Retro Roadtrip: South Dakota

Lake City
Fort Sisseton was built in the 1860s on what was then the wild frontier of the Dakota Territory. For the next 25 years, the U.S. Army manned the fort. After they left in 1889, the buildings fell into disrepair. In 1960, the South Dakota State Parks Department acquired the land. There are now more than a dozen buildings open to the public, including the officers’ quarters, stone barracks, powder magazine and guard house.

This glimpse into life on the Western frontier really comes to life during Fort Sisseton’s Frontier Christmas. It’s held the second full weekend in December and features Christmas crafts, baking in wood stoves and sleigh rides.

De Smet
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote six of her nine Little House books about her childhood in this prairie town. Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls, moved his wife and four daughters here in 1879 when he began working for the railroad. The Ingalls family, including 12-year-old Laura, lived in the Surveyors’ House for their first winter in South Dakota. In the spring of 1880, Charles Ingalls was given a plot of land about a mile southeast of town where he built a home for use during the warm months. In the fall, the Ingalls family moved into a general store on Main Street, where they lived during the cold weather. This store is prominently featured in the book titled The Long Winter. During her years in South Dakota, Laura taught in one-room schools, and in 1885 she married Almanzo James Wilder. (They lived in the area until 1894 when they moved to Missouri.)

In 1887, Charles Ingalls built a residence in town that is now called the Ingalls Home. It remained a private residence until 1972 when the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society purchased it. Visitors to De Smet today can see 16 sites related to the Little House books. They include the Surveyors’ House and Ingalls Homestead, which both have period furnishings and Ingalls family items.

Sioux Falls
Vermont native Richard Pettigrew became South Dakota’s first full-time U.S. Senator. In 1911 he purchased a Queen Anne style home that was willed to the city upon his death in 1926. Today the Pettigrew House and Museum displays period furnishings plus items Pettigrew collected on his extensive world travels. Located on the campus of Augustana College, the Center for Western Studies has 200 collections relating to the history of the Great Plains. Many items relate to the Sioux culture, pioneer settlements and Western art. The USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial, located in Sherman Park, honors the most decorated battleship in World War II.

There has been a Corn Palace in Mitchell since 1892, when it was started by the Corn Belt Real Estate Association to promote the abundance of corn and wheat as a way to lure settlers to South Dakota. Today, it’s a Moorish-style civic auditorium with onion domes on the roof that hosts sporting events, concerts and conventions. A half-million people come every year to gawk at its 13 large exterior murals. The murals, which require six to eight weeks to make, are composed of 275,000 ears of corn in 13 naturally colored shades that have been split and nailed together to form whatever the current year’s theme inspires. (The 2006 theme is Salute to Rodeo.) A large festival in September, known as Corn Palace Week, highlights the finished work of corn art. The Corn Palace is often called the World’s Largest Bird Feeder. After winter sets in, local pigeons and squirrels feast for months on the tasty murals.

Pronounced PEER, South Dakota’s capital city is home to the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center. Built in the side of a Missouri River bluff and covered with short grass, this 63,000-square-foot museum contains outstanding displays that explore the contributions of the Sioux Indians and the homesteaders of many nationalities who helped develop this state.

Started in 1954, Pioneer Auto Show now promotes itself as a “big variety show.” The nucleus of its collection is more than 100 cars and motorcycles, including Elvis Presley’s personal Harley-Davidson, a 1951 Studebaker, a 1931 Pierce-Arrow, a 1929 Ford Model A and a 1922 Hupmobile. Other collections on display include lunch pails, vintage toys and games, music boxes, advertising signs, gas pumps, dentistry tools, apothecary jars, buttons, radios and dishes. Originally built as a movie set, 1880 Town was never used in a film production. Instead, it was given to Murdo resident Clarence Hullinger in exchange for antiques he supplied as movie props. Hullinger has moved more buildings to his 80-acre site. Today visitors can see 30 buildings dating from the 1870s to 1919 filled with relics from the homestead era. There are also displays of movie props from Dances With Wolves and memorabilia from the late Casey Tibbs, a rodeo champion.

Crazy Horse Memorial
South Dakota’s second mountain carving is a work in progress. Begun in 1947, it features the Oglala Sioux warrior who defeated General George Armstrong in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. When completed it will be 641 feet tall and 563 feet long. The horse’s head, currently the focus of carvers, is 219 feet. This ambitious project began with the hard work of one sculptor.

Born in 1908, Korczak Ziolkowski learned about hard work and developed a lifelong passion for helping the underdog as he grew up in a series of Boston-area foster homes. He became a talented furniture maker and sculptor whose childhood dream was realized when sculptor Gutzon Borglum asked him to assist with the Mount Rushmore project in 1939. He left South Dakota a few years later to join the military during World War II. When the war ended, he accepted an invitation from Native-American leaders and dedicated his life to the Crazy Horse Memorial. For the next 36 years, until his death in 1982 at age 74, he refused any salary as he worked tirelessly on this ambitious project. Today visitors can see a short DVD presentation, which explains the project; tour the Ziolkowski family home and studio, and visit the Indian Museum of North America’s Educational and Cultural Center. Completion of the project is uncertain, as it receives funding solely from donations, fundraisers and admission fees.