Where Preservation of the Past is Building for the Future

Prairie Historical Society, the parent entity of the Prairie Village organization, started with a small steam “threshing bee” in 1961.  Early that year, Joe Habeger decided to hold a one-day threshing show on his farm 13 miles north of Madison, SD. The show’s purpose was to guage the amount of interest in such an activity, and the response was very encouraging.

Prior to the show, three other men, Charlie Driscoll, A.S. McCracken and Norman Lease made known their interest and offered to bring some equipment. With their help as well as that of Sam Johnson, Darwin Unzelman, Palmer Reinicke and others, the show was held and considered a success. An estimated 6,000 people attended.

Encouraged by the results of the 1961 show, tentative plans were made to hold a show in 1962 or 1963. Early in 1963 the first meetings were held, and in July the group decided to organize a non-profit organization to be called “Eastern South Dakota Threshermen’s Association”. The organization’s purpose was to conduct threshing shows similar to the one staged in 1961.  The group recognized the potential of such an undertaking and planned to expand the scope of the show as rapidly as possible.

About 6,000 people attended the 1963 show, and with the addition of more equipment, the attendance rose to 8,000 in 1964.

For the 1965 show, the amount of equipment available was three to four times that in 1963 and some 10,000 people turned out to see a much larger show. As a result of this growth and increasing interest, the organization began to consider moving closer to Madison.

The first informal talks on the subject actually began in 1964, and during the summer of 1965 the president of the E.S.D.T.A. announced their minimum requirements for a show site. In October, 1965, the first meeting was held to discuss the possible move.  By December of that year, options for proposed land had been secured and in January 1966 a fund drive got underway.

Also in January 1966, the E.S.D.T.A. was reorganized as a non-profit organization known as Prairie Historical Society, Inc. The purposes of the organization included historical education, as well as civic, scientific, theatrical, literary, cultural and other entertainment activities on a non-profit basis.

The new permanent home for Prairie Historical Society was named Prairie Village, and the physical plant was dedicated on June 6, 1966. The ground-breaking ceremony was attended by Senator Karl E. Mundt and South Dakota Governor Nils Boe, both of whom endorsed the project.

Mundt commended Madison for “its leadership as a community in developing a significant and appropriate recognition of the pioneers who settled in South Dakota”.

“This village is limited only by your capacity to dream”, said Mundt.

Boe said the establishment of Prairie Village was a success because Madison backed the efforts of the local citizens who sought to make it happen.

“Since time passes so fast, it is our duty to construct something that will preserve history. I hope this will serve as an inspiration for those who will lead South Dakota in the future,” Boe said.

With the aid of professional movers and volunteer help, turn-of-the-century buildings from around the state were moved to Prairie Village. Some of the first buildings included a church, a one-room country school, store, depot, country bank, homes, jail and claim shanty.

One by one the buildings that once helped form villages on the prairies of the Great Plains were rising to form a living museum.

A 1912 opera house from Oldham, SD, originally called the “Socialist Hall”, was moved to the village in 1970. This structure was the scene of many political and social gatherings, and boasted Lawrence Welk’s very first on-stage performance.

Another early attraction at the village included a sod shanty constructed under the supervision of Miss Bena Jacobs. Miss Jacobs lived in a “soddy” most of 1910 in Alberta, Canada while her family was constructing a wooden frame house.

The Prairie Village steam carousel made its permanent home at Prairie Village beginning in October 1966.  It was constructed between 1895-1905 by Hirschell Spillman, the world famous maker of merry go-rounds.  The carousel’s horses were hand-carved, and the system could still be fully powered by an original Hershell-Spillman steam engine.

Over a series of years an entire full-sized railroad came into being at Prairie Village. The Prairie Village, Herman and Milwaukee Railroad consists of two miles of track surrounding the perimeter of the village. The railroad system was developed to include a roundhouse, turntable, three steam locomotives, two diesel locomotives and several railroad cars. In 1972 the chapel car Emmanuel , which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was acquired and moved to Prairie Village.

Over 40 historic buildings along with antiques and artifacts are currently in place at Prairie Village, where “preservation of the past is building for the future”. Map of Grounds and Building Descriptions.