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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.


07:57 pm - Mon, January 18 2016
anonymous said:
This town has sucked and ALWAYS will suck. Nothing will ever change. When you got guy like Earl Nordby and Smoky in this town, it will always be what they want. Does anyone ever wonder why Mitchell, Aberdeen, Watertown, Sioux Falls are always moving forward, while Huron sits and spins? Huron is the toilet bowl of South Dakota, period.
12:39 am - Tue, January 19 2016
Ryan said:
I see you had enough guts to say all that while remaining anonymous. Well done!
06:53 am - Tue, January 19 2016
Holly said:
I grew up in this town, and it has changed in the right direction in the past 20+ years! Proud to say I'm from Huron... And it is because of people like Earl Nordby, that Huron is gone in that direction. Whoever is the anonymous writer should get the facts straight. #justsayin
08:28 am - Tue, January 19 2016
Debbie Spencer said:
I was born and raised in Huron. Don't get home much anymore. It still remains small but never ashamed of where I came from.
09:26 am - Tue, January 19 2016
Maridell Standish said:
Born in the 60's and raised up to age 18 in Huron. I've been in Iowa's for 30+ years and still think of Huron South Dakota as the roots of my foundation. For the anonymous, I can understand the frustration which is not uncommon to any city (not actually knowing your current local "politics") but the fact is our personal feelings about such matters say more about ourselves than anyone else "in charge". Shine bright, take pride in yourself and the people around you, and the world becomes a little bit better place to live.
10:34 am - Tue, January 19 2016
Phyllis Willer said:
I have lived in Huron three different times in my life...once as a child when my father worked for Standard Oil; once as a young mother when two healthy babies were born and as a middle-aged professional. Never did Huron disappoint. As my mother once said, "Huron is the friendliest and best planned town in the state. It's only interstate highway was never constructed through it.
08:01 pm - Tue, January 19 2016
Curt Green said:
I grew up in Yale but my grandparents where in Huron so I was in town often. Unfortunately, my memories of Huron is a town that was slowing dying. The mall was great when it opened and now it is just a shell of it's former self much like Huron itself. Yet, the move to open a water park at the site of old Huron College was a great move so perhaps not all is lost!
02:53 pm - Wed, January 20 2016
Kelsey Anderson said:
If you don't have anything nice to say, don't bother commenting. This article was written very well and there is always good and bad anywhere you go. Huron is a great town that has great residents. Don't take the positive changes and movements hard working people are making and tarnish them with a rude and absurd comment. Huron is in fact a great town moving in great directions!
07:29 pm - Mon, November 12 2018
Craig said:
Very well written article! Very informative Another pro baseball player during those days was Rick Ruchelle, pitcher, played a long time in majors. I was groundskeeper at the park in those years. One of the nicest fields in the state.
10:43 am - Thu, May 21 2020
Geoff Lusk said:
Gladys Pyle told me that when she arrived at the U.S. Senate it was customary to provide a personalized shaving mug in the Senate barber shop. They decided it would’ve been an insult not to give her the same curtesy, so there was a shaving mug inscribed with her name waiting for her in the barber shop while she was in the Senate.
07:59 am - Thu, July 23 2020
Marnie Cook said:
Good article, although you would never know that there's a large Indigenous population living nearby that once were residents of the land long before the settlers. The fact that this remains unnoted, unmentioned, disregarded, ignored, etc. is proof to me that nothing changes in this state. Also, the pheasant is lauded - a transplanted bird from CHINA - yet no mention of the Sage Grouse.
02:06 pm - Tue, September 22 2020
Richard Hieronymus said:
In the summer of 1949 I played trumpet in the Jay Jaumotte territory dance band for two nights at (perhaps Fairground dance hall ?) in Huron and fell in love with local girl, Bonny Stromeyer, who later (1953) married a US Air Force jet pilot from Huron.
05:32 am - Tue, February 28 2023
Daniel M. said:
Maridell and Kelsey are right: “anonymous” gives no info about Huron other than a couple of names. I looked them up and what I read left me very impressed. If the rest of the state is that much better, then perhaps I need to move to South Dakota!
11:19 am - Sat, December 30 2023
Christopher Erickson said:
Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done or do to Huron. There is nothing to be resurrected except all the homes that are falling apart and decreasing property values because 90% of the town looks like tenement buildings. The schools are now inner-city schools. If there were some decent shops to open that would bring business into Huron, that would be great. Not everyone comes to town to buy potpourri and moo-moos.

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