A Capitol Without Peer

Wednesday, October 31, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Westward Ho, Day 10:  Pierre, SD, to Bismarck, ND

Our day in Pierre (pop. 13,646)—pronounced peer—began with a tour of the South Dakota State Capitol.  When we checked the state government web site last night, we discovered that guided tours of the capitol are conducted by volunteers who need to be scheduled several days in advance.  However, self-guided tour booklets would be available at the entrance, we were assured, and this well-crafted pamphlet was quite sufficient.  Although it wasn't as personal as hearing the information from a local, the brochure was well-conceived and executed.  There were even scavenger hunt flyers for kids. 

South Dakota Capitol Rotunda
Entering the rotunda on the main floor, we were immediately struck by the jaw-dropping beauty of the building.  And though there was a custodian polishing the floor, there was no security station to impede our view or our progress.

From the inlaid terrazzo tile floor and the majestic marble staircase to the Victorian leaded stained glass of the dome, the building is an elegant and impressive seat of government.  Built between 1905 and 1910 for just under $1,000,000, the South Dakota statehouse was designed by Minneapolis architects and is said to be a 'modified version' of the Montana State Capitol in Helena.  We hope to visit that statehouse on this trip and look forward to checking out the similarities.

Even if they started from the Montana plan, the builders incorporated many features that make this building uniquely South Dakotan.  Symbolism is employed widely and effectively in the design of this statehouse.  In four niches above the floor of the rotunda are flags that represent the governments that have held dominion over the area known today as South Dakota.  Included along with the French, Spanish, Dakota Territory and United States flags is a Warrior Eagle Staff.

Warrior Eagle Staff and Spanish flag
This type of staff represents the "flag" used by Native Americans as they traveled across the Great Plains.  Staffs were decorated individually and served many purposes including long-range identification of various bands of Sioux people.  This particular staff is made from green willow branches wrapped with buffalo hide and strung with beads and eagle feathers.

Courage by Dale Lamphere
Below the flags in each of the four corners of the rotunda are classic large bronze sculptures installed in honor of South Dakota's centennial celebration in 1989.  All draped with flowing "fabric," the allegorical sculptures represent characteristics valued by South Dakotans:  courage, wisdom, vision, and integrity.  Like a jeweled diadem crowning the rotunda is the Capitol dome.

South Dakota Capitol Dome
In keeping with other features of the building, the dome is rich in symbolism incorporating the tree of life, the South Dakota state flower, and acanthus leaves.  Greek, Roman and Celtic architectural influences blend beautifully throughout the building, but its formality is tempered by some uniquely human touches.

According to legend, 66 Italian artisans were hired to lay the Capitol's terrazzo tile floors.  To enable each of these artists to leave his "signature" on the building, each was given one blue tile to lay at a place of his choosing among the thousands of white and earth-tone mosaic pieces.  Locating the blue tiles becomes something of a scavenger hunt as visitors tour around the building.

Do you see a blue tile?
During the drought years of the 1930s, the building underwent extreme settling, resulting in hundreds of feet of cracks in the tile floors.  The artistic signature tradition continued in the 1980s when South Dakota contractors hired to repair the cracks were provided small heart shaped tiles to use at the point where each mend was completed.

Evidence of rehabilitation
One other human touch was the reputedly intentional upside-down installation of one of the balusters on the grand staircase.  According to local lore, this was another nod to Native American tradition and ritual.  In their finest beadwork, Natives often insert an intentional mistake as a reminder that perfection is not an innately human trait.

Third baluster from the left, a reminder of our own fallibility
Leaving the Capitol after our 90-minute self-guided tour, we found a series of three letterboxes on the Capitol grounds before heading north on US-83.  Near Mobridge (pop. 3,465) we visited Sitting Bull's grave site overlooking the Missouri River.

Sitting Bull grave site and monument
The legendary Sioux holy man and chief was born near this spot and lived much of his life here.  A few yards away from his grave site is a monument to Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who served as guide for Lewis and Clark on their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase territories.  And close by an obelisk erected in her honor, a brand new letterbox is hiding out waiting for visitors.

Sacagawea Monument near Mobridge, SD (Sitting Bull in the distance on the right)
From Mobridge, US-12 took us north through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, passing through a massive buffalo ranch owned by a Florida real estate tycoon.  As we later learned, the Wilder ranch has been investigated repeatedly for failing to provide adequate food and water for its herd of some 5,000 buffaloes.  Last year, after numerous malnourished bison were found dead or struck by vehicles when they escaped to search for food, the local sheriff's department was court-ordered to intervene and ensure that the animals were fed.  They were released back to Wilder five months ago, but based on one of the animals we saw hanging out near the road, the problem may not be completely resolved.

Wilder buffalo wishing they were somewhere else
Rolling into North Dakota, we began to see a few buttes and other formations, suggesting that we were out of the flatlands for a while.  We'll spend three nights in Bismarck, taking things slowly and recharging our batteries before heading to Montana.

Daily Stats:
  • Miles driven:  264
  • Letterboxes:  F 4, P 1
  • Weather:  Sunny, 34° to 41°
  • States:  2 (SD, ND)
  • Gas (premium):  $3.79 in Pierre, SD
  • Wow moments at SD State Capitol:  63
  • Total tiles in SD Capitol:  783,156
  • Blue tiles we found:  7
  • Heart tiles we found:  1
  • Native American monuments:  2
  • Sad-looking buffalo:  634

Trip Stats:
  • Miles:  3,084
  • Gallons of gas:  125
  • Letterboxes:  F 26, P 6
  • States:  11 (GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, IL, MO, KS, NE, SD, ND)
  • Coldest temp:  25, Topeka,KS (Oct. 27)
  • Hottest temp:  80, Gaffney, SC (Oct. 22)
  • Gas price extremes:  $3.30 in Topeka to $3.95 in Lincolnton, NC
  • National battlefields:  3
  • National historic sites:  3
  • State capitols:  2
  • State parks & historic sites:  6

More Photos from Today

South Dakota State Capitol
South Dakota State Capitol
SD Capitol Law Library
SD House of Representatives Chamber
SD Senate Chamber
Elegant marble and brass water fountain at SD Capitol
Governor's Residence, Pierre
Back on the Lewis and Clark Trail
Mobridge residents who live near the Indian monuments
Sitting Bull headstone and monument
What is Ken hiding under that rock?
Tires are often used for No Hunting signs
Unhappy residents of the Wilder Buffalo Ranch near McLaughlin, SD
A change in terrain in North Dakota