SD Governor honors antique collector
July 26, 2013
Long ago, in the B.C. years, the famous Roman writer, politician and orator Cicero commented, "Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge."
Jim Aplan, co-owner and operator of Antiques & Art near Piedmont, SD, seemed to understand that philosophy even when he was a child, dwelling along the bank of the Missouri River, where so much history was made. His grandfather Frank Fischer was one of the original Fischer Brothers who ran Fort Pierre's big General Store, hub of most everything in that area from 1889 onward. Jim literally grew up in that store.
While giving his acceptance speech for the Governor's Individual Award for Historical Preservation at the South Dakota History Conference in Rapid City on Saturday, Jim recalled that experience, saying, "By age six we [he, sister and brother] could wait on customers, count back change, and wrap Christmas presents."
Jim self-deprecatingly referred to himself as "the dumb one" of three siblings, yet the one who "had all the fun." Some of his earliest "fun" was sifting through the City Dump, conveniently located on the banks of the Missouri just a block from the store. Because of Fort Pierre's location on an ancient Indian village and later villages like Old Fort Pierre, the soil itself coughed up history . . . including the famous Venderye Plate.
Such wealth was not lost on young Jim Aplan, who rescued many a precious artifact and ferreted it to his treasure repository in a large room above the store. He enumerated "Guns, books, Indian and cowboy relics, photographs and other stuff that I thought interesting."
Thus began a lifelong love of historic items which turned Jim into a self-proclaimed "fanatical collector of stuff."
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Jim recalled that when an "early boyhood chum" with whom he broke horses lent him a copy of LONE COWBOY by Will James, "my life was forever changed. From that point on, all I wanted to be was a cowboy and a trapper."
Early morning runs on his city trap line which yielded skunks, coyotes and beaver did not make Jim popular at school . . . but the horse he acquired at age nine did set him on the cowboy trail. He recalled that his "cowboy career, following the path of Casey Tibbs and other local cowboys" led him across the Midwest, East Coast and Upper Canada, where he was constantly on the lookout for more stuff to acquire. Jim rode bulls and other rough stock, and did a fine job of clowning the rodeos as well.
Jim was imbued with his mother's love of books and art, so those items figured strongly into his stuff – until he claims, "I woke up one day and I had over 700 pieces of mostly South Dakota art." That joined his "personal library" which had amazingly grown to "some 13,000 volumes, anything South Dakota, Cowboys, Indians, Guns and Artifacts."
Jim's late blooming interest in the history of his father's side of the family yielded rich rewards . . . an ancestor receiving a medal for Revolutionary War service as a Captain under George Rogers Clark, lengthy Fur Trade history on the Upper Missouri with a great-great grandfather scouting for the Army, spending time at Fort Laramie, being at the Grattan Massacre and the 1825 Green River Rendezvous. That same forebear guided Mormon settlers and 1849 gold seekers, and was "interpreter, and signed for the Sioux" at the 1868 Treaty.
Amazingly, the other side of Jim's family, through his great-great grandmother, was instrumental in that same Treaty signing. They pioneered in Colorado, and were spoken of as educated white men who were "writers" of the very understandable 1868 treaty presented to the Sioux. Guides, interpreters, trading post operators, they knew everyone. Jim Bridger notably said they were the "best men on the plains" because they always represented the Indians well and held their best interest to heart. One, married to a relative of Red Cloud, is buried beside him – at Red Cloud's request.
Jim insists, "I've had all the fun – collecting, buying, selling, trading and just finding things and returning many of them to South Dakota."
Far too modest about his vast knowledge of area history, Jim insists he finds answers in his library or "knows who to ask," referencing many regional historians including the late Bob Lee, Mabel Brown and Watson Parker.
Introducing his wife and partner Peggy Kaubisch Aplan, "from a family of Lawrence, Meade, and Perkins County ranchers and pioneers," Jim said, "As I grow older my success depends mostly upon her."
Deep pride was evident in Jim's voice as he told conference participants, "She runs our rare book business of some 30,000 volumes – cataloging, researching and shipping books to points all over the world."
Ranch and sawmill operators and skilled musicians "much in demand at funerals and dances," Peggy's forebears were pillars of their communities. As a heavy equipment operator, her father helped civilization's march by building many roads and earthen dams between the Black Hills and Cheyenne River.
History is one of Peg's chief passions, with particular devotion to the Old Fort Meade Museum, of which she is President. She highlighted the camp's history for Conference attendees, explaining how it was established during the winter of 1878-79 to "provide military protection against the Sioux for gold-seekers and settlers who had invaded the region both before and after the Black Hills Treaty of 1877."
Peg said it replaced Camp J.C. Sturgis, established six months earlier; and that the site – strategically located on a main Indian trail and near the confluence of the Bismarck, Fort Pierre and Sidney trails, at the mouth of the natural gap in the Black Hills outer rim – was reportedly selected by noted Civil War cavalry leader General Phil Sheridan. First called Camp Rhulen after 17th Infantry Quartermaster officer Lt. George Ruhlen, the Fort's present name was bestowed to honor another Civil War hero, General George Meade.
Some outstanding features of the Fort's history highlighted by Peg included their use of the Star Spangled Banner as "official music for the military retreat ceremony long before it became our National Anthem," along with the official retirement, with military honors, of the lone surviving Cavalry mount Commanche, and the reformed 7th Cavalry serving as first permanent garrison of the post.
Peg's pride shone as she pointed out Fort Meade's longevity, saying, "It has outlived all other frontier posts of the Upper Missouri West, surviving as a military installation until 1944, when it became a Veterans Administration Hospital."
The preservation of so much, including "mementos of the colorful units and troopers who served here" was lauded, as Peg spoke of the Old Fort Meade Museum's many displays.
During her Presidency the building has been upgraded, involving much reconstruction. This year's project is their first traveling exhibit, showcasing the "Unquiet Utes" – the story and history of the Ute during their encampment at Fort Meade, at the Rapid City Indian School, working on the railroad, and their departure for Utah or the Cheyenne River Reservation.
Perhaps most notable in Peg Aplan's leadership of Old Fort Meade was the night the Black Hills wagon train visited. The expected crowd estimate was 300 to 400 . . . before it was over they had "personally greeted and welcomed" – and fed – a crowd exceeding 1,200!
Peg extended a warm invitation to visit the Museum this summer, and gave credit for its success to "a great board . . . wonderful and hard working staff . . . many volunteers . . . and those who have faith in giving us a grant or donation."
Jim and Peg Aplan, who preach the gospel of South Dakota and Western History nationwide – traveling each month with their business ANTIQUES & ART to a major antique, art, or gun show, anywhere from Los Angeles to Chicago – are certainly most worthy recipients of the coveted Governor's Award for Historical Preservation in South Dakota.
They both love the travel, stopping at museums or places of history. Peg says "Jim shares his knowledge and wisdom as we travel, always buying 'just one more book' and reading it that night . . . sharing the story as we travel on the next day."