Governor Daugaard’s Weekly Column: The Man Who Labored To Preserve South Dakota’s Beauty

The Man Who Labored To Preserve South Dakota’s Beauty
A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard:

I couldn’t help but think of Gov. Peter Norbeck while I was in Custer State Park for the Buffalo Roundup this past week. I spent time at the Game Lodge, the historic hotel President Calvin Coolidge made into his summer White House. I went to Mt. Rushmore for a breakfast with business prospects. I drove Needles Highway and looked out at Sylvan Lake.

I wouldn’t have been doing any of those things if it hadn’t been for Gov. Norbeck. And neither would thousands of South Dakotans and visitors who gathered to watch hundreds of buffalo stampede across the prairie.

South Dakota’s visitor industry really began with Peter Norbeck. Norbeck brought Gutzom Borglum to South Dakota to construct his stone masterpiece, he convinced President Coolidge to spend a summer in the Black Hills and he was the father of Custer State Park.

Prior to his gubernatorial tenure, Norbeck had already envisioned the creation of a state park for wildlife on the edge of extinction and native vegetation to be maintained. He was a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist who wanted to preserve and share nature.

As a state senator, Norbeck was instrumental in passing legislation that repurposed land acquired by the federal government for a game preserve. Under the Norbeck Administration, South Dakota combined those game preserve lands with acres purchased around Sylvan Lake, the Needles, and what was known then as Harney Peak to create Custer State Park. Gov. Norbeck then served as the chairman of the park’s board.

His work on Custer State Park did not end with his gubernatorial term. As a U.S. senator, Norbeck continued to serve on the Custer State Park Board. In his new capacity, he helped the park obtain more lands – making it the largest state park in the country at the time – and assisted with the development of roads throughout the park and the Black Hills.

I arrived early to Custer State Park for this year’s Buffalo Roundup to celebrate the re-opening of an outdoor center named after Norbeck. The Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center is housed in the facility which previously served as the park’s visitor center, and has been renovated to enhance the Custer State Park experience for visitors, particularly kids.

The new exhibits include outdoor classrooms with building, art, and digging areas, and a mine. The revamped facility also contains indoor exhibits: a life-size oak tree, a prairie dog town with its own burrow to crawl through and a cave to explore. It’s a place where kids are encouraged to dig in the dirt, build things with sticks and play in the water.

The Norbeck Center will be a good addition to South Dakota’s most visited state park. It is a place where kids can be kids and visitors will surely want to visit. It’s a fitting tribute to the man who, as a marker placed in the park says, “found a wilderness for [his beloved people] and labored to preserve its beauty unspoiled for them and for their children’s children.”