Before the arrival of interstates and highways, trains were the fastest way to travel across the Midwest. That’s also how many communities got their start — popping up along the railroad. Now comes the effort to preserve historic buildings in these railroad towns.

In the late 1800s, one of the hit songs was “When Summer Comes Again” and the Sweep – Van Dyke Hotel was a grand palace. An Oasis from the cold and wind and emptiness of a wide-open prairie. This building had already been standing for eight years when South Dakota became a state.

The decorative design on the outside hasn’t been seen anywhere else. It is believed it was simply the builder’s inspiration.

Gayle Van Genderen and JP Studeny publish Plankinton’s weekly newspaper the SD Mail. They also happen to be history lovers. Starting in 2004, they formed the Plankinton Preservation Society with the goal of saving the historic building. Plankinton’s Mayor says without them, this piece of history would no longer be standing.

“We’re just lucky that Gayle and JP took this on, I know they had a little opposition when they first started, but I think everyone realizes now how big of a thing it is for the city of Plankinton, said Mayor Joe Staller.

“The reason we stepped up to the plate and spent all these years doing is because this is a one of a kind building, that means so much to so many people,” said Gayle Van Genderen.

“I think the history of the town is kind of encapsulated here. We had a lot of people who came through they were on their way to somewhere else, or they decided this is where they want to stay,” said J.P. Studeny.

Built next to the train depot which is no longer standing, the hotel was home to officials and workers building the railroad near Plankinton, the hotel boasts a lobby, a dining room for the guests complete with an ornate tin ceiling, a large kitchen which is currently missing a stove, and another room now dedicated to model trains. In fact, most of the first floor is a museum dedicated to Plankinton’s creation as a railroad town.

One of the things you will notice about a building this old is the height here, I’m 5’10” and there’s not that much room between my head and the top of the doorway.

“We’ve talked to people in historic preservation say they have never seen that design before, so those kind of things are very unique to the place and we value that, we treasure that, and we want to preserve that,” said Studeny.

One way to preserve that history is taking place on the second floor, the Preservation Society came up with a plan, let families who helped build Plankinton adopt one of the 17 hotel rooms, which as you can see need a lot of work. Each Heritage Room is a mini-museum telling each family’s history.
For example, one depicts a law office another a country school.

Diana Spinar’s family has farmed near Plankinton for five generations, her family’s room will show visitors what a farm workshop looked like. Diana says the hotel has been transformed into the town’s storybook.

“I think it tells so much not only about the railroad history but now it also tells the story about the personal histories of the people who helped built Plank and who still live here,” said Spinar.

As for the future of this historic building. They hope the museum grows as a gathering place, a place of learning. Possibly bringing in artwork, poetry, and music.

“We’re not going to let the pandemic stop us, stop us in our tracks no pun intended. We’re going to go move forward, just like the old trusty locomotive on the track, Van Genderen said.

The mayor says thanks to that determination, other towns are looking at Plankinton as an example of how to save their history. If you would like to know more about the Plankinton Preservation Society, you can check out their Facebook page.