Devoted to state’s Ag and Youth, Lyndell Petersen inducted into South Dakota Hall of Fame
for Tri-State Livestock News
2019 South Dakota Hall of Fame Inductee Lyndell Petersen is happiest in the saddle, yet he has spent a lifetime working for and with the people of South Dakota.
A 1951 graduate of South Dakota State University (then South Dakota State College) with a degree in Animal Husbandry, Petersen worked for the Extension service for over thirty-five years, as well as serving in the South Dakota State legislature for eighteen years and holding many positions in various organizations including the South Dakota Stockgrowers and the Central States Fair. It was never about status for Peterson. It was always about the people.
A quiet, unassuming man, Petersen did not seek out the spotlight but was occasionally thrust into it when he spoke up for what he believed was right. When he spoke, people listened.
Lyndell Peterson was born July 4, 1931, in Hay Springs Nebraska. His father left dust-bowl farming for a railroad job due to the difficult economic situation at the time, taking his family to Chillicothe, Missouri, when Lyndell and his sisters were in grade school. There he attended a trade school and learned to be a telegrapher. The family returned to Hay Springs, Nebraska, then moved to Eli, Nebraska (population five), Orin Junction, Wyoming, and eventually to Quinn, South Dakota. Lyndell graduated from Quinn High School with seven classmates at the age of sixteen.
“I was so lucky to live in small towns growing up,” he reminisced. “It was a lot of fun. I don’t know where I would have been without a quality education.”
Yet his heart was on the land.
“Ranching was what I wanted to do most of my life,” Lyndell said. “After I got my horse, my buddy and I spent lots of time in the Badlands riding. Sometimes finding fossils, sometimes hunting coyotes. We had lots of adventures, including some that involved rattlesnakes.”
During his high school years, Lyndell worked for a rancher in the badlands. During his second year of employment, his boss told him one day, “I’m going to quit, but if you’ll stay I’ll turn everything over to you.”
“I was so excited to go home that day and tell my folks,” he recalled, “But when I told them, my dad says, ‘Nope. You’re going to college.’ I don’t remember what I said to that but he was unbending. ‘You’re not old enough to sign any legal papers and I’m not going to sign any for you. You need to go to college.’”
What a blow to dreams that seemed about to materialize!
“It was tough,” Lyndell admitted, “But looking back I’ve appreciated the insight my dad had. I didn’t know enough to run a ranch then, although I thought I did.”
This set Lyndell’s course for South Dakota State College, where he worked in the horse and sheep barns as well as in the meat lab.
“I interacted with the faculty quite a bit,” he said. “I was also on the intercollegiate meat judging team and placed as the second highest individual at the national competition in Chicago.”
Lyndell completed his degree in 1951 at the age of nineteen. His first job out of college was a tenure as Veterans’ Ag Instructor in Minnesota.
“Some of them were old enough to be my dad,” Lyndell laughed, “And they kind of looked at me sideways for a while. But we ended up being good friends.”
Lyndell asked one of his economics professors to come speak to his class, and the professor recommended him to the Extension Service. He was hired as the Assistant County Agent in Minnehaha County, then served as West River Club Agent, Harding County Agent, and Pennington County Agent. This career that spanned well over three decades was marked by many changes.
As outside sources of funding began to be directed more toward more highly populated areas, Lyndell saw a need to establish funding within South Dakota to support the state’s 4-H youth. Along with Joe Rovere, a member of the 4-H Advisory Council, he approached the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association with a plan to establish the Livestock Industry 4-H Trust Fund. Calves were auctioned off across the state and the proceeds raised were used to establish the trust fund. Nearly fifty years after the idea was bounced around in casual conversation, the trust fund has grown to over a million dollars, and annual interest generated by the fund is used to support 4-H activities statewide.
Petersen was also instrumental in revolutionizing the Central States Fair. After hearing that 4-H rodeo contestants were required to pay a fifty dollar fee to use the arena at the fairgrounds for practice, he spearheaded changes that resulted in the Central States Fair, Inc., a membership based organization that manages the August fair, the Black Hills Stock Show, and numerous events held year-round at the fairgrounds.
Other changes were horribly painful. Petersen’s wife and two daughters all perished in the 1972 flood that struck Rapid City.
Petersen found himself getting involved in politics when he spoke up at an event where the Pennington County Assessor was speaking.
“He wasn’t telling the truth about ag and city property,” Lyndell recalled, “And it made me mad. After he got done speaking I stood up and challenged him on it in front of everybody. It wasn’t kosher but I couldn’t stand it. After the meeting some people there who were already in state politics asked me to run for office.”
Petersen served in the South Dakota Senate from 1977 to 1994. He took leave without pay from his job with the Extension Service during his time in Pierre. During those eighteen legislative sessions he came to be known by the nickname “Rattlesnake Pete” and gained the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
The nickname spread after Lyndell’s grandson sent a letter to the Capitol addressed to “Rattlesnake Pete.” The respect came for the quiet man’s cool headed, common sense, no-nonsense approach to state business.
“When anything came up I always asked ‘Where did it come from? Who does it serve? What will it cost?’” he said. “I co-sponsored ninety percent of our ag legislation during that time. I worked closely with both the South Dakota Stockgrowers and the Wheatgrowers Association. It was very satisfying to work with people.”
Fellow Republican Larry Gabriel said that if he found himself on opposing sides of an issue from Petersen he knew he needed to rethink where he was coming from.
Petersen and his wife Jill married in 1973 and continued to live in Rapid City until 1997 when they bought their place on Spring Creek.
“We were the only people our age selling a house in town and moving to a ranch,” Jill laughed.
The house on the ranch was slated to be destroyed; in fact, a Terex loader was parked in the yard waiting to push it down, but the Petersens put a stop to that plan and restored the brick house originally built in 1885.
“It had been empty for thirty years,” Jill said. “It was ankle deep in raccoon poop. It had a hole the size of a Volkswagen in the roof. It had a dirt floor in the basement and all the windows were broken. If you saw it today you wouldn’t believe it.”
The house was constructed of bricks made on site of native clay.
“It is absolutely beyond comprehension how much work went into it,” Lyndell marveled. “They made thousands of bricks. The walls above ground are three rows thick and below the ground they are four rows thick. The bricks are a rosy red color; apparently they found a pocket of clay that has a little iron in it down on Spring Creek. You just have to have a lot of respect for something like this. The foundation and walls were so stable even after years of use and neglect.”
The Petersens’ home is now listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
Lyndell and Jill have raised Corriente cattle for over twenty years.
“They were fun cattle to deal with,” Lyndell said. “They were smart and real instinctive.”
Jill liked most of the cows but was not fond of one particular cow that shared her name.
“Lyndell named the first batch of heifers after all the women in the family,” she recalled with a laugh, “And this was not a good idea! The cow he named ‘Jill’ was ugly; she was a fat, crumple horned cow that couldn’t get around. She was a wreck on hooves. There was another cow named after a family member I didn’t get along with that was sleek and pretty. It just was not fair.”
Lyndell chuckled over the memory too.
“That’s just how it happened,” he said. “I named one after her mother, too!”
The Corrientes won many awards for the Petersens at different shows, including Supreme Champion roping steer on more than one occasion.
For many years after his retirement, Lyndell continued to travel to 4-H horse shows and county fairs to serve as a judge.
He raised horses for a while, one of which ended up in a Walt Disney movie, and another that was sold to a Californian and ridden in the Rose Bowl parade for several years.
He also possesses a talent for sculpting and learned the art of flint-knapping. He has made many beautiful arrowheads, and his sculpture titled ‘A Man, A Boy, and A Calf’ was used as the logo for the Livestock Industry Trust Fund.
Petersen was nominated for the South Dakota Hall of Fame by long-time friend Dick Bray.
“It’s time people knew about all the things he’s done for the state, and for youth in this area and others,” Dick said. “The honor couldn’t go to a better individual. He has given of himself in so many avenues.”
“Lyndell is the most honest, straight up person you will ever meet,” Jill said. “Can you tell I think a lot of him?”
Petersen is recovering from a brain bleed that he experienced in June but is still planning to speak at the South Dakota Hall of Fame Induction. His two sons and his wife will be in Chamberlain Sept. 14, 2019, with him for the event.
But there’s no place he’d rather be than on a horse.
“If he had a horse and the badlands to ride in he would believe he was in heaven,” Jill said.
“Riding is the one thing I miss the most,” Lyndell said. “I can just imagine the rhythm of a good horse walking and the reins swinging.”
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