©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard
Wednesday September 11 – Worthington, Minnesota-Pierre South Dakota
|South Dakota Sunrise|
My next destination is Pierre (peer), the capitol of South Dakota. It is a long haul, 240 miles on I-90 and another 30 on two-lane highway but there aren’t many decent-sized cities in North Dakota (state pop. 833,354 in 2012) and there is good camping nearby. I also like to visit state capitols; I still haven’t given up on interviewing a governor or two.
While the U.S. Census considers The Dakotas part of the Midwest, the rest of us – even the Dakotans – think of it as part of The Old West. The billboards along the way confirm that. In fact, I’ve never seen so many billboards. For miles on end there is one nearly every hundred yards and most of them tout some tourist attraction, souvenir shop or hotel with a Western theme. There are farms sprinkled along the way but they are few and far between; I rarely see a barn or house but the hay is rolled and ready to be hauled away.
Wherever I see an American flag today it is flying at half-staff in memory of those who lost their lives on that tragic 9/11/2001. It is my generation’s Pearl Harbor; we will never forget where we were when we first heard of the attacks.
Then, all of a sudden, appearing out of nowhere I am in baseball player heaven, acre after acre, and row after row of tall sunflowers. I can almost see the shells being spit out in dugouts from Little League to the Majors.
At last I leave I-90 about 30 miles south of my destination and there is nothing but wide-open prairie all around. I pass through the smaller town of Ft. Pierre and cross the Missouri River to enter Pierre, which is a mild geographic surprise. I did not know the Missouri flowed through here.
The river is not the only thing that separates the two towns. Pierre is in the Central Time Zone while Ft. Pierre is Mountain Time. If you commute to work from Ft. Pierre to Pierre you have to get up an hour earlier. That’s a long commute.
Thursday September 12 – Pierre, SD-Rapid City, SD
Thirty-five percent of the work force in Pierre is either city, state or federal government so I’m guessing while there may have been some cuts, Pierre didn’t suffer during the recession as much as other cities.
It is early morning and I am breakfasting in Pier 347, home to the city’s only operating espresso machine and free Wi Fi. Sitting at the table next to me is a small group and one man starts talking about legislative sessions. My ears perk up. He is a tall, distinguished looking white-haired gentleman and as he stands to leave I ask, “Excuse me sir, are you a member of the legislature?”
“No,” he replies, “but I direct the legislative staff. I’m Jim” That’s good enough for me. I explain my project and he is a fount of helpful information.
“The legislature meets only in the winter,” he explains, “so there aren’t many of us around.”
“What about the governor?” I ask hopefully.
“He might be around. We are probably the most open state government in the country. Just walk on in to his office and ask to see Stacy, his scheduler. If he’s there she can probably get you in for a few minutes.”
Buoyed by this news I finish my espresso and head straight for South Dakota’s magnificent state capitol building (Aren’t they all?).
Inside, the capitol building, with all its marble, gilded ceilings and shiny wooden trim, it’s like a giant mausoleum; there is nobody in the lobby or under the rotunda, not even a State Trooper. I find the governor’s office and two receptionists with warm smiling faces greet me. There is no formal, authoritarian self-importance here. After explaining my mission, one of the young ladies offers, “Have a seat and I’ll go get Stacy.” Jim was right.
In just a minute or two a smiling Stacy comes out with sincere apologies, “I’m sorry, the governor is in D.C. through tomorrow but come with me. Let’s go see if the Lt. Governor is in.” Just like that. Unfortunately, the Lt. Governor is likewise out of town but I am nonetheless impressed with the helpful friendliness of the staff. I will later find out that just about everyone else in Pierre is “not in.” I spend the next 90-minutes patrolling a virtually empty downtown with nary a useful interview to be had. I make an executive decision to leave town.
Google Maps tells me Rapid City, South Dakota’s second largest city (pop. 69,854 in 2012) is only 145 miles away – and, only 25 miles from Mt. Rushmore (on my agenda!). There is plenty of camping in the area. Oh boy!
I head west on U.S. 14, across rolling hills, the broad expanse of the South Dakota prairie and many more sunflower farms. I will only have a short hop on I-90 and into Rapid City. In the meantime I am entering, oops, leaving the town of Cotton (pop. 12!).
I get on I-90 and the hills become a little bigger, their edges a little sharper. I am entering the Black Hills Country. I can’t explain why but I’m not really looking forward to Rapid City. Maybe it’s the name, if not boring, it sounds fictitious. I will learn quickly; Rapid City is anything but boring.
Friday September 13 – Rapid City, SD
|Sunset in The Black Hills|
The 1874 cry of, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” led indirectly to the founding of Rapid City as a White man’s settlement. Of course, The Lakota Sioux inhabited the land long before Western Culture arrived. The Lakota call Rapid City “Fast Water Mni Luzahan” for nearby Rapid Creek.
A group of disappointed but entrepreneurial miners founded the city in 1876, originally calling it “Hay Camp.” With its location on the eastern slopes of the hills, they marketed it as “Gateway to the Black Hills. According to Wikipedia:
“Although the Black Hills became a popular tourist destination in the late 1890s, it was a combination of local efforts, the popularity of the automobile, and construction of improved highways that brought tourists to the Black Hills in large numbers after World War I, Gutzon Borglum, already a famous sculptor, began work on Mount Rushmore in 1927 and his son, Lincoln Borglum, continued the carving of the presidents' faces in rock following his father's death in 1941. The work was halted due to pressures leading to the US entry into World War II and the massive sculpture was declared complete in 1941. Although tourism sustained the city throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, the gasoline rationing of World War II had a devastating effect on the tourist industry in the town, but this was more than made up for by the war-related growth.”
Farming, of course, was always part of the local economy. Later came Ellsworth Air Force Base and the population almost doubled. In the early 21st Century the Black Hills region was enjoying a manufacturing boom. The Great Recession un-boomed the area but did not kill it. Two major factories closed their doors during the recession and put several hundred people out of work. It more than doubled the ridiculously low unemployment rate to a little more than four percent, hence the relatively minor impact on the area. This is where I came to like and respect the people and the city, despite its contribution to the deterioration of the Sioux Nation. More on that in a moment.
Destination Rapid City, a very involved and active private downtown development group, refused to roll over. Dan Seftner is president of Destination Rapid City. He displays a can-do attitude that breeds success. He points out other times such as when the big box stores were sucking the life out of downtowns around America. “It’s no different today. If you were heavily leveraged to begin with and could not take a setback then you were in trouble. If you weren’t, you could take advantage of things and make them work for you on the other side of the coin.”
That is not just Seftner’s theory; it is a truism taught in Economics 101 and the results are evident everywhere in downtown Rapid City. Virtually every place I’ve visited so far has had its share of closed and empty downtown stores. There is not one empty store here that I can see. It is a vibrant downtown. “I’d say we are at least 95 percent leased in the downtown area,” says Seftner.
The mid-morning streets are spotlessly clean and crowded with locals and tourists. There are numerous cafes and
restaurants with sidewalk seating, countless Western-themed shops, art galleries, native crafts stores and amazing public art, much of it privately funded. For example, there are all those presidents.
About 15-years ago a group of businessmen decided to use Rapid City’s proximity to Mt. Rushmore for an ambitious project; they would seek private funding to create bronze statues of every U.S. president and place them on downtown street corners. Thus, Rapid City became the City of Presidents. The statues, either life-size or about two-thirds scale, are remarkable likenesses of our nation’s leaders and the tourists love ‘em. Throughout the morning I see families taking photos of themselves next to their favorites.
Now, let’s talk about the Native Americans in and around Rapid City. I spoke with a local NPR news producer who told me the presidential statues initially created quite a controversy because there was nothing to honor the great Lakota Chiefs. “We are currently standing on Sioux Treaty Land,” he points out. Indeed, the only thing I saw even close to honoring the Sioux was an unlabeled statue of a Lakota woman and her child. Can you say “tokenism?”
|Lakota Mother & Daughter|
Aside from the slights and tokenism to the Lakota, there is much to like here. For one thing, there are many Starbucks, always a factor for moi and, I just love Rapid City’s downtown. In addition to the busy streets, restaurants, shops and presidents’ statues there is an abundance of other public art, most of it pleasing to the eye. You can almost feel the heart of this city thumping.