Subscriptions to South Dakota Magazine make great gifts!
Subscribe today — 1 year (6 issues) is just $25!
The Cowboy Governor
Jun 27, 2011
Charisma and money are the top qualifications for getting elected to high political office these days. Historians wonder whether some of our best leaders of yesteryear would have been able to serve in our YouTube world.
But South Dakota historians don’t question the electability of Tom Berry, the Belvidere rancher who was elected governor of South Dakota in 1932 during the depths of the Great Depression.
And I was reminded of Berry’s popularity again today when Jan Rasmussen, a White River rancher and the niece of the governor, emailed a story about her “Uncle Tom.”
Mrs. Rasmussen wrote that her dad and her uncle ran the popular West River Frontier Days rodeo for a number of years. The Frontier Days rodeo ranked alongside the Cheyenne, Calgary and Belle Fourche rodeos in those days. The Berry brothers probably did everything from lining up the riders to ordering the beer and selling tickets.
For a few years, Uncle Tom even helped judge the bucking bronc riders. Of course, there’s always a wiseacre around to question whether a politician knows what he’s doing. One day, a spectator questioned whether Tom Berry knew anything about broncs.
The cowboy politician — then a state legislator, and never one to take much guff — immediately left his judging station in the arena, climbed aboard a wild, snorting bronc, and told the chute men to open the gate. The first bronc didn’t buck too much so Berry climbed on another and rode it as well. That seemed to satisfy anyone in the crowd who didn’t already know that Tom Berry could ride a horse.
We’ve collected a lot of good Tom Berry stories through the years, and published most of them in the magazine.
Anyone who wonders how a Democratic candidate won the governorship hasn’t heard of how he campaigned. He would stop wherever there was a crowd, and then proceed to regale the people with stories and good jokes. Some compared him to the great Western humorist Will Rogers.
Berry seldom drove by a threshing or haying bee during campaign season, because he knew there would be people and a good noon meal. He was invariably invited to sit down with the workers. On one occasion, he showed up at the Gene and Linnet Hutchinson ranch in Mellette County, where the family had gathered to put up the hay.
Mrs. Hutchinson was very pleased to have such a distinguished guest but she was also embarrassed by the men’s manners. And she wondered what would happen after dessert, when her husband, her sons and the hired man generally took a nap on the living room floor. Surely, she hoped, they wouldn’t do anything so rude with a would-be governor in the house.
The men and boys, of course, were not burdened with such a strong sense of propriety. Once the pie was eaten, they retired to the living room and soon were snoring. Berry, sensing Mrs. Hutchinson’s discomfort, assured her that there was no reason for apologies. Then he took off his cowboy hat and got down on the floor for a snooze of his own.