© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“A becoming hat or bonnet may be equal to a letter of recommendation, for it is the practice of
many people to judge the character of an individual by the clothes which he or she wears.”
—JESSICA ORTNER, Practical Millinery, 1897
Turner County Fair
Parker, South Dakota
Late August 1908
“WITH A RECORD FIFTH WIN at this year’s fair,” yelled the announcer through the megaphone, “Miss Reba Diehl!”
Reba released the breath she was holding. Her hat was the best in show. As applause broke out, she was engulfed in hugs and congratulations. The best part about entering her creations in the Turner County Fair was how friendly and encouraging everyone was, even when their fair entry didn’t win.
“Miss Diehl,” the announcer said, “please come to the stage for your ribbon. Coming up next, the Division of Culinary. . .”
After the last hug, Reba smoothed the front of her good luck white pongee silk dress and nervously checked the pin securing her favorite black hat onto her hair. Of all the ribbons she’d won today, this one—Class 142, MILLINERY, Ladies’ Hats—meant the most. She glanced around for Levi, but the crowd was too thick and she was too short to see over anyone’s head. Surely he was around somewhere. Certainly. He knew how important this win was to her. He, more than anyone, would understand what this meant.
Reba smiled as she climbed the gazebo bandstand to accept the blue ribbon for the straw hat bedecked with handcrafted silk flowers and leaves. Hours cutting petals and curving the fabric. Hours stitching. Hours taking what she saw in her mind and turning it into a masterpiece. Her cheeks ached already from smiling so hard.
Because that’s what her hat was—a masterpiece.
She vigorously shook hands with the four members of the fair’s Department of Women’s Work. With a thank-you, she accepted the ribbon from the superintendent, Mrs. Gertrude Wright.
“This was your best hat yet. Congratulations!” Mrs. Wright touched Reba’s arm, stilling her from walking away. “Miss Diehl, please reconsider my offer. It’s far too generous a scholarship for you to pass up. You would be a valued addition to the teaching staff.”
Reba nodded, even though she had no intention of attending college, regardless of where it was located. No matter how many blue ribbons she won for darning stockings, patching old garments, or repairing buttonholes, her future did not include earning a degree in home economics. Having a degree meant becoming a teacher, and Mrs. Wright, also the dean of Home Economics at Sioux Falls College, had already offered her a job upon graduation. Reba certainly didn’t want to teach college girls how to darn, patch, and repair, which was only a fraction of the household management curriculum. If she wanted to manage a household and teach, she would stay on the farm and have a quiver full of children.
She offered a polite thank-you then headed to the stairs.
Mrs. Wright called out, “You will receive an enrollment packet in the mail next week!”
“Oh, all right. Thank you!” Reba accepted hug after hug as she made her way through the crowd surrounding the bandstand. She wasn’t a seamstress. She wasn’t a teacher. She certainly wasn’t a country girl content to stay on the farm.
She was a milliner.
She made hats. Blue ribbon–winning hats.
And she had plans—grand plans.
LEVI WEBBER HOOKED HIS THUMBS around his suspenders as he watched the Ferris wheel turn. A soft breeze blew across his forearms, bare from his rolled-up sleeves. This year he’d convince Reba to ride the wheel with him. Tonight. At sunset. Twilight never ceased to amaze him with its ability to transform a fair into something a little bit mysterious, a little bit exciting, and even a little bit dangerous. . .and yet all the while sending out sweet echoes of laughter and romance. What girl could resist that? Sitting high above the fairgrounds at twilight would be the perfect time to choose the date for their wedding.
Of course, he’d have to not look at her when they talked, because when he did look at her, after a minute his ears would stop listening. Reba was the prettiest girl he knew. When he walked through the cornfield, he couldn’t help but brush the tips of the cornstalks. Her hair was as golden, as silky, as touchable. Lately, not touching it was becoming more and more of a struggle.
He loved her too much to bring her any dishonor.
That they were marrying soon was a blessing. Next month was a good time to marry.
Levi resumed his stroll along the midway, determined to find the perfect gift for his girl. For as long as he could remember, she had loved the fair as much as he did. Carnival workers cajoled youngsters and old-timers into their lairs. In the distance was the sound of BB shot hitting tin cans. He passed signs hawking food—FRESH ROASTED CORN!—and games. He paused at SHOOT A BASKET, WIN A BEAR” and watched two boys throw a dozen brown balls at six apple baskets nailed to a wall. None sank.
The game operator patted one boy’s back, leaving a chalky handprint. “Lemme let you in on a secret. That balloon dart game over there is the easiest one to win.”
After an exuberant “thank you, sir,” the boys dashed in the direction the game operator had pointed.
The man slapped his hands together, wiping off the chalk, then looked to Levi. “I bet you could win a stuffed bear for your girl.”
“I doubt I’d be that lucky.”
“Don’t be a pessimist. Have more faith.”
“What I need is more skill, not more faith.” Levi adjusted his flat cap. “Thanks for the offer. My fiancée would prefer a sweeter gift.” He continued on, passing a row of tents, buffeted by the smell of sausage competing with the smell of fish. The wind direction favored the fish, perhaps explaining why the line was longer at that stand.
The bandstand within eyesight, Levi stopped at a display of canned fruit. Mrs. Diehl’s pantry was as full as his mother’s was, but what it lacked was—
He picked up a jar, its lid covered in blue gingham. “Did you grow these peaches?”
“Sure did.” The seller stepped to the table while his pregnant wife stayed in her chair, knitting.
Levi studied the perfectly ripe fruit. He’d never heard of anyone successfully raising peaches in South Dakota. “How did you get them to endure the climate? I’ve been trying to grow peaches up in Brookings for the last six years. I’ve tried Bokhara No. 3 and some of the Iowa peach seedlings, and even planted a few pits of the Bailey, the Leigh, the Alberta, and the Early Canada. What few trees have survived have only produced fruit buds.”
“We’re from Minnesota,” the wife said. “This is my cousin’s booth. His wife has several entries in the culinary division. They’re announcing winners now.”
The seller tipped his straw hat. “You own an orchard?”
“No, sir. I worked at the South Dakota State University Extension to pay for my degree.” Levi couldn’t contain his smile. “Horticulture is a hobby of mine. I’m determined to grow peaches someday. My fiancée loves them.”
“What’s your degree in?”
“Agricultural business. And accounting,” he answered with less passion. He’d have earned a degree in horticulture if he’d had the time and finances. . .and the support from his parents. “My family owns the largest dairy farm in Turner County. We’re expanding, and they need me to do the accounting and paperwork.” Levi didn’t flinch as the man seemed to see into his soul and recognize the discontent he had tried to hide.
The man raised a brow. “Well, now, have you tried grafting the peach on native plum stock and on sand cherry?”
“Yes, sir. I grafted right on the ground or a little below it into a young sand cherry stock, using a wedge-shaped scion. Did it very early in the spring before the buds start.”
The seller nodded approvingly. “You’re doing that right. Try bending the trees at the roots in the fall and keeping them covered with straw or mulch in the winter. Don’t cover them, because the moist earth is apt to rot the buds.”
Levi shook the seller’s hand. “Thank you. I’ll take two jars.”
After paying the couple, he headed in the direction of the Women’s Work building. Reba loved peaches. His feet ached to run to her, to show her what he’d bought. Ever since returning home from college, he couldn’t stop thinking about her and their future together. Come spring, he’d plant her an orchard. The land she’d inherited from her grandmother had the perfect spot for one. God had certainly blessed him with the perfect wife and the perfect house on the perfect piece of land.
Levi clenched the jars of peaches to his chest as he wove through the crowd. The only thing standing between him and his perfect future was—