An Afternoon at the Museum – Visiting the Historic Pioneer Museum

If there’s one thing you can say about Hot Springs, it’s a town that embraces its history. From a rich Native American history as a place of healing, to the pioneers who built a health resort, to the legacy of caring for our nation’s soldiers, Hot Springs’s history is most interesting in how it is both similar and yet so very different from many of the Black Hills’ other, older communities. It has captivated many regional and local historians for decades.

The focal point of Fall River County history has to be the Pioneer Museum, which today is located on the grounds of the original 1893 schoolhouse in one of Hot Springs’ magnificent sandstone structures.

The Pioneer Museum is operated by a group of volunteers, a board of directors and a very small staff, including manager Wanda Aaberg. I recently joined Wanda on a warm and sunny afternoon to tour the museum and explore some of the treasures they keep – some that everyone gets to see as well as some that are off limits. I wanted to share with you some of the coolest stuff I saw.

A Bed Fit for A President

It’s fairly well known in South Dakota history that Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, made Custer State Park, just a few miles up the road from Hot Springs, his “summer White House” in the year 1927.  He stayed at the State Game Lodge, which you can still visit. Hot Springs’ Pioneer Museum, however, is now the proud home of the bed used by Coolidge during his stay that summer.  Coolidge had visited Hot Springs while in the Black Hills to visit Battle Mountain Sanitarium (now the Hot Springs VA) and to see the community for himself.

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Echoes of Students Long Graduated

The museum has a classroom exhibit, complete with the original blackboards (which are still on the walls in nearly every room), teacher’s desk, student desks and period teaching materials, in order to properly depict how a typical day at school would have looked at the original schoolhouse, but the most fascinating things that caught my eye during my visit were these holes in the wall where hooks for bags and backpacks had once been, and the carvings and penciling-in of initials and names. It made me wonder – who was Floyd? Who was H.H.? What did they grow up to be? What impacts did they make on this community and the world? Did they have children? Where are they at today? The thought occurred to me – sometimes the best and most museum exhibits are those not pointed out or made, but those merely preserved as is and the rest left to your own imagination.

How Hot Springs Was Built

Stonecutting, I’m told, is an ancient art that dates back thousands of years. From the pyramids of Egypt to Hot Springs’ own sandstone buildings, these structures withstand the elements year after year, making downtown Hot Springs a modern day gallery of the art of stonecutting. But where did these stones come from? How were they quarried and transported? Who fit them so precisely? Well thankfully, the stonecutting display at the museum provides valuable context and explanations of the variety of tools used by stonecutters and masons to make buildings like the museum itself, as well as information on the local quarries in Fall River County where the pink sandstone was sourced from. Fascinating!

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Researcher’s Delight

Wanda, whose hand is pictured here, wanted to share some artifacts that are rarely seen by most of the general public but often used by both local and traveling genealogists and historians. Along with a comprehensively catalogued collection of photos and original nitrate film negatives and a research room jam-packed with books, boxes of original documents and digital information, my favorite pieces were these original, one-of-a-kind hotel registers from The Evans hotel. To prevent ink bleeds, opposite pages from the register always featured an array of print ads for Hot Springs-area businesses of the era. Talk about a blast from the past!

The Fourth Floor

The fourth floor of the museum, usually off-limits to anyone but staff and members of the Historical Society Board (they have a meeting space up there), is largely used to store many of the artifacts that simply don’t have a home yet in the main exhibits. Wanda proudly showed off some original swimsuits from the late 19th Century, around the time Evans Plunge Mineral Springs was originally built.

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Every year, there are new exhibits at the Pioneer Museum, highlighting some previously unseen materials from their vast archives of Fall River County History! They open each year on May 15 and I highly recommend visiting, especially if you have a love of history like I do! Tell them the Chamber sent you!

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