Deadwood, South Dakota is the perfect setting for a book festival. As we walked along Main Street amidst the turn-of-the century buildings, we felt that we were characters in a book about the Wild West. We imagined that Wild Bill Hickok could walk out of the Franklin Hotel at any moment and saunter past us.
Who would sponsor such a gathering of book lovers in this rich setting? Well, the South Dakota Humanities Council, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities are the prime supporters of this annual event held alternate years in Deadwood and Sioux Falls.
The festival is well-worth attending; it’s more memorable when you take a less traveled route to get there. We decided to take Highway 18 along the southern border of South Dakota. Jerry grew up in Tyndall, so we planned a route which took us west from Des Moines along I80/680 and north on Highway I29 past Sioux City. We then took Highway 50 through Vermillion, the home of the University of South Dakota. Next, we traveled on Highway 52 and saw the Gavin’s Point Dam, a powerful dam that regulates the volume of water on the Missouri river. Excellent signs at the dam informed us about the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery along the Missouri river. After traversing several county roads, we arrived at our overnight destination–the Cogan House, a lodge run by Diane and Gary Cogan. Both were busy harvesting their wet corn (we saw many corn fields near the river that were irrigated), dry corn, and soybeans. Like many enterprising couples, the Cogans diversify; they farm as well as sponsor guided game hunts. The lower floor of their home serves as a lodge for hunters and travelers like us.
The scenery in this region of the Missouri River is beautiful. We saw river herons perched on tree stumps in the river bottoms. We also spotted a rafter of six or seven wild turkeys scuttling into the woods. Fortunately, historians in the area have preserved the first school house in South Dakota; it’s surprisingly small.
After a tasty breakfast the next morning at the Corral in Tyndall, we once again got on Highway 50 and took it to Highway 46 in Pickstown where we viewed the Port Randall Dam. Then, we connected with Highway 18, an east-west highway along the southern border of the state. Anyone can zip across South Dakota along Interstate 90 and get to the Black Hills in no time. Our route along Highway 18, zigzagged, requiring more drive time. The pay off was well worth it; we got to see the small towns that dot southern South Dakota, and we got to witness the gradually changing landscape. Near Yankton, the layout of the land was similar to Iowa’s: fields of corn and soybeans interrupted by farmhouses every few miles. The farther west we traveled, fewer homes punctuated the countryside, and the vegetation changed as well. Fields of corn and soybeans were replaced with fields of sunflowers, hay, and sorghum. Apparently, not many other travelers selected this highway, and we had the road to ourselves much of the day.
South Dakota is home to several Native American reservations and Highway 18 took us through two: the Rosebud Reservation and the Pine Ridge Reservation. Of note, is the rugged land in each; we noted that there were few tillable acres in either reservation. colorful, rectangular houses dotted the hillsides; some homes were complete with pinto horses tied-up outside. A short jog north into the Pine Ridge Reservation took us to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Here, in 1890, Lakota villagers–men, women, and children–were camped, when unrest led U.S. soldiers to attack and kill many. We saw a replica of the Lakota village as well as a sign explaining the historic event. At the site, some dedicated Lakota descendants also operate a small museum for visitors. Couples from Norway and Germany had visited the site that day before us.
We enjoyed a brief stop in the town of Pine Ridge. It certainly matched the description Ian Frazier presented in his book On the Rez. We stopped at Bats, a local gas station and cafe mentioned in the book. We sampled their tasty corn dogs. As we left the reservation, we wondered what the future was for young people growing up on the reservation.
Highway 18 links with Highway 79 just west of Pine Ridge, and there, we began our trek northward. The trademark domed hills began emerging as we closed in on the Black Hills. Dozens of tourist signs sprouted, all inviting us to enjoy Mount Rushmore and other area sites. We arrived in Sturgis where we stayed at a nice motel and ate a relaxing dinner.
Deadwood, the site for the Book Festival, was a twenty-minute drive along Highway 14A. We found a parking garage on the edge of town and walked a couple of blocks to the Chamber of Commerce office to complete the festival registration process. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that there was no cost to attend this festival; the state humanities council, along with other donors, funded the transportation and speaking honorariums for the sixty-some presenting authors. Event planners cleverly scheduled sessions in historic buildings within walking distance of each other. The sessions covered a wide variety of literature: children’s literature, fiction, history and tribal writing, non-fiction, poetry, and writers’ support. And the visiting authors spanned a wide focus from children’s literature to adult.
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, nationally recognized author of numerous books highlighting the Sioux, gave an outstanding presentation at her session. She presented a narrated reading of her recent children’s book, The Christmas Coat and shared her educational background which provided the basis for the book. Her book describes her own experience at the reservation, receiving a donated coat from charity. After completing elementary school on the Rosebud Reservation, Virginia was sent to a church-sponsored girls’ boarding school. Sneve went on to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from South Dakota State University. As a published author of 26 books, she has impacted readers’ views of Native Americans. She, like others from a reservation, followed a path of higher education to achieve success.
We attended several other noteworthy sessions: teen author Gary Schmidt, children’s author Michael Spradlin, and nonfiction author Ian Frazier, among some of the many authors who shared their love of writing. The hardest part of attending the festival, is to narrow down which sessions to attend; there are so many interesting author presentations. All of the sessions at this festival have one thing in common: they are designed to celebrate the richness of literature. Authors provide time at the end of their sessions for questions, so that those in the audience, whether avid readers or aspiring authors, can benefit from their messages.
Festival activities began on Friday before the sessions and continued into Sunday. Friday’s “Evening of Crime and Mystery” was held in the Martin and Mason Hotel. Sunday’s “Writing Marathon” was a personal writing experience for each festival participant.
On the way home, we reflected on the richness of the book festival. It’s exciting to know that a state values literacy and offers such a rewarding experience. The South Dakota book Festival is a time for readers and writers to rendevous with text!