South Dakota

A century ago, the railroads chewed their way across the Dakota prairie in a hellbent race to reach the Missouri River, flecking the plains with scores of tiny homesteader settlements that live on today -- even as grass grows over mile after mile of track.

Through years of blizzards, droughts, grasshoppers and farm foreclosures, many of the sons and daughters of the Dakota pioneers moved on. But enough stayed behind to build small, sturdy communities that are now celebrating 100 years of survival against the odds.

Those who left during the Depression and the years that followed are flocking back by the hundreds -- probably thousands in all -- to attend the centennial parties that are being staged in annual waves across the prairie, dutifully following the East-to-West march of the railroads a hundred years earlier.

Among the dozens of eastern South Dakota towns that will be celebrating this year are three that sprouted along the Chicago and Northwestern tracks through Kingsbury County (the fourth having jumped the gun last year by honoring a settler who beat the railroad by one year).

Last weekend it was the town of Arlington's moment to puff up its chest with a two-mile, 150-unit parade that was considerably longer than the town itself and a crowd of 6,000 that multiplied Arlington's population more than sixfold for the weekend. There were aunts, uncles, cousins and old school chums from as far away as California, New York and Texas who were returning for the first time in 40 or 50 years.

From these returning outlanders, the townsfolk heard that Arlington was better than ever, even if -- or perhaps because -- the trees had grown faster than the population (953, compared with 954 in 1970).

The pride was so intense that a visitor from Washington, offering Arlingtonians a chance to sound off about politics and government, was told to forget about all that unpleasantness, grab a plate of barbecue and simply enjoy Arlington.

Not that Washington politicians and bureaucrats don't come in for some heavey criticism from the folks in Arlington, which old-timers say was named for Robert E. Lee's home across the Potomac from Washington, although no one claims to know exactly why. (An earlier name of Nordland was rejected as too Norwegian, and the postal authorities vetoed Denver, the second choice, as too confusing.)

Arlington people complain about farm prices (too low), fuel costs (too high), interest rates (ditto), rules and regulations (everywhere) and railroad boxcars (nowhere when you need them).

But they also put Washington in a humbler perspective than it often creates for itself from its own corridors of power -- something on the order of Disneyland East.

"People can be quite ordinary and sensible until they cross the Potomac River," said M. D. Corey, a telephone technician who gave Washington short shrift while talking proudly of Arlington during the Sunday centennial picnic at the town park. "Just let 'em cross the river, and there's some chemical that addles the brain."

Arlington's mayor, G. A. Redman, put it somewhat differently, pointing across the park at what he regarded as visible evidence of Washington folly: a handsome new set of restrooms.

"Would have cost only half as much if we'd built 'em our way," he said. Well, maybe, it wasn't just Washington's rules and red tape that made the little cinderblock building so costly, he conceded. "People blame the government for everything," he explained. "We have to blame someone, and the government's just so easy to blame."

A recurrent theme of conversations at the park was that Arlington may be "50 miles from nowhere," as one resident proudly put it, but it may well be closer to the American mainstream than Washington is.

"The problem is that, back in Washington and New York, they look out over the country and see Chicago and maybe St. Louis and then San Francisco and Los Angeles," said Corey, the telephone man. "They forget that there's anything else out here."

But if they push the farmer hard enough, he'll rebel, Corey continued, and "if you think the oil problem is tough, wait till you hear from the farmers."

Maybe, but not all the farmers agree. "We gripe like hell," said a wheat farmer from just west of Arlington, "but we don't do much about it."

Take, for instance, the embargo on grain shipments to the Soviet Union, which some farm state senators are seeking to have lifted. Farmers are divided, according to Jerry Sturgis, publisher of the Arlington Sun. "Some say it would help with [grain] prices; others say to hell with Russia."

Maybe it was the euphoria of the centennial celebrations -- or the fact that rain had just washed away the latest drought threat -- but the outlook here on a balmy Sunday afternoon appeared a shade more optimistic than most national surveys indicate.

"It could stand some improvement, but it's still a great country to live in," said Arnold Selken, who was tending a stall at a flea market just off the main street, not far from a large cardboard box from which a family was dispensing free puppies to all comers.

Mayor Redman agreed that things are looking pretty good for Arlington despite the endless griping about the weather and farm prices. "But come back in 10 days," he added cheerfully, "and if we haven't had any more rain, you'll find yourself a lot of pessimists in Arlington."