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Pickstown’s ‘First Families.’

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. 


In August, 1945, the Gillam family (John & Bernice, daughters Betty Jo-11, Mary Beth-10, Pat-7, and son Fred-10 months) moved from Nebraska City, NE to Fairfax, SD in their 1937 Ford Woody station wagon.  John, working out of the Omaha office of the Corps of Engineers, was in charge of surveying for the construction of the Fort Randall Dam.  An upstairs bedroom in their rented Fairfax home served as the Corps of Engineers Field Office, where John did his survey calculations on a mechanical adding machine.  The survey crew used the garage to make their survey stakes, with “help” from the girls.


In the summer of 1946, with most of the surveying completed on the south side of the Missouri River, a Corps office was opened in the basement of a Lake Andes hotel.  To be closer to the office, John moved the family to the nearest rental house that he could find; a house with no plumbing or kitchen sink, in Dante.  The girls remember pulling their red wagon with a large milk can in it to get water from the town well.  They also remember attending the ground breaking ceremonies in a hot, dusty stubble field, overlooking the dam site.  The event was attended by General Lewis A. Pick, dignitaries, Indian chiefs & dancers, and many interested onlookers.


By March of 1947, most of the duplexes on James Avenue had been assembled (from Army surplus barracks).  With great pleasure, the Gillam family moved in and shared the building with the Fisks.  For the remainder of the school year, all the children were bussed to the Lake Andes school.  Town maintenance built a playground behind the garages, with a pen for the “pet” prairie dogs and rabbits.  John’s surplus inflatable raft was the neighborhood swimming hole.  Rattlesnake hunting in the flower beds and under the porches was a favorite sport, along with “King of the Hill”, played on hay stacks at the end of James Avenue.  When the stacks were burned down, dozens of rattlesnakes escaped or burned.


During the early years, the government garage served as the center for group activities.  Tom Halloran, Brandy Fitzhugh, and John would occasionally hire a band for a Saturday night dance, and then worry about attracting enough people to pay for it.  Dances over, the decorations were removed, the garage cleaned, and chairs were set out for Sunday morning church services.


As stores were built and the town grew, so did the employment opportunities for the children.  Most Gillam kids delivered newspapers.  Mary Beth and Betty Jo got jobs as soda jerks.  Mary Beth’s career lasted one day, because she put pineapple sherbet in a chocolate malt.  Betty Jo survived dumping a malt in a tourist’s lap.  When Pat was 15, she started working in the hospital as an aide, sometimes mopping floors, cooking for the patients and staff, and helping to deliver a baby.  Once she acted as the anesthesiologist while assisting Dr. Flynn during surgery.  During a long absence of the office manager, Mary Beth, also an aide, spent most of her time taking care of billing and bookkeeping entries.  Some nights the girls were left in charge of the hospital, and if an emergency came up they could call a nurse or the doctor living nearby.


Fred remembers Pickstown as the best possible place in which to grow up, with the freedom to roam anywhere he wanted to go, fish and swim in the river, sleep out in the summer, trick or treat at every house in town, turn on the lights at the baseball field if we wanted to play at night, and sled down the steep gully behind the James Ave. garages.


The closeness of living in a new community, where everyone was part of a large endeavor, made it a special place where residents created life-long friendships.  Because workers and their families moved in and out of down on a regular basis, we learned to meet and form friendships very quickly.  Every place we lived after that was measured against that closeness.   In May 1956, the Gillam family, now consisting of John, Bernice, Pat and Fred (now 11) left Pickstown and moved to Springfield, MA, where John would again be working for George Evans.  Fred suffered extreme culture shock!


The Jackson family consisting of Don and Ruth along with Dick first moved to the area in late 1947. Dick [‘54] attended 6th grade for a few months in Lake Andes and when housing was available in Pickstown they transferred to Pickstown where Dick attended the James St. school. Jack [‘50] joined them in the summer of 1948 and started at the new school on the circle as a junior that fall. Debbie was born in Pickstown in 1953.

When they arrived Don was the field engineer for Western Contracting , one of the major contractors working on the Fort Randall Dam with responsibility for the huge earth moving work and the river closure using their dredge the Western Chief which at that time was the largest dredge of it type in the world.


In the winter of 1949 the family temporarily moved to Paterson in northern California where Don was assigned as Western’s project manager for construction of a large canal. Jack graduated from high school in California. In the summer of 1950 they returned to Pickstown where Don became Western’s project manager for both the Fort Randall Dam and Oahe Dam at Pierre. He commuted between Pickstown and Pierre by plane.

The family again temporally moved to Wichita, Kansas in the summer of 1951 where Don was assigned to work on an airbase project for Western, returning in the summer of 1952 to Pickstown where Don once again was Western’s project manager.


Dick completed his junior year at Pickstown and in the summer of 1953 the family moved to Yankton where Don was Western’s project manager for the Gavin’s Point Dam. Dick did not stay long in Yankton as he headed for California to be closer to his Pickstown high school sweetheart Jean Gupton. Dick graduated from high school in California, married Jean and currently lives in Murrieta, CA. Jack currently lives in Bradenton, FL. Don left for Georgia in 1954 returning with Ruth and Debbie to North Sioux City, SD in 1962. In 1971, Debbie graduated from Jefferson H. S. in SD and currently lives in Naples Fl. In 1972, Western leased Don to Deltona Corp to work on the Marco Is, FL dredging project.


The Jackson family may hold the record for the most moves in and out of Pickstown and are uniquely representative of the many families who arrived in Pickstown with a history of moving and living in several locations which was typical due to the nature of construction work.    


Maxine Castle, upper  left.  Woodrow “Woody” Castle, upper right.

Richard, Maxine, Pamela and Woody on the front porch of their

home. Richard and Pamela on the fender of the family car.

The Woody Castle family was one of the first group of families to move into Pickstown in early 1947. Woody was on the Corps of Engineers survey crew that did the early work on the Town and Dam and later worked in the Power House.

Richard was born in 1947 at the Wagner hospital and Pamela was born in 1949 in their home on Maple Court as Pickstown's hospital was not ready until later in 1949. The snow that year was as high as the roof. Neighbors helped keep the walk shoveled so that Dr Flynn could get in when it was time for Pamela to enter into the world. Both Richard and Pamela attended all 12 years at Picktown's school.


Maxine was one of the longest residents of Pickstown, living there from 1947 until her death on March 1st, 2011.


The Ft. Randall Castle American Legion Post # 282 is named after Woodrow (Woody) Castle who was a charter member. He was a Carpenter Mate First Class in the US Navy CB’s from September 1943 to December 1945 and served in Guam. He moved to South Dakota in 1945 and on November 21, 1957 at the age of 44, he died of a heart attack while on a deer hunting trip to Custer, SD.

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