Social networks are still a relatively new form of communication, and often associated with a younger generation. But Facebook is bringing people together to help preserve a piece of history.
Along highway 34 in Sanborn County lies the unincorporated town of Forestburg. Its population was 73 people at the 2010 census, making it a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of place. But 50-some years ago, the prairie here reverberated with the sound of rock and roll.
During the first half of the 20th century, Ruskin Park, located just outside of Forestburg was one of the most prominent recreational resort areas in the region. Karen Crisco’s parents owned the park from 1954 to 1967.
“In the summertime we had roller skating on Sundays in the afternoon and evening,” Crisco says. “And then we had rock and roll dances on Thursday and Saturday nights with artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, who broke our piano bench. Bobby Vee who lives in Minnesota, North Dakota Fargo area, he was here. Freddy Cannon, Palisades Park guy, Buddy Knox was here, lots of local bands played.”
The park was founded in 1902, long before Crisco’s parents took ownership. She says it was originally a place for community picnics and Chautauqua Meetings.
“There was lots of entertainment, a train would come through, they had people living in the cabins,” Crisco says. “Then it became, they had big bands like Lawrence Welk and some of those orchestras that played here before we came. So it’s got quite the history.”
A history that some worried would soon be forgotten. The park closed in 1967, so the firsthand accounts of what life was like there are getting fewer and fewer. That concerned former Forestburg resident Vic Zimmerman, who says he grew up hearing stories about the park.
“Had the advantage when I was seven to go there once for roller skating,” Zimmerman says. “It was the end of the year school picnic. To me it’s important to remember where I come from and the history of Forestburg.”
Zimmerman has lived in Orange County California for the past 27 years, but he says so much of who he is comes from being raised on a farm near Forestburg. So a few years ago, Zimmerman created a Facebook page for his hometown, and for Ruskin Park. People began posting photos of the park and newspaper articles highlighting the area’s glory days. They used the photos’ comment sections and the page’s wall to share stories and reconnect. And then one day, about a year and a half ago, someone asked about the original historical marker. Zimmerman says that marker has been missing for years. But it got him thinking.
“I got to kind of digging and asking the state about how much it would cost to do it,” Zimmerman says. “And we found out it was $2,390 to replace it. I posted a thing saying what I found out saying, I’ll donate some money for it and pretty soon we got somebody else and somebody else.”
Zimmerman says more than 60 people donated money for the new marker.
“I thought maybe we weren’t going to make it, then more people pledged and it was kind of really fun to really see it and all the people in the community get interested in it,” Zimmerman says.
The Facebook page now has nearly 200 members. Some still live in Forestburg, but many are scattered throughout the U.S. and the world. Zimmerman says even though the members may not live in one place, they all share a common bond as South Dakotans…something he says anyone from the state can relate to. But he says Forestburg natives have their own special personality, too.
“I think on the whole we’re a little bit more rowdy than most people in the county,” Zimmerman says. “I think historically we’re a little bit more wilder and that may have even been coming partly from Ruskin park because in the very early years it was much different from the later years but there some epic parties.”
Saturday there was one more Ruskin Park party. This time there was no rock and roll, just a group of people along the highway, listening to a dedication speech delivered from the back of a red pickup truck. As the sun beat down old friends reconnected and people like Karen Crisco shared stories of what this patch of land along the James River used be like.
“This was like the main entrance, and you would take the road, it’s about a half mile straight south,” Crisco says. “It would curve along the river and then there were 14 acres. We had a big house, there was the dance pavilion, and then there was the nine or ten cabins that the hunters would stay in.”
Crisco has lived in Colorado since 1970, but if you check her Facebook page, you’ll see Forestburg listed as her hometown.
“Even though we move far away we still experience that closeness of family and friends,” Crisco says. “I’m seeing people today that I haven’t seen in thirty years and it’s like you can just catch up right from the point that you left off before.”
Of course, Crisco says, remaining close is a lot easier when social media is involved. For one thing, she says, it saves a lot on postage.
It also allows a group of people living different lives in different places to come together and preserve a piece of South Dakota history. And to hear some past and present Forestburg residents tell it, a piece of their identity as well.