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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Peter Norbeck - The Father of Custer State Park

In Murder in Custer State Park, The Custer Playhouse produces Dakota, a play about the colorful history of South Dakota.  One of the most prominent characters is Peter Norbeck, the real life 'Father of Custer State Park.' 

No person was more instrumental in the founding of Custer State Park than progressive politician and conservationist Peter Norbeck. 

Born on August 27 1870 to Scandinavian Immigrants near present-day Vermillion South Dakota, Peter Norbeck rose to be one of South Dakota's great advocates and leaders.  He served in the state legislature and as Lieutenant Governor before becoming the first native-born South Dakotan to serve as the state's Governor.  He later served three terms as a United States Senator.

Norbeck had a love of his land in his home state, particularly the majesty of the Black Hills.  As a progressive conservationist, Norbeck was at the forefront of the movement to protect lands for future generations and sustainable land management.  Throughout his career, Norbeck vigorously fought for the establishment of state and national parks, forests and wildlife preserves, advocating that conservation and the local tourism and farming economies were interconnected. 

In 1912, serving as Governor of South Dakota, Norbeck crafted a deal, to allow school holding lands to be consolidated into a nearly 48,000 acre tract, named Custer State Forest.  On July 1, 1919, the state legislature voted to change Custer's status as a state forest to Custer State Park - South Dakota's first State Park.

Senator Norbeck was active in the development of Custer State Park.  He traveled on foot and horseback, canvassing the vivid backcountry of the forests, prairies and steep ridges within the park's boundaries.  Norbeck desired to share the beauty of the topography with the average traveler.  He knew that motorists wouldn't be willing to hike and climb the difficult terrain, so he meticulously designed 'the impossible road,' The Needle's Highway.  This feat of engineering, completed in 1922, winds and cuts through the pristine Black Hills.  People say of Norbeck's endeavor with the Needle's: " he found great pictures in nature and gave them to the world by building roads to them."  What a marvelous statement about Norbeck, a man that spent his life helping others to understand the beauty and value in nature and conservation - he indeed built bridges.

Norbeck wasn't done with the Needle's Highway.  He convinced President Coolidge to summer in Custer State Park, courting the President to sponsor a funding construction of Mount Rushmore. (We'll explore this topic further in a future blog post about 'Custer's Summer White House.') 

In 1927, Senator Norbeck worked closely with Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum to build Custer State Park's Iron Mountain Road.  This intrepid scenic road, takes travelers over Iron Mountain, connecting the state park with Mount Rushmore National Memorial.  A series of pig-tail bridges and tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore against the splendor of the Black Hills.

Peter Norbeck's roads are windy, curving to frame the landscape.  Norbeck believed that visitors shouldn't speed through the majesty of the park.  He designed the roads to have maximum speed limits of 20 mph.  "this is not a commercial road, it's scenic.  You're not supposed to drive here at 60 mph.  To do the scenery half justice people should drive at twenty or under; to do it full justice they should get out and walk!" - Peter Norbeck.

Learn more about Peter Norbeck at the park's Peter Norbeck Visitor Center at Game Lodge.  He is a true South Dakota hero and 'Father of Custer State Park' and 'Mount Rushmore's great political patron.'

Murder in Custer State Park - Playhouse Mystery Series is now available on Amazon - Kindle and Paperback.

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