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Retiree preserves South Dakota history one photo at a time

First photo - cover photo.JPG
Lura Roti
Sioux Falls retiree Gary Conradi has made it his mission to capture elements of South Dakota history through photographs.

History is all around us. And for more than two decades Sioux Falls retiree Gary Conradi has made it his mission to capture elements of South Dakota history through photographs.

For more than two decades retired Raven Industries Chief Administrative Officer Gary Conradi has been on a mission to preserve South Dakota history one photograph at a time.

“I think it is important because I don’t know anyone else who has done this and these things disappear. They don’t last forever. I’m trying to preserve what we have,” Conradi said.

This mission has taken him to every South Dakota County and nearly every community in the state. It has also led him to a Sun Dance on the Pine Ridge Reservation, President Lincoln’s hometown, inner city Detroit and a commune in California.

His collection includes numerous photo series featuring prominent buildings like county courthouses, Episcopal churches, Carnegie Libraries and Odd Fellow’s Halls. As well as less respectable structures like clotheslines and outhouses. There’s even a series of headstones of deceased South Dakota Governors and a series of Dakota Territory Governors’ grave sites.

“I have always had a strong interest in South Dakota history. I was born and raised here,” Conradi said.

Other than the South Dakota connection, he does not limit himself to one subject or era. Conradi has photographed all the round barns in South Dakota as well as all the WPA murals found in South Dakota Post Offices. One photo series focuses on turn of the century buildings featuring cast iron Mesker facades and another series includes all 39 enameled stainless steel Lustron prefabricated homes located in South Dakota.

“Something just clicks… I try to pick subjects that I can complete. Not like all the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, I take those too, but I focus on something I can complete, that have historical significance to South Dakota,” Conradi said.

Conradi often works on more than one series at a time. Right now, he is photographing water tower art, hometown bakeries and vintage railroad depots.

“I found one yesterday. In the town of Harold. I knew a railroad had gone through Harold; I went to where the railroad tracks came through looking for a depot. I didn’t see any. I thought well, it’s been so long ago, it is gone. And then I stopped at a gas station before I left, just for the heck of it, and I went in and said, “by chance do you know whatever happened to your depot. And he said, “yeah, it’s about a mile or over there. My dad and I moved it 50 years ago.” I just thought, I am lucky today. Fortune helps me find things. So many have been like that,’” Conradi said.

As he travels the state hunting for the next photo for a series he is working on, Conradi says he has met a lot of helpful South Dakotans along the way.

“What I have found is if you have an interest in something and if the person you are talking to knows a little bit about it, they will do anything to help you,” Conradi said.

These photo series have also led Conradi to other projects. While completing a series of photos featuring the graves of South Dakotans who received the Medal of Honor, Conradi realized the University of South Dakota did not have a memorial to remember the three alumni who received the high honor given for extraordinary valor during

“I went to see our President and he said, “Gary, all it takes is money. I got together with Ted Munster, Ted helped me form a committee and we began a project with the university’s approval. Three years later we dedicated Patriots Plaza. I am most proud of that accomplishment,” Conradi said.

Once a collection is complete Conradi organizes the photos in an album, including handwritten descriptions of each image. Then he donates the series to Augustana’s Center for Western Studies.

“I feel a sense of achievement when I accomplish one of these missions. I really enjoy doing them. I used to hunt quite a bit, like yesterday, finding this old depot out in the country that no one knew about except a couple people, that was more fulfilling than getting a limit of pheasants,” Conradi said.

In 2011, Gary Conradi was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of fame, in 2019 Conradi was recognized for his contribution to South Dakota History with the Governor’s Award and in 2021 Conradi received the DAR certificate of excellence.

Lura Roti is a freelance reporter working with SDPB.