Blair, Gardner built museum to commemorate northern plains stockmen
for Tri-State Livestock News
Two long-time ranchers in western South Dakota shared a vision. The vision was to preserve history; remembering places, people and times gone by. Their vision became reality with the construction of the High Plains Western Heritage Center, located south of the interstate in Spearfish, South Dakota.
Harry Blair and Edgar “Slim” Gardner lived their lives in the northern Hills area, developing livestock operations and raising families. They became concerned the story of the pioneers and early settlement in the high plains region would be forgotten. Everyday life had changed drastically since their families had arrived in the area, and was continuing to change at a rapid pace.
With the change, the men thought the stories, lifestyles, challenges and triumphs of the past several decades might be lost. Future generations might not know about the importance of the coming of electricity, or the differences in farming with the introduction of the tractor and farm machinery, or the cattle breeds that grazed on the prairie.
In the 1970s, the two ranchers were involved in the national Cowboy Hall of Fame, that built a Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Traveling to Stockgrowers events and to see the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, the two discussed the importance of preserving the history of the farmers, ranchers, miners, and loggers that pioneered in a five-state region of South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska. They especially wanted to honor the people of the area.
True to the nature of the two men, they began working to turn their vision into a reality. The men reached out to their friends, neighbors, and acquaintances as they shared their dream of preserving history for future generations. Many conversations and informal meetings were conducted in the Valley Coffee Shop, according to Slim’s daughter, Doris Richter.
In 1974, the men organized the High Plains Heritage Society, a privately-funded, non-profit organization that was dedicated to preserving the “roots” of the five state region. Both men pledged $125,000 to the building fund. Gardner was quoted in a local newspaper as saying, “It is my feeling that the development of this center will benefit everyone.”
Jim Riggs, another Spearfish rancher, was instrumental in the acquisition of a 40-acre site located southeast of Spearfish for the Heritage Center. Architecture plans were completed in 1976. Ground-breaking on the site was in September 1977 when a furrow was cut into the prairie with Harry at the helm of a one bottom plow drawn by two oxen. A 10,000-square foot foundation was poured. Two years later, the building was framed with concrete walls, capped with the arching roof, and encased with glass. On September 1, 1989, a grand opening was held and the massive glass-windowed building and its displays were available for viewing by the public.
Although Slim visioned the Heritage Center as plans were made and funds were raised; he never saw the building in reality because in 1976 he was diagnosed with cancer and died the following year. However it was Slim and his friend, Harry Blair, and their vision that were responsible for the regional history showcased in an impressive building perched high on a bluff near Exit 14.
Presently 20,000 square feet of exhibits, displays, and art share stories of the Native Americans, cattle men, pioneers, miners, and homesteaders with visitors from across the United States and abroad.
The Deadwood stagecoach that ran between Deadwood and Spearfish is a mainstay in the transportation room. Harry’s son, George, recalls how proud his dad was when Rodney Larson acquired and prepared the Stagecoach for display. Now, the rifle of Johnny Slaughter, one of the drivers on the coach hangs nearby. A few feet away, a John Sogge wood carving of a robbery of the Deadwood Stagecoach is displayed. Interestingly, Slaughter, was killed in a robbery on the Deadwood route. A story in history retold time and time again as visitors walk past the display.
Doris Richter, daughter of Slim, remembers her dad talking about how farming and ranching equipment changed over the years. She comments he always looked to the future. When new equipment became available, he was there checking it out, impressed with the improvements available. At the same time, he recognized the changes that had occurred in the years since he began his ranching operation. Doris said, “He would be proud of the equipment we have on display behind the building, where people can see first hand the equipment used in earlier years.” She says he would also enjoy the saddle and branding iron displays, as they would remind him of his ranching days in the Cave Hills and people he met through the Stockgrowers Association.
To learn about the two founders, Harry and Slim, and their lives, philosophies, and family legacies we glimpse back in time through the eyes of their children, George Blair and Doris (Gardner) Ritchter.
George Blair is 95 years old and has stories galore. He is the son of Harry, the grandson of George.
He begins, “Well, I guess, we just as well as well go back to the beginning. George Blair married Mary Stouffer in the early 1880s. They lived on 80 acre farm in northwest Iowa, Fairfax was the name of the town.” George’s dad, Harry, born in 1990, was the fifth of six children. His siblings were Annie, Enos, John, and Strauther.
When Harry was about 9 or 10 his Dad was stricken with arthritis. His symptoms diminished, however he lost the use of his lower legs and toes. George recalls how his grandpa retained his independence despite his limitations. He had a chair with runners on it and crutches so he could move himself along. His determination was demonstrated throughout his life including the family’s move to South Dakota in 1907.
George explains that Uncle Enos came ahead and had bought the old Mattheson place in Pleasant Valley. Uncle John and his dad, Harry, age 17, came on immigrant car. George says, “If you had livestock or equipment like a plow, you got a special rate.” They stopped in Tilford, and early the next morning they heard coyotes howling. George chuckles saying they thought they were really in the west now. The rest of the family came the next week on the train.
The four boys formed a partnership ranching in the Pleasant Valley area. They were determined to grow strong together. George says that there was not a lazy bone in their bodies, they liked to work. The partnership lasted until 1948, when it was divided as the next generation began their own ranching operations.
Over the years the Blair Brothers raised several different kinds of livestock. George says they had a few Guernsey milk cows, then Uncle John went to Wisconsin and brought back some Holsteins. “So what do you do with a bunch of Holsteins?” George asks. “Well, you milk them” Working together the brothers milked the cows, storing the evening milk in a cellar, taking it to Tilford in the morning to be transported on the train to Deadwood. It was sold to the miners and others living in that area.
Harry married Bessie Johnson and lived in Pleasant Valley. Later he managed ranches in Harding County.
“The Blair brothers were not so much farmers, but livestock people” George says. The Blair Brothers were known for their Hereford cattle raised in Pleasant Valley. They won awards at the South Dakota State Fair and other shows. Later on Harry ran Herefords in Harding County.
He adds the Blair brothers raised a lot of hogs, a lot of hogs. He comments, “You know them things are kind of a pain. You know, after we were on our own, my cousin, Calvin, Uncle John’s boy, and I never had a hog on the place. The only time we liked hogs was at breakfast – sausage, bacon, and ham.”
The brothers raised sheep and hired a herder to watch them because of the coyotes. George comments that his dad had sheep while in Harding County also.
The Blairs had Percheron horses for plowing, and lighter horses, trotters. They raised Scotch Highland cattle, long haired ones, but they didn’t last long. They raised Longhorns, a bunch of them, in Harding County, moving them to Montana. George said they made lot of money on the longhorns.
Harry raised buffalo in Harding County for a while, but the hired hand, Guy, managing the Hackamore Ranch, became concerned about keeping the buffalo in fences. When the buffalo were gone, Harry thought “What should be do in place of the buffalo – Let’s get some more sheep!”
The main problem Harry and his brothers had was the weather. George says, “It was either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry.” Following some dry years around 1936, the brothers bought hay from the Sand Hills in Nebraska. George says, “They made a mistake, it was cheat grass. It spreads like a plague. It was a disgrace to have that country filled with cheat grass from one end to the other.”
During the dry years, the sugar beet plant was in operation near Belle Fourche. The Blair Brothers drove cattle there for the winter to feed on the pulp. George remembers one year as a young boy riding with his dad, uncles and cousins to drive the cattle home. He comments, “The wind was blowing. It was really cold. I was froze. I think that was the coldest I have ever been.”
Thinking back, George comments, “Its unreal, you see. When they came in 1907 there weren’t any automobiles, only horses. Ranching was all done with horses for about 15 years, I suppose until the 1920s.” He says that Ford came out with the Fordsen tractor. It was a light tractor that could handle a one bottom plow. “It was about 1926-27 when they got a used 1530 McCormick Deering Tractor – that was the cat’s meow! You could pull 3 or 4 bottom plow.”
He explains that if you were in a hurry to get the crop in in spring and you used horses, you could start at 7:00 in the morning, stop at noon to rest the horses and eat, then plow again until evening. With a tractor, you could trade off with 3 or 4 men and could run 24 hours a day if you wanted to.” He pauses, “A lot of grassland was torn up during that time – some of which shouldn’t have been”
In the old days the Blairs drove the cattle to the railroad to sell, later they hauled them in a truck with a box about 8’ x 14’. Sometime after the war, semis were used to haul 40 head at a time. George says, “It would take 5-6 days to trail the cattle, but only 3 hours to haul to the sale barn.”
In the 1950s, George and his wife, Viola, and their children moved from the Long Pine Hills, northwest of Camp Crook to the South Grand River by Buffalo. There didn’t have TV, and the radio was kind of iffy, so George says, “We visited, told jokes, had a lot of fun. There were stories galore.” He especially remembers and enjoys telling stories of the bucking horse, Tipperary.
In 1968 the family moved to Pleasant Valley, the original Blair homeplace. where his grandparents settled six decades earlier. George and Viola raised nine children. Viola, Harry’s daughter-in-law, shared a role in history preservation as she served on the Board of Directors of the Heritage Center for many years.
Like father, like son, Harry and George, both were involved in state government, representing the western part of South Dakota in Pierre. Harry served in the Senate in 1937-1938. George was in the House of Representatives in the 1979-1986. George comments about his time as a representative, “I learned a lot. I learned about people. I learned about state government. And I learned about myself. You may think you know yourself – but you really don’t. When you are between a rock and a hard place, you find out you don’t know what to do.”
George comments as he holds his dad’s hat in his hands, “He wore a smaller hat size than I did.” Pausing, he adds, “He had a small head, but big ideas. Dad was the most positive person I ever knew. ”
The third generation rancher says the Blairs never seemed to worried much. They did a lot of things over the years but didn’t worry much. The weather played a big part in what how they lived.
He shares a philosophy learned from his family– ‘When a crop didn’t amount to anything, they would say wait til next year. In fact,” George laughs, “Western South Dakota is known as next year’s country.”
Doris (Gardner) Richter smiles with a twinkle in her eye as she remembers spending time with her dad as a young girl. She says, “He would be heading out to check stock dams for the Soil Conservation, or AAA (Agriculture Adjustment Act) as it was called then. He would say to me, ‘want to come along?’ I would grab my coat and go. He would explain to me what he was doing as we drove and checked the dams.” At the time Doris and her family lived in Bennett County near Martin South Dakota.
Edgar (Slim) Gardner, the co-founder of the Heritage Center, lived in several locations until he and his wife, Rhoda, settled in Harding County. He was born in a sod house near Mullen, NE, the son of Fred and Julia (Selby) Gardner on July 2, 1905.
His father , Fred, developed Bright’s Disease, and eventually the family moved to Florida for health reasons. Edgar attended fifth through tenth grades there. They moved to North Carolina for three years before returning to Nebraska near Merriman. He worked various jobs as a cowhand and sheepherder. While working at the 7J, Ed met his future wife Rhoda Roberts. She was working as a cook. She and Ed took horses for their final pay. They were married in Martin SD in 1934. Doris was born in 1935 in Bennett County in a small two room house. In 1936, the family moved to a place northeast of Martin.
Doris recalls they grew up poor, as her parents were just getting started on their own, as they had previously worked for other ranches. A special childhood memory was going to the barn one time with her sister and her dad to milk the cows. We were surprised and excited when we got back to the house and found out Santa had come. Doris says she and her sister each received a doll, and her mother’s gift was a green wind up clock.
It was during this time in Bennett County he came involved in politics, running for county Commissioner and serving on the School Board. His quest for politics continued through his entire life, serving in the state legislature for several years.
Slim bought land in Harding County in 1946, 12 miles northwest of Buffalo, in the Cave Hills area. He worked on the ranch, building fences and in 1948, Doris, her sister and mom joined him there. Doris remembers the Blizzard of 1949, the first winter she lived there. The snow was so bad, her parents arranged for her to stay with the teacher, as there was too much snow for her to ride her horse to school.
Doris comments, “When driving out of Buffalo, you can see buttes in the horizon. That is where we lived.” Even as she speaks, the memory of the life she lived there, lights up Doris’ face.
Doris recalls that her dad had her and her sister riding as soon as we were able. Once her older sister began high school and boarded in town, Doris became “his cowboy”. The one thing she especially remembers her dad is how he taught her how to work.
Slim had a cow/calf operation with Hereford cattle. Doris remembers he was particular about the bulls he bought and how he culled his cows to develop his herd. He was proud of his cattle herd and the land on which he raised them.
In addition, he bought calves to creep feed as yearlings or 2 year olds, in the summer. The calves were turned out each day in the pasture during the day, and it was Doris that rode out to bring them back in to be fed in the evening.
According to Doris, Slim was a reader, self-educated, and read constantly. He liked to be involved, and would talk to everyone. She says, “He and Mom made a good pair. They complimented each other. Dad was always up for a challenge and wanted to be involved in things like the Stockgrowers or serving in state Legislature. Mom liked staying home, and she took care of things on the ranch so Dad could go.”
Doris lives on her ranch near Whitewood. Her son, Mike, ranches on her land in addition to leasing neighboring land. From her country home, she is able to see the Black and Red Angus cattle Mike raises. Calving season with the newborn calves is a favorite time of the year.
From generation to generation, common traits carry through. She comments that Mike is ranching, as did her dad. And she notices her grandson, who like his great-grandpa, is interested in politics and the workings of government.
Doris especially likes the Transportation Room at the Heritage Center, showing the different modes of travel through the years. She says the Pioneer Kitchen is a wonderful place, with so many items that bring back memories for her and visitors at the Center. There are so many things to show and explain – the cream separator and churns. She comments that they were part of our lives and now many do not know what they were used for.
Doris comments, just as her Dad may have said, “I hope we continue to preserve history with all the changes going forward. In one hundred years, the things we have now will be antiques. My vision is to continue to preserve. My goal would be to continue the preservation of history.” So well stated, by Slim Gardner in the 1970s, and again by his daughter, Doris, 40 years later.
As George strolls through the Heritage Center, recognizing the bronze busts as friends of his father, reading the signage on the stagecoach, and locating the saddles of rodeo friends; and as Doris serves on the Board of Directors, volunteers at the front desk, and answers questions about displays; it is apparent Harry and Slim were not only successful in preserving history for the community, they also instilled an appreciation of history and its people in their children. This appreciation will carry their thoughts and ideas into the future, creating a family legacy in the Blair and Gardner families for generations to come.
Two ranchers in western South Dakota had a vision. Both loved the western heritage of the land on which they lived. Both watched and lived changes for several decades. Both cared about the stories and people that lived in the region. Both wanted the history to be remembered and preserved. Both acted on their vision and dream. And so it is . . . the High Plains Western Heritage Center awaits visitors from near and far, ready to tell stories, remember people and events, and share the history of the five-state region.