time he hired himself out as an auctioneer.
In the winter, Dan earned a little money hauling coal in his modified Model-T truck, which in summer served as the family’s “mobile home.”
Standing on the left is my mother, Reatha, on the right her older sister Helen; seated between them are Velma, Esther, and the youngest daughter, Leah, born in 1921. Leah suffered from mental retardation, and possibly physical problems as well. She was placed in an institution as a teenager, and died there while in her twenties.
Note here the family’s sanitary facilities, located behind the left rear wheel of the truck. That brings me to a pet subject of mine: poverty.
Dan Myers, part IV: Poor as Church Mice
In the 1920’s and 30’s, my grandfather was a preacher of some renown in the Pentecostal movement. His name comes up repeatedly in the book Northern Harvest: Pentecostalism in North Dakota by Darrin J. Rodgers, published in 2003 by North Dakota District Council, Assemblies of God.
Ironically, some of Grandpa’s key teachings helped to prevent any lasting memory of him in the many communities he served, and also precluded any prosperity or even financial stability for him and his family. According to Rodgers, “Myers … taught the Pentecostals that they should not organize a church, erect a building, or affiliate with a denomination.” Consequently, what little conceptual structure came along with the preacher, his words, and his tent, vanished as soon as they moved on. Combined with his practice of never collecting an offering, this added up to a life of perpetual poverty for the Myers family. Here is a typical snapshot of the five girls outside one of their winter dwellings.
My mother related that during the long periods on the road in their “Gospel truck,” each child was allowed to possess, including her clothing, only as many items as would fit into an apple crate. Another anecdote dealt with suppers of macaroni with salt and a little butter, and nothing else. If a follower would gift them a dozen eggs or a bunch of turnips, it was cause for rejoicing.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Great Depression began years earlier for the Myers family than for the rest of the world. Perhaps the upside was that they were already accustomed to the poverty that gripped the entire Midwest during the following decade.
But the stresses that nearly broke the family apart came less from Grandpa’s poverty, than from his extremely restrictive attitudes toward most forms of social interaction.
Dan Myers, part V: Pentecostal Puritanism
While Pentecostalism is most noted for the uninhibited behavior of its worshipers (shouting, ecstatic waving and body movements, speaking in tongues, etc.), an equally important feature of most Pentecostals is their severe disapproval of any behavior deemed sinful (in this they differ very little from some other, non-Pentecostal Protestants). Depending on the leaders’ attitudes, this can include just about everything except certain kinds of work and worship. Of course, alcohol and tobacco were strictly forbidden. In fact, the influence of these groups in bringing about Prohibition was considerable.
But many Pentecostals went much further. Just a few of the things they (including Dan Myers), and again to be fair, some other Protestants, considered sinful were card games (whether or not gambling was involved), social dancing, motion pictures, popular music, stage entertainment of any kind, short skirts and short hair for women, makeup, jewelry … the list goes on and on.
As the Myers girls approached their teen years, the stage was set for intense conflicts. On one hand, the proscriptions of their faith; on the other, popular culture and peer pressure (not to mention awakening hormones) tore at the young people from every side.
When Reatha had earned her first few dollars as a baby-sitter, she bought herself a simple wristwatch. Her father considered this a frivolous waste, and on the pretense of fairness (since the other girls could not also have one), required her to return it to the store. Tensions escalated when she reached dating age. At least once, she was punished for attending a movie in the company of a male friend (not necessarily the one below).
The final straw apparently came when Reatha got her hair cut and styled in a modern fashion.
Dan informed her that she was no longer welcome to help him lead the singing at his services, which she had been doing for most of her life. He went so far as to rebuke her before the congregation. Whether under duress or by her own volition, Reatha left the home, putting herself through her last year of high school by keeping house at an apartment building near the school in Sidney Montana. She graduated in 1933 at age 19. Her sister Helen graduated the same year, at the age of 21. After graduating, she worked as a domestic at the farm of Walter Hart in the North Dakota borderlands southeast of Sidney.
Nearby to the Hart farm was that of widower Isaac Larson and his five boys. Reatha eloped with Lovell Larson in late 1934, and they moved to Washington state, where their first child, my sister Darlene, was born in 1935. Relations between Reatha and her father were still strained, but Lovell was adamant that their daughter not be deprived of contact with her grandparents, nor they with her.
Dan Myers, part VI: Happy Ending
With one-year-old Darlene, Reatha traveled by train to see Dan and Lillian in Savage, Montana, where they lived at the time. Esther and Leah were still living at home. On the left, Reatha, Darlene, Esther and Leah. On the right, Dan, Lillian, Helen and her husband Frank Sparks, Esther, Darlene, and Leah. Velma, whose falling-out with her parents was more severe than Reatha’s, had moved away, and never reestablished contact with them.
A year or two later, when Lovell had earned an annual summer vacation from his job at the mills, they all took the first of many, many summer road trips to visit family in Montana and North Dakota.
The arrival of Darlene must have been the catalyst for a deep and permanent reconciliation between Reatha and Dan. Despite their differences, we all enjoyed cordial relations and frequent visits back and forth. When I was born in 1947, Grandma came to Longview to help out. At some time during my infancy, they both came to visit.
Grandma also came to help when I was five and Bonnie was born. All my memories of Dan center around our nearly annual visits to Park City, Montana (near Billings), where Grandpa had retired and lived on a small plot near the center of the tiny town. There he raised a vegetable garden, a few sheep, pigeons, and honeybees.
Bonnie, Dan, George, Lovell, 1960. For his part, Dan learned to tolerate such objectionable habits as my dad’s smoking. I remember him as kind and patient, if somewhat severe. I remember especially his mealtime prayers as being loud and long.
Dan Myers died in 1965, and Lillian came to Longview, where she lived in a small apartment until her death in 1979. Consequently, I remember her more clearly. Most outstanding to me were her pleasant, unassuming disposition, quiet voice, ready smile, and shy, chuckling laugh.
Lillian Drayer Myers 1890-1979