South Dakota Stories: Exploring our State's History

Explore South Dakota's History

Are you looking to explore our state's history? You'll want to check out the "South Dakota Stories" series of books that feature stories written for, about, and by South Dakotans.

These carefully-constructed narratives use sometimes atypical angles to define South Dakota's history. For example, "On the Homefront" tells the story of South Dakotans whose lives were drastically interrupted by war despite them not being involved in combat.

"South Dakota Stories" are told from the perspectives of those who lived them, not the historians who examine them as outsiders. Tales that survived temporarily in coffee shops and by word of mouth are now documented forever in "South Dakota Stories."

What are South Dakota Stories and What Makes Them Special?

The South Dakota Humanities Council has published five collections of stories written by and about your friends, family and neighbors who call South Dakota home. The most recent edition, "What Makes A South Dakotan?," was published in the fall of 2012 and released at the 2012 South Dakota Festival of Books.

So, what makes the South Dakota Stories books unique?

The stories in these books were built around various chapters of our state's culture and history. Each volume shares stories around a common theme that informs a new perspective of South Dakota life.

Read more about each volume below. 

'What Makes A South Dakotan?'

'What Makes A South Dakotan?' is part of the South Dakota Stories series.

A photo by Christian Begeman of a grain elevator from the book "What Makes A South Dakotan?" Photo used with permission from Christian Begeman.

$21.95 (plus tax/shipping)
2012. 297 pp. Edited by John E. Miller and Lenora Hudson.

To commemorate 40 years of humanities programming in South Dakota, we collected stories from South Dakota natives and residents for the fifth book in our "South Dakota Stories" Series.

The resulting publication won a prestigious national award for preserving history for its 200 stories, poems and photos from current and former South Dakotans who shared their definition of what it takes to be a real South Dakotan. The 2013 American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) Award of Merit-winning publication tells the story of our state.

The AASLH Leadership in History Awards were created to "establish and encourage standards of excellence in the collections, preservation, and interpretation of state and local history throughout the United States. By publicly recognizing excellent achievements, the association strives to inspire others to give care, thought, and effort to their own projects."

In the words of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, "The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories."

"'What Makes A South Dakotan' is replete with such stories about ordinary South Dakotans, as well as several about more noted ones, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, George S. Mickelson, Robert Lusk, George McGovern, and Karl Mundt," write editors John E. Miller and Lenora Hudson in the book intro.

"Heartfelt emotions of admiration and respect, joy and heartbreak, inspiration and loss also run through the book's various depictions of environmental features, weather disasters, fires, concerts, celebrations, ball games, travels, family happenings, community gatherings, wartime, peacetime, buildings constructed, and buildings demolished."

The contributors and editors of the publication put great care and effort into the award-winning book, making it an excellent representation of our state that includes Lakota, Dakota and Nakota perspectives.

"It has something to do with 'belonging.' South Dakota is a state of the nation and identified as a geographic location. I like the term 'homeland,' which just happens to be in South Dakota."

"As the homeland, it precedes statehood, and its roots go deeper than settlements, towns, counties, land demarcations, and ownership. When my feet touch the soil, it connects me to my ancestors and my mother earth, and I have a comforting feeling that someday I will rest in her bosom."
- From "My Ancestral Homeland" by Elden Lawrence


'Life on the Farm and Ranch'

'Life on the Farm and Ranch' is part of the South Dakota Stories series.

A photo by Jean Laughton from the book "Life on the Farm & Ranch." Used with permission by Jean Laughton.

$13.95 (plus tax/shipping)

2009. 2015 pp. Edited by John E. Miller.

"There is nothing more American than the stories of South Dakota farms and ranches. A book that gathers those stories is a document for all times. In these pages, you will find most of what really matters in the lives of all Americans."
- Dan O'Brien, Rancher & Author, Hermosa

"Life on the Farm and Ranch" tells the stories of ranchers and farmers – and their families - who made their homes and livings from sprawling ranches and farmsteads in South Dakota.

But rather than focus on the practice of agriculture, the stories focus upon "the everyday lives of people living on South Dakota ranches and farms and the memories they retain of their immensely variegated experiences from childhood through adulthood," according to editor John E. Miller.

"Life on South Dakota's farms and ranches by no means constitutes a utopia, nor has it done so. But living there confers its compensations, why else would so many people enjoy telling the kinds of stories collected in this volume? South Dakota residents are like their counterparts in every time and place: bundles of contradictions—a little lower than the angels, on the one hand, and scamps, gossips, and busybodies, on the other. But the advantages of living on the land are many: communion with nature, human scale, connection with neighbors, physical exertion, a sense of accomplishment, and closeness to the infinite."

"Tales of wintry weather, legendary coffee shop debates and more can be found within the pages of "Life on the Farm and Ranch."

"The year of 1968-69, while Dad was living on a farm southeast of Wakonda, it began snowing the weekend after Thanksgiving and continued every weekend for weeks, until drifts reached the height of twenty feet. Snow plows quit trying to keep the roads open. School was held for students who could reach the paved roads. His children walked a mile one way to meet the school bus on the blacktop south of the farm."
-Gloria Bauske

"As a farm wife, I consider it very important to host daily business luncheons over the noon hour. Now my clientele do not wear three-piece suits, not even leisure suits. It's "casual Friday" everyday here. Instead of Wall Street Armani duds, they sport denim jeans and layer shirts that may have seen their better day, with hooded sweatshirts displaying seed corn or livestock pharmaceutical logos. Don't let their attire fool you. They are definitely businessmen, and business is definitely discussed."
-Karla Pazour


'On the Homefront'

A Marine hugs his young children. The South Dakota Humanities Council Book "On the Homefront" discusses the impact of war on families back home while the soldier is away.

$11.95 (plus tax/shipping)
2007. 111 pp. Edited by Charles L. Woodard.

"On the Homefront," the third in the South Dakota Stories series, explores the boundaries of the definition of a "war story."

"I believe that idea of what constitutes a war story is far too narrow. As a veteran of combat, I believe that there are many more veterans of war than there are people who have worn uniforms," writes editor Charles Woodard in the introduction. "I also believe that there are more casualties of war than there are names on memorial walls."

Tim O'Brien, who appeared at the South Dakota Humanities Council's 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books, spoke of the "homefront effect" both during the Festival of Books and in an interview before the event. A National Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize finalist and one of the foremost authors on the Vietnam War, O'Brien receives thousands of letters from relatives of Vietnam veterans who thank him for telling a story they hadn't heard.

"That's the kind of casualty we're talking about that war has always caused," O'Brien explained.

"On the Homefront" is made up of the types of stories shared by those who write to the nationally-recognized author.

"On the Homefront" asserts that "a war story is a story about anyone who has been affected by war, whether or not that person has served in the military," according to Woodard. "It can be a story about anyone who has been or is in relationship with anyone involved in war, during war or in its aftermath. Therefore, it can even be a story about the effects of war many years after the war has ended. Its setting can be anywhere, including 'on the homefront.'"

The below excerpt poignantly presents the book's thesis.

"A few days after he returned home from the Vietnam War, my son walked into a bar and was confronted by a man who had been drinking with his friends. "You John Rindy?" the man asked. "Yes, I am," John responded, thinking the man was going to welcome him to the group. "What the hell are you doing back home?" the man shouted. "You never finished your job!"

"Even after the Vietnam War had ended, such hostile attitudes toward those who had served persisted. Those who had risked their lives to stop the spread of Communism and to preserve individual rights, including the right to dissent, not only had no welcome-home celebrations or parades, but they also sometimes experienced negativism and criticism."
- Naida R. McKinney, Sturgis


'Country Congregations'

'Country Congregations' is part of the South Dakota Stories series.

Pictured above is one of the many country churches in the United States. Country churches are featured in the South Dakota Humanities Council book "Country Congregations."  

$11.95 (plus tax/shipping)
2002. 150 pp. Edited by Charles L. Woodard.

The affection for and nostalgia about the rural country church has many parallels to people's feelings about the rural school, which made for a logical sequel exploring churches. "Country Congregations" were a bond that held the community together.

As urban sprawl continues, we become increasingly nostalgic about rural settings of the past. For historians, the rural settings of pioneer days are difficult to imagine without the large, prominent church, often rivaled in size only by the grain elevator.

Early pioneer churches, or "immigrant" churches, were often the "dominant structure on the landscape," according to author Robert C. Ostergen.

"With its white clapboard siding and gleaming spire, it was visible for miles."

The rural church models the lifestyle of small local community, people "congregating" in intimate, mutually supportive ways. "Country Congregations" explores the comforting rural church idea of ongoing, meaningful connection and relationship.

It features as its central ingredient "anecdotes, little stories, which are emblems of hopes, beliefs, values, possibilities," writes editor Charles Woodard in the introduction. The book provides a sampling of the numerous Christian denominations in this region (though it does not cover all denominations, which would have been beyond its scope), as well as the perspectives and stories of tribal descendants of the original inhabitants of this area. These tribal perspectives have been and continue to be influential in Christian traditions.

The book covers a broad range of traditions and perspectives, and the title itself has dual meaning.

"The word 'Country' in the title refers to both isolated places of worship on rural landscapes which have motivated most of these stories and to the places of worship within rural communities, the villages and towns which are represented here," notes Woodard.

"We had some doings at church and a mouse came running right across the piano keys. My sister Eileen was the pianist. Us girls were sitting in the front row and we were wondering what she was going to do about that mouse – if she was gonna scream or what. But she kept right on a-playing, and it ran down and then into the choir someplace. You don't forget stuff like that."
- Shirley Hansen
Grant Center Evangelical United Brethren Church, Rural Milbank


'One-Room Country School'

'One-Room Country School' is part of the South Dakota Stories series.

Pictured above is an old one-room country school in the U.S., as discussed in the book "One-Room Country School." 

$11.95 (plus tax/shipping)

1998. 146 pp. Edited by Norma C. Wilson & Charles L. Woodard.

Rural life is the legacy of the state of South Dakota, and at the foundation of this legacy is the one-room country school, the theme of the first book in the "South Dakota Stories" series. The one-room school, long after its disappearance from our culture, is an enduring symbol of education and the traditional values of Euro-American society. The history of these schools and what was left behind when they disappeared is explored through anecdotes from schoolteachers, students and parents who recall the "One-Room Country School."

The popularity and overwhelming flood of responses to the request for submissions for this book inspired the companion "Country Congregations."

Schools in the Dakotas started small, with the first settlers teaching their children at home before cooperating to build schools and hire teachers. The first public school in Dakota Territory was a 14-by-16-foot building built with rough logs in Bon Homme County in 1860. It had nine students with Emma Bradford as the teacher.

The Bon Homme school would ignite growth statewide, with a total of nearly 5,000 rural schools in South Dakota in 1916.

The numbers eventually dwindled, as South Dakota lost more than 1,000 schools during the Great Depression.

"One-Room Country School" captures stories from the buildings that have disappeared from the landscape.

"When you taught in a country school, you walked to school from your boarding place. Sometimes the air was humid, and most times the walks were exhilarating, but often in the winter season it was very cold, so I wore two-piece snowsuits. I arrived at school one morning and discovered I had neglected to put on a skirt before I stepped into the snowpants. So I had to keep the pants on all day. Three of my pupils accepted my dilemma well, but the fourth pupil, the seventh-grade boy, kept giggling. He giggled and giggled to the point where it was disruptive, so I hesitantly sent him home. There his parents put him to work for his misbehavior. He was sent out to clean the barns. Years later, we both enjoyed a good chuckle over that incident."
Astrid Road, District 67 School,
Brookings County, SD, 1941-42


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