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A large petrified tree, discovered in Perkins County in the 1930s, could be 60 million years old.
A large petrified tree, discovered in Perkins County in the 1930s, could be 60 million years old.

Petrified Giant

Dec 8, 2020

An ancient petrified tree in Perkins County may be one of the largest ever discovered and may eventually tell us more about what kind of landscape existed here in the past.

"My father and a friend of his discovered it while herding sheep back in the 1930s," recalls retired local rancher Clyde Jesfjeld. "They decided that it had to be a tree because of the way it appeared."

Contemporary newspaper articles confirm that it was George Jesfjeld and Charles Murphy who first discovered the tree northwest of Bison. "Word got around, and back in those days the WPA was in operation,” Jesfjeld says. “There was a small crew that came in and unearthed more of it than what my father and his friend had uncovered."

Over the years, there have been several efforts to partially excavate and examine the tree. In 1949, the Rapid City Journal reported that University of South Dakota Museum Director W.H. Over visited the site. He estimated the tree’s age at 60 million years. The same article listed its measurements as 9 feet in diameter at the exposed base, with 84 feet uncovered, extending to as much as 200 feet total as it disappears beneath the sloping ground.

Fred Jennewein, a Bison-area rancher who ran a small range relics museum in town, was active in the effort to excavate the tree. "In the 75 feet of exposed log," Jennewein wrote, "there is no break thru [sic] the trunk of the tree altho [sic] in recent years there has been some vandalism by shelling off considerable sized pieces of the petrified wood."

Today, the base of the tree — which is located on a School and Public Lands parcel, but not accessible by road — can still be seen, though much of tree has been re-interred with earth. We counted 37 paces walking along the depression where excavation once apparently occurred, before the earth above it slopes upward. Away from the exposed base, an occasional glimpse of petrified wood emerges from beneath the surface.

At one time, some locals hoped that the entire tree would be uncovered or excavated. "When the summer comes again we are going out with a bulldozer or some other kind of dozer and find out just how much farther that Oldest Old Timer goes back into that hill," Jennewein wrote.

That does not appear to have happened. After the 1950s, newspaper articles about the tree are scarce. Though there had been some talk of removing the tree intact, that would have been difficult and expensive. In 1967, the state legislature allocated $1,200 to place a fence around the site, probably to prevent its gradual disappearance.

"I remember as a young boy taking a lot of different people down there so they could look at it," Jesjfeld recalls. "A lot of people took a small piece."

There is no fence in place, if one was ever built. Souvenir seekers may have forgotten about the tree and its remote location.

"There was discussion about getting the tree hauled out of there and placing it somewhere else where the public could view it," says Mike Cornelison, Land Agent for School and Public Lands. However, any such effort would have to balance protecting the integrity of the native prairie against extracting the tree, a delicate task in its own right.

"If there was the right kind of supervision, it could be excavated," Cornelison says.

So far, the funding has not come forward. Recently, several scientists at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology have expressed interest in visiting the site. Perhaps soon we will learn more about the tree’s history and potential future.

Is this the biggest intact petrified tree in the world, as some local enthusiasts claimed in the past? That probably depends on how bigness is measured. Maybe the tree can tell us more about the environment it thrived in, back in the days, to quote Fred Jennewein, "when the earth was young."

Michael Zimny is a content producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and is based in Rapid City. He blogs for SDPB and contributes columns to the South Dakota Magazine website.

Comments

12:32 pm - Thu, December 10 2020
HelloPerkins County
re: Petrified tree

I would like to suggest do some fund raising through the Go Fund Me website. This 60 million year old tree is a precious find. I like this story. Please consider funding raising. Thank you, Kay
01:13 pm - Thu, December 10 2020
Linda Armstrong said:
There seems to be no end of the interesting stories about South Dakota. Thank you ffor posting this!
06:28 pm - Fri, December 11 2020
Richard papousek said:
There is the story when they were building I 90 through that area they unearthed a massive petrified tree the trued to get some group to take it but nobody was interested so the just buried it again..
05:15 am - Mon, December 14 2020
Edward Goss said:
Did I miss something? Has someone moved Perkins county or Interstate I 90
02:47 pm - Fri, January 8 2021
Bonnie Maize said:
I enjoyed this story very much. It reminded me of our farm pasture where I grew up. We called it the milk cow pasture for good reason. We milked many black & white gentle cows. We walked or rode a old horse to gather the milk cows for our daily chores. We found lots of interesting things protruding from the tall grass. Our Dad could explain most of them. One being a garbage dump from long ago. Other things he said had been there for what he called "eons" & for us not to mess with it. Later while in school I learned about the meaning of petrified and was satisfied with that description of what we saw in our milk cow pasture. The same place we walked through the tall grass & enjoyed the sun & sky & freedom of being young. We played ball in that pasture & used dried up cow piles for bases. We played in the part of the pasture that was closest to the house so the folks could see us and settle disputes as they came up. Oh, now those were the days!
06:57 pm - Sat, January 9 2021
Butterfly Harris said:
Great story. Petrified Giant is fascinating, but I truly wish at least some protection could be applied. The tree COULD tell us a great deal about our history--survival.

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