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The Comeback City
|Children dance to live music in Huron's Campbell Park. Family Nights are held each Thursday during the summer.|
It’s my favorite South Dakota trivia question: Who were the two U.S. senators born in Huron?
Lots of South Dakotans answer quickly although, I’m sorry to say, they’re almost always wrong. You’ll find the answer later in this article, but my point is that South Dakotans generally say they know Huron well when, in fact, they could benefit by taking a closer look.
South Dakotans think they know Huron because so many of us have traveled there year after year, since childhood, for the State Fair. What’s more, Huron historically has been South Dakota’s center — not its geographic center, but for decades the approximate center of East River. It’s been known as a center for homesteading, organized labor, women’s suffrage and basketball — for many years it boasted the state’s premier arena for state high school hoops tournaments.
|Dakota Avenue is Huron's main street, where you can find everything from homemade donuts in the morning to live music at night.|
Jeanne Cowan remembers moving to Huron as a child in the 1950s after her father contracted polio. “St. John’s Hospital was a regional center for polio treatment,” she said. “I grew up thinking Huron was the best town anywhere. It had the big Armour plant, lots of railroad traffic, recreation at Ravine Lake and professional baseball in summer.”
In the 1950s and ’60s it seemed Huron had everything a major South Dakota community could want — except for something it once worked hard for but couldn’t swing: the state capital. In 1890, when South Dakotans voted to select their capital city, Huron was a 10-year-old town bursting with energy and confidence. Established by the Chicago and North Western Railroad as a construction camp, railroad of officials named the community for the indigenous Huron people several hundred miles east. It seemed an odd choice considering there were plenty of local American Indian names to celebrate, but the moniker stuck. Huron grew quickly as a jumping off point for homesteaders after a land office opened in 1882. Thousands of farm families began working the surrounding land as the 1880s progressed. Huron civic leaders in 1890 were confident they could land capital city designation because of their town’s easy access by rail, and because South Dakota’s population spread so evenly from this booming center.
But voters thought otherwise and gave Pierre the nod. In 1898 Huron gained a measure of revenge when Pierre University, a Presbyterian school, moved east to become Huron College. John and Mamie Pyle worked diligently to bring the college to town, and after John’s death Mamie devoted years to ensuring the school’s success. Yet that’s not why she’s remembered a century later. Mamie and her daughter Gladys led the movement to win South Dakota women the right to vote. Gladys not only voted, but in 1922 she became the first woman elected to the South Dakota State Legislature. Later she was elected South Dakota Secretary of State and, yes, she’s one half of the answer to that trivia question. In 1938, Pyle won an election to complete the last two months of the late Sen. Peter Norbeck’s term. When she retired from politics, Pyle reinvented herself as a successful Huron businesswoman and was active in community affairs for most of her 98 years. After her death in 1989, her home was made into a fine museum that remains open today.
|Cousins Gus Marcus (left) and Todd Manolis run Manolis Grocery, started by their grandpa, Gus Manolis, in 1921. Today the store is famous for lunch sandwiches and cold beer - and for the interesting local characters who hang out there and were captured in oils by local artist Doug Dutenhoffer in a mural that hangs high on the shelves.|
As Pyle made a name for herself in politics, a talkative and affable young man was working in his dad’s Huron drugstore and considering a career in pharmacy. Other vocational interests came into play, though, and Hubert Humphrey went on to win election as Minneapolis mayor, U.S. Senator from Minnesota and Vice President of the United States. Not surprisingly Humphrey is the most common reply to the trivia question about Huron-born senators but, in fact, was born in Wallace. In the 1960s especially, during Humphrey’s vice presidency, countless travelers moving across South Dakota via U.S. Highway 14 stopped to visit the Humphrey Drugstore. It stood second only to Wall Drug as a South Dakota pharmacy turned tourist attraction. Visitors learned about Humphrey’s early life here and discovered this was where he met Huron-born and Huron College-educated Muriel Buck. The two married. After his vice presidency, Humphrey again represented Minnesota as a senator, and when he died in office Muriel was appointed to succeed him until a special election could be arranged. So, two Huron-born senators, both women, Pyle a Republican and Humphrey a Democrat.
Half a century ago Huron was launching other big time careers, too, as baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies and then the Chicago Cubs fielded farm teams within view of actual farms at Memorial Field Stadium. One of the best-remembered players is Larry Hisle, destined for a fine career with the Twins and Brewers. In 1968, Dallas Green managed the Huron Phillies, 12 years before he managed the Philadelphia Phillies to the team’s first World Series title. Key contributors to that 1980 world championship were catcher Greg Luzinski and infielder Manny Trillo, both of whom played for Green at Huron.
|The state fairgrounds hosts several livestock exhibitions, including a 2014 show where Jack Bratland, of Willow Lake, brought his sheep, Jetta.|
But by the time those three Phillies celebrated in 1980, things weren’t going so well in their former South Dakota summer home. There was less railroad activity everywhere, and when South Dakota’s two interstate highways had been completed, Huron sat far removed. Some observers saw Huron as emblematic of the challenges South Dakota communities would face without direct access to I-90 or I-29. Huron experienced plant closures over the next several years, including Armour Meat packing in 1983 and Dakota Pork in 1997. There was some talk, although it never got far, that maybe the State Fair would do better at an interstate highway location. Huron College became Huron University but struggled with finances. It dropped its Presbyterian affiliation as a series of owners tried to nudge the school toward profitability. Its final iteration was as Si Tanka University, owned by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. But the university closed in 2005 after 108 years in Huron.
It was then that South Dakotans most definitely had to take a harder look at Huron to see past gloomy headlines. Yes, forecasters in the 1980s had been right. Huron would know struggles but, as this state’s history proves over and over, struggles can bring out the very best in South Dakotans. Huron’s residents stepped forward with ideas and, in many cases, their own dollars to move their community forward. Today Huron is a city of 13,000 with a promise of employment for skilled workers. Manufacturing turns out products ranging from tractor and combine parts to steel prison doors. Welders are especially in demand. In 2007, a Hutterite- owned turkey plant, Dakota Provisions, opened and today employs about 800 people who process more than 20,000 birds daily.
|Melanie Harrington had a vision of run-down Ravine Lake becoming a family-friendly destination. She worked with the city to clean up the lake area and create Putters and Scoops, where visitors can rent paddleboats, play mini-golf and indulge their kids with old fashioned hard ice cream.|
The new industries have attracted a culturally diverse workforce, including Hispanic men and women and refugees from Burma. “Over the past six or seven years we’ve seen cultural changes, and that’s been good for Huron,” says chamber of commerce director Peggy Woolridge. “As a state, I think we need that diversity. In Huron we’re seeing some of these new residents starting to serve on boards and take on other types of leadership, which means they consider this home.”
Huron remains a center for many of the state’s agricultural agencies, notes Jim Borszich, president and CRO of greater Huron Development. Those include the state offices of the Farm Bureau, Farmers Union and Farmers’ Home and Rural Development. Where better than Huron? “We have lots of other things contributing to the local economy, but what drives the market in Beadle County is agriculture,” Borszich said. “Our farms have done well in recent years as far as production, but of course commodity prices are a concern.”
When Borszich describes Huron to outsiders who might consider bringing a business here, he stresses excellent schools and healthcare and a quality of life for families that some Americans can no longer imagine.
Melanie Harrington certainly could, though. “Living in Denver, our hearts bled to come to a place like Huron to raise our kids,” she recalls. She and her family arrived in Huron a few years ago, and today Harrington is a woman Huron residents cite over and over as a contributor to local quality of life. Working with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, she used flowers and quality ice cream to transform an area adjacent to Ravine Lake and a golf course. A 1930s swimmers’ changing house became Putters and Scoops, featuring South Dakota State University ice cream and other menu items, plus golf cart, paddleboat and kayak rentals and rounds of miniature golf. “But flowers are our signature,” Harrington says.
|Owner Kevin Tompkins is renovating Huron's historic Hattie and Henry Drake octagon house, built in 1893. The wrought iron fence bordering the property came from a cemetery at De Smet. Tompkins and a partner are also restoring Huron's Masonic Temple into an events center.|
Another colorful addition to the community is Splash Central, a sprawling water park that opened in 2013 in the middle of town. Because it sits amid mature trees, newcomers might guess it’s been a park for generations, although the waterslides are obviously new. Actually Splash Central occupies the former campus of Huron College. To the best of anyone’s knowledge it’s the world’s only university reincarnated as a water park (two campus buildings survive, used as a fine arts center and community learning facility).
Through the years Huron has maintained its status as a favorite center for big gatherings, beginning with the State Fair. The fair is doing fine now with a tight, five-day schedule in late summer. Unlike some other state fairs, South Dakota’s hasn’t lost its agricultural focus. It is, in fact, an agency of the state Department of Agriculture. Other huge gatherings at the fairgrounds have included the Wheel Jam truck show and in 2014 the National Red Power Roundup, a celebration of six decades of International Harvester machinery. The roundup drew nearly 19,000 admirers from 45 states, nine Canadian provinces and seven other nations.
Huron is also home to a full season of auto racing, the South Dakota Women’s Expo, the Spirit of Dakota award dinner and autumn events related to pheasant season.
Speaking of the famous game bird, there’s a quirky image just about every South Dakotan associates with Huron, one that’s made its way into all of our photo albums over the years. That would be the World’s Largest Pheasant, R.F. Jacobs’ 40-foot-high cement creation on the east side of town. It dates back to the 1950s. A few years ago, as the town was re-establishing itself on many fronts, citizens raised funds to refurbish the giant bird. Some towns would have decided there was more important work to tackle, and that they could let a relic from the ’50s go, but not Huron. Jobs, schools, recreation and medical services are vitally important in sustaining a community. But a town certain of itself doesn’t forget those things that simply give it unique character.
Editor’s Note: Since this story appeared in our September/October 2014 issue, Mike Rounds, another Huron native, was elected to the U.S. Senate. We trust that Paul Higbee has updated his trivia question. To order a copy of that issue or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.