GEDDES -- Peter Norbeck’s long list of influential contributions to the state of South Dakota were celebrated Saturday in the small town where it all started for the first native-born governor.
After a spring legislative session in which Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed off on a bill that proclaims Aug. 27 as the official Peter Norbeck holiday, State Rep. Julie Bartling presented the bill to a room full of proud Geddes community members honoring the late Norbeck.
“It’s really heartwarming to see this small community bring out the history and come together for an incredible figure in our state and nation,” said Bartling in the Geddes Legion Hall.
Although he was born in a dugout in Clay County on Aug. 27, 1870, Norbeck’s family migrated to the Geddes area in his early teens. It was only fitting to dedicate the Norbeck holiday on the day of the three-term U.S. senator’s birth in the town that raised him to become a pioneer in the nation’s first Progressive Movement, which started gaining traction in the early 1900s.
“He was influential in creating national landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and Grand Tetons National Park,” Bartling said. “Norbeck also invited former President Calvin Coolidge to visit the State Game Lodge in the Black Hills, where Coolidge later made the lodge his summer home.”
A lover of nature, Norbeck sponsored the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and spearheaded efforts to construct bridges across the Missouri River during his time in the governor’s chair from 1917 to 1921. He is responsible for orchestrating the creation of the state’s most iconic monument in the Black Hills, as Norbeck brought Gutzon Borglum to begin sculpting Mount Rushmore in 1927.
“Among the long list of accomplishments Norbeck brought to South Dakota, he helped promote the beauty of our great state,” Bartling said.
He developed a state highway program, a rural credit program and made monumental contributions to workmen’s compensation laws and women’s rights as governor.
An avid outdoorsman, Norbeck established the first ring-necked pheasant hunting season in the state, something Bartling sees as his living legacy, given the popularity of the sport.
“Norbeck was a part of the first official pheasant hunt in the state in Spink County, and he was truly a pioneer for our state,” Bartling said.
Ron Dufek, a Geddes business owner, introduced the guest speakers at the event. Following Bartling’s speech, Brad Tennant, a history professor at Presentation College in Aberdeen, praised the contributions that Norbeck brought not only to the state, but to the country.
“Norbeck was a pioneer in the Progressive Movement during the early 1900s, and he advanced the idea of being progressive in trying to improve American society, economic inequalities and cleaning up political corruption that existed in a lot of the big cities during that time,” he said.
Tennant said Norbeck was unique in looking at how to provide for the best interests of the American public, not a particular group. Tennant pinpointed Norbeck’s political ideology, and said he did not oppose capitalism, but rather unreasonable profit.
“During Norbeck’s period of time in office, banks would be more than willing to give out loans at very high interest rates, and grain elevator operations would also take advantage of farmers by marking their profits down. That is what he saw as unfair and fought against,” Tennant said. “That was also the spirit of the Progressive Movement.”
Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was a political figure whom Norbeck admired greatly. Roosevelt created five national parks in the U.S. during his time in office, which Norbeck paralleled at the state level during his time as governor when he created Custer State Park in the Black Hills.
“Norbeck even referred to himself as a Roosevelt Republican,” Tennant said.
Prior to his rise of political stardom, Norbeck began making a name for himself in 1894, when he drilled his first successful well in Davison County. By 1905, Norbeck went from having one well to 25 artesian wells with a total assets worth $300,000.
Norbeck helped pave the way for women’s rights and equality, which led to women being able to work and eventually vote.
“He was one of the first governors in the country to address women’s suffrage, and look how much that progression has advanced today,” Tennant said.
A progressive Republican in a rural state wasn’t exactly a common theme in the early 20th century, but Norbeck was one of four during that period of time to be considered a progressive Republican.
“Norbeck as a governor was certainly one of the leading progressive governors in the entire country,” Tennant said.
The community of Geddes is committed to honoring Norbeck’s legacy. A local couple donated their home to the Geddes historical society in 1988 after they learned Norbeck was raised in that house. The community also raised $40,000 to help make reparations and to upkeep the historical Norbeck home.
“He was a remarkable man, and we are so proud to keep his legacy alive,” said Dufek, as he was serving up taverns following the guest speakers honorary presentations.