2012 Trek – South Dakota, Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park & WPA art

Heading west on Route 90 we crossed over into South Dakota and came upon the infamous roadside attraction “Porter Sculpture Park”. Visible from the road was the huge 60 foot tall, 25 ton sculpture of a bulls head (said to be equal in size to the heads at Mount Rushmore) it was only ½ mile off the highway, in Montrose, so we paid for a visit and met the artist/sculptor/poet Ron Porter.

The sun was high in the sky and cast a shadow on the “American Gothic” sculpture that depicts the hand of drought “grasping for anything”. Considering the recent news reports of widespread drought affecting so much of the United States, this light and shadow was unsettling.

Temperatures were approaching 101 degrees so we booked a 50 amp camping spot in the famous town/tourist trap of Wall, South Dakota.  Although we didn’t partake of the free ice water at the Wall Drug Store we were able to tour the Badlands early the next morning when temperatures were tolerable.

To our surprise, we discovered that there was a first come-first serve campground within the
Badlands National Park and in checking the power supply we found that we would have had more than enough electricity to run our air conditioners and saw that a previous camper had left behind their Canon camera battery and charger.

Next stop was the Black Hills National Forest, which borders Custer State Park and the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.  There were several CCC camps in the beautiful South Dakota Black Hills and until recently the original structures of one – Camp Lodge, SP-4 in Custer State Park, was still in use by the Black Hills Playhouse.

Unfortunately, only two buildings now remain and the one used as the “Costume Building” will be torn down next year for safety concerns. These CCC camp buildings were never meant to be permanent and it is remarkable that they not only survived but their four walls continued to be protective and productive for almost eight decades.

Two CCC artists were assigned to Custer State Park – the first state park in South Dakota. Camp Pine Lake, SP-1, Company #1793 was located one mile north and one mile west of Mount Rushmore. One of their many work projects was building a dam that would eventually form Horsethief Lake, a public camping and recreation area.

 Sculptor Vaclav (James, Jim) Klimo in 1934 and wildlife artist, Morris (Moe) Gollub in 1935 spent a few productive months while at this Rushmore camp.

Klimo found it: “a perfect, marvelous place…I wander out into the hills, which are filled with huge monsters, weird faces stare out at you from great grey corrugated masses of granite that push out of the rolling hills, sometimes they remind one of growing things. There is something deeply religious about this place. The Gods of eternity seem to brood over the landscape…”  One of the pieces Klimo was inspired to make was a four-headed sculpture. (1)  When Rowan, in DC, received the sculpture he commented that it “is too extreme in expression for most people” but he would put it in a place where he could look at it from time to time; to try and capture the spirit in which it was made .(2)

Klimo not only met Mount Rushmore master sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his daughter but, he procured the hard to find plaster for his CCC sculptures from his Rushmore studio.  Klimo described the “murmur of drills at Rushmore” as pleasant, even if the “destroying hand of man had only defaced slightly” what was once a fine mountain” (2)

Unfortunately, no art has been found from these artists but we did discover what might very well be 1937 original WPA art at the Custer State Park.

When the Custer State Park Museum was under construction letters requesting designs for the relief models and museum displays were sent to the National Park Service,  Western Museum Laboratories, located at the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

“General public is keenly interested in the activities of the CCC enrollees working in the National Park Service Museum laboratories. This photo shows entrance to one of the several laboratories at Berkeley…”

This was a special spur camp, a separate CCC unit of men “chosen from various national park camps in the state and were given special training to fit them for the unusual work”. They designed and constructed numerous relief models, signage and other museum exhibits used in many national parks and monuments. (3)

CCC artist, Morris Gollub hoped the wildlife art he was creating would be used for exhibits in the newly constructed Custer State Park Museum. It is unknown what was displayed in the earlier years of the museum, which is now known as the Peter Norbeck Visitors Center.  After the building, by the CCC was completed, there were funding issues and discussions as to what would be of educational value in the museum, should it be habitat groups, conservation, preservation…it seems what was ultimately decided was displays on western history and earlier settlers. (3)

By June of 1937 arrangements and funding had been found to “appoint a technical service staff for the summer months”.  Student engineers, three artists, a geologist, architect, forester, draftsmen and a historian would soon arrive…and “most of these student Technicians will work on the exhibits for the Custer State Park Museum”. (4)

In 2000 there was a complete redesign of the museum displays, we were told that the old exhibit pieces were possibly in storage. Walking around the current exhibits, which are now habitat groups native to the Black Hills, conservation and history we spied several pieces of art, partially hidden in the back corner of the small CCC display. Hoping it was Morris Gollub’s work we asked Park Naturalist, Julie Brazell for access to it and their archives.

Thank you Julie for accomodating us during your busiest season, you are such an asset to Custer State Park.  And our appreciation extends to the staff and volunteers at the park, without your insight and park memories we would not have made the connection to the parks probable WPA art.

It was explained that this “hidden “art had been part of the previous exhibit which remained on display for 60 years.

While comparing one of the pieces, to the photo of the 1937 student technicians at work, there was a heart stopping moment…“This watercolor appears to be the same painting displayed in the 1937 photo… this is the the original art with good color, little wear…has it really be in this room, displayed for the last 75 years ?…is this Works Progress Administration (WPA) art?”.


Thank you to Peggy Sanders, author of “The Civilian Conservation Corps In and Around the Black Hills” for finding the CCC camp newspaper that documents the student technicians who arrived at Custer State Park, during the summer of 1937, to make the displays for the new museum. Other park photos seem to suggest that they were housed and worked in CCC type barracks.

Could they have been funded through the WPA National Youth Administration (NYA), as many college students were back then?  This is plausible because the NYA was a massive and popular New Deal work program designed to keep students in school. Did they stay in a nearby CCC camp, like Camp Lodge?

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland there are South Dakota WPA microfilm records. Perhaps the definitive answer may lie within these source documents and this rediscovery of the “student technicians” art is the foundation for future research.

We also visited the South Dakota CCC Museum, which is conveniently located in the Hill City Visitors Center  , 23935 Hwy 385. Unknown to us but, the timing of our arrival coincided with a presentation that former CCC boy Jay Henderson was giving for local park personnel.

What luck.

Connecting the dots, meeting those with the same interests and learning more about the CCC and the New Deal era…well, that’s what this research and trek is all about.



(1) James Klimo to Edward Rowan in Washington DC describing his experiences, inspirations and creations made at the Rushmore Pine Creek CCC camp during the summer of 1934.

(2) November 17, 1934 letter from Edward rowan to James Klimon in Mount Vernon Iowa, acknowledging the shipment of four sculptures. ( Authors note: Two of these sculptors would be included in the 1935 CCC National Exhibit)

(3) Letter June 29, 1934 , Herbert Mair, District Officer ECW to Harold Norbeck c/o Hon. Peter Norbeck, U.S. Senate Washington, D.C.

(4) CCC camp Lodge newspaper, “The Lodge Scalper” June 9, 1937, page 5 “Flashes From the Field