VALLEY SPRINGS, S.D. (KELO) — Mary Lou Nelson taught history for more than 25 years. She thought it would have really prepared her for her job at the South Dakota Welcome Center, which is part of a rest stop on Interstate 90 near Valley Springs and the Minnesota border.

That’s not exactly the case.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Nelson said with a laugh.

While having a knowledge of South Dakota history helps, the state does a good job of educating welcome center employees on the history and highlights of the state and towns within it, she said.

Mary Lou Nelson has worked at the South Dakota Welcome Center on Interstate 90 near the Minnesota border for more than 20 years. She taught history in Garretson and two other school districts for more than 25 years.

Nelson’s work partner on June 3 was Howard Brown of Brandon. A retired postmaster, Brown is also an officer of the museum in Brandon.

Brown said he wanted to work at the welcome center when he retired. He’s been at the job for about 1 1/2 years.

Howard Brown is a retired postmaster. He’s interested in history. The welcome center job fits that interest and allows him to continue to interact with the public.

“It has been fun,” Brown said.

Ditto for Nelson. She’s been working at the welcome center for more than 20 years. It started as a summer job and now, it’s her retirement job.

The state has more than 40 welcome center employees, called counselors by the South Dakota Department of Tourism. The state has five welcome centers that are part of rest areas. The welcome centers opened on May 17. They are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. All but one center will close on Sept. 26.

The state has 12 other rest areas but those do not have welcome centers. There are also two visitor centers, including the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

Thursday morning at the welcome center

The buzz of restroom air hand dryers can be heard in the background as Nelson helps a traveler with a map. Several feet away, Brown is talking with travelers near a rack of brochures.

It’s a busy morning at the welcome center.

South Dakota drew 12.6 million visitors in and within the state in 2020, according to the tourism department. In 2020, visitors spent $3.5 billion in South Dakota. Tourism is one of the state’s leading industries and welcome center employees are part of that big industry.

More than 2,500 vehicles use this section of Interstate 90 daily, according to the South Dakota Department of Transportation.

“We started with about 100 a day,” Nelson said of travelers who signed the welcome center guestbook. “Now we are up to 200 a day.”

The numbers should increase as summer traveling really gears up, she said.

The number of visitors who use the rest area is likely higher than what is recorded on the guest because not every traveler signs the guestbook.

Teaching travelers about South Dakota

Welcome center employees like Nelson and Brown are called travel counselors. It’s their job to help travelers learn about South Dakota, tell visitors about events and activities and sites to enjoy on their trips.

“One of the main things is people just want to go from one end of the state to the other,” Brown said.

“The challenge is to get them to stop along the way,” Nelson said.

Part of the job is to try and connect travelers with sites and activities they may be interested in.

“I just tell them a few things along the way they might want to stop at,” Nelson said. “I ask them what they like to do.”

Both Brown and Nelson encourage travelers to consider stopping at Palisades State Park or Devil’s Gulch in Garretson. Or at Falls Park in Sioux Falls.

Brown walks over to a brochure case to talk with two Iowa fishermen headed west. Brad Hermanson of Spirit Lake and Doug Stangl of Estherville said they weren’t particularly fussy; they just wanted to catch some fish.

Nelson asks a traveler headed to the Black Hills if the family is interested in motorcycles and cars. She suggests the traveler consider checking out a motorcycle museum in Sturgis.

If a traveler is interested in wine, she may suggest wineries. If it’s a retired farmer, she may suggest a visit to the farm museum in Kimball.

“Most of them you can convince to do things…,” Nelson said.

Not only do the employees know about sites, they also track events. Brown said they needed to make sure to tell visitors headed to the Black Hills about this weekend’s Volksmarch Family Hike at the Crazy Horse monument.

Allen and Karen Struck of Fairmont, Minnesota, were traveling with grandchildren to the Badlands.

Karen Struck said the welcome center was “wonderful” and Brown “was a very nice man.”

“It was very helpful,” Allen Struck said of the stop. Allen Struck left the welcome center with several maps, some kids activity books and advice about the Badlands and the area.

South Dakota is a big state

Nelson often gets a chance to ask kids who stop at the welcome center where they are headed.

“South Dakota,” is the frequent response. When Nelson says they are already in South Dakota, they often get a puzzled look on their face as if they expect Mount Rushmore to welcome them.

“(Visitors) can’t believe our state is that long,” Nelson said.

Visitors don’t always expect the state to have so much to offer between the east and west borders, Brown and Nelson said.

A longtime South Dakota visitor had stopped for a map one day on his way to the Sturgis motorcycle rally. Nelson laughed as she told how the visitor said this was his second trip out sober and he got lost the year before. This time, he wanted a map, she said.

“Things like that make your day,” Nelson said.

Another day a carload of younger women stopped to ask where Interstate 35 was. Nelson said the travelers had missed their exit in Albert Lea, Minnesota, about 160 miles away to the east.

Back when Geico Insurance’s Gecko was shown in a TV commercial in the eye of George Washington at Mount Rushmore, travelers often asked if they would get to go into a tunnel and get to stand in Washington’s eye, Nelson said.

She had to say no, Nelson said.

Brochures and pamphlets

Cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices allow people to search websites and social media for travel advice, maps and such.

Kathi Griswold of Duncombe, Iowa, was picking up what her son Noah called a “stack” of brochures and pamphlets.

The mom, son and rest of the family were headed to Yellowstone but planned stops along the way.

The Ward Whitwam tipi lodge at the welcome center near the Minnesota border. KELOLAND News photo.

“I like paper,” Griswold said. Paper material can be read, “especially bouncing in the car,” she said.

And “you don’t always get a (cell phone) signal,” while traveling, Noah said.

During this Thursday morning, a lot of people walked out of the welcome center with a brochure and a map.

Brown said most older travelers want a paper map. “Younger kids don’t want a map,” he said.

But “young kids still want brochures,” Brown said. Brochures can be easier to read in a moving vehicle, he said.

Overall, maps and brochures are still popular, even with the available internet options.

“What the future holds, I don’t know. It could be different 50 years down the road,” Brown said.

Road trip invitations

Nelson said after talking with visitors about things to do in South Dakota, she’s received invitations to join them.

It’s that kind of rapport and exchange that Brown and Nelson said makes the job fun.

While they may not get to accept any invitations to go along with travelers, as welcome center employees they are still part of the trip.