Every time I’ve been in Charles Mix County, South Dakota, in the last few years, I’ve stopped at a ghost town called, simply, Academy, about an hour north and west of Platte, not all that far from the route of Lewis and Clark on the broad Missouri River. What’s there in Academy doesn’t really amount to much–a couple deteriorating houses (a few people still live there) and one sizeable old building that sits up on a rise.
That old building is all that remains of a dream, actually, a wonderful, heart-felt dream, an energetically prayed-for dream that opened its doors in 1893 to frontier kids who wanted a high school education, something not otherwise readily available in the Dakota Territories before the turn of the century.
The first time I stopped in front of the place, I couldn’t help but read the monument that stands proudly out front. It’s a tribute to a dreamer, the Reverend Mr. L. E. Camfield, a relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and almost as much a visionary. The Reverend Mr. L. E. Camfield was the man who put legs beneath a vision and determined he’d make a Christian education available to pioneer kids who, with their hopeful families, were still streaming in to the open country, (ex-reservation land) all around.
One day in 1892, Camfield and a friend were out among the lowly sod-busters of Charles Mix County, collecting donations for the education of black children in the South. When they tallied the purse at the end of the day, they had $20. They were thrilled.
That’s when they came up with an idea. If a couple hundred dirt-poor farmers and ranchers could cough up that kind of money for needy kids hundreds of miles away, shouldn’t it be possible to create, right here in Charles Mix County, a Christian school that would serve their own children?
The Reverend Mr. Camfield said he’d try, and just a year later, Ward Academy opened its doors to twenty-three students. In a few years, the place had admirable facilities and close to 150 enrolled. Tuition–nine months’ worth–was $100, and most kids worked on the grounds and the farm the school built to pay off that hundred bucks.
In 1911, when the enrollment hit an all-time high of 148 students, Warren Hall was constructed, a huge building for that time and place, three stories high, with a basement. It cost $20,000; and it was, as described by the school’s history, “commodious,” equipped with a common dining hall, an assembly room, an office, and two dormitories–one for women, the other for teachers. The land around Academy, South Dakota, is so flat and wide that people out there like to quip it’s the kind of place where you can watch your dog run away for three days. Try to imagine Warren Hall, a threestory monster, standing tall and formidably amid that kind of wide-openness.
For a time, Ward Academy, on the Great Plains of South Dakota, must have seemed, in its hustle and bustle, a clear and direct answer to fervent prayer, “velvet in a rugged new land of burlap green,” one old local history calls it, twenty-seven miles from the nearest railroad.
Today, however, all that’s left of that school is one old building with a relatively recent paint job. That building still sits up high on a knoll, as if still proclaiming the importance of higher education; but then, Ward Academy hasn’t seen a student in years. All that’s left is a sepia-tone tintype of itself. Thirty-nine years after its energetic birth, Ward Academy was gone: 1931, the dust bowl, the Depression, end of story.
Today, out front, a distinguished, stone memorial still stands to commend and memorialize the gifts of Reverend Mr. Camfield, his diligence, his vision, and his commitment. “To the memory of Dr. Lewis E. and Ella Woodman Camfield, founders of Ward Academy at this site in 1893, [who] dedicated their lives to the building of Christian character through church and school.”
Behind that memorial is a building that, honestly, looks almost ready to be torched. When I look into the deaths of colleges that used to exist out here on the edge of the Great Plains, I know what happened: the heart of the vision that at one time gave those colleges life simply ceased to exist. Once the vision was gone, only one question remained: who would be the one to turn out the lights? Ward Academy, as it stands today, out there, really, in the middle of nowhere, is Shelley’s “Ozymandias” on Great Plains–with this significant moral difference: Camfield was no swaggering despot.
To me, someone who’s spent his whole professional life at a small Christian college on the green eastern cusp of the Great Plains, there’s something chilling about Academy, South Dakota. So much good was there at its birth; so many prayed for its success, I’m sure. It likely served its students well, too. I think I would have liked Camfield, a firebrand for quality education in the Christian tradition.
But today it’s gone, completely, with the exception of one building and a stone monument.
Whenever I’ve passed through what’s left of that burg, I’ve felt a chill because there’s something in a darkened crystal ball somewhere in me that says the story of Academy isn’t unique, that maybe someday, years from now, people will drive through a town like the one I live in, Sioux Center, Iowa, and see what remains of the campus of a small college, just as today you can do exactly that just down the road twenty miles in LeMars, a neighboring village, where the shape of Westmar College is still visible in some buildings left behind.
Something sends a chill down my spine when I drive through Academy because I know something about how colleges change and evolve, especially here on the Plains, and I know–I can feel it in my bones–that the original vision for this institution, a college rooted in the Reformed tradition, has altered, as all things must, in the withering movements of time itself. Today, I’m honestly not sure how many of our students– or their parents–really care about the theological legacy of the French reformer John Calvin. Without question, the most pressing issue at Dordt College right now is whether or not to have football.
I must admit that I fear for the educational enterprise I’ve been a part of for most of my life, because when I look into the deaths of colleges that used to exist out here on the edge of the Great Plains–Yankton, Huron, Midwestern, John F. Kennedy, Westmar–I know what happened: the heart of the vision which at one time gave those colleges life simply ceased to exist. Once the vision was gone, only one question remained: who would be the one to turn out the lights?
Dordt College is fifty years old this year, and I, for one, have done more than my share of singing its praises. But that doesn’t mean I’m not subject to my share of doubts. We’re doing well. There are reasons galore to bring joyful thanks. I remember bringing the novelist Frederic Manfred, a Siouxland native, into the B. J. Haan Chapel for the first time, several years ago. He stood alone on its spacious stage, looked around, and shook his head. “If you would have told me fifty years ago that this was going to happen out here,” he told me, “I wouldn’t have believed it.
This summer, Dr. Robb De Haan, an agronomist, and I led a group of about 50 people on a tour of South Dakota’s Missouri River valley. We kept an eye out for Lewis and Clark, visited some old churches in the Reformed tradition, and learned some things about the Lakota history and culture, the people who once roamed over the very ground beneath us out here.
When we approached Academy, South Dakota, I grabbed the mike of the tour bus and told them that just riding through the ghost town gave me the chills, but I didn’t tell them why.
This isn’t a story about Academy, South Dakota, or about Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa. Like al
l first-person stories, the heart of this one is the narrator, me. This is my pilgrimage, and I hope you’ll bear with me.
Sometime in the mid-Seventies, several years after I graduated from Dordt College, I began to suspect something I’d almost rejected out of hand when I graduated: that I’d been given a tremendous blessing in the gift of a Reformed education. Ask around–was I a terrific student at Dordt? No. Was I the chapel coordinator? Hardly. Was I an RA? They wouldn’t have had me. Somewhere in the vault there are recommendations written about me that aren’t very pretty.
But after I’d stamped the Siouxland dust off my feet, I began to understand more about what it was that created the vision or worldview at the heart of a Dordt College education, a Reformed worldview rooted in the old Reformation theology of John Calvin; and when I did, strangely enough, I became an advocate, so much so that in the last thirty years I have likely devoted too much of my time to writing about the tradition from which I came, the klijne leute, the little people, at its heart, not to mention the Creator it feared. I have, like the Reverend Mr. L. E. Camfield, probably given more of my best than I should have–given the requirements of home and family–to a vision and an institution that may well, someday, sit on the edge of a small town the same way Westmar’s deserted campus sits specter- like on the south end of LeMars.
All that’s left of Shelley’s Ozymandias was the remnant of a sculpted torso emerging from shifting sand. All that’s left of Academy is a single white building surrounded by a town that’s just about gone. Maybe everything I’ve given my life for is going to blow away in those ubiquitous prairie winds. That’s what I told my colleague when we left Academy last June, quietly, not a word of it on the mike we used to talk about big blue stem and the legacy of the buffalo. And my friend Robb smiled in the gentle way he does. We’re sitting on the bus, and this is what he told me.
“Figure on it,” he said. “Ice ages come and go, and someday the whole region will be under a glacier again. Only 15 or 20 thousand years ago, West Okoboji was covered with glacial ice.”
That was nice. Talk about being chilled. But he knew I wasn’t talking about another ice age.
So this young agronomist, an ex-student of mine whose freshman English papers I probably spent too much red ink correcting, told me that when God looks down at what’s left of Academy, South Dakota, and what’s still very much there in Sioux Center, Iowa, he sees not only what is here, but what was here–and what will be. God Almighty, Professor De Haan told me, knows what the original prairie looked like right here, remembers the shape of the mink ranch that replaced it, and the campus that now sits on the same few acres. God Almighty is the repository of all memory, and his view of the history of Academy and the vibrant campus here on the eastern edge of a little town in northwest Iowa is really all that matters eternally. Not to worry, Robb said, our loving God knows the whole story.
Here’s the paradox under which we operate: even though only God knows the eternal and we never will, our job, our calling, our task is still, in whatever human way we can, to do what we construe, in this time and in this place, to be his will.
So, here’s what I can’t help asking myself as I come closer each day to tallying sixty years of life: was it silly of me to devote so much of my devotion to Dordt’s foundational vision of things if, honestly, it was only part and parcel of an immigrant vision deeply held in order to keep something of home in the maelstrom of American culture? Was it mildly fanatical for me to believe that every square inch of this broad land belonged not to us or the Lakota, but to him? And given God’s eternal dimensions, does my square inch of his wide and spacious turf, my own personal Academy, really matter all that much?
Those are the questions I ask when the prairie winds roar, no matter what season.
But there’s one more chapter to this story. Not long ago, I was out in Charles Mix County again, this time in the company of two history professors, who wanted to see for themselves the glory of the Great Plains landscape and the unique history it holds onto so tenaciously. Once again we drove through Academy, and once again, maybe more assured theoretically this time, I told them about my chills.
But this time we stopped. I’d never stopped before, but I had the feeling that Academy was a place I needed to write about, and I thought maybe I’d need a picture or two. So the three of us stepped out of the car and walked up to the old building, its coat of paint still more like a smiley face band-aid over the deep pain of the death of a vision.
We got out of the car and walked around the building. “Good night,” I said, “look at that–somebody cares so much about this place that there’s a plastic tulip in the basement window.” I couldn’t believe it. We kept walking. I kept shooting pictures.
One of them walked up to what seemed an entrance in the back. The door looked used. I couldn’t believe it. He went up the steps, grabbed the door, shook it–it opened, looked inside. “It’s a church!” he said. “There’s a real church in here!”
And there was. We walked inside. Nobody was around–but it was clear that, come Sunday, someone would be.
That which I’d thought completely deserted, forgotten, and forlorn, still held life. The place was far from uninhabited. The Spirit was very much there. It was not a ghost town at all.
I have no idea how many people will drive up to Academy United Church of Christ, Academy, South Dakota, this Sunday. But I know there will be worship, and that, somehow, to me is a comfort. Ward Academy is history. But God Almighty is working his ways just the same. As my friend Robb said, God Almighty sees both what was, what is, and what shall be.
I’m not a person who puts much stock in hearing God’s voice directly. By nature I’m cynical, given to hunt out cause-and-effect. Not once in my life have I heard some deep bass whisper eternal truth in my ear.
But that is not to say there’s a disconnect between God Almighty and me because the moment I began to understand that the old building I once thought to be the only remnant of a heart-felt vision was still a church, still operating, still the temple of the Holy Ghost in Academy, this old man heard a cosmic joke. “You thought you had it cased, didn’t you?” the voice of the Lord told me. “Not so, kid.”
Our job will forever be to try to do the eternal in a contemporary and timely way because God created us for just such a time as we’re in. And that’s the word of the Lord, for me at least, and maybe for you, or so it seems, from Academy, South Dakota, and Sioux Center, Iowa, in this year of our Lord, 2005, this our year of Jubilee.