The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Western South Dakota


695A welcome counterpart to the loud and crowded Mount Rushmore, is the quiet and contemplative President's Park), a new Black Hills attraction, where visitors can stroll through a grove of twenty-foot tall busts of all the presidents, in chronological order. CLUI photo

IN CERTAIN PARTS OF THE country, strains of the American identity align themselves into a partially coincidental confluence that creates a cohesive and evocative portrait of the whole. These regions become a gallery of material landscape artifacts that express more than the sum of their parts. Such is the case in western South Dakota, where topography, geology, and history have provided a platform for an intensified manifestation of prevailing characteristics of our culture. This is a place where America visits itself, in virtual isolation, on a grand scale. This is a place created to attract, and to draw attention to the great issues of the American past and present.

Some of the regional attractions include the annual motorcycle meet at Sturgis, which started in the 1930s as a local racing event and has evolved into the largest gathering of motorcyclists on the planet, where literally hundreds of thousands of bikers descend on one small South Dakota town. The truly strange-looking volcanic plug called Devil's Tower, just over the line in Wyoming, attracts thousands of native Americans (to whom it is a sacred place), foreign tourists, and extraterrestrial watchers. The KOA campground at its base screens Close Encounters of the Third Kind every night. In the other direction, on Interstate 90 near the Badlands, is Wall Drug, one of the ultimate American roadside attractions, established by the aggressive advertising of itself, primarily with the placement of hundreds of billboards on the Interstate, and ads that have spread from London buses to the Taj Majal and the South Pole (thousands of its billboards were removed from the highways following the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, established by Lady Bird Johnson. The owner of Wall Drug, Bill Hustead, responded by becoming the Chairman of the South Dakota Transportation Commission). And though it is not visited too much anymore, the geographic center of the USA (if you include all 50 states) is located 17 miles north of Belle Fourche, and was ceremoniously marked with a lighted flagpole when Alaska and Hawaii joined the union in 1959.

696A Park Service Ranger shows Sarah Simons of the CLUI the ICBM inside a glass canopy-covered silo. CLUI photo

Another national attraction developing in the region once attracted attention of a different sort. The Park Service is slowly transforming an ICBM missile silo and launch control center into a visitable park, the only contemporary (Minuteman) missile silo that is open to the public. Once the target of their Russian counterparts, all the South Dakota missile silos have been decommissioned (though hundreds remain on alert in North Dakota, presumably pointing at the Russians, who, presumably, still have some of theirs pointed at North Dakota). Nearby, another target, Ellsworth Air Force Base, houses the nation's fleet of B1 bombers, and has a museum and base tours.

697One of the many faces of Deadwood, South Dakota. This reconstruction for tourists, with its freshly milled unpainted wood, is probably closer to the way Deadwood looked at its peak in 1876, than either the rest of downtown, or the Melody Ranch, the western movie set in Southern California where HBO's Deadwood is shot. CLUI photo

But it is in western South Dakota’s Black Hills where one of the most famous of all American attraction-for-attraction’s-sake lies, second perhaps only to the Washington Monument: Mount Rushmore. The massive carving of the four presidential heads out of solid rock was declared complete on Halloween, 1941, as America’s involvement in the war deepened. After the war and into the 1950s and ‘60’s, as newly prosperous and mobile Americans took to the nation's highways for recreation, visiting Mount Rushmore became a right of passage and a patriotic duty. As a result, attractions attracted to this attraction sprang up all over the Black Hills, which today are full of western-themed fun towns, gift shops, and natural feature enhancements. Exaggerated, constructed, and distorted history and geography is enjoyed at the classic American tourist sites that include petrified forests, historic railroad rides, Flintstone Bedrock City, dinosaur park, miniature golf, reptile gardens, aerial tramways, eight tourist caves, water parks, wax museums, scenic loops, mine tours, and the requisite gravitational anomaly attraction the Cosmos Mystery Area. In Rapid City, there is a Berlin wall memorial with a recreation of the wall, as the real thing was too full of asbestos to be used. A passion play is performed daily in Spearfish, where 150 volunteer actors play out the last days of Jesus on the “largest outdoor stage in the nation.”

In Deadwood, the classic western town where Wild Bill was shot and buried, versions of western history are played out in gunfights and reenactments. The town has been fixing itself up as a tourist attraction since the 1980’s, shutting the last legal brothel in 1980, and legalizing gambling in 1989. Its identity is increasingly effected by the legends it promotes, through films like Dances With Wolves, shot in the area (now Kevin Costner owns a casino and restaurant downtown, and Tatanka, a “story of the bison” attraction he built nearby), and recently with the HBO television series Deadwood, which has tripled visitation to the town, according to several reports.

698Mount Rushmore, featuring only 4 United States presidents and surrounded by public announcement and monitoring devices. CLUI photo

And then there is Crazy Horse, the world's largest mountain carving, under construction since 1948, and likely to continue to be under construction by 2048. The sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski was invited to make the Crazy Horse sculpture by the Lakota Indians, as a counterpoint to Mount Rushmore. Ziolkowski visited the area in 1939, working for a summer with Borghlum on Rushmore. He moved to the Crazy Horse site after serving in the war, and made it his life’s work. He died at 74 in 1982, and his wife and children have been carrying on the work. Crazy Horse’s face, the only really recognizable part so far, was completed in 1998. It is 87 feet tall. Currently, work is focused on the horse’s head which will be 22 stories tall. When completed the Crazy Horse mountain carving will be 641 feet long by 563 feet high.

An extensive tourist complex has been built near the work site, including an Indian Museum of North America, a Native American Cultural Center, and a new 40,000 square foot Orientation Center, with a theater, gift shop and restaurant. The project, a nonprofit corporation, has refused all federal financial support, and is supported by donations and the $20 per carload charged to the million people who visit the site each year. 

699Crazy Horse, the world's largest mountain carving, under construction for the forseeable future. CLUI photo