Staying in focus can be tough for a storyteller

| Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Spectator
Jeremiah M. Murphy

The photographer Lee Friedlander once said, about taking pictures: "I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary's laundry, and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It's a generous medium, photography.”

Isn’t that terrific? Reads like a Ted Kooser poem. Beats my other choices to get the ball rolling for a photography column - “Take a picture, it lasts longer!” or “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” Ugh.

But, once I picked a topic and found a quote to get things started, this story went another direction. I couldn’t stay focused on the topic of photography. I kept trying to come up with interesting photography stories to put behind that starter quote but my attention kept drifting.

Friday night, after I had locked in to this photography column notion, I was at a high school football game and ran into a friend of mine. He had, in a roundabout way, recommended the mineral baths at the Stroppel Hotel and Spa in Midland to me and I thanked him for the tip.

Kaia and I and our two youngest kids - Chloe and Dylan, stopped at the Stroppel mineral baths on our way back from Brookings a few weeks ago. It was great! The price was reasonable, the water was really refreshing, and the folks who run the joint were very nice.

Anyway, trading notes on the Midland mineral baths got my friend talking about another small town with another thermal spring – Capa, SD. Long ago Capa had mineral baths. Turns out that area is lousy with geothermal resources.

My friend told me that Capa, located on the Bad River Road between Pierre and Midland, was once called “Capa City”.

The story is, Capa was a jerkwater town. That is, it was equipped with a wooden water tank and served as a watering stop for trains. A train would pull in and the fireman would pull the tank’s spout over the boiler and yank the cord that let water out of the tank – he’d “jerk water” for the train.

As the story goes, the volume of the water tank in Capa was stenciled on the side of the tank. It said “CAPACITY . . . “. Well, you get the picture.

The Tuesday after that Friday football game I was at a volleyball game waiting in line at the concession truck parked outside the gym. Several girls came by with jackets that said “Scotties”. For some reason it registered with me that Scotties is the mascot for Philip High School. But I wasn’t sure, so I checked with a friend who would know. “Indeed”, he said, “The Scotties are named after “Scotty” Philip, the Buffalo King.”

The “Buffalo King” - I love that kind of stuff!

James “Scotty” Philip is credited as the man who saved the buffalo. Philip was a Scottish born miner, teamster, messenger, cowboy, and freight hauler who finally settled into ranching. Philip ranched along the Bad River – the river that gave its name to the road on which Capa is located. See how this thing is panning out?

Philip bought a fledgling herd of bison at a time when the species was just about done for and grew that to nearly 1,000 head at the time of his death. That herd provided the basis for the herd in Custer State Park and for other large herds that thrive to this day. Thus Philip (after whom the town is named) is credited with saving the buffalo.

So, like Friedlander who got so much more than he wanted with his camera, I got lucky.

I only wanted to tell a story about taking pictures. But I got a quote about photography that is poetic in its phrasing, a bit of a story about a town named after a word on a water tank, and I learned about the Buffalo King. It’s a generous medium, writing.

Next time I go to Pierre I’m taking the Bad River Road. I’ll take my camera. I might get some good pictures. Maybe do a column about photography.

(Originally published in the October 16th, 2007 Rapid City Journal)