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Dakota Life Preview: Greetings from Beresford


Dakota Life heads to Beresford, South Dakota on May 9th. Here is a preview of some of the stories you will find in the episode that premieres at 8 p.m. (7 mountain) on SDPB TV-1, Facebook and YouTube. Plus, a look back at some of the past stories we have brought you on Dakota Life.
The Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the mouth of the Big Sioux River on Tuesday, April 21, 1804. It was a warm, bright day with a gentle breeze from the southeast. Captain Clark climbed War Eagle Hill, the highest bluff at what is now Sioux City, to get a good view of the surrounding country. To the west lay a low valley and the rich, level prairies of what today is South Dakota’s southeasternmost area.

Location of Beresford, South Dakota on a 1972 South Dakota highway map
Location of Beresford, South Dakota on a 1972 South Dakota highway map

All of what is now South Dakota was part of the Louisiana Purchase, acquired by the United States from France in 1803, and the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition were exploring the vast newly acquired land. At the time, the prairies between the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers were hunted over and claimed by the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

Before Lewis and Clark, historians believe that the first white man to pass through the area was French fur trader Joseph Garreau, who came through in 1787, we also know that fur traders Jaques D'Eglise and Jean-Baptiste Truteau passed through on their way up the Missouri in 1794. but previous to Lewis and Clark expedition no actual records were made regarding the area now known as Union County. By the middle of the nineteenth century the fur trade in southeastern Dakota Territory had dwindled. Buffalo and elk had almost disappeared, and deer, beaver and mink were no longer plentiful. Except authorized agents and traders, and those who had married Indian wives, white men were not legally permitted to live in southeastern Dakota until July 1859. The first farms were established later that same year.

Thirteen years later, the family of Eli Ricard was the first to settle on a homestead in section five of Prairie Township in what is now Union County, South Dakota. Within a year a small town sprang up. It was known as Paris, Dakota Territory. Mr. Ricard operated the Paris Post Office from the frame house he built on his homestead. When the city was officially laid out in 1873, the name was changed to Beresford, named after Lord Charles Beresford, an Admiral in the British Royal Navy. The city was formally incorporated on July 12, 1884.

Since the days of the fur trapper, then Lewis and Clark, then the homesteading years, people have continually traveled through this area. Along the way, some of them stopped and put down roots. In the spring of 1883, farmers pushed in to establish businesses in Beresford. The first structure in the pioneer town was the saloon built and operated by D. C. Choquette. This structure was later destroyed by a fire. The second was a drug store built by G. S. Joscelyn, which was later moved and used as a work shop; and it was still standing as recently as 1934. The J. W. Reedy residence was believed to have been the first home built in Beresford.

Pioneers and businesses kept coming. J. R. Carleton established the “Beresford News” in 1883 and was the town's first newspaper editor. Charley Sundling was the first mail carrier. David Stephen was Beresford's first postmaster and first merchant. Eli Ricard was the first furniture dealer who also had a stock of coffins. Other businesses followed. A hotel, a doctor, a harness maker, a meat market, a hardware store.... Soon, a lumber yard, a shoe cobbler and a barber, a bank, and eventually an electric light plant, followed by a telephone exchange.

Within a few years, the main thoroughfare from one place to another in these parts was U.S. Highway 77, going north and south. If you wanted to go from northeast South Dakota all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, you would travel on U.S. 77. Old Highway 77 was decommissioned in the 1960s, and replaced when the Eisenhower Interstate system came through and changed the economics of the town forever. A local economist at the time stated that I-29 was the best thing that could have ever happened to Beresford.

Interstate 29 highway dedication near Beresford
Interstate 29 highway dedication near Beresford

In 1926, an entertainment landmark was created about 2 miles south of Beresford. The builder, Mike Muhlenkort realized that the site, on Highway 77, was centrally located for 25 towns and ideally situated for a ballroom. Using a lumber saw that had been in his family for years, and native lumber, construction was started in the early spring of 1926. Opening night was June 19th, 1926. When completed, the building contained six thousand square feet of dance space. Lighting was supplied by two power plants to Japanese lanterns. The place was colorfully festooned with an exciting look which was entirely new to this area. The Ritz was designed to accommodate eight hundred people, but as many as five thousand attended special celebrations. Dancers came from all the towns in the surrounding area. For some of the big bands, they came from even farther. Lawrence Welk played the Ritz many times, as did Jimmy Barnett, Mel Taggart, Goodwin Goldie and his California Redjackets. In 1931, the biggest draw ever was the internationally known Bricktops, a 14-girl band made up entirely of redheads from New York. All redheads were admitted free that night.

The Ritz provided depression-era entertainment and became known far and wide for Thursday and Saturday night dances and roller-skating Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons. A firm in Sioux Falls purchased the Ritz in 1939 and eventually the building was destroyed by a fire.

One of the small town niceties that make Beresford stand out is the large amount of green space all over town. Thanks to forward thinking planners, Beresford features plenty of areas for outdoor recreation. Baseball fields, Camping areas, courses for both traditional golfers and disc golfers. The traditional park features picnic shelters, playgrounds and trails for biking and hiking. Planners also considered all members of a family and built a dog park.

Since homesteading times, education has been high on the priority list for the people of Beresford. The Beresford Public Library has been ranked between four and five stars by Library Journal magazine, one of the few in South Dakota to achieve that status. Their ranking is determined by usage, budgets and other important criteria. Established in 1923, the library provides a summer reading program with program events on Tuesday and Thursday nights in June and July. While the pandemic made things very tough for public libraries across the country, including this one, the Beresford Public Library has been on the upswing. Just ask the 4th-6th graders who walk to library regularly to get extra books for their 40-book challenge.

Our Dakota Life crews often hear stories of legendary local people when visiting small towns. In Beresford, one of those people was Willie Webb. Willy was known by everyone in town and admired for his kindness. He was rumored to be a WWI veteran and lived in a shack without electricity down by the Big Sioux River, raising chickens and taking eggs to town to sell. At some point, Willie’s shack burned down and Willie started sleeping in his car, refusing to take any handouts. Willie passed away a few years back but is remembered by many for his great kindness.

Grace V. Nelson touched the lives of many children throughout her teaching career in both city and country schools. When Grace passed away in 2002, she left money for the City of Beresford and wanted the proceeds to be used for the enjoyment of Beresford children. Cited by Grace's niece, "From four words, so simple and common, "children, church, community and country, will spring years of enjoyment for Beresford area youth." Today, a stone marker greets visitors to the Grace V. Nelson memorial fields.

Lawrence "Tiny" Lawrenson was remembered for his efforts in the promotion of baseball. On July 12, 1984 a ceremony was held, dedicating the baseball field in his name, "Tiny" Lawrenson. "Tiny" managed, umpired and donated time and effort in helping renovate the field. Today, these facilities serve Beresford and surrounding communities, providing homes to America’s pastime.

In 2016, Hollywood came to Beresford for the production of Wild Prairie Rose, a film set in 1952 where a woman, Rose Miller returns to her rural hometown to care for her ailing mother. Once there, she falls in love with a deaf man and must decide if she has the courage to follow her heart. The movie was shot in three weeks on Carole Korsner’s farm and local residents helped coordinate the movie. Lots of residents ended up in the final cut. Wild Prairie Rose would help launch the careers of the leading actors Tara Samuel and Troy Kotsur. During production, many of the actors stayed at the Bulow House, a historic home built by former South Dakota Governor William J. Bulow in 1893.
Don't miss Greetings from Beresford, Thursday, May 9th at 8 p.m. (7 mountain) on SDPB TV-1, Facebook and YouTube. You can catch up on past seasons of Dakota Life HERE.