Joe Kirby writes on “The Artist in the South Dakota Penitentiary”

Joe Kirby, a prominent attorney in early Sioux Falls, in a portrait by Frederick H. Morse

Yesterday on his personal blog, Joe Kirby wrote an interesting post about Frederick H. Morse, a portrait painter who spent time in South Dakota in the early 1900s. As Kirby writes:

Frederick Henry Morse was an artist who made a career in the late 1800s painting portraits of politicians and local notables in several Midwestern states and cities. Long after putting away his brushes, he found himself in serious legal trouble in South Dakota. Which gave him time and perhaps a reason to start painting again.

The blog post features a photograph of a portrait Morse painted of Kirby’s great-grandfather, who was also named Joe Kirby and who was an attorney in early Sioux Falls, and a lot more fascinating information about Morse and his time in South Dakota. I would encourage you to check out Kirby’s entire post.

Last year, I edited the unpublished memoirs of William J. Bulow, a Beresford attorney who was South Dakota’s first Democratic governor and later a U.S. Senator. Excerpts of the edited manuscript were printed in the Spring 2021 edition of South Dakota History (I’m confident there are still copies available for order).

Included in the excerpt was Bulow’s recollection of how Kirby helped Bulow, a young attorney, establish himself in South Dakota when Bulow arrived in Sioux Falls in 1894:

At the conclusion of that term of school, the latter part of February 1894, I took the train for Sioux Falls, South Dakota. . . . When I arrived in Sioux Falls I looked up my classmate George Jeffries and he took me up to Joe Kirby’s law office and introduced me. C. A. Christopherson had been working for Mr. Kirby, but he had just opened up a law office of his own. I hired out to Joe Kirby for one year—twenty dollars per month for the first six months and forty dollars per months for the last six months—but Kirby fired me before I got into the higher pay brackets. When I hired out to Kirby, his office was in the Edmison-Jameson building; C. A. Christopherson officed in the same building. Kirby took me to Christopherson’s office and introduced me, saying, “Charley, this is Billy. I have just hired him. Get him a place to sleep and eat at your boarding house.” So saying, Kirby left and put it up to Charley and I to talk things over. 

That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. For more than fifty years, C. A. Christopherson and I have been the best of personal friends, a friendship that I value second to none. The rate at Charlie’s boarding house was four dollars per week for room and board. 

After I had worked for Kirby for several months, one day he said to me “Billy what do you do without all your money?” He took me so by surprise that I did not have the answer. The only thing that I could think of on the spur of the moment I told him, “I send some of it home to my folks.” When I had been with Kirby for nearly six months he said to me, “Billy I had a letter from George Schatzel, a banker at Beresford, stating that there is a good opening for a young lawyer at Beresford; you better hitch up Old Sam and drive down and look it over.” (Old Sam was Kirby’s horse that I used to hitch up to a buckboard and drive over the country to make collections). I said, “I have hired out to you for a year and I want to make good on my contract.” He said, “Hell, that don’t amount to anything. I can pick up a boy anywhere to do your work in the office here and you never will amount to a G—Damn until you set up for yourself.” 

I would note that Charles A. Christopherson, whom Bulow writes about in this excerpt, later represented South Dakota’s first district in the United States House of Representatives from 1919 to 1933. His final two years overlapped with Bulow’s first two years in the U.S. Senate (he served from 1931-43) and, although Christopherson was a Republican and Bulow a Democrat, they remained close friends.