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Keeping Tabs on Jerauld County

Jan 10, 2017

The Wessington Springs True Dakotan is one of a handful of South Dakota weekly newspapers that comes to our Yankton office, so I feel like I stay up to speed with happenings in Jerauld County more so than many other places in the state. For example, I recently read that the Carnegie Library director in Springs (you don’t need to say “Wessington” if you’re a local) is retiring. She is only the fourth director in the library’s nearly 100-year history. It was built in 1918, the last Carnegie Library constructed in South Dakota, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places because of its unique prairie-style architecture (most other Carnegies were built in the beaux arts style).

Speaking of libraries, a new Little Free Library opened this past fall in the city park in Alpena. There was a nice photo of the town’s children gathered around the book receptacle. Another issue from about that same time told of Alpena gardeners Wayne and Vicki Mees, who were surprised one day to find that one of their pumpkin plants had sent a runner up the trunk of an evergreen tree. Before they knew it, a bright orange pumpkin was growing about 6 feet off the ground.

The Anne Hathaway Cottage in Wessington Springs is modeled after the English home of William Shakespeare's wife.

And last summer the Jerauld County Heritage Museum hosted a fashion show in which students modeled clothing that their ancestors and other town pioneers had donated. I thought it was a fun way to raise money for the museum and the historic 1905 Opera House.

You get the idea. Sometimes I feel like the character in the old Andy Griffith Show who subscribes to the Mayberry newspaper and comes to feel like he knows everyone in town. I’m not to the point of wanting to move there, but it gives me some sense of familiarity when passing through and exploring other parts of the county.

Jerauld County was officially organized in 1883 and named for H.A. Jerauld, a lawmaker from Canton who played an important role in moving the territorial capital from Yankton to Bismarck. Jerauld served on the 12-member territorial council that decided the fate of the capital removal bill. The vote was deadlocked at 6-6 with Jerauld firmly opposed until suddenly he switched his vote. No doubt the Bismarck contingent exerted enough pressure (and enough money probably changed hands) to alter Jerauld’s perspective.

The Old Grade Nature Trail features trees as many as 300 years old.

The county boasts three towns, but it nearly became two several years ago. A dispute over property taxes in Lane, a town of about 50 people along Highway 34, led to a vote on whether or not to dissolve. Residents decided overwhelmingly to retain their status as a town. I also seem to recall Lane being the destination for a teenage excursion, sort of like the Zap to Zip in North Dakota, or the Whip to White northeast of Brookings. If anyone remembers, feel free to start a conversation in the comments.

The town of Alpena is slightly larger (population 286) and is probably best known for its Jack Link’s beef jerky plant. The company is based in Wisconsin, but its Alpena production facility is its largest and employs close to 900 people. Alpena is largely a farming town with a fairly new restaurant and, of course, a new little library.

Jerauld County’s largest town is Wessington Springs (pop. 956). It was platted in 1881, and because of its location at the foot of the Wessington Hills — a crescent-shaped geological formation that curves through the county — it grew to become the region’s dominant municipality.

The area’s first settler was Levi Hain, who built a cabin near a site called Big Springs in 1876, but there was traffic nearly 20 years earlier. The spot was a stopping point on the Nobles Trail, considered the first road through present-day South Dakota. Built in the late 1850s, the Nobles Trail was named for Col. W.H. Nobles and was meant to be the main overland trail from St. Paul, Minnesota to the southern pass of the Rocky Mountains, but it never materialized as its developers had hoped.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a letter to local school children in 1951. It is housed in the Jerauld County Heritage Museum.

Among the treasures found in Wessington Springs today are the Anne Hathaway Cottage and Shakespeare Garden. The touch of England is courtesy of Clark and Emma Shay, longtime professors at the Wessington Springs Seminary. Emma toured England in 1926, and the next year she and her husband built the garden near the school’s administration building. When they retired in 1932, they built the Anne Hathaway Cottage, modeled after the original home of Shakespeare’s wife in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The garden was a popular attraction until the college closed in the 1960s. The school was demolished in 1970 to make way for a housing project, but the garden and cottage remained. Locals organized the Shakespeare Garden Society in 1989 to buy and restore them.

Other historic buildings include the 1905 Opera House and Gov. Robert Vessey’s home on College Avenue. Vessey’s claim to fame came in 1909, when a woman in Philadelphia wrote to every state governor lobbying for day in which honor mothers. On April 9, 1909, Vessey became the first governor to establish a special Mother’s Day. President Woodrow Wilson made it a national observance in 1913.

The town also has a unique nature trail accentuated by trees that are several hundred years old. There are actually three trails that begin near downtown, but the one that ascends into the hills west of town is called the Old Grade Nature Trail. Lowell Stanley, a retired science teacher, helped establish the trail with Terry Heilman, a soil conservationist, in 1990. An oak tree along the route was core tested and dated to 1717. There are cottonwoods planted by the town’s earliest settlers and an old stone bridge built in 1895 by a mason who used no mortar in its construction.

History buffs may want to stop at the Jerauld County Heritage Museum to see a handwritten note from famed children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Dated Feb. 26, 1951, the letter is a response to note she received from students at the Sefrna rural school near Crow Lake. Wilder discussed her family, her books and her desire to write again.

I’ll have to head that way again when the weather warms. I haven’t played golf at the Wessington Springs course in several years, and I’ve been hearing good things about the pork wings at the Red Hog Bar and Grill in Alpena. I’m fairly certain that pigs cannot fly, but if they do in Jerauld County I’m sure the True Dakotan will be on the spot.

Editor’s Note: This is the 31st installment in an ongoing series featuring South Dakota’s 66 counties. Click here for previous articles.


10:55 am - Wed, January 11 2017
Gene Hetland said:
Did the Wessington Springs Seminary become Wessington Springs Junior College? My cousin taught music there for a time in probably the 1950s.
11:25 am - Wed, January 11 2017
Kent Binkerd said:
I remember the Leap to Lane sign at the edge of town. I found this article that mentions the originators of those concert series. Scroll to the last article.
01:33 pm - Wed, January 11 2017
Susan said:
Yes, Wessington Springs Seminary became Wessington Springs Junior College which closed in 1964. Wessington Springs Academy, the high school associated with Wess. Spgs. College survived until 1968.
04:27 pm - Tue, March 14 2017
Gail Arnott said:
Gene - What was your cousin's name? I attended WSCHS 1960-64. Our music prof. was Robert Meadows.
12:57 am - Fri, September 22 2017
Shawn Trueman said:
On August 23, 2017, after sunset but before it got dark, I was driving Interstate 90 eastbound just east of the Missouri River. I looked toward the northeast and noticed what appeared to be low mountains. After looking at Google Earth, I realized that these were the Wessington Hills in Jerauld County.

I taught geography at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Minnesota. Thank you for this informative article about the history of the county.
07:54 am - Fri, January 12 2018
Helen said:
I met a fellow here in MI whose sister attended Wessington Springs Jr. College in the 1950s! Before she graduated the family moved to WI.

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