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Cowboy Governor to be discussed at Cultural Heritage Center meeting

South Dakota Gov. Tom Berry will be the focus of the November meeting of the History and Heritage Book Club.

The program will begin at 7 p.m. CST on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Everyone is welcome to attend the free program.

Paul Higbee of Spearfish will discuss his book, “South Dakota’s Cowboy Governor Tom Berry.” Ralph “Shorty” Jones of Midland, Berry’s grandson, will also attend to share his memories of his grandfather. Tony Venhuizen of Pierre will tell about Berry’s statue on Pierre’s Trail of Governors.

“We’re pleased to have two speakers who can give insights into Berry: a writer who has researched Berry’s life and a grandson who knew Berry in ways that others would not,” said Michael Lewis, president of the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation. The foundation is the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society and the sponsor of the History and Heritage Book Club.

Berry, 1879-1951, was a highly respected cattleman, according to Higbee, and owner of the Bar X Ranch in Mellette County. He was one of five Democrats to serve as governor of South Dakota. Berry was elected in 1932 during the national economic depression and Great Plains Dust Bowl.

“When he became governor in 1933, the state’s finances were in terrible shape and agriculture was in an unprecedented crisis,” Higbee said. “Berry’s work looked impossible, but I think he believed work in our part of the country would always be hard and unending. He said once that growing up, he watched his parents work endlessly on their Nebraska farm, pitched in as soon as he was able, and never knew play. He built his Mellette County ranch with the same work ethic, and brought it with him to Pierre. He seemed undaunted by the task of leading South Dakota through the worst of the Depression and Dust Bowl.”

No matter what he faced, Higbee says, Berry did so with wit and humor.

“His humor – his verbal quips especially – is still funny decades later. People who weren’t inclined to vote for him sometimes went to his campaign rallies just for the entertainment,” Higbee said. “His wry observations reminded people of Will Rogers’ commentary. Both Berry and Rogers were born on the Great Plains in 1879 and were working cowboys as young men, and became friends during Berry’s governorship.”

Higbee is the 2001 winner of the Individual Governor’s Award for History presented by the South Dakota State Historical Society. His features and columns have appeared in South Dakota Magazine since 1986.

Jones was born while Berry was governor and was 15 years old when his maternal grandfather died. He will share recollections of his grandfather, some of Berry’s philosophy and life lessons he taught his grandchildren.

Venhuizen is a member of the board of directors of the Trail of Governors, which is a trail of life-size bronze statues honoring each of South Dakota’s highest executive officer. Berry’s statue was placed at the corner of Pierre Street and Dakota Avenue earlier this fall. Venhuizen will tell about the Trail of Governors project and Berry’s statue.

“South Dakota’s Cowboy Governor Tom Berry” is available at the Heritage Stores at the Cultural Heritage Center and the Capitol.

Please call 605-773-6006 for more information about the program.

About the South Dakota State Historical Society
The South Dakota State Historical Society is a division of the Department of Education. The State Historical Society, an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is headquartered at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. The center houses the society’s world-class museum, the archives, and the historic preservation, publishing and administrative/development offices. Call 605-773-3458 or visit for more information. The society also has an archaeology office in Rapid City; call 605-394-1936 for more information.

About the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation
The South Dakota Historical Society Foundation is a private charitable nonprofit that seeks funding to assist the South Dakota State Historical Society in programming and projects to preserve South Dakota’s history and heritage for future generations.

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