When I began covering the South Dakota Legislature more than half a century ago, the mere mention of “rural credits’’ made old-timers shake their heads and shiver as if they’d just been told a ghost story.
That would be the reaction, too, whenever one of the newer members of the House or Senate would begin to talk about any program that might involve the state loaning money or going into any sort of business of its own. Just mentioning the possibility of a program that contained the merest hint of state involvement brought the shakes and shivers.
“This smacks of the Rural Credits Program, and you know what a mess that was,’’ one of the long-serving members would say. Fellow old hands would do the shake and shiver. Young legislators, most of whom knew no more than I did back in 1970 about rural credit (and I knew nothing at all), would nod their heads, trying to appear as learned as their elders. I don’t know what those young legislators did after that first meeting at which the topic was raised. Me, I made a note to read up on the Rural Credits Program, and as soon as I found some spare time, I did just that, rushing to the State Library and poring through the many volumes of histories.
Turned out, the Rural Credits Program was an initiative championed by former Gov. Peter Norbeck. If you know anything about Norbeck, you know he did some amazing work back in the second decade of the 1900, things like the creation of Custer State Park.
The Rural Credits Program didn’t cover Norbeck in glory. The idea seemed reasonable: Use the state’s ability to borrow money at favorable interest rates, re-loan that money to farmers for land at an interest rate that just covered the handling fees and then have the loans repaid over a period of years. The farm economy fell apart in the 1920s, borrowers defaulted on their loans, and the state wound up holding a lot of worthless paper. It cost something like $57 million, several source say.
Armed with that research, I was able to join the shakers and shiverers whenever the program was mentioned. Pretty heady stuff for a cub reporter, to know a bit about something from half a century earlier.
I got to wondering the other day if my first reaction back then to conversations about rural credits would be the same way some young reporters — or legislators, for that matter — might react today to talk about a 50-year-old legislative event. Since it’s 2021, I ran the clock back half a century to 1971 and thought about the biggest bill of that legislative session.
It had to be the Bibby bill. The piece of legislation erupted from the result of the state’s decision to hire a fellow named Dr. Richard Gibb to write a Master Plan for Public Higher Education in South Dakota. The December 1970 plan was a blueprint for change at the public campuses. It recommended that two campuses be closed or made junior colleges. That was emotional enough. It also recommended that engineering be offered at only one campus. The School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City and South Dakota State University in Brookings each offered engineering at the time.
If I recall correctly, the Board of Regents decided Tech should be the engineering school. John Bibby, a legislator from Brookings, introduced a bill requiring engineering to be offered at South Dakota State.
Goodness gracious, there was a fight over that thing. Alumni groups showed up from all corners of the country, loyal and loud. Through the long session of 1971 alumni groups and student group were always in the Capitol building, being true to their schools. Covering that story was just a marvelous experience. When the smoke cleared, the bill had passed. Both schools continue to offer engineering programs.
I vividly recall many of the events that surrounded the engineering school fight. I wonder, though. If I showed up in a committee meeting this year and mentioned the Bibby bill, would people look at me as if I’d just said “rural credits?’’