Pickstown’s ‘First Families.’
The massive public works projects planned and begun before WWII now provided the opportunity of gainful employment to thousands of returning veterans, their young families and others. From all parts of the country, people were drawn by the promise of a good job, a livable wage and decent housing. Many came with experience on large projects and with specific skills, many came with just the willingness to work hard and for a chance to improve themselves.
As the call went out, families began moving into the area and the pressure for adequate housing increased proportionately. Early residents lived where they could, often with few amenities, but at least with a roof over their head. “Moving up” took on significant meaning as families moved from surrounding small towns into government housing as quickly as it could be completed. From there, one family would replace another as the need and seniority dictated. For some, the seemingly treeless, bleak, rolling prairie of South Dakota was a shock, to others, it was business as usual. For all it was adventure.
Whether an actual ‘First Family or an early resident, the recollections presented here are representative of the experience and experiences of Pickstown’s early residents.
The Fero family moved into Pickstown as its first family in January of 1947. Within weeks after their arrival, several other Corps of Engineers families arrived. Bob, Pearl, and their four boys –Jim(53), Dick(54), John(60), and Tom(64) took up residency on James Avenue. Bob was transferred from Omaha’s Corp of Engineers’ district office to lead Pickstown’s office engineers during the dam construction. Prior to moving to Pickstown, Bob was responsible for assisting in developing the community planning and contracts awarded to construction companies. One of the original thoughts was to build the community in the Lake Andes area. The Corps of Engineers’ home office in Washington D.C. made a final decision to build the community on land near the dam as it had at Fort Peck. When permanent houses were built on Missouri Drive, the Fero’s and many of other original families on James Avenue moved into those twenty-five houses which are part of the town today. Bob and Pearl became an integral part of the community. They were involved in the church life and were instrumental in setting up bowling leagues and other activities for both young and old.
Many of the activities in the town centered around the school. Jim, Dick and other students that had moved into Pickstown first went to school in Lake Andes before a temporary school was established in the summer of 1947 in one of the duplexes on James Avenue. The new Pickstown School opened in 1948 when John joined his brothers as part of the new wave of school-aged students that had moved into town. The school athletic teams did very well. Jim and Dick participated in football, basketball, and track along with other activities. It wasn’t hard to find the Fero boys and many of the other young residents. If they were not at the school, you just had to look at the drug store, with its soda fountain, where the young people congregated.
Many Pickstown School students went on to be very successful. The school produced nine future doctors in their fields of employment. The Fero boys are good examples of the successes after Pickstown. Three of the Fero boys followed in their father’s footsteps becoming engineers. Jim accepted an appointment to West Point. He played on the football, hockey and track division-one teams. Upon graduation he was commissioned with the US Army Corps of Engineers serving various assignments around the world. After twenty plus years, he went to work for Atlantic Richfield as their construction manager on Alaska’s north slope for the next fifteen years. Dick went to the Illinois Institute of Technology prior to joining Western Contracting Company and then Peter Kiewit as one of its chief construction estimators and project managers. Tom went to the University of Illinois graduating with a degree in engineering and spent ten years with the Corp of Engineers and thirty-one years with the National Weather Service as a hydrologist. John took a different route becoming a teacher, a principal, and then superintendent finishing his degrees at Montana State University. In 1992 he was elected to serve as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Bob died one year before the completion of the dam. In 1956, when the dam was completed, the Fero’s and other families moved on to other locations. Several of those ended up working on other dams being built on the Missouri River. Not only were many of the residents highly successful in their Pickstown years, but as they moved on to other communities these families produced a widespread talent pool throughout the Midwest and beyond. As Dick Fero stated many times: “The dam put Pickstown on the map, but it was the people that lived there during the town’s formative years that is its history.”
George Evans arrived at the beginning of the Project in July of 1946 as the Area Engineer In Charge when ground was broken for the Dam. George and Lora came from a long and highly successful career with the Corps of Engineers that included the Vicksburg, MS District Office, the beginning of Fort Peck in 1934, military service and the Omaha District office. They left Pickstown in 1956 for a Corps assignment in Springfield, MA, retired in February of 1960 and returned to their home state of Mississippi. While at Pickstown, George also oversaw construction of the Gavin's Point Dam in the Yankton area.