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Too Many Counties?

May 5, 2015

South Dakota's 66 counties have been arranged like this since 1983.


Does South Dakota have too many counties? It’s a long-discussed topic that resurfaced at Augustana College’s annual Dakota Conference in April. Bill Peterson, a former legislator from Sioux Falls, discussed the county consolidation proposal he brought to the legislature in 1998. It would have required South Dakota reorganize into no fewer than 15 counties and no more than 30 by 2005. Despite touting its cost savings – something that generally catches the attention of frugal South Dakotans – the plan got very little traction.

Neither did a joint resolution that appeared before the legislature in 2009. It would have placed a constitutional amendment on 2010 general election ballot to limit counties to 25,000 people or 5,000 square miles, whichever was less.

Peterson and his co-presenter, Joe Kirby, cited the dramatic population shift from rural to urban areas of South Dakota. It’s been happening for decades and it’s very likely to continue, meaning some form of reorganization is probably inevitable. Yet here we are in 2015 with the same patchwork of 66 counties that we’ve known since 1983, when Washabaugh County was absorbed into Jackson County and became South Dakota’s last county to be eliminated.

A few years ago, we embarked on a search to find one interesting spot in every county that we thought people might like to see. After our “66 counties tour” feature appeared in the magazine, several readers wrote to tell us that they had set out on their own South Dakota road trips, magazine in hand, to see the places we’d written about.

There are fun and interesting things to be found in each county, so while we still have all 66, let’s celebrate them. Beginning today, and continuing every two weeks, we’ll pick one South Dakota county and write about the unique facts and places that we’ve discovered in our travels there. As always, we encourage additions to our reports. Please leave a comment if you’re a resident, a South Dakota native reading from afar or anyone with an interest in the featured county.

Our first installment features Bon Homme County, officially organized in 1862. Its recorded history reaches back to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which floated into the area in the late summer of 1804. The explorers noted in their journals passing a large island in the Missouri River called Bon Homme Island. The exact origins of the name are unclear, but some speculate that a Frenchman lived on the island and was considered a good man (“bon homme” in French) to local Indians, who bestowed that title upon the land.

The area’s earliest settlers relied on the fur trade for their livelihoods. The first trading post in the county was opened by Emanuel Disaul in 1815 at the mouth of Emanuel Creek west of Springfield. Zephyr Rencontre built a station on Bon Homme Island in 1828.

The county was effectively opened to non-Indian settlement after an 1858 treaty that required the Yankton Sioux Indians to relocate west of Chouteau Creek, just beyond the present county’s western boundary. John Shober and several families from Minnesota arrived in 1858, just before the treaty was signed. Soldiers from nearby Fort Randall, charged with keeping trespassers off Indian lands, disassembled their log homes and threw them into the river. They returned in 1859 and began a more permanent settlement.

Shober and his party are credited with establishing the first schoolhouse in what would be Dakota Territory. Ten students enrolled in the spring of 1860 under the tutelage of Emma Bradford. The original school building has disappeared, but a replica still stands a few miles east of Springfield.

A replica of the first schoolhouse in Dakota Territory stands near the Missouri River in Bon Homme County.

Bon Homme County’s land appealed to settlers from across the ocean, as well. Hutterites, long oppressed in Europe, sent scouts to Dakota Territory in the early 1870s, looking for a place to establish a colony. They liked what they saw along the banks of the Missouri River and bought 2,500 acres of land in 1874 from notorious Indian agent Walter Burleigh. Bon Homme Colony became the first Hutterite colony in North America, and has been continuously occupied ever since.

Bon Homme County is the resting place of six unknown soldiers belonging to George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. The men were camped along Snatch Creek in May of 1873 when several soldiers contracted typhoid fever. Seven men – six unknown and one identified – were buried along the banks of the creek. Later they were moved to the Bon Homme Cemetery, where a large stone marks their burial place.

Veronica Sanders helps prepare kolaches at the Tyndall Bakery.

Every county most likely has a skeleton in its closet, and Bon Homme is no different. The first tumbleweed ever reported in North America was found near Scotland in 1877. Its origins were probably in a shipment of flax seed from Ukraine.

Today just over 7,000 people live on farms and in Bon Homme County’s five towns – Avon, Scotland, Tyndall, Springfield and Tabor. Immigrants from Czechoslovakia settled around Tabor beginning in 1869, and their culture is still evident at Czech Days, the town’s annual June festival. If you don’t make it to Czech Days, you can still buy kolaches – a traditional fruit-filled Czech dessert – at bakeries in Tabor and Tyndall.

Tyndall, the county seat, boasts a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower on the courthouse lawn. County commissioners voted to erect the tower as a memorial to South Dakotans who fought during the Spanish-American War.

Tyndall's miniature Eiffel Tower.

On our most recent trip through Scotland, we met Victor Settje, who is carefully dismantling St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, built in 1886. He’s hoping to find new uses for every board, including the old wooden cross.

The town’s VFW Hall boasts a new 5-by-10-foot painting by Menno airbrush artist Mickey Harris that honors a local World War II veteran. Leon Woehl was aboard a B-17 that crashed in Germany in 1944. Harris’ painting depicts the crash and the Nazi soldiers looking for Woehl and the eight other crewmembers who hid in the woods until their capture.

Springfield sits right on the Missouri River, so it makes sense that Greg Stockholm is in the midst of crafting a 68-foot boat. You can see the work in progress outside his shop at 811 College St.

Avon is the hometown of Sen. George McGovern, whose father served the Methodist church in town before moving his family to Mitchell. The museum includes memorabilia from the McGoverns.

The history, the river and the ethnic traditions all make Bon Homme County fun to explore, especially if you enjoy the kolaches and ignore the tumbleweeds.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles featuring South Dakota's 66 counties. Click here to read other installments.


03:37 pm - Wed, May 6 2015
Rita. Hajek said:
I love to read stories about the pioneer times. Have to send this web page to distant relatives that used to live here.
04:35 pm - Wed, May 6 2015
Susan Leach said:
I'm a native South Dakotan, although I've been transplanted to the great state of Texas. I still love SD and consider it home. Thank you for these wonderful insights into the counties of SD, I enjoy reading your articles and can't wait to come home and explore the places you've described..
07:06 pm - Wed, May 6 2015
Peter Grassl said:
A replica of a school is mentioned in the article as the oldest in the Dakota Territory. I was under the impression the first school established in the Territory was in Vermillion.
06:39 am - Thu, May 7 2015
John Andrews said:
Peter, I think there is a distinction. The school in Bon Homme, built in 1860, was the first schoolhouse built in Dakota Territory. The school in Vermillion, built around 1864, was described as the first "permanent" schoolhouse in Dakota Territory.
08:10 am - Thu, May 7 2015
Ed said:
To mention to many counties,I'd have to say after living nearly 50 years in Eastern SD and 30 years in Western SD. With transportation and technology the way it is today, when we do business in 4 county seats and three of them I never go to the county seats one of which I have never been in there court house. I have no need to be, since there are many ways to pay or contact that county. I believe in local control but it is over 100 miles from Faith to Sturgis and both are in Meade county and in my opinion it will come that the number of counties in SD will be reduced but only when residents realize the cost to maintain that many county employees and heating units and AC units and maintain the parking and structure of a county seat lets reduce the number of counties. Plus I live half a mile from another county line and only 11 miles to another state.

01:17 pm - Sat, May 30 2015
Clyde said:
Loved the article. Am a native who eventually transplanted to Florida. Graduated Parkston High School and did my undergrad work at SDSU. before it was transformed from the "cow college" to its current status. When will we see an article on Hutchinson County?
02:01 pm - Mon, February 29 2016
Dan said:
I too was led to believe the first school was at Vermillion. They very recently rebuilt their replica of the first school. So, we were either not told the truth in the old green SD History book we had as kids or the people of Vermillion have their facts wrong and should admit defeat. I believe they claim the first school in Clay County was held in 1864 but Bon Homme claims to have had school before that by several years.
06:01 am - Fri, July 6 2018
Gary Ashley said:
Antone Zephier Recountre 1800-1889 is my 4th great grandfather along with Meriwether Lewis 1774-1809. Their grandchildren John Lewis Desmet 1840-1930 and Hinreta Behman1854-1920 are my second great grandparents. Hinreta father was Fredrick Behman ?-1857 a clerk who worked for the American Fur Co. her mother was Lillian Recountre 1839-1863. I am researching family history and would appreciate an information on the following people.

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