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Salem native started tradition of decorating trees at SD Capitol

Santa Claus greets a crowd viewing the Christmas trees on display at the South Dakota Capitol building earlier in December. Nearly 100 trees were on display this year, according to Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s office. The trees are decorated by volunteers from communities, schools, churches, nonprofit organizations and state government offices.1 / 2
Christmas trees decorated by volunteers grace one hallway of the South Dakota Capitol building. (courtesy of Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s Office) 2 / 2

By Lance Nixon

Capital Journal

PIERRE (AP) — If you want to know how Dottie Howe, back in 1981, came up with the thought of sprucing up the South Dakota State Capitol with Christmas trees, you'd have to spin the clock back even further — to December 1932 on a farm a mile south of Salem, S.D.

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Santa Claus still got around in a sleigh in those days, but not with reindeer, and the sleigh didn't fly. The sleigh runners just pitched along over the frozen furrows and the gravel behind a big old ordinary farm horse until the sleigh turned into that farmyard where a 4-year-old girl was watching from the frosty window. And a man with a booming voice, dressed like nobody she'd ever seen before, brought in a pail of syrup and some bacon, and also some oranges as bright as suns for a little girl who'd never tasted one before. And he carried in a Christmas tree and set it on a round table.

That's part of the back story of how Christmas came to the Capitol.

South Dakota already knows what came of that story in time, because longtime Pierre resident Dottie Howe was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2009 for her key role in creating what is now a great South Dakota tradition of filling the Capitol with Christmas trees each holiday season. It was a feat she accomplished largely by showing one overgrown kid named Bill Janklow a sketch on a piece of paper back in 1981. Dottie Howe had drawn a diagram to show what she had in mind for the Capitol — how you could deploy Christmas trees up and down those hallways. Dottie Howe was then commissioner of Human Rights for the state of South Dakota. Bill Janklow was then in his first term as South Dakota's governor.

"Gov. Janklow thought it was a wonderful idea," Dottie Howe told the Capital Journal. "He just kept turning it around. And then he said, 'Just go for it.' The first year there were 12 trees."

And Dottie Howe, as it happened, had a big hand in decorating most of them at first.

She did it in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

"My kids grew up thinking Thanksgiving was about decorating trees," says Dottie Howe's daughter, Pierre attorney Jamie Damon. "She'd get an idea for a tree and so she'd do it. One year she decorated a tree with boxes of broken jewelry. One year she decided to do a copper tree. One year she did a tree called 'Gussied-up geese.'"

The foam packages that meat products came in served as an ideal material for making ornaments if you didn't have much of a Christmas budget, and Dottie didn't.

"It was an extremely small budget," Damon said. "I think Mom got $300 a year to buy lights and things like that."

But different groups came forward to help.

The china painters of South Dakota did ornaments one year. The men at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls also made ornaments for her and seemed happy to do it.

By about 1998 — the year after Dottie Howe stepped down as chair of the Capitol Christmas tree project — some 50,000 people were coming to see the display during the holidays.

And the word of what South Dakota was doing to celebrate Christmas on the Plains had spread far and wide because of reports in the newspapers and other media. The magazine Midwest Living did a story. Television journalist Charles Kuralt, on the road for CBS, did a story about the Capitol Christmas trees. And there were other stories, many of them.

But the story Dottie Howe set down on paper herself some years ago might be the most insightful account — it's the one that explains why one South Dakota woman never, ever outgrew her love for Christmas trees. That story tells what happened to Dottie Wagner, now Dottie Howe, and her younger brother, Jim, and her older brother, Lee, one Christmas Eve.

"It was 1932 and I was four years old," Dottie wrote. "Jim was a fat baby with lots of black hair. We were told that Santa couldn't come to our house because he didn't know where we lived. The snowdrifts were high and there was a lot of frost on the windows. There were no double-paned windows so if you wanted to see out you learned early to breathe on the frost and then rub it off before it quickly froze over again.

"Christmas Eve day Lee and I stood by the large living room window saying if we saw Santa go by we could run out and stop him. Mom was washing clothes on a washboard and she cried that day, she cried a lot. Fat Jim sat in the high chair in the kitchen.

"Children can imagine whatever they want to see and we saw him — Santa was coming down the road and we were scurrying around to get outside and then we saw him turn into our yard. He didn't have a reindeer but he was in a sleigh pulled by a very large horse. Santa looked exactly like every picture you have ever seen of him and he did a lot of laughing. In the sleigh were boxes and a tree, a small evergreen set in a syrup pail. . He brought the tree into the front room and set it on the round table that stood in the corner. Then he started putting small red candles in clips and placed them on the tree. Mom asked him who he was and he said, 'Well, who do I look like, I'm Santa.'

"Next he carried in a box of toys and took a baby toy out that clipped onto the tray of the high chair. It was a clown, blue and pink, and all of it was held together with elastic string. Jim cried.

"Mom tells me there was a doll which I can't remember, but there was a red truck for Lee. Santa brought in a box of food, and the bucket of syrup and the slab of bacon were the two things I claimed. There was also a bag of oranges, but I didn't know what they were. I thought the taste of an orange was simply marvelous, and to this day they are special to me. Mom says there was a box of clothing but I have no recollection of it.

"Of course Lee and I were convinced that we knew all the time he was coming to our house because we believed in Santa. When my Dad got home he asked where we got all those things and Mom said a Santa brought them. That night we got to see the small evergreen with all the candles lit. What a lovely sight! I'm sure that my deep love of Christmas trees started way back then."

But the Santa Claus was not her father, and not really from up north, unless you count Salem — one mile north. It was no one they knew, just a man from town, bringing things to a family that didn't have much that Christmas. It was one of the things people did in Salem, South Dakota, back in 1932.

And it was the start of something.

"I was never allowed to say there is no Santa Claus," Dottie Howe says.

To this day — with Christmas trees — she says there is.


South Dakotans who still want to see the decorated Christmas trees at the Capitol have until Saturday to view them. The display is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. until then. Representatives of organizations and communities who decorated the trees will return to Pierre on Sunday and Monday to take the trees down.