Recently when the Review covered a fatal auto accident the reporter noted that the bodies of the victims had been removed to local funeral homes. We often hear of this procedure and it not only provides a necessary service at the time but of course can assist the families in making final arrangements. And that might include burial in a local cemetery. However, when L.T. Perkins of Athens died in LeBeau, South Dakota in 1909 it wasn’t quite so simple.
According to the Philadelphia “Inquirer” of November 6, 1909: “At an indignation meeting yesterday leading citizens protested against the burial in or near this city of the body of L.T. Perkins, 50 years old, who was killed about two miles out of town on Wednesday, when his automobile turned turtle. This town has no graveyard and doesn’t want one.”
According to the article, Mr. Perkins’ Athens relatives wanted to bury him there, to erect a tombstone and also create a graveyard. However, as the reporter explained, since this was the first such death in or near LeBeau in its 50 years of existence, and since it occurred two miles out of town it wasn’t sure what could happen.
An article in the “Fort Worth Star-Telegram” on November 5 gave more details and seemed to imply that the LeBeau residents weren’t entirely uncompassionate. The reporter stated: “Public-spirited citizens immediately after Perkins body was taken from beneath the machine, began contributing toward a fund to send it post hastes [sic] to Melletter, S.D. 140 miles east, to the nearest undertaker.” However this effort did not continue due to the “..unexpected arrival of a Mellette [sic] undertaker to dress the body.”
Yet about that time in 1909 as it turned out the decline of the LeBeau community was imminent and eventually it disappeared from view.
Located along the Missouri River in central South Dakota, the community was named for Antoine LeBeau, of French and Lakota descent, who had established a fur trading post on the site in 1875. Then when in 1904 the government began offering leases for cattle grazing on local Native reservation lands that brought the establishment of cattle ranches. Then when railroad access came in 1906 by that date the local population was 500 souls.
In that time period of 1906 to 1909 the town prospered and came to include banks, general stores, lawyers, doctors, an opera house, a newspaper and of course the inevitable saloons. Yet there were underlying emotions to all this success and this soon became evident just a month after the Perkins death.
It started when Dode MacKenzie, the son of one of the major ranch owners went to a bar in December, 1909 where he had an argument with the bartender. Accounts differed on what happened next, but it was believed that MacKenzie left the bar to get a gun, and when he returned in the fracas that followed the bartender shot MacKenzie with his own firearm.
Apparently the bartender was charged with murder but at the trial the jury was largely made up of local farmers who had little sympathy for the cattlemen and their employees. They believed the bartender’s case of self defense and found him innocent.
Though MacKenzie may not have been particularly popular, he was still a cattleman and so those in that interest blamed the town of LeBeau for the death. Then when the family’s ranch moved north, that was a blow to the local economy and six months after the acquittal the town was burned out. And though the town could have rebuilt that didn’t happen since more and more farmers arrived to cultivate the former cattle ranges. Also there was a local drought and then the railroads that had previously been vital to move out the cattle were diverted.
Over the next decades as there were built dams on the Missouri River, that meant the formation of vast lakes, one of them Lake Oahe. This water feature now stretches from near Pierre, the South Dakota capital up into North Dakota and offers many recreational opportunities. However, as with other river communities, LeBeau was abandoned as the Missouri River waters flowed over the town site. However, during dry periods, the community’s building foundations sometimes become visible.
While we don’t know where Mr. Perkins’ body was laid to rest, as it turned out the town that didn’t want his grave eventually didn’t need one because it no longer existed.