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High plains history preserved

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on Jan. 18, 2020

Spearfish, S.D. –  With a mission to represent the industries that helped settle the five-state region of North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska, the High Plains Western Heritage Center (HPWHC) provides visitors of all ages the opportunity to take a step into the past and learn about the history of the High Plains.

            “If we don’t know history we are bound to repeat it,” says Executive Director Kayla Scovell. “Our goal is to carry on a legacy for future generations to know where they came from.”

            “We are living history in the center,” says Scovell. 


            In the early 1970s, area ranchers became concerned that their storied history in the region would not be preserved for future generations. 

            Together, Harry Blaire and Edgar “Slim” Gardner, founded what is now known as the High Plains Western Heritage Center. 

            Through donations and fundraising effort, money was raised to purchase land and begin construction on the building. 

            The center officially opened its doors on Sept. 1, 1989. 

            Doris Richter, board member and daughter of founder Ed Gardner, notes it was very important to her father and other locals to preserve the history of the area.

            “The prairie is extremely unique and was settled unlike any other area of the U.S.,” says Richter. “It’s important to preserve this history so people understand how this area was settled.”  


            The 20,000 square feet space has six main categories of exhibits – pioneering, sheep and cattle ranching, rodeo, transportation, American Indians and mining.

            HPWHC notes in the cowboy hall, visitors will see mounted Texas longhorns that once forged the trails between Texas and South Dakota on the great cattle drives. 

            The cowboy hall also features chaps, a saddle and bridle made by Deadwood craftsman Jerry Croft for the TV movie Last Stand at Saber River starring Tom Selleck. 

            There is also a display illustrating the story of 450 cowboys who drove 40,000 cattle in 1902 through the state, despite difficulties and displacement from blizzards. 

            There are also historic tack, guns and a wooden diorama of the infamous Strenous Life painting by Charles Russell.

            Frontier fashion is also on display in the HPWHC. The exhibit contains wedding and society dressed from the 1800s, paintings depicting women of the west and a side saddle with riggings. 

            The rodeo room is chocked full of rodeo memorabilia and facts. 

            One display, features women in rodeo and includes photos of female riders and roping contestants from nearly 100 years ago. 

            The rodeo room also features the Black Hills gold crown, historically worn by high school rodeo queens. There are also explanations of various events and equipment, along with championship saddles and other gear belonging to a number of famous cowboys. 

            A step into the Native American history exhibit affords guests the opportunity to see ceremonial headdresses and clothing, including an eagle feather head dress spanning nearly four feet. 

            The exhibit also includes weapons confiscated from Natives following the battle of wounded knee in 1890 and a large collection of arrowheads.

            What Scovell described as one of the most popular exhibits, the transportation room features a number of vehicles including the stagecoach which ran between Spearfish and Deadwood until 1913. 

            The exhibit also features a horse-drawn grain wagon, a covered wagon common among early pioneers and a Hearse recovered from Rockerville, S.D.

            One of the earliest draws of the area, the fur trade is memorialized with its own exhibit featuring tanned hides, hunting rifles, traps and bullet making equipment.

            In memory of the infamous George Custer, the center features Custer Hall, representing the 1874 and 1876 expeditions led by Custer. 

            The hall features camp artifacts, photos and the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to Private Peter Thompson for bravery at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

            The early pioneer room honors the men and women who originally settled the region. 

            The exhibit includes brief histories of famous settlers such as the Sundance Kid and Deadwood Dick, clothing worn by soldiers at Fort Meade, mining history, early farming practices and more. 

            In the founders’ hall, visitors will get to see a sculpture of famous cow boss Tennessee Vaughn, who retired in Spearfish, as well as busts of the center’s founders.

            As an ode to early sheep herders, the center also features displays honoring the sheep industry. This includes early shearing equipment and a sheep wagon. 

            In the pioneer kitchen, which is also noted to be one of the most popular exhibits, visitors will find early cooking equipment commonly used in ranch kitchens.

Moving forward 

            “In the future, we would like to add on to the building to increase space for artifacts and conference rooms to increase our ability to hold events in the center,” says Scovell. “We hope to grow our existing cowboy supper show and increase tourism in the area.” 

            She continues, “We are expanding into new programs and adding additional educational programs for school-aged children.”

            “We want to keep our legacy alive,” says Richter. “Our vision is to continuing expanding tourism to the area and grow to the level of other western museums.” 

            Richter continues, “We get a lot of tour groups from the east and as far away as Europe. They have the opportunity to see and touch the artifacts to really get an idea of how life was for early settlers.” 

            “The prairies are so unique and we welcome anyone to come see this part of the country and what it has taken to build America,” says Richter.

            Callie Hanson is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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