The general store that changed my life
This summer, Ella Diers’24 completed a whirlwind tour out west funded by the Haseltine Prize, a scholarship awarded to one media studies student each year to support a creative travel-based project. Ella recounts learning more about her family history — including visiting the site of her three-times great-grandfather’s general store, Diers Bros — camping among bison, and the confidence she found along the way.
My friend Hope Nelson’23 won the Haseltine Prize last year, and I asked her for some help. I was studying abroad in Hungary my fall semester last year, and I remember sitting in a café working through what I was going to do. Basically, my project was to do a month-long road trip of the American West by myself. My grandparents live in Arizona, so as a kid, I would go visit them and I always loved it. I wanted to explore more of that area. My dad’s family is from a small town in Wyoming, so I wanted to explore my family history there, while also going off and having my own adventures. My trip was like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but a lot less hitchhiking.
I spent three weeks at home at the beginning of the summer, then I went to the Coe College Wilderness Field Station in Ely, Minnesota, and was out in nature. After that, I spent a couple of days with my aunt and uncle in Duluth, and then I started my road trip.
I went through South Dakota and to the Badlands, which were incredible. Then I went to Wyoming — Sheridan is the small town that my family is from. My grandpa’s cousin Sue still lives there, and together we went on a family history research project at the Sheridan Library. My great-grandfather Don Diers was a photographer who was well-known in Sheridan. He did a lot of portraits and landscapes; he was sort of the town photographer.
We went to the library and asked if they had anything on Don Diers, and they had five huge file folders filled with pictures that he had taken. Some of them I recognized because we had them hanging in our house. It was just incredible. What we didn’t realize was that his father was also a photographer, so between the two of them, they basically had photographed the entire history of Sheridan and my family from the late-1800s until when my grandpa was dating my grandma. It was incredible to look through all of that.
He had also taken portraits of all the winners of the Miss Indigenous Pageant in Sheridan. One of the winners was Sarah Luther Johnson, who won the pageant in 1967 and was doing research on the pageant. I got to shake her hand. It was fate and destiny and kismet all at once. Don and a few of the Indigenous women received an award in Washington, D.C., and we saw the medals he received.
It was incredible to be there with Sue, who I didn’t meet before this but welcomed me into her home and told me wonderful stories. She told me stories about her grandma, Ella Ball, my namesake, and how she was well-dressed and proper. She was six feet tall and had married twice and worked in the lingerie department at a department store, which were all crazy things to do at that time. She was liked so much there that a favorite customer brought her a chicken one day, and she just said very politely, “Thank you so much for this chicken.”
That was just the first part of the trip! I went to Utah and the Arches National Park — it was so hot, though. It was 106 degrees every day, so I had to wake up at six every morning to go hiking. Then I made my way to western Colorado and Taos, New Mexico. My grandfather did tours of the Southwest, so he has a lot of knowledge of the architecture and culture. We had a portrait of the famous San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church in our house and we got to see it in person. I feel more connected to my grandparents now.
I went back up into Colorado and my mom was able to come out for a couple of days — it was really awesome to spend time with her. Then we were in Idaho Springs, and there’s this mountain you can drive up — 14,000 feet — and there were mountain goats at the top, which was super cool.
Then we went to Nebraska because that’s where my family started. They opened a string of general stores in a small town called Seward, Nebraska. We camped outside town and went to the corner where this general store was. We have a picture of my three-times great-grandfather Elvin and his wife, Mazo when they were just married, and in the background, you can see the awning of Diers Bros. General Store.
Then my mom left and I went to Iowa and then back to Beloit, where I was an orientation leader (OL). I was glad to be back here two weeks early so that I could adjust back to civilization.
Independence and logistics
It was definitely a little lonely at times. I had a crew of stuffed animals in the passenger seat that I could talk to. I had relatives in Wyoming that I spent some time with, and my grandparents have a friend in Colorado Springs who I spent a couple of nights with, who I’d never met before. It was awesome to talk to her about my family. Then my mom came. [In between] it was a little bit lonely. It was mostly in the moments where something really cool or beautiful was happening and there was no one to turn to that I could say, “Hey, isn’t this awesome?” I think it was really cool to sit with myself and be able to experience those things on my own and have all of the emotions of the moment.
Being abroad in Hungary taught me how to travel and exist in different spaces and frequently changing environments. I think it was helpful to learn how to travel independently, having the confidence to do that. Being at the Wilderness Field Station helped because it’s first-come-first-serve campsites, and I had to figure out where I was going to sleep each night. And you have to canoe. You have to have a contingency plan. It used the Campgrounds of America because they’re everywhere and are easy to find. I always found nice places.
It does take a lot of confidence to travel by yourself. That was something that people kept asking me and my mom about: “She’s doing this by herself?” Being by yourself, whether it’s in Taos, New Mexico, or Prague or Beloit, you have to keep your wits about you. A lot of people emphasized safety to me, which is important, and I made sure to take precautions. I definitely gained a little bit of travel savviness.
I drove a Prius — it’s a hybrid, so I got great gas mileage, which was awesome! It has a surprising amount of storage. At a lot of camp sites out west, especially in Utah, they have these square pallets that you’re supposed to put your tent on, but it’s basically just dirt and gravel. You can’t stick your tent down at all, and it was so windy. I had a duffel bag, and I had to put it in my tent, and I have pictures of my entire tent being blown to the side, and you can see the outline of my duffel bag because the wind was so strong! I ended up sleeping in my car a couple of nights when it was too windy and dusty. I managed to fit everything. My car was fine — just covered in bugs.
Surprises along the way
The only thing I had really planned before starting was my general route and the timeline, so I kind of knew how long to be in places in order to be in Beloit on my move-in day for orientation. I’d only booked campsites at the Badlands and the Arches because I knew those would be busy in the height of tourist season. I had some locations and activities that I thought, “That would be cool, I should hit that,” but some of the coolest things were the things I wasn’t expecting.
Through Utah, I really didn’t know my route, and because it was so hot, I was trying to avoid being in central Utah. Antelope Island is an island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake, and there’s this great, long road that’s in the middle, straight out to the island. As I was driving, a sign said something about camping, and I asked someone if there were any campsites available. I ended up camping in the middle of the Great Salt Lake in the middle of this beautiful island and there was this incredible sunset. Everywhere on the island, there were signs that said, “Warning: do not approach if you see a bison,” and I went on a drive to see if I could find them.
It was just before sunset and I turned around the corner and there was a herd of a hundred bison in this field. I just sat and watched the bison move across the plains in the middle of the Great Salt Lake in the middle of this island, and it was just so incredible. You could hear them lowing — this deep sound. There were baby bison, and the whole herd was moving, eating grass. It was an incredibly unexpected moment that was so beautiful and something I could never have imagined that I would experience.
The premise of the project was to have this experience and be able to tell some kind of story from it, which I presented on at the Beloit and Beyond conference. The story of my family was more than I could have ever hoped for. I also learned that I love camping, and that there are a lot of different opportunities to be outside and traveling and in nature and doing things related to that that I could do with my life. It spurred me into a new direction.
I’ve never known what I wanted to do — coming into college, I didn’t know what my major would be. I kind of fell into media studies, which I enjoy, and I was thinking I might do something with journalism or broadcasting, and I’ve always enjoyed being in nature. I grew up in New Hampshire, and there are a lot of hiking and outdoor activities out there. But I never thought that I’d be able to do that with my life without a biology degree — that’s the only way I thought I could incorporate that before. Now I have more options. I’ve discovered something that I really like, whether I translate that into a career or just make it a bigger part of my life.
I co-host a radio show on WBCR on Mondays from 10-12 p.m. I work for the Global Experience Office. And I’m one of the co-editors-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Round Table, with one of my best friends, Ezekiel Kingsbury’24, so I’m excited about that. It’s leadership in a capacity that I haven’t experienced before. I’m lucky that I’m able to do that with one of my best friends and that we work together well.
We have a clean slate to become the community we want to become and foster a cool and encouraging and friendly environment. We’re going to keep putting the word out there. Even if 40 people — the number that came for the interest meeting — don’t come every week, that’s still 40 people who came and heard about the Round Table and will read it. I’m also doing a special project making a Round Table news broadcast at CELEB, pulling out some articles and having fun and engaging with another side of campus and the Beloit community. I’m excited about building the Round Table back up.