Peter Norbeck is arguably one of the most important South Dakotans to stride across the territorial and state historical stage. He had his fingers in nearly every pot, from business to politics, tourism to conservation, road engineering to education.
Born into an impoverished immigrant family, Norbeck struck out on his own at an early age with very little education to make his fortune – which he did by inventing an Artesian well-drilling rig used widely throughout the dry northern plains of the continent. With his fortune secure, he decided to make his mark in politics, becoming in turn a state representative, Lt. Governor, Governor and US Senator representing the state of South Dakota. During his life in the public eye, he managed to set aside a huge tract of land in the southern Black Hills for a state park, re-stock it with wildlife, personally walk off the first forty miles of fence for that park; design three of the nation’s most scenic Byways; help establish, bring to fruition and pay for the building of Mount Rushmore, a national monument which today attracts nearly three million people to the state annually. He also wrote and pushed through Congress the Migratory Bird Act of 1929, which has served as a model for all major conservation legislation since that time.
Norbeck’s resume also includes a body of controversial progressive legislation which ended up costing the state of South Dakota dearly when many of his pet projects later failed. Rural credits, state hail insurance, a state-owned cement plant, road building, development of water power, free textbooks for school children, improved rural teacher training, and consolidation of rural schools – all seemed radical and socialistic at the time, but were actually a reflection of the agricultural unrest and dissatisfaction with the depressed economic conditions in the state. It has been argued that if he hadn’t been so personally popular, this legislation would not have been enacted in the first place. Would South Dakota have been better off without these progressive programs?
What if Peter Norbeck had never been born?