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The Summer That Made the Hills
Jun 23, 2011
Of the millions of summers the Black Hills have seen, the summer of 1927 was surely the most eventful – and perhaps cemented the region’s status as the popular tourist attraction that it is today.
Much of the credit goes to President Calvin Coolidge, who arrived in the Hills for a three-week vacation in June 1927 and liked the cool mountain air, trout-filled streams and forested hills so much he stayed three months. And wherever the president went, the media followed, so newspaper readers around the country read stories that summer filed from western South Dakota, a faraway place still unknown to many.
Coolidge’s presence also helped kick start Mount Rushmore. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum had toiled on the monument for two years and had already held a dedication ceremony. But he took advantage of having the president in his backyard and staged a second, more widely publicized dedication in August. That turned the nation’s attention to the project and won the approval of Coolidge, who later supported legislation funding the project.
Unfortunately Coolidge’s relationship with the eccentric artist later turned sour. After the president’s retirement, he asked a visitor to his New England home how far he thought they were from the Black Hills. “About 1,500 miles,” the man responded.
“Well,” the reticent Coolidge retorted, “that’s about as close to Mr. Borglum as I care to be.”
The Coolidges stayed at the Game Lodge in Custer State Park, and the president used offices at Rapid City High School. Mrs. Coolidge knitted on the lodge porch and enjoyed nature walks, though she once got lost briefly, causing the president to scold the First Lady’s security agent. A creek running through the park was later named for her. Photographs showed the president enjoying great success trout fishing, though it was later revealed that Black Hills boosters stocked the streams, virtually guaranteeing Coolidge a fresh catch every time out.
Though Coolidge didn’t attend the groundbreaking ceremony, construction of the Hotel Alex Johnson also began during the summer of 1927. The stately Alex Johnson was designed to honor two groups: German immigrants through its German Tudor architectural style, and Native Americans. Alex Carlton Johnson, vice president of the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad and the hotel’s namesake, deeply appreciated Native culture. The hotel’s lobby is filled with Native relics and symbols, including a chandelier made of war spears. It’s become a popular destination for Black Hills travelers and dignitaries.
To help Coolidge remember his summer in the Hills, locals gave him a pair of boots and a 10-gallon hat, which he sported on a much-publicized horseback ride up Mount Rushmore. A modern-day homage to the president is his bronze statue at the southwest corner of Fifth and Main streets in downtown Rapid City, part of the City of Presidents project. Coolidge is beaming, holding his hat and standing next to a saddle, a reminder of one of his happiest summers and one that significantly shaped the Black Hills that we know today.