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Arts & Life

South Dakota's state song and the man who wrote it

by Laura Baker - Grand-Daughter Of DeeCort Hammitt

It took a hat salesman from Chicago to get the ball rolling and push for an official SD state song. Warner C. “Everlastinglyatit Put” Putnam sold hats and clothing around the state. He noticed in 1941 that other states had official state songs and South Dakota did not. He felt that South Dakota needed one to play at state functions. He suggested a statewide song contest to the Argus Leader, which went about setting it up.

A statewide committee of contest judges was assembled, headed by Prof. Carl Christensen, who conducted the orchestra and 137-piece military band at State College. Others were Maynor O. M. Tiffany of Aberdeen, John B. Perkins of Aberdeen, Mrs. A. C. Miller of Kennebec, and Judge James W. Bellamy of Rapid City.

There were 158 songs entered! The judging committee selected 6 songs they considered the best out of the 158. In a unique feature of the contest, every resident of South Dakota was given a chance to vote for their favorite. Radio stations across the state played the 6 songs for a period of time. Ballots were printed in newspapers all over the state and the people of SD voted. ‘Hail! South Dakota,’ written by DeeCort Hammitt of Alcester, was the top vote getter in January of 1942. Governor Harlan Bushfield presented Hammitt with an award for composing the new state song, and a bill to make it official was approved by the Legislature in March 1943.

To honor the composer after the contest, DeeCort Hammitt and wife Bessie Hammitt were presented to members of the South Dakota Press Association at their annual banquet at the Sioux Falls Coliseum. The new state song was sung and played for the first time since the votes were counted.

About DeeCort Hammitt: He was born in Spencer SD in 1893 to Franklin and Mae Hammitt. When DeeCort was 6 years old, his father, who was a druggist, purchased a drug store, theater, and house in Alcester SD but died soon after the purchase was completed. Mrs. Hammitt and her 5 young children came to Alcester where she ran the theater and hired another druggist to run the drug store.

DeeCort Hammitt
DeeCort Hammitt

DeeCort began playing the piano at home as a child and eventually played for silent movies at his mother’s theater. He was a self-taught musician and played by ear. He took six music lessons when he was older to learn how to read and write music. He wrote his first composition at age 12 and at age 18 wrote ‘The South Dakota Rag’ which became his first published work.

He graduated from Alcester high school in 1912 and married Bessie Durkee from Alexandria, South Dakota in 1913. They made their home in Alcester where he worked at the State Bank there for more than 30 years. He was an active citizen. He also served as assistant post master for 6 years, city treasurer, railroad worker and grocery store clerk. Mr. and Mrs. Hammitt had 11 children.

Mr. Hammitt worked at the bank by day and wrote music by night. He started his own publishing company. It was called Sunshine State Music Company. His music was eventually played and recorded by such bands as Lawrence Welk, Tommy Dorsey and the US Navy Band.

Hammitt organized the Alcester Community Band in 1921 and directed it for 25 years. They took regular trips to the Black Hills for the Belle Fourche Roundup. They traveled by auto, mostly Model T Fords, and stopped in every town along the way to share their music. They would get out and play a couple of songs on each main street across the state. They camped out in large, round tents they brought along.

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In 1927 at the Round-Up, they had the privilege of playing for President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge. Hammitt had written some special music just for the President. The President sent him a letter telling him how much he enjoyed the music.

Because of the band’s outstanding reputation, they were designated as the Official Band of South Dakota and were invited to play at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and 1934, which was quite an honor. They made those trips in a semi-trailer borrowed from an Alcester farmer.

Mr. Hammitt and his band created something called ‘Saturday Nights in Alcester’ where people gathered in the center of town for band concerts and socializing. Rural residents came to town to do their shopping and were entertained at the same time as the band played on Main Street. There were popcorn stands, and the drug stores were busy selling phosphates and sodas.

Hammitt and his band also gave variety shows in the Old Opera House. He wrote his own plays, skits and music. In 1941 he organized and helped build a new band shell to which the concerts were moved and which continued every Saturday night. All the benches and streets were filled with people of all ages and cars were parked everywhere. Through the hard times and drought years these Saturday nights gave a lift to everyone’s spirits.

DeeCort was a man of many talents. In 1926 he built a radio station as an experiment. He sent a program of live music from the station in Alcester and it was successfully received 5 miles out into the country. The broadcasting station was named Hammitt Radio Co. and sent out weekly programs that were popular with listeners.

The attached interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.