Adventures of a Plains Anthropologist-Historian

By Woolworth, Alan R. | Plains Anthropologist, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Adventures of a Plains Anthropologist-Historian


Woolworth, Alan R., Plains Anthropologist


My twin brother and I were born in August 1924 at a small prairie county seat town in eastern South Dakota. Our father and grandfather built bridges, so we saw men driving pilings with a 40-foot pile driver and a 1,600-pound steel hammer and pouring concrete to make bridges. In the fall this equipment and a few bunk wagons were stored at the rear of our property, and we played in and around them with our close friends. The community was white western European, Protestant, and Republican in politics. Much of our family social life centered in the Congregational Church, the Masonic Lodge, Order of the Eastern Star, and the American Legion and Auxiliary. In summers with many relatives nearby, we had large multi-generational family picnics at prairie lakes.

Native to the Great Plains, I loved the bright sun, blue skies, waving grass, and wide horizons. Beauty was everywhere, even in violent thunderstorms with heavy rains, lightning flashes, savage tornados, and harsh winter blizzards. I was one of its people and spoke their midwestern vernacular language. Instinctively, I knew how to use networking through mutual friends to be readily accepted in a new community.

On Sundays my father often took my two brothers and me to visit historic and archaeological sites or to hunt gophers on the Coteau des Prairies near our hometown of Clear Lake, South Dakota. We had a large family library, read magazines, were interested in local and regional history, and collected geological specimens and Indian artifacts. Avid hunters, trappers, and fishermen, the out of doors was our playground in all seasons. From an early age I was fascinated by American Indians and eagerly read everything that I could find about them. Soon, I was a confirmed bookworm. Life was a great continuing adventure with new things, people, and places unfolding before my eager young eyes. Vivid impressions of the long drought, dust storms, and agricultural hardships in the Great Depression of the 1930s linger in my memory. Many of us small town boys went barefoot and herded cattle in roadside ditches to find green grass. We had a typical old swimming hole, where we learned to "dog paddle" and were used to being chased over fences or up steep hills by angry bulls. Some farmers lost their farms through foreclosures and moved to town hoping conditions would improve. From 1930 to 1942,1 attended the local grade and high schools.

I served for three years in World War II with two years overseas in Western Europe and saw ample combat as an infantryman. I was discharged in early December 1945 and returned to snowy, frozen South Dakota. In the fall of 1946, I used the GI Bill to enter South Dakota State College at Brookings and studied there until spring 1948, taking many courses from Dr. Donald Dean Parker, a prominent regional historian. Then I went to the University of South Dakota at Vermillion and spent a day with W. H. Over and Elmer E. Meleen. Over had owned a grocery store in my hometown of Clear Lake, South Dakota, before World War I, so we had much to talk about. He was widely known for his years of archaeological work in South Dakota and was one of the founders of the Plains Conference for Anthropology.

Deciding to major in anthropology, I transferred to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Nebraska, that fall. John L. Champe headed a small but active Laboratory of Anthropology, and E. Mort Davis had just joined the staff (Figure 1). Courses in anthropology and ethnology were offered, but field archeology was emphasized. Champe taught Physical Anthropology with Up from the Ape as a text, so we learned about our fellow anthropoids, human evolution, and our own human skeletons.

John, as we all called him, was greatly interested in photography and doted on his Kodak Medalist camera. He also enjoyed using large format Folmer Graflex cameras with focal plane shutters. John urged me to take courses in photojournalism. Here I learned to use 4x5 Speed Graphic and view cameras and to process sheet film, skills later of great benefit to me.

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