Wessington Springs, incorporated in 1882, is the county seat of Jerauld County, and has a population of more than 1000. Located on Highway 34 in east-central South Dakota, the town is nestled at the foot of the Wessington Hills and may be described as the place where “the rolling prairie meets the great plains.”
Wessington Springs is located at the base of the Wessington Hills. The town derives its name from the hills and the many fresh-water springs which flow from those hills. There are many legends regarding how the hills were named, the best-known being that of a trapper named Wessington who was captured by renegade Indians, tied to a tree and burned. That tree was located in what is now the city park. Although none of the legends have basis in historical fact, Wessington Springs and its immediate area is, itself, rich in history.
The hills, with their supply of wood and water were well-known to early Indian tribes who often camped here, and to early trappers and traders who sought the game in the hills and gulches. In fact, the city park is located in an area which was designated as a neutral area, where different tribes and white trappers could meet to trade. This area was also a stopping point on the route of the Nobles Trail, a road once planned to run cross-country from St. Paul, MN to the South Pass of the Rockies. Had this plan materialized and the road been established, Wessington Springs would be a very different place today.
The first white family to establish a permanent home in what is now called Wessington Springs was the family of Levi Hain, who came to the area in 1876. His log cabin home was located near what is now the baseball field in the city park. Other settlers soon followed, liked the area, and began establishing homes. On May 26th, 1882 a plat for a new town was filed. The first building, a Methodist Church, was soon followed by businesses and a post office. In 1903 the railroad reached the town site and growth continued.
One of the town’s earliest permanent settlers and promoters was a Methodist Minister, Rev. A. B. Smart. He envisioned establishing a Christian religious colony, its members living in this beautiful setting, free of the evils of liquor and its accompanying crime, poverty, and dissolution. That dream was never fully realized, but Rev. Smart did succeed in securing for the town, an academy sponsored by the Free Methodist Church. As a result, many of the area’s first settlers were educated people who left their mark on the towns’ development.
Wessington Springs continues to have a strong school system, a busy Carnegie Library, and many talented individuals whose work has given the town an enviable reputation in the areas of art and music. There are also seven churches, a weekly newspaper, and various cultural and educational organizations. One of these organizations, the Dunham Historical Society maintains the Jerauld County Pioneer Museum, which seeks to preserve many artifacts, tools, clothing, household, and educational items, and especially “print” records of the area’s colorful history. The museum’s archives contain information of events and happenings which have contributed to the area’s history. The museum complex consists of three buildings, Fagerhaug Country School, Kraft Rural Repair Shop, and the main building; The Heritage Center. The Dunham Historical Society, a not-for-profit corporation, maintains the museum through fund-raisers, grants, and donations. The museum is staffed entirely by volunteers.
Main Street in Wessington Springs has changed several times throughout our history. There have been many businesses of all types: tailor shops, photo studios, service stations, meat markets, lumberyards, music stores, a hatchery, and much, much more. In the early 1900’s, Main Street was also the center of activity on Friday and Saturday evenings, with families sitting on the boardwalk while children would play in the street. Traditions that continue to influence us are seen in the foods that are eaten today: kuchen, pouchen, German sausage, sauerkraut, lefsa and lutefisk.
The Foothills Rodeo in June, the Classic Car & Antique Tracor Show in August and the Bull Bash in September are just a small example of how Wessington Springs rich historical culture is shared with people visiting our community. Activities on the Fourth of July include the Old Timers’ baseball game, Volunteer Fireman’s Street Dance, and fireworks sponsored by the Wessington Springs Chamber of Commerce. A Veterans Day program in November, along with many concerts and church programs throughout the year keep this “small town” hopping year round!
Other proof that “Our Town” is alive and kicking is the vibrant business district, which includes a grocery store, hardware & variety store, pharmacy, flower shop, embroidery & screen printing business, a newspaper & printing company, a bank, and even a bowling alley. Wessington Springs has all the amenities of a larger town without the congestion, just stop by Springs Auto or Springs Inn Café to be treated to some wonderful “down home” customer service. Our 48 acre park, a golf course, and trap club afford opportunities to locals and visitors alike.
And in truth, that’s not all… “Our Town” has eight sites listed on the National Register of Historical Places. Come see the Opera House that was built by William Brinner in 1905. The first performance in the building was “Down In Maine” by the Wessington Springs Dramatic Club. In 1909 the building was leased for roller-skating and motion pictures. By 1920, the building became the city’s fire hall. The Opera House was no longer used by the 1960s. In August 1976, the Opera House was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
In March 1994, the Dunham Historical Society purchased the building for $1, and began restoring the building. They started with the windows and then began work on the floor. To raise money there were potluck suppers, bake sales, rentals and donations. In 2002 a building addition was completed on the south side of the structure in memory of Kyle Evans, Troubadour, who passed away July 5, 2001. This addition was built on to be used as a dressing room and storage for the productions put on at the Opera House.
One of the most unique sites in Wessington Springs is Shakespeare Garden, begun a year after Mrs. Emma Shay, an English teacher at the junior college, traveled to England in 1926. Professor and Mrs. Shay had a replica of the Anne Hathaway Cottage in Stratford-on-Avon, England built in 1932 for their retirement home. The terraced Anne Hathaway Garden west of the cottage was built by Professor Shay.
- Support of the Shakespeare Garden continued through the closure of the college in 1964 and the Academy in 1968. Demolition of the college/academy building was completed in 1970 and the site was converted to Hillcrest Heights Housing Project.
- Shakespeare Garden and Anne Hathaway Cottage, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was privately owned, beginning in 1974. In observance of our state’s centennial in 1989, the Shakespeare Garden Society of Wessington Springs, a not-for-profit corporation, was established to purchase, restore, maintain and improve the Shakespeare Garden and Anne Hathaway Cottage. Funds were raised and the society obtained ownership that year.
- Under the guidance of the board of directors, funds obtained from membership dues, donations, grants, and various events have continued to finance the restoration, maintenance and improvement of the Garden and Cottage, along with countless hours of volunteer labor. In the fall of 1995 the appearance of the cottage was enhanced with the addition of a thatched roof, the only such roof in South Dakota.
- The Cottage and Garden is the site of teas, tours and even weddings. A Christmas program, Tour of Homes or Madrigal is held annually, as well as a Shakespeare play or program in the Garden in July.
If you are looking for some fun, an educational experience, or maybe even an opportunity to learn about living in a rural setting in the state of South Dakota, a great place to start is in the community with the big name!