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Day 50: ‘Rushing’ Through South Dakota
May 8, 2021
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Day 48: Gardens, Malls, Vikings and Dairy Queens
May 6, 2021

Day 49: Little Houses, Big Farms in the Dakotas

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Most recently updated on August 19, 2023

Originally posted on May 7, 2021

We have two full days of the Dakotas ahead of us.

So, we begin today’s virtual journey by heading due south on Interstate 29, a freeway that runs from Kansas City, Missouri, to North Dakota’s border with Canada. We’ll be on this road most of the day.

North Dakota is nicknamed The Peace Garden State after a border garden it has with Canada.

It’s the 19th largest state at 70,698 square miles, but it is 47th in population with only 780,000 residents. There are 16 cities in the United States with more people. Only one city in North Dakota, that being Fargo, has more than 100,000 residents. Only 9 have populations greater than 10,000.

The first influx of white settlers came to North Dakota in the 1870s. During that decade, the North Pacific Railroad pushed across the state. Farming began in earnest then, too. A cattle boom also occurred in the less-rich soils of the western part of the state.

north dakota map

North Dakota was admitted as a state on Nov. 2, 1889, the same day as South Dakota. President Benjamin Harrison didn’t want to show any favoritism, so he shuffled the papers for each state, then covered up the names and signed each document. He proceeded to shuffle the papers again, so nobody knew for certain which state he had officially approved first. North Dakota became the 39th state and South Dakota the 40th state simply because “n” comes before “s” in the alphabet.

North Dakota’s population grew from 2,400 in 1870 to 190,000 in 1890. Immigrants from Norway, Sweden, Germany and the United Kingdom added to the surge with the population rising to 650,000 in 1920. The state experienced a population decline after that as residents with educational degrees sought more opportunities elsewhere.

North Dakota has fertile soil and is rich in minerals, especially lignite coal and petroleum. The soil and minerals have always driven the state’s economy. The first major petroleum discovery was on a wheat farm in 1951.

Farming has still been the number one economic driver. About 11 percent of the North Dakotans work in the agriculture/food industry, among the highest percentages in the country. In addition, the top manufacturing sectors are food products and farm machinery.

About 90 percent of the land in North Dakota is used for farming, comprising nearly 40 million acres. The chief products are soybeans, corn and wheat. The state is second in wheat production, behind Kansas. It is first in sunflower seed production, just ahead South Dakota. North Dakota used to be the top state in barley, but it’s now third. The state is also a top producer of beans, honey, lentils, peas, oats and sugar beets.

Technology is becoming more of a prime industry. Although North Dakota is considered one of the least visited states, tourism is still its third largest industry, behind agriculture and energy.

Since 2000, the economy has been boosted by the state’s natural resources, especially oil exploration in the Bakken formation in the central and western part of the state with the help of hydraulic fracturing. The state’s wells produced more than 1 million barrels per day in 2022, third behind only Texas and New Mexico.

The Dakota Access Pipeline from northeast North Dakota to southern Illinois opened in 2017 despite protests by Native American tribes. However, the pipeline, which transported 5,700 barrels of oil per day, was put in jeopardy by legal action. In April 2021, a U.S. appeals court turned down a request from Dakota Access LLC to rehear a lower court decision that denied the pipeline owners a key permit and ordered an environmental review be done on the project where it crosses tribal land. In May 2021, the Biden administration asked a federal judge to allow oil to continue to flow through the pipeline while the permit is under review. A few weeks later, a federal judge granted that request. In February 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a review of the case made by the pipeline owners, meaning the permit review will continue while the pipeline continues to operate.

In general, though, the oil boom has kept unemployment at about 2 percent and created some oil boom towns. The state has the fourth youngest median age among states at 35.

North Dakota also boasts the tallest human-made structure in the Western Hemisphere with the KVLY-TV tower (2,063 feet) for a Fargo television station 46 miles to the southeast. The transmitting tower was built in 1963. It was once the tallest structure in the world. It remains the fourth tallest and the world’s second tallest broadcast mast.

Big Farms and Little Houses

After about 45 minutes on Interstate 29, we pull into the town of Mooreton.

This community of less than 200 people is not too far from the South Dakota border.

The Bagg Bonanza Farm in Mooreton, North Dakota. Photo by North Dakota Tourism.

The first white settlers arrived in 1881. Northern Pacific Railroad tracks were laid down in 1882. The town was founded in 1884. A flour mill to process local wheat began operations in late 1884. Blacksmith shops were opened in the 1880s.

There’s one reason we’ve made Mooreton a stop on our virtual tour today. It’s because the small town is home to the Bagg Bonanza Farm. This former 9,000-acre wheat farm was once one of the “bonanza farms” on the wheat growing plains of North Dakota in the 1870s and 1880s. There were 91 farms here ranging in acreage from 3,000 to 100,000 acres that were recognized as bonanza farms.

The land was made available due to the collapse of the Northern Pacific Railroad when investors sold acreage once meant for railroad expansion to farmers such as J.F. Downing, an Erie, Pennsylvania, lawyer, whose nephew F. A. Bagg arrived on the farm in 1886 and the next year began managing the acreage.

Bonanza farms thrived on mechanized equipment, modern agricultural methods and hordes of low wage laborers. Eventually, they declined due to overused land and decreasing profits.

The Bonanza Farm Historic Preservation Society is restoring the Bagg farm. The buildings here include a 21-room main house, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, sheep barn, ice house, laundry, machine shed and granaries. A mule barn is currently being rebuilt.

The 15-acre historic site offers insight into the megafarms of the 1800s. It’s one of the last remaining farms of this type in the United States.


Just a few miles below Mooreton is the South Dakota border.

We slip into The Mount Rushmore State and continue heading south on I-29.

Along the route, we cross the 45th parallel, that imaginary line between the equator and the North Pole, for a second time.

south dakota map

More than an hour after entering South Dakota, we pass through the community of Watertown, which is the fifth most populous town in the state despite having only 23,000 people. It’s also the birthplace of Kristi Noem, the current governor of South Dakota.

From Watertown, we take a detour off I-29 by motoring west on Highway 212 and then south on Highway 25. After an hour that route takes us to the small town of De Smet with a population barely above 1,000 people and the 300th town on our virtual tour.

This area was first settled in 1879 during railroad construction. The dairy industry was the early economic driver. In the mid-1880s prairie fires and drought forced many farmers to move. By 1917, De Smet was a cow town with trains carrying cattle passing through.

The economy today is centered on agricultural with corn, soybeans, sunflowers, wheat and livestock along with the manufacturing of signs and business materials.

The small town also benefits from tourism due to its connection to some novels about a girl and her pioneering family.

The Surveyors’ House is one of the historical buildings in De Smet, South Dakota, connected to author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Photo by Little House on the Prairie.

Charles Ingalls moved his family here in 1879 from Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in a covered wagon, a westward trek that now takes 2 hours by car. The family had done some pioneer settling in Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa and the Dakota territory.

Ingalls’ daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, would chronicle these travels in her series of “Little House on the Prairie” books, which would be made into a television series from 1974 to 1983.

Wilder didn’t start writing until the 1920s. Her father worked for the railroad, so the family lived in the Surveyor’s Home here at first, then moved to the 157-acre Ingalls Homestead a mile outside of town.

Wilder married Almanzo Wilder in 1885. Their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, also based some of her novels on life in De Smet.

The town is now home to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, which offers tours of some of the local historic spots. These include the Ingalls Home & Museum as well as the Loftus store and the Ingalls Homestead as well as the Surveyors’ House where the family spent their first winter. The town also has a Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant in July. That started in 1951 and features a performance from one of Wilder’s books.


We return to Interstate 29 by traveling east for an hour on Highway 14.

We hit the freeway again at Brookings, the fourth most populous town in South Dakota with nearly 24,000 residents.

The local economy here still relies on agriculture, in particular hogs, cattle, dairy products, corn, soybeans and oats as well as manufacturing of plastics, playground equipment, doors and electronic displays.

Daktronics, one of the biggest makers of scoreboards and video displays, is headquartered here. It’s the third largest employer in town with more than 2,500 workers. The company was founded in 1968 by two South Dakota State engineering students.

The biggest employer in Brookings is South Dakota State University with more than 3,200 employees. SDSU is the largest college in the state with more than 11,000 students. It was established in 1881 and is the state’s only land grant university.

There’s also the 3M Brookings Plant, which manufactures medical dressings, medical tapes, surgical drapes, biological indicators and food safety products. In July 2023, the company announced a $460 million expansion of its Brookings facility.

Brookings also has a thriving arts community with theater, music and art. The Brookings Art Council is involved in creating and supporting the local arts community.

Meat, Water and Credit Cards

It’s another hour south on Interstate 29 before we reach our final and meatiest destination on today’s virtual trip.

Sioux Falls is the most populous city in South Dakota with slightly more than 200,000 residents, easily outdistancing second place Rapid City. Sioux Falls sits at an elevation of 1,442 feet. As its name implies, it features a series of waterfalls that run through town along the Big Sioux River.

The city is also well known for its meat packing industry, its credit card companies and its shopping malls.

The waterfalls that flow along the Big Sioux River are a major attraction in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Photo by HubPages.

The falls were created 14,000 years during the last Ice Age. The waterworks drew the attention of Native American tribes, including the Sioux. The town was founded in 1857 by land speculators. A Sioux uprising in 1862 forced settlers out. Fort Dakota was built in 1865 and the railroad arrived in 1878. The rose quartzite industry helped boost the economy, although a grasshopper plague in 1890s created a downturn.

The city’s economy changed when the John Morrell meatpacking plant opened in 1909. The Sioux City Stockyards were established in 1917.

According to the book “Our Towns,” thousands of hogs came in daily from Iowa and other nearby states to meet their deaths here. During World War One, German and eastern European immigrants were able to secure high paying union jobs. A lot of people moved here to get those jobs.

However, in the 1980s there was a labor strike and the union was busted up. Immigrants from Africa and Southeast Asia started working at the plant. In 1995, the plant was sold to Smithfield, which was sold to the Chinese firm Shuanghui. Most of meat processed here now is shipped to China.

Meat processing is still a big industry in town. The meat plants were hit hard early on by COVID-19. In April 2020, Smithfield closed its pork plant in Sioux Falls due to an outbreak after more than 290 of the 3,700 employees at the facility tested positive.

The Sioux Falls facility wasn’t alone. In late May 2020, a labor union reported that 3,000 meat processing plant employees had tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide and 44 of them had died.

The Smithfield complex in Sioux Falls reopened in early May 2020 after Trump administration officials ordered meat packing plants to start up again because they were essential to the nation’s food supply chain.

By September, nearly 1,300 people had contracted the disease at Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant and four had died. The U.S. Department of Labor cited Smithfield for failing to protect the health of its employees.

In March 2021, Smithfield offered free COVID-19 vaccination shots to its Sioux Falls employees. However, in October 2021, union officials filed a complaint, saying workers at the plant were quitting in record numbers due to poor working conditions and the lack of safety protocols.

Cases rose again in January 2022 as the Omicron variant swept across the country.  Cases have since eased and the plant remains open.

An ordinance that would have banned new slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls was defeated by voters in November 2022. The ballot measure’s failure allows plans to move forward for a new facility being built by Wholestone Farms. The $600 million complex will initially employ 1,000 people and process 3 million hogs per year, although plans for the plant have been moving along slowly.

Another strong industry in the region is the military. This sector of the economy was ignited in 1942 with the establishment of an air base and a military communications facility. That complex led to other economic changes.

One of the biggest was the establishment in the early 1970s of the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (EROS) in a cornfield just north of Sioux Falls. According to the book “Our Towns,” Sioux Falls officials convinced military and intelligence-gathering agencies that their region was ideal area to collect information from satellites passing over the United States. Today, EROS is the depository of more digital views of Earth than any other place. Hundreds of scientists come to Sioux Falls to work at the facility.

The credit card industry also has a corner of Sioux Falls’ economy.

In 1981, Citibank relocated its primary credit center from New York City to Sioux Falls. The book “Our Towns,” reports that South Dakota convinced Citibank executives that its central location and its ability to get and send out mail more quickly made them a prime spot for the bank’s credit card businesses. City officials also relaxed their usury laws so financial companies could charge whatever interest rates they wanted. In 1982, one-third of all mail coming into Sioux Falls was for Citibank. In 2019, bank officials officially opened their new state-of-the-art facility in Sioux Falls.

The Falls Overlook Cafe in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Photo by TripAdvisor.

With all its economic growth, Sioux Falls’ population has increased from 81,000 in 1980 to its 200,000 today. In recent years, there has been another influx of immigration. The “Our Towns” book reports that in 2013 about 10 percent of students in Sioux Falls public schools were English language learners. Spanish was primary foreign language but 60 different languages spoken by students. The All City Elementary at Jane Addams school has been used as an immersion school for new non-English speaking children.

Sioux Falls also has a lot of shopping malls and chain restaurants on the outskirts of town. The authors of “Our Towns” notes that those stores are a shopping mecca for the greater region. People from smaller towns in South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota within a couple hundred mile drive will make an all-day shopping trek to Sioux Falls to shop at the “big city” stores. In a typical year, the city attracts 14 million shoppers.

There are plenty of other things to see if you visit Sioux Falls.

Part of the SculptureWalk art project in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Photo by La fabrique gallery.

There’s Falls Park, a 123-acre public park in north-central Sioux Falls that surrounds the city’s main waterfall. The park includes an observation tower and an old mill. It has a 19-mile hiking trail that loops the city.

The Falls Overlook Café is part of the park, sitting across the river from the observation tower. The building used to house a hydroelectric plant, the 1908 Sioux Falls Light and Power Company that was abandoned in 1974. The power plant once held three 500-kilowatt hydroelectric generators. The café features an overlook with a scenic view of the falls.

The Queen Bee Mill is also part of the park. It opened in 1881 and had a 7-story main structure made of Sioux quartzite. The mill could process 1,500 bushels of wheat a day. It closed in 1883 after a brief run, but it’s been preserved as a historic site.

Outside of the park, there’s the Stockyards Ag Experience. The historic site commemorates the history of the Sioux Falls Stockyards, which opened in 1917 and stayed in business until 2009. The goal of the Stockyards Ag Experience is to educate the public about the importance of agriculture to the area’s economy and society.

Finally, there’s the SculptureWalk Sioux Falls project. Every year, artists place their sculptures in designated spots on city streets. Those works of art stay up for a year. During that time, people vote on their favorites. There are 14 awards totaling $15,000 given out. The 2022 competition featured a record 69 sculptures. The winner was “Elk,” a sculpture by Travis Sorenson of Sturgis, South Dakota.

This seems like as good a spot as any to wrap up Day 49.

Tomorrow, we head due west across South Dakota, finishing up in a presidential city. In between, we’ll visit an historic missile silo and a drug store you might have seen in an Oscar-winning film.