WE EXPECTED TO FIND statehouse bureaucrats, retirees and cowboys in Fort Pierre. The surprise was the number of entrepreneurs in the river town. Some people call it a bedroom town for Pierre, but that may be a misnomer.
Stand by the bridge at 7:50 on a weekday morning, says Mayor Tidball, “and you’ll be surprised to see traffic going both ways in almost equal numbers.”
Several dozen people work at the sales barn on its busiest weekends in the fall and winter. “We’ll have cattle sorters, auctioneers, pen back people, clerks and office girls,” says Smith.
Five or six women work in the barn’s restaurant, which has gained a reputation for home cooking and good beef. “We get to serve the best people in the world,” says Cheryl Schaefers, who has run the restaurant for the last 10 years. However, ranchers are a unique clientele. “They’ll eat fish but they won’t eat pork and chicken,” she says.
Obviously, the favorite is beef. A roast beef combo — a sandwich and real mashed potatoes smothered in rich brown gravy made from the meat juice — sells for just $5.50 while a roast beef dinner is $7. “The secret is to cook the beef low and slow,” she says.
Like many entrepreneurs, Schaefers came upon the opportunity in Fort Pierre by necessity. Her family’s dairy barn near Polo burned to the ground in 1992 so she started a cafe at Orient to help pay the bills. Then she heard about the chance to run the cafe at the sale barn. She does more business in a day at Fort Pierre than she does in a month at Orient.
Necessity also prompted Milt Morris to start a company that has become the largest private employer in Pierre and Fort Pierre. Morris intended to farm when he came home from a stint in Vietnam in 1970. But his father sold the farm while he was away. He noticed that river irrigation was becoming popular with some farmers, and he heard that a university professor in Lincoln, Neb., was one of the most knowledgeable people in the fledgling industry, so he drove there to visit with him.
The professor told him that the university had courses, and he could get a degree in four years. Morris said he didn’t have enough time to enroll in courses, but he talked the professor out of some books on the subject and he went home to start his own business. Today, Morris Inc., employs 200 people and all five of the Morris children are involved. The company has never stopped looking for new opportunities. “We’re in the construction business,” says Morris’ son, Mark. “We do everything but the building.” That leaves earthwork, concrete, asphalt, sand and gravel and the engineering needed for such jobs.
The Morris family also operates a shop that manufactures air and water jigs, conveyors and screens for the construction industry. They even repair pumps and rewind electric motors for area farms and small businesses. And they create granite signs, gravestones and countertops from local granite. In their spare time they operate Oahe Speedway, a stock car track.
“We stay busy,” grins Milt Morris. “It hasn’t always been easy. We just go in whatever direction life takes us.”
Fort Pierre’s other entrepreneurial citizens are smaller in size but they each contribute to the town’s personality. Cumulatively they add great diversity as well as a range of jobs. Mix that with the historians, the suburbanites along the canals and the cowboys and you have a blended town like no other in all the West.
FORT PIERRE: THE PLAYGROUND
“FORT PIERRE HAS BECOME central South Dakota’s playground,” says attorney John Duffy. “I don’t want to say that nothing fun ever happens in Pierre, but it’s hard to compete with everything we have here.”
The town has the Stanley County fairgrounds, a youth center, a hockey rink and gymnasium. Horse races, rodeos, bucking matches, circuses, concerts and numerous other events are held there. A 120-slip marina is in the planning stages.
Fort Pierre’s nightspots enjoy a reputation for being the scene of late-night political high jinks and compromises during Pierre’s annual legislative sessions. Since Fort Pierre operates on Mountain Time, it was once a tradition for some lawmakers and staffers to cross the river at 1 a.m. to continue their revelry. Mountain Time is still observed in the city after midnight, but earlier in the day townspeople generally set their watches to Central Time to stay in step with Pierre.
The Chateau, Hopscotch and Silver Spur are legendary watering holes. However a new gathering spot has opened. The Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center includes the Mattie Goff Newcombe Conference Center, a hilltop meeting facility that offers an expansive view of the Missouri River and the capital city of Pierre. Several very tame legislative functions were held there in 2010.
Tibbs is still regarded as one of the top rodeo stars of all-time. Much of his memorabilia is on exhibit at the center, along with exhibits from South Dakota’s 17 other national champs as well as other rodeo characters.
Mattie Goff Newcombe was a famous trick rider in the 1920s. She perfected the Back Drag, a dangerous stunt in which she placed her feet in loops on either side of the saddle and then bent over backwards until her hands dragged on the ground.
She and her husband, Maynard, ranched for many years along the Cheyenne River. After she died in 2005 at age 98, a bequeath from her estate made it possible for the Tibbs museum to finally become reality after 20 years of planning.
“Casey’s the reason it got started,” says Dayle Tibbs Angyal, Casey’s niece and a longtime board member, “and Mattie’s the reason it got finished.”
For information on the rodeo museum, call 494-1094. To learn more about Fort Pierre’s other attractions, contact the Pierre/Fort Pierre Chamber of Commerce at 224-7361.