Book review: ‘A Marvelous Hundred Square Miles’
I came away from reading "A Marvelous Hundred Square Miles: Black Hills Tourism, 1880-1941" with an enlarged appreciation for the late former governor and U.S. senator Peter Norbeck.
That the newly released 234-page book by Suzanne Barta Julin added to my respect for Norbeck is saying quite a lot. Earlier this year, I read what is apparently the only book-length biography of Norbeck ever written: "Peter Norbeck: Prairie Statesman," by Gilbert Fite. I read Fite’s book because I’d always been curious to know more about Norbeck, for whom a scenic byway is named in the Black Hills and whose name I once heard mentioned by current Gov. Mike Rounds when Rounds was asked to pick a favorite past governor.
Having read Fite’s book, I brought quite a bit of knowledge about Norbeck into my reading of Julin’s book. I knew that Norbeck was a progressive Republican who sometimes rankled party regulars, that his idol (and lookalike, in my opinion) was Theodore Roosevelt, that he’d been an influential governor and U.S. senator, and that he’d been instrumental in the development of Custer State Park.
What I didn’t know — and what I learned from Julin’s book — is that much of the growth of Black Hills tourism is owed to the development of Custer State Park, and to Norbeck’s persistent stewardship of the park. Julin dug up a great Norbeck quote that captured his early and visionary understanding of the park’s value to the state:
"A wilderness may be a thing of beauty. It must be preserved, but it must also be made accessible to the public."
Guided by that philosophy, Norbeck exerted tremendous influence over the park throughout his life via official and unofficial channels. While development of federally owned parks and monuments in the Black Hills lagged, Norbeck nearly singlehandedly molded Custer State Park into one of the more remarkable parks in the nation. Julin wrote that during the important post-World War I era of the 1920s, the development of Custer State Park was "the most significant event" in the advancement of Black Hills tourism.
Norbeck’s work in the park bore major fruit in 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge chose Custer State Park for his summer vacation. In what today would be considered an unthinkably long absence from Washington, Coolidge spent three months at the park.
The presidential visit was a smashing success. Julin wrote that "the president’s summer in the Black Hills generated more than one hundred articles or photograph features — more than one each day — in the New York Times alone." One reporter noted, according to Julin, that "the state has received millions of dollars’ worth of advertising through [Coolidge's] sojourn in the Black Hills."
Coolidge also lent his support while in South Dakota to the fledgling effort to carve four presidents’ faces out of a mountain called Rushmore. According to Julin, Coolidge’s visit opened the door to future federal funding that made the Mount Rushmore National Memorial a reality.
Norbeck was involved in luring Coolidge to South Dakota and in lobbying for Coolidge’s support of Mount Rushmore, and the men’s respect for each other must have grown through those experiences. When Coolidge departed the state, he offered the following statement, as quoted in Julin’s book:
"I am especially grateful to Senator Norbeck. I regard him as one of the great men of the nation that your State may well honor him in any way that you can."
That’s high praise, and all the more reason for South Dakotans to educate themselves about Peter Norbeck. Julin’s new book adds to our understanding and appreciation of the man and, for that and many other reasons, is worth reading.