Once again we spent a Sunday afternoon haunting beautiful ruins in beautiful country. The Meeker Ranch is an historic site now owned by the Forest Service, east and north of Custer, SD. It dates back to the 1880s, and was built by Frank Cunningham Meeker, who, according to the Black Hills and Badlands website, was a member of the Pony Express, which ran for a couple of years along the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage line. Frank Meeker named his idyllic 278-acre spread “Willow Creek.” The ranch passed through several ownerships over the years, finally coming into Forest Service possession in 2004. They undertook restoration and preservation of the ranch when acclaimed watercolor artist Jon Crane helped lobby against the slated demolition of the structures. This breathtaking historic site has been the target of some vandalism in the past, but overall is beautifully preserved. Inside the main ranch house, there are still shreds of curtains, canisters of coffee (these people were obviously coffee-drinkers!), hangers in the closet, old newspapers and magazines, and wallpaper on the walls. Glass sparkles in shards on the floor, whole jars littered among the wreckage. It must have been a lovely, fashionable home in its prime, and now just wisps of the memories cling here and there around the walls.Around the homestead, perched on the hillside in among massive boulders and rock outcroppings, other structures cling tenaciously. The barn fittingly presides over the other structures, towering above them in wonderful condition, while the others have fallen into some level of decay. Buildings out here, scattered through the Hills, are so old and rugged that they seem to have sprung from the ground, rather than to have been built upon it. They belong where they are.
Frogs were singing in the little marsh below the house, singing and trilling so loudly it was almost uncomfortable – What a beautiful summery sound! The scent of pine resin was heavy in places, another sign of summer-to-come. Every time I get a breath of resin in the warm sunlight, a wave of nostalgia breaks over my soul, wrapped up in the beautiful memories I’ve treasured since childhood, of this place I now get to call home. Wildflowers were blooming along the short trail, little goldenpeas and pussy toes and even a few long spur violets. Springtime is truly here! To get there, head north out of Custer on Sylvan Lake Road. Take a right on Willow Creek Road. After a couple of miles, the road will become considerably rougher and narrower, so don’t take a vehicle with low clearance. After about a half a mile on this stretch, there is a Forest Service gate and some parking space. The Forest Service access road continues beyond the gate, and is about a half mile hike to the ranch.
A stunning piece of history.
Due to late planting, we don’t really have much in the way of garden produce just yet – We’ve gotten a few zucchinis, a couple of cherry tomatoes, and a tiny handful of strawberries. And lots and lots of dill. The dill volunteered this year, so we left it as a pest deterrent. Unfortunately, though, we don’t have any usable cucumbers. So the girls and I drove in to Rapid to the farmer’s market this morning and picked up a few bags of pickling cucumbers and fresh garlic, and picked the dill fresh from our garden!
Twenty-four-hour dills are a generational favorite – Guaranteed to be ready in 24 hours, although Great-Aunt Margene says they can be ready in 12 hours. Make them in the morning and serve them at dinner! This is my great-grandmother Sarah Adrian’s dill pickle recipe.Grandma Sarah’s 24-Hour Dills
About 20 small-medium sized cucumbers
1/2 c. vinegar
1/2 c. pickling salt
6 1/2 c. water
dill, garlic gloves, and hot pepper, crushed red pepper, onions, or any other ingredients to tasteCombine the vinegar, salt, and water – According to Great-Aunt Margene, the solution doesn’t need to be boiled. However, I remember boiling it in the past, so I deviated from the recipe and boiled the brine. Wash cucumbers. Slice in spears, but leave attached at ends. Slicing them allows them to be properly steeped in the brine after 12-24 hours.Pack cucumbers in pint or quart-sized jars, with garlic and dill (and whatever other ingredients you are using) layered with them. Pour the brine over the cucumbers, and seal jars. Let sit for 24 hours, or to taste.I made one jar with the standard recipe, just garlic and dill, but the other two jars I dressed up a bit – One with crushed red pepper, the other with crushed red pepper and a few slices of hot banana pepper. It will be fun to see how those turn out. I made a little extra brine for a tiny jar for Grandma.
Canning is a skill that has nearly faded out of reckoning, but it is a useful and satisfying skill to have. And nothing beats homemade jams and jellies! Chokecherries have produced abundantly and early this year, and can be found growing all over the Black Hills. We picked and processed pounds and pounds of berries from our bountiful chokecherry harvest, and turned them into jelly, using Grandma’s recipe (slightly modified), which made it even more fun!
Grandma’s Chokecherry Jelly
1 pound of ripe fruit or 4-5 cups of berries (should yield 3 cups juice)
1/2 c. lemon juice
1 package powdered pectin
4 1/2 c. white sugar
Juice extraction: Put 1 pound of ripe fruit (4-5 cups of berries) in a large pot and cover with water. Simmer for 15 minutes, crushing the berries as they soften. Don’t crush the pits, since they are toxic. Strain fruit and water through a colander, jelly bag, or cheesecloth, saving the juice and setting the pulp aside. Put pulp in a pot and again add water to cover. Simmer again and strain again. Discard pulp. (For every 4-5 cups of berries, you should get at least 3 cups of juice. If necessary, use fruit pulp and water once more to get to the necessary 3 cups of juice. )
Jelly: Add 1/2 cup lemon juice to 3 cups chokecherry juice. Stir in 1 package of powdered pectin. Stir well. Let the juice mixture come to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. Once it boils, stir in the 4 1/2 cups of sugar, stirring constantly. Bring to a rolling boil. Be careful, particularly if you have an electric stove! The juice and sugar can boil over fast! For this part of the process, an extra pair of hands is helpful – One pair to add sugar and stir, and another pair with hot pads, ready to take the pot off the stove if it begins to boil up. Let boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly to keep it from scorching.
Skim the foam off the top. The skimmings are edible, though not can-able! Put jelly in sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Chokecherry jelly has become my favorite – I’ll be saving a jar back to enter in the county fair in a few weeks!
One of the best things about Black Hills weather is the coolness of the summer evenings. Even a day that reaches into the 90s and 100s will cool down to a comfortable temperature by night. We’ve gotten into the habit of eating dinner outside, because by dinnertime it is often much cooler outside than inside the house. How lovely to watch the evening settle, to have our dog nearby, to watch for the cats coming prowling in from the pastures and sheds where they doze away their days, to see and hear the bluebirds and kingbirds and cicadas.
After dinner, we worked in the garden, pulling weeds, tilling, and watering. It is terribly dry in all of South Dakota, but the Black Hills region in particular is in a state of severe drought. Forest and grass fires are a significant risk right now, and ranchers are feeling the effects of the lack of rainfall. Hay crops have been a fraction of what they are in a good year, and gardens are hard to keep watered. There isn’t much of a happy medium in this part of the country. Either we’re getting hailed out and flooded, or we’re dry as a bare-picked bone.
The sun set in a blaze of glories and we began to head towards the house. I was inside doing dishes when Mom called to me. “There’s a bat colony in the Miner’s Cabin!” she called. We had suspected as much about a month ago, but hadn’t verified this. I ran outside as fast as my sprained ankle would let me. She had already counted twelve bats leaving the Cabin attic, and we watched eight or nine more leave. What a sight! We could see them away over the stock dam, and high above our heads. We could hear them scrabbling softly before they emerged from the gable, and I could hear the tiniest, highest little vocal pitches of these amazing creatures as they wriggled out of their roost and swooped noiselessly into the evening. Judging by the number of bats we saw leave, we could have a maternity colony of fifty or more bats, including babies! We’ll have quite the project this fall making the Miner’s Cabin bat-proof. If there weren’t health risks associated with leaving bats in the attic, my vote would be to leave them. I love bats. Fascinating, beautiful little creatures.
Sarah and I watched Master and Commander this evening while I picked over chokecherries. Hopefully we’ll be making jelly on Saturday!
It is the moon of chokecherries, for which some of us have been eagerly waiting! All spring, I saw the flowers and made note of where the bushes were, and finally the fruit is ripening, ready to harvest. These small wild cherries make a delicious old-fashioned jelly, which I remember always on hand in my grandmother’s kitchen. She would put it out at nearly every meal. The chokecherries on the ranch apparently disappeared for awhile, but they have sprung up all along the driveway. Mom was in Rapid City today and visited her uncle, since he called to let her know the chokecherries were ripe at his place, and she came home with pounds and pounds of them. After she got back, a short drive up our driveway yielded another third of a gallon or so of cherries. And many more to ripen, along with a few golden currant bushes I know of on our property! I also know of a great spot for chokecherries along Hwy. 44. But it is a secret.
After abusing my ankle yesterday, I was back to crutches and limited activity again today and honestly, I wasn’t too happy about that, even though it was my own fault. I had just started indulging in a pity-party when Mom came into the house. “Are the cows supposed to be out?” she asked. I looked outside, and of course the answer was “no.” The cows weren’t just “out.” They were out just about in our front yard! The pity-party didn’t last too much longer, and I hobbled outside with my camera to take pictures of the cattle, and to call my uncle to give him the head’s up.
The cows had found a hole in the fence, and the green grass and water in the dam were irresistible, I guess. They were pretty content, and I think we could have left them and they’d still be there tomorrow. Uncle Stuart was out fencing, and when he drove up in the beat-up ranch Toyota, he, Dad, and I moved them back into the pasture they’re supposed to be in.
Cows are beautiful creatures. They’re in a further pasture now, but I love when they are close enough to hear them lowing, and to smell their warm scent.
As I snapped pictures of the cows and the wildflowers, and tromped through the waist-high grass with my dad and my uncle, my frustration melted. Pity-parties really are a waste of time, and are so entirely uncalled-for.
Life is good. God is good. Cows and coneflowers reminded me of that.