Pickstown, South Dakota, is the kind of place where visiting fisherman can buy breakfast and bait at the same place, and the waitress has long since grown tired of jokes about what kind of worms are in the hamburgers. Most visitors—and there are plenty of them, come to fish and waterski and have family reunions at the campgrounds and picnic areas along the Missouri River—never explore further than the motels, cafes, and gas stations along the highway.
But when it was young, Pickstown was home to several thousand people. Unlike most prairie towns whose fates were tied to the coming and going of the railroads, it was a boomtown by government design. Built between 1946 and 1949 and owned by the federal government, it was created to house the workers building Fort Randall Dam.
When the dam was finished a few years later, the town dwindled. Now it is home to only a couple of hundred people. Still, if you take a walk on a quiet weekend morning after the fishermen have hauled their boats off to the river, you can see signs of its youth. Sidewalks along spacious empty lots end abruptly where front doors used to be. Duplexes built as worker housing have been remodeled into single-family homes. A few barrack-style apartment buildings probably survive on vacation rentals.
The Rainbow Room on White Swan Street, which occupies the original shopping center, is available for weddings, anniversary celebrations, dances, and reunions. At least during the summer, it appears to be a busy place. When we came in on Sunday morning for our family reunion, one of the refrigerators in the kitchen still held the top of the cake from the previous night's wedding reception.
A couple blocks away is Pickstown's hidden gem—the Community Church. A plain, white-painted building, it was locked when I peeked through the front window on Saturday morning but was open for services when I went back on Sunday. The pastor of the tiny congregation seemed pleased to give me a tour.
The church is a simple, appealing sanctuary with subdued stained glass windows and light oak pews. I suspect collectors would break the tenth commandment and covet its hexagonal light fixtures with their amber glass panels set into ironwork frames. The altar, also of oak, is appropriately plain for a small Protestant church.
Behind it, though, is what the pastor called "the church's secret." A second altar. And a third. All three are set on a revolving platform. The design, apparently, came from military chapels built to be easily reconfigured for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish services.
I'd love to know how many of these chapels are still in use, but so far I haven't been able to find out much about them. There doesn't seem to be one in the only other government town I'm familiar with—Boulder City, Nevada, built for the workers building Hoover Dam. It had a locally-built interdenominational Protestant church instead.
The Catholic altar in the Pickstown church hasn't been used for some time, and it's doubtful whether the Jewish altar has ever been used at all. During the town's boom years, though, Catholics and Protestants shared the chapel. According to Adeline Gnirk in her 1986 history of this area, The Epic of Papineau's Domain, Mass was held at 7:30 and a community Protestant service at 10:30.
In between, however, the Lutherans had their own service at 9:00. Maybe the town was large enough for the Lutherans to have a separate congregation. Or maybe, to the strictest followers of Martin Luther, ecumenicalism can only be taken so far.