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Mitchell man remembers early days of Mount Rushmore

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Don Boyden, 79, of Mitchell, attended a dedication event for Mount Rushmore as a 6-year-old with his parents in 1941. (Sean Ryan/Republic)2 / 2

Don Boyden doesn't remember much about the 1941 dedication of Mount Rushmore, but he was there.

As a 6-year-old, Boyden, of Mitchell, traveled with his parents and brother to see the event for the now-famous faces, carved into the side of a mountain in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. As summer tourism ramps up, South Dakota's most iconic attraction will see it's fair share of visitors. But Boyden, now 79, remembers the Black Hills monument before it attracted 3 million people each year.

Zane Martin, a museum specialist with Mount Rushmore, said carving on the faces officially ended in October 1941, but a dedication was held earlier in the year -- spring or summer, she said. Boyden said he doesn't remember specifically, but believes it was early summer, around the end of May or beginning of June.

It was a nice day, Boyden recalled. He can picture the amphitheater, with a stage, and the pine trees so prevalent in the Black Hills dotting the landscape behind. The sun was shining, and the bleachers, though not as spacious as they are now, were full of people.

"I really think the people that showed up had a desire to see something that was monumental, that was going to be part of our history," Boyden said. "Even at 6 years old, I was glad I got a chance to go."

Riding in his dad's 1940 Buick, Boyden said he traveled with his parents, Carl and Clara, and his younger brother, Bill. It took a day to get there from Mitchell and a day to return, he said, noting that transportation wasn't as convenient as it is now. They used the time to visit his grandparents who lived in Rapid City, but Boyden said his family made the trip specifically to attend the event.

He remembers a large tarp or cloth over the face of Theodore Roosevelt, one of the presidents whose faces make up the monument. The others are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Roosevelt's face was the final one to be dedicated -- it was officially dedicated in 1939 -- and Boyden said he remembers the covering dropped down to reveal Mount Rushmore in its entirety.

"I always thought it was nice to complete the monument in that fashion, but it seemed to me that they had to do some tucking to get Roosevelt in that little space that was left," Boyden noted with a chuckle.

Boyden and his wife, Norma, live just outside of Mitchell. The last time Boyden went to see Mount Rushmore was about nine years ago, and he said it has come a long way from his memories of gravel roads and outhouses of 1941. Mount Rushmore National Park, near Keystone, now boasts all the trappings one would expect from a National Park -- modern restroom facilities, food and drink options, walking trails, and a visitor center.

"The whole thing has really become grandiose," Boyden said.

But it's not just the updates that have helped the monument endure. Boyden said he believes the monument unifies people and captures the essence of the American spirit.

"We've got four of our past presidents who were highly revered, immortalized in stone on a mountain," Boyden said. "I think that the American spirit is what drives people to say, 'Yes, we do have a history to be proud of.' And there is something you point to and say, 'Here's the reason why.' "

It's a popular icon for candidate to align themselves with during an election year, Boyden notes, but also simply a marvel of artistry and ingenuity.

"I just think it's quite marvelous they could accomplish that with the lack of technology," he said. "It's quite striking."