One hundred years of natural diversity at Custer State Park

CUSTER, S.D. — Custer State Park is celebrating its centennial. One hundred years and millions of visitors and memories later, we wanted to learn more about how the park got started and how it became the world famous park we know today.

“When the loggers came in, the miners came in, it was a hard toll on the animals so a lot of animals had been extinct in the Black Hills area,” said Lydia Austin, interpretive programs manager at Custer State Park.

In steps Peter Norbeck, the visionary behind the park.

“Norbeck wanted to bring them back up, bring them back in and that was the idea of the game preserve, the reintroduce wildlife back into the Black Hills,” said Austin.

Pheasants tried to be introduced to the area but didn’t acclimate. Elk came from the Yellowstone area and big horn sheep from Canada. The bison themselves, coming from a herd near Philip.

“They built special wagons for these buffalo,” said Austin. “In a day and age where we’re kind of known for a buffalo roundup, we wonder why we didn’t round up the 36 head and move them instead of wagons. There must’ve been a reason. We haven’t found it yet.”

By 1919, national parks were becoming more prominent and state parks were slowly taking shape.

“Norbeck saw an opportunity and pushed a bill through and on July 5, 1919, we officially became a state park,” said Austin.

But the park didn’t become an instant sensation overnight. The infrastructure and lodges weren’t around. Many homesteads existed on the land, posing as challenges for park activities.

Eventually, by the 1920’s the Game Lodge popped up. In the 30’s the park was home to zoo housing monkeys, deer, and goats.

The goats, ended up escaping and growing into the mountain goat population the Black Hills has today.

“It wasn’t until World War II when people started to look for a place to go to relax that Custer State Park went from a local place to a world class destination,” said Austin.

Now as the park gears up for its centennial celebration, park employees get to look back a quarter of a century ago to when a time capsule was last buried.

The contents will also be on display at the Peter Norbeck Center along with a guestbook for guests to make suggestions for what will go in the next 25 years’ capsule. Austin says staff members will be writing their own stories to go in the capsule, to share with the next generation.

Also to celebrate the anniversary, the park is hosting photo, coloring, even selfie contests so you can make your own memories like the millions before.

“In 1919, I don’t think Norbeck could comprehend that many people,” said Austin. “He knew this would be the place. He went and laid out Needles and laid out Iron Mountain Road and said people need to come out here and explore, slow down, take a breath.”

Categories: Custer Community Showcase, Local News, South Dakota News