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A 66-County Tree

Steve Riedel turned weathered wood gathered from across the state into ornate Christmas ornaments representing every county.

I was stranded at home during the bitter cold winter of 2020-2021 and the isolation that came with the COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse. I desperately needed something to do. My thoughts turned to Christmas at the Capitol. My wife Marietta and I rarely missed the annual festival in which dozens of colorful and brightly illuminated Christmas trees fill the halls of the Capitol in Pierre. I thought, “I wish I could decorate one of those trees.”

My boredom collided with inspiration. What if I made a collection of wooden Christmas ornaments, crafted out of wood gathered from each county in South Dakota, in the hope of displaying them in Pierre? As soon as the weather allowed — and being mindful of social distancing — Marietta and I set out to visit the 66 counties in the state and ask South Dakotans if they would donate a piece or two of old wood.

Asking for our first donation was an anxious moment. I was so nervous that I planned the first stop at the home of acquaintances in Beadle County not far from our home in Huron. We drove into the farmyard and parked in front of the house. Nervously, Marietta asked, “You aren’t really going to walk up there and ask for wood, are you?”

Riedel's Minnehaha County ornament.

I nodded and walked timidly to the home’s front door, where I found myself talking to both husband and wife. “That’s actually a good idea,” they said, and then gave me directions to two large piles of old wood. “If you don’t find enough wood this time, you can come back for more.” We scoured the piles and left with four posts and a sense of optimism.

I quickly learned that I needed to explain what I meant by “old wood.” While I was merely hoping to collect short pieces of wood that most people would think to be rotten and useless, folks seemed to think I was asking for more. I also learned that people almost universally liked my idea. While I sheepishly laughed at myself when explaining my project, others listened intently and took the idea to heart. Before we finished, people had donated weathered wood from broken fence posts, fallen barns and buildings, cattle corrals, rodeo grounds, original family homesteads, broken telephone poles, horse tack and collapsed bridges. 

One rancher plucked several fence posts from a retired manure spreader. Another gave me a horse yoke complete with a double tree. We also came home with a few dozen fresh eggs, though we turned down some turkeys that were free if we butchered them ourselves.

As we traveled door to door, we marveled that people placed such trust in us. We were often sent off on our own, completely trusted on private property. At one farm, I knocked on the door and explained my purpose. “We’d love to help you,” said the gentleman who answered the door, “but I can’t right now. We need to go to town to have our picture taken.” He got in his car and, speaking through his car window, encouraged us to search through his old wood pile. “Take a look around and if you see something that will work, help yourself. If not, there’s more wood behind the barn,” he said as the family drove away.

The more people donated, the more meaningful my ornament project became. People proudly gave us pieces of South Dakota history. We were given the very wood that our ancestors used to build South Dakota. In some cases, I suspect the wood helped build South Dakotans. As a rancher handed me an old fence post, he said, “You can take this. It was hand-split by my grandfather when he was a young man.” His grandfather was former Governor Tom Berry.

Faulk County ornament.

Another elderly donor, while digging through a small collection of posts hiding under a rusty truck fender, came up with a unique piece. “Would this post work? I’ve been saving it forever but don’t know what I will ever do with it.” As it turns out, it was a post he had saved from the World War II era. “We couldn’t get round posts during the war,” he said. Remarkably, the ornament I made with it has two dark holes left behind by a staple driven into it sometime during the war years.

When cold weather did not permit traveling, I worked obsessively at making 66 ornaments. Creating one to represent Lake County was especially meaningful. My ancestors settled there in the 1890s, and I was raised on a homestead established by my grandfather in the early 1900s. I had searched his homestead nine years earlier to find a post to make an ornament that would be our only grandson’s first Christmas ornament. That was one of the first ornaments I ever made. The post I found was comprised of wood with a rich burgundy color. I made Lake County’s ornament from that same post. The wood was so brittle that during my first attempt, it imploded in my lathe. Fortunately, I learned a lighter touch, and I have since made an ornament to give to both my son and daughter from that same old post.

After thousands of miles on the road and as many hours in my workshop, the only question that remained was whether my Christmas at the Capitol wish would come true. Marietta and I summarized the project and our experiences on the road and sent it to the committee in Pierre. Their approval arrived shortly thereafter. I got misty-eyed when I read the news.

The abundance of wood I collected actually allowed me to make more than one ornament from some counties. By the time I was finished, I had crafted finial ornaments, candles, Christmas trees, snowmen, bells, candy canes, Christmas baskets, bird houses … all related to the spirit of Christmas. Some aren’t perfect, but each ornament — like the many South Dakotans we met — is unique.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the November/December 2021 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


06:30 pm - Wed, December 7 2022
Clara Jones said:
I truly enjoyed this story!! It's remarkable how this fellow made a Christmas ornament from a piece of wood from each of the 66 counties throughout South Dakota, my home state and I am extremely blessed that my roots started there in Pierre. I'd love to see more pictures of his extraordinary talent. I will have to dig out my 2021, Nov/Dec issue. Very very impressed and good for you, sir!!😊
12:43 am - Sun, September 24 2023
Gabrielle Page said:
What a wonderful story, what a wonderful man to make such a beautiful legacy for all those people. I hope this man is remembered for a long time. This actually bought tears to my eyes.

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