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Arts & Life

Mobridge remembers the attack of the tumbleweeds

27e0da1546_mobridge tumbleweeds.jpg
Courtesy Photo
A residential street in Mobridge during the tumbleweed invasion of 1989.

The first sign that something weedy would their way come, Mobridge historian Fay Jackman recalls, was when the water receded on the Moose Flats — a shallow area of Lake Oahe near Highway 12, named for the adjacent Moose Lodge, though actual moose have occasionally been spotted.

"That was all bare," says Jackman. "In one of the articles I read it said there was six hundred acres bare in the Moose Flats. And tumbleweeds, thistles started growing there and nobody thought much of it. And then of course Fall comes and they dry out and nobody thinks much of it. And on November 7th, during the night, we had a violent windstorm. Somebody said that it might have been gusts with 90 miles an hour. And those tumbleweeds broke loose of course.

"So the southwest part of town, the wind was so powerful it just forced them. And as they got caught, they packed in between houses and into entryways and between houses and garages. And from house to house to house in a block, they were all blocked in. Well, one of the ladies woke up in the middle of the night and she thought there was a hailstorm because this ping, ping, ping was hitting her trailer house. She thought, 'Oh, gosh.' But when she woke up in the morning, it's tumbleweeds and they're packed in. She can't get out of her trailer house. Her car is parked next to the alley. The alley is jammed solid. Her car is packed in. And if there'd have been a fire, she could not have gotten out because both of her doorways were blocked

"I got a call on a Wednesday morning," recalls Travis Svihovec, a reporter for the Mobridge Tribune at the time. "And I remember it being a Wednesday because as a weekly we were trying to put the paper together that day," . "And it was a local minister and he said you've got to come and take a picture of these tumbleweeds. You won't believe it. It's incredible. And my reaction was I'm under deadline. I just don't have time to take pictures of tumbleweeds.

"Well. I think he called my boss, Larry Atkinson and Larry, who was a photographer in his own right, grabbed his bag and did go take some pictures. And I should have gone the way it turned out, because it was something to see."

Local grocer Benj Stoick was closing up shop the night before. "It was 10:30 at night," says Stoick. "The wind is blowing straight out of the West. I was turning the key in the door of the store. Although the streetlights were on, it was eerily dark because of all the dust in the air blowing in from the Moose Flats. And here's this thing coming down the road at me, the likes of which I've never seen. It wasn't as big as a Volkswagen Beetle, but just about, and I was scared to death."

"One of the ladies said early in the morning her doorbell started ringing and she thought, 'Oh, it must be one of my kids,'" says Jackman. "She went to the door and opened it up and it was a tumbleweed had hit it. The stem was poked in the doorbell and the doorbell's going ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong."

"I lost track of how many different media entities interviewed me," says Atkinson, who is now retired. "And then I also referred them to other people. One of the people whose house was buried was our city finance officer, and I know she was interviewed numerous times. Then , I don't remember how many photographs I provided for media, literally all over the world."

The tumbleweed invasion was a lighthearted story, but also could have been dangerous as tumbleweeds are highly flammable. Fortunately the clean up effort was successful and fires were avoided.

"Willie Hepper, who I rented a house from at that time, brought a tractor and a baler in to town," says Svihovec. "And I think he bailed a bunch of those up and just made a windbreak out of them. I don't know how long he kept them but it was one way to get rid of them, I guess. It seems to me like it took a big chunk of the city's snow removal budget to get them taken care of.

"I think the next year, the [Army Corps of Engineers] let somebody farm down there. They actually put in a crop on that land. And I know that they paid more attention during those dry years. If there were weeds, they contracted somebody to mow them."

"After the real danger was over, people decided to take advantage of it," says Jackman. "We made t-shirts that said, 'Attack of the Tumbleweeds.'
The bars had 'tumbleweed' drinks. Some of them had 'tumbleweed' burgers.

The tumbleweed invasion is now remembered as a fondly as a strange moment in city lore, but could it happen again?

"You've never seen tumbleweeds this big," Benj Stoick recalls. "Because they're on a peninsula of sand and silt that's very fertile. And then the sand is just waterlogged, you know, because it's surrounded by water. I don't remember how many years [the Moose Flats] was up and out of the water, but it's been many years since, and this year it revealed itself again."