By Brian Jewell
Colorful characters animate the pages of Dakota history. From the dinosaurs that roamed the land in prehistoric times to the gold prospectors who flooded the Black Hills in the late 1800s, the inhabitants of North Dakota and South Dakota have left a rich and storied past.
Traveling throughout the region, tour groups can learn about the American Indians, cowboys, pioneers, prospectors and other folks who have given the area its distinct flavor. Along the way, great museums help bring history to life, giving visitors up-close and hands-on experiences with the legendary people and events that have shaped the Dakotas.
Prairie Village Museum
In Rugby, a small town in the north-central part of North Dakota, Prairie Village Museum gives visitors a look at life in an early-20th-century pioneer village. The 20 historic buildings at the site, dating as far back as 1887, were brought in from nearby towns.
“There’s a village square surrounded by a boardwalk that takes people all around,” said Cathy Jelsing, the museum’s executive director. “We have a church, a couple of schools, a saloon, a dressmaker’s shop, a blacksmith shop and an old cook car that they used to take out into the fields. The ladies would cook from that car.”
The largest schoolhouse at the site is a two-story building with an exhibit about a local man who grew to 8-feet-7-inches tall and another display detailing 100 years of local history.
Historic homes represent the ethnic heritages of the Scandinavian and German immigrants who settled in the area.
In addition to the historic village, the museum has five exhibition halls with a wide-ranging collection of artifacts.
“We have a lot of vintage and antique cars, trucks and farm equipment,” Jelsing said. “We have a Great Northern caboose that sits on the tracks outside our depot. It’s a very eclectic collection.”
South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center
The definitive museum on South Dakota history resides in Pierre, the state’s capital. The state-run South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center presents exhibits on a wide range of historical subjects, from American Indian heritage to Lewis and Clark.
“It’s a chronological history of the state called ‘The South Dakota Experience,’” said Jeff Mammenga, the museum’s media coordinator. “It starts with the Indian people’s story in their own words. It was put together with the help of an Indian advisory council.”
The American Indian section includes a buffalo mount and a hand-painted mural depicting traditional life on the plains. The exhibit also has a Jefferson peace medal, one of the rare coins Lewis and Clark handed out to Indian chiefs during their journey.
In “Proving Up,” an exhibit about early pioneer life on the plains, visitors can touch buffalo, beaver and mink fur, which were heavily traded in the area. The exhibit also has several full-size wagons from the pioneer period, as well as a replica of a sod house, in which early homesteaders would have lived.
Other highlights of the museum include a simulated gold mine, furniture from the first state governor’s office and the first written copy of the South Dakota constitution.