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Berry with his greyhound at his side, gazing over his Badlands ranch.
Berry with his greyhound at his side, gazing over his Badlands ranch.
Berry loved the outdoors. Here he is pictured in his later years with a grey wolf rug made from a wolf he had caught.
Berry loved the outdoors. Here he is pictured in his later years with a grey wolf rug made from a wolf he had caught.
Berry in the State Capitol.
Berry in the State Capitol.
Berry and Will Rogers. The governor once tried his hand at a humor column patterned after Rogers'.
Berry and Will Rogers. The governor once tried his hand at a humor column patterned after Rogers'.

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.


05:18 am - Thu, March 8 2012
10:25 pm - Sat, March 31 2012
I am related to Thomas Berry. He sounds like he was a cool guy. I would like to know more about him. I just found out he created the first Highway Patrol unit in South Dakota. It was called the Courtesy Patrol.
07:31 am - Fri, April 6 2012
Laura said:
There's a longer story on Berry in our November 1986 issue. Perhaps your local library has a copy?
10:02 pm - Wed, March 5 2014
Levine said:
What's up to all, how is everything, I think every one is
getting more from this site, and your views are fastidious in
favor of new viewers.
07:13 pm - Wed, January 21 2015
Marinda Parks said:
I am so thrilled to have found such good articles on my great-great grandpa. I am gathering family history and this one will be included. Thank you!
03:07 pm - Wed, April 29 2015
Kay Louis Berry said:
My father was Earl Morris Berry and we lived in Fort Pierre , when Tom Berry was elected. I was born in 1922 and at age 10 I don't have much memory of that event. I wonder if I might be related. Do you have a bio on Tom Berry? My dad (1901-1961) was a native of South Dakota.
03:16 pm - Wed, April 29 2015
John Andrews said:
Kay, here's a link to a short bio. Berry was born in Nebraska and moved to the Belvidere area.
02:30 pm - Sun, January 17 2016
William Berry said:
Kay give me a shout just wrapping up a 400 page Berry Book my 4thgrandfather was Captain William Preston Berry of the IOWA 10TH during civil war and the Illinois 4th during the mexican war... all related
03:27 pm - Wed, May 4 2016
Raymond Baxter Berry said:
I am a grandson of Tom berry, and had to laugh at the story line as that was who He was. I've told many people He was the right man for the job at that time in the states history, as He brought funny jokes in a very desperate of times for many people. The ax mentioned in an article I have one and my brother has the other one.
04:57 pm - Fri, November 3 2017
04:58 pm - Fri, November 3 2017
TED J. THOMS said:
01:42 pm - Sat, July 14 2018
Kathleen Hamilton said:
William Berry, My great grandmother was Mary Berry, daughter of William Preston Berry, I am interested in the book you have compiled, maybe you could send me a link, or the name of your book. Kathleen
05:47 am - Fri, December 13 2019
So took me year and half to reply
10:07 am - Thu, February 20 2020
Donna Adrian said:
The Mellette County Historical Society of White River have on display at the Museum, a feature display of Tom Berry and have been donated many of his ranch tools.
05:15 pm - Mon, January 3 2022
Janet Jensen said:
Gene and Linnet Hutchinson are my maternal grandparents. Thanks for a wonderful look into our family history. I love this!

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