From Dell Rapids' Attic - History
The Need to Document and Preserve Local History
The roots of the present are in the past, and one who would understand the present, must study the past.
- Author unknown
By the 1920’s the number of early pioneers who settled in the Dell Rapids community were declining. The community was 50 years old and little had been done to document the events of the past and preserve the local heritage.
Except for the past issues of Dell Rapids’ early newspapers and the History of Minnehaha County book written by D. R. Bailey in 1899, little had been documented about the community’s local history.
One of the first groups to organize and take on the task of preserving the city’s past was the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1927, they created a local chapter and named it the Betsy Hickok chapter, after the ancestor of one of the founding members. The goal of the DAR was and still is to “promote historic preservation, education and patriotism in the United States.” This local group also wanted to make Dell Rapids’ residents aware of the town’s roots.
One of their earliest projects was organizing an “Antique Show” in the home of Mr. and Mrs. A.B. and Cora Gillette during the 1930s. The downstairs of their home became a miniature museum designed to depict an early Dell Rapids home. Some say that this was Dell Rapids first attempt at a museum. On display were local antique furniture, old clothes from an earlier period, baby buggies, Civil War swords, and other antiquities supplied by local residents. This popular event lasted several weekends.
In 1930, the DAR placed a stone monument and marker on the grave of Abigail Hosford Ervin at the Dell Rapids cemetery. Ervin, originally from New York came to Dakota Territory and Dell Rapids in 1873. She is considered Dell Rapids’ “Real Daughter” of the American Revolutionary War. Her father served in the war during the late 1770’s.
In 1931, the DAR was able to rescue one of the old grinding stones used at the old mill built in the early 1870’s. The old mill was in the process of being torn down after being damaged many years before by a flood. This stone burr was placed in the city park as a reminder to the community of the importance that the historic building had in the settling of Dell Rapids.
Charles A. Smith wrote the Minnehaha County History book in 1949. One section of the book was reserved for early Dell Rapids history.
In 1952, Mrs. U.S. Earls gathered and wrote a history of Dell Rapids for the Woman’s Club. Her story became the basis for the historical pageant presented during Dell Rapid’s Diamond Jubilee in 1955. Another local history writer of Dell Rapids during the 1950’s was Mrs. James Nesby. Many of her articles were published in the Dell Rapid Tribune and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
In addition to Dell Rapids’ 1955 Diamond Jubilee, other writers researched and printed history articles in the Tribune during the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 and Dell Rapids Centennial in 1980 (the year that commemorated the arrival of the first train in the community in 1880).
Over the years, other civic-minded citizens also became involved in preserving Dell Rapids history. In 1977, the Dell Rapids Historical Council organized and became a chapter of the Minnehaha County Historical Society. Their goal was to make local residents aware of the area’s rich heritage and to preserve the local history of the community.
One of their first accomplishments was placing the downtown area of the city on the National Register of Historic Buildings. The group is also credited for saving the old stone water tower located on 10th St. from the city’s wrecking ball. This water tower is one of 3 such stone structures in the United States, and it, too, was added to the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Another major accomplishment of the Dell Rapids Historical Council was opening a museum at the vacant Episcopal Church that was built in the 1890’s. In 1979, a five-year lease was signed with the Episcopal Diocese to use the church as a museum. It was named “The Heritage Center,” and artifacts and historic memorabilia were donated by local citizens. The upstairs of the church was left as it was, depicting the beauty of the old time church. The downstairs had displays set aside for old photographs of the community, an early kitchen, and a parlor. Other areas in the church basement had artifacts relating to early military history, commercial industry, and farming. The short-lived museum closed in the mid 1980’s, and the church was eventually sold and became a private residence. Some of the Heritage Museum’s display items were stored and others were given back to the original lenders.
During Dell Rapids’ 1980 Centennial, the Historical Council published the Dell Rapids – Our Heritage picture-history coloring book. Later, they reprinted Lucile Fargo’s book Prairie Girl. Lucile Fargo grew up in Dell Rapids and wrote the book in 1937. Even though the book’s setting is in a fictional town called Rocky Run, the details contained in the book are considered accounts of Lucile Fargo’s life and her friends’ lives in Dell Rapids during the late 1800’s. Some of the members of the community knew her friends very well and also had close and dear associations with them.
After the closure of the Heritage Museum, the Historical Council continued to wish for a permanent home that would house the Dell Rapids’ artifacts of the past. In 1993, the group decided to seek its independence from the Minnehaha County Historical Society and pursue the idea of a Dell Rapids museum. A constitution was written and the name was changed to the Dell Rapids Society for Historic Preservation (DRSHP). It was incorporated by the State of South Dakota on November 12, 1993, and the society applied for and received a tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.
The stated purpose/goal of DRSHP was (and continues to be) to “collect, preserve, exhibit, and publish material for the study of history, particularly the history of Dell Rapids and adjacent area; to acquire documents, letters, reports, newspapers, books, pictures, and relics pertaining to the area; and to obtain narratives of pioneers. These should, as an educational medium, reflect the founding, growth, and future of the community.” To help accomplish this, a permanent site was needed to store and display these documents and relics.
DRSHP held its first annual meeting March 10, 1994, and elected the following slate of officers: Roberta DeVaney, president; Rick Skinner, vice-president; Mavis King, secretary; and Dale Nighbert, treasurer. Elected to the board of directors were Dan Kuper, Jeannine Ammon, Roger Dearduff, Sharon Skinner, and George Schewbach. The main subject for discussion was the need to secure a building - preferably on "historic Main Street." This building was to be "suitable in space, accessible to all people, and capable of restoration."
A building committee was formed. On March 26, 1994, the committee assessed the vacant Dieson building, owned by Mike and Evelyn Weinacht, and made an offer that was accepted. The society then set a goal to raise the necessary funds.
Before the building could be turned into a museum, many major renovation and structural projects needed to be completed. These included the restoration of the front of the building to its original façade, a new roof, and a number of inside projects. The stairway to the mezzanine needed replacement, new electric wiring and fixtures were replaced, cracked ceiling beams needed to be repaired, and the ceiling needed to be insulated, sheetrocked, and painted. The interior walls were repainted, floor tile was removed, the hardwood floors were refinished, and a new heating system with the appropriate humidity control for the antique artifacts was installed. Local expertise and their involvement in the areas of utilities and construction made the project a truly community accomplishment.
Funding for these and others projects were met through generous private, corporate, and individual donations, memorial gifts, fundraisers, grants, and membership dues. Several gifts in the $5000 range from local businesses attested to the realization by the community of the town’s unique history and development. DRSHP made the final payment of the $35,000 building in January 1998 – 4 years after the building was purchased.
As the renovation work on the inside and outside moved forward, so did the work to collect items and create displays. Many historic items were donated to DRSHP, and many of these items were placed throughout the museum floor as temporary displays. These items have found a permanent home for preservation and display.
DRSHP continues to move forward to make the Dell Rapids Museum a “showcase” that the earlier members envisioned it to be – a site that would be worthy of depicting the community’s rich heritage and a place that would become a center for the preservation of the artifacts from its past.