Connecting with South Dakota history from a distance

Eye on KELOLAND

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota State Archives building has been closed in Pierre during the pandemic but that doesn’t mean people aren’t able to interact with local history right now.

In fact, many are doing it more now than ever thanks to Facebook and an online digital archive.

Mount Rushmore is one of South Dakota’s most beloved treasures but did you know the idea of the sculpture began with a simple telegram in 1924? Back then Doane Robinson with the State Department of History messaged Gutzon Borglum to see if he’d come to the Black Hills.

“Robinson was seeing all of these people basically driving through South Dakota to get to Yellowstone National Park. His thinking was we got to get these people to stop in South Dakota somehow,” Reitzel said.

Matthew Reitzel is a Manuscript and Photo Archivist with the South Dakota State Historical Society. He says Robinson’s letters are some of the most referenced pieces the society has. As you can see here, Borglum responded that year by saying, ‘Great scheme you have.’

Reitzel: It just started with some letter that Doane Robinson wrote that is back in our collections.

Holsen: I bet you have 1,000 stories like that.

Reitzel: 1,001.

Some of those stories can’t be accessed by the public right now because the society’s offices are closed. Fortunately, people can find more than 70,000 historical photos online. State Archivist Chelle Somsen says her team is also connecting with history buffs regularly on Facebook and YouTube.

“It’s a great way for us to keep in contact with people who are supporters or want to learn about our history. So we’ve been using Facebook for jigsaw puzzles of our historic photographs. Kids and adults have given us feedback. They really like those,” Somsen said.

On top of the popular puzzles, the South Dakota State Archives page features office hours and scavenger hunt challenges. It gives people a way to have an adventure from home during COVID-19. And don’t worry, Somsen and company are documenting the pandemic right now as well.

“How people are reacting to the COVID situation with photographs, with journals, diaries, artwork, that kind of thing,” Somsen said.

They’ve also had a lot of questions from people about how the world dealt with a different pandemic back in 1918, the Spanish Flu.

“Back during the Spanish Flu it was like life just kept going on. You either got it or you didn’t. Or you got it and you lived or you got it and you died. It was just like that was just the way it is,” Reitzel said.

Being able to look back and learn is a blessing.

Holsen: What are some of your favorite pieces of history that you have?

Somsen: I knew you were going to ask me that! It’s hard to narrow that down to just a couple because there’s so many. For me, I really like, we’ve got the glass plate negatives from the Illingworth expedition into the Black Hills. He’s the photographer that travelled with Custer.

“The landscapes, the views of the way the Black Hills looked at that time. I really like those,” Somsen said.

From the Black Hills to Falls Park in eastern South Dakota and much more, there are photos of just about everything. Reitzel says he helps a lot of authors find images. One recently had a unique request.

“Typed in outhouse on the digital archives and it brought up over 200 images where either it was just the outhouse or the outhouse is in the background or something like that. So any kind of historical topic you’re interested in, you should be able to find it,” Reitzel said.

There are also a lot of documents that can be found in person in Pierre when the society opens its library back up.

“State, county, local government records, diaries, photos, anything that we can get that documents the history of our state,” Somsen said.

“A lot of the researchers we get here tend to be looking for family history. So they’re trying to kind of fill in the gaps. A lot of those county and town histories include family histories in them,” Reitzel said.

Reitzel says new documents are always being donated, especially now with some people having more time to look while at home. It makes coming to work very interesting. Reitzel says he’s always asked what his favorite collections are and he has the same response…

“A lot of times my answer is it’s the next thing. It’s the next thing because it will always be something different and unique and something interesting in South Dakota history,” Reitzel said.

Much of which you can experience with the click of a mouse.

“Now they can just be at home in front of their computer, wherever they’re at any time of day,” Reitzel said.

If you’d like access to the digital archives, click here.

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