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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Flashback 1971: Convert Poor Farm to Bicentennial Park

John Goeman has been in the local press lately boosting the four-lane-ification of Highway 34. His committee got to jawbone Rep. Herseth Sandlin again at the WiMAX pincic Tuesday about the need for a couple more lanes from Madison to I-29. Goeman and his group have new numbers to back up their argument. As highlighted in a half-page ad in last night's MDL (and in the numbers he handed me last week), Highway 34 at the Wentworth corner and at Colman currently has more daily traffic than some of the porkiest four-laners in the state:

Daily Traffic Counts 2006 2007 change 06–07 2027 DoT projected
SD 12 Aberdeen to I-29 3340 3260 –80 4740
SD 37 Huron to I-90 2715 2615 –100 3485
US 83 Pierre to I-90 2395 2265 –130 3335
SD 34 Wentworth Corner 3445 3630 +185 4825
SD 34 Colman

Now what's built is built, and I'll remain agnostic for now on the wisdom of pouring more concrete between here and Colman (though Goeman's numbers put our highway priorities in a useful perspective).

I prefer this morning to note that Goeman's effort to expand Highway 34 is just the latest in a lifetime of admirable Madison boosterism. During our recent discussion of the county poor farm, a commenter mentioned that there had been a plan to convert that lovely chunk of land on Lake Madison into a Bicentennial Park in 1976. A little asking around revealed that the progenitors of this prodigious plan were John Goeman and fellow Madison mover and shaker DeWayne Mork.

John explained that the Nixon Administration had proposed creating 50 new national parks, one in each state, to celebrate America's upcoming Bicentennial. Each state would get $10 million (that might pave a few miles of highway now) to build a splendid new park.

John and DeWayne heard about the Bicentennial Park proposal and set to work dreaming up a way to bring that money and that park to Lake County. At first, they thought about siting the Bicentennial Park adjacent to Lake Herman State Park, but they couldn't find any interested landowners (we are a tenacious crowd out here). Then they turned their attention to the county's 150-some acres on Lake Madison. Easy access on Highway 19, adjacent to the 400-acre wetlands area run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service west of the highway—as good a spot as any in the county for a national park.

So John and DeWayne set to planning. With help from Clyde Brashier at the college, they cranked out a 40-page proposal. (I've copied the summary outline and some other details from the document here in Word .doc format.)

The proposal is a fun read for its enthusiastic promotion of our fair county. Madison is portrayed as a vibrant cultural center situated at the intersection of Highways 34 and 81 (both of which are cited as splitting South Dakota's population right down the middle, north–south and east–west). Lake Herman figured prominently in the proposal for this facility at Lake Madison: Lake Herman State Park had 338, 960 visitors in 1971, making it the second-most used state park in South Dakota. Surely lots of those visitors would enjoy visiting the new national park at Lake Madison as well. Lake Herman also keeps Lake Madison itself alive:

[Lake Madison] is in no danger of death by siltation as is the case with so many prairie lakes since the Lake Herman watershed provides most of the runoff for the lake. The water drops its silt load in Lake Herman prior to its movement to Lake Madison [John Goeman, DeWayne Mork, and Clyde Brashier, "Bicentennial Park: Lake Madison Site," proposal, circa 1972]

You're welcome, Lake Madison. Glad we can help.

The proposal also touts the wonders of nature around Lake Madison. The Bicentennial Park would be a perfect site for residents and tourists to build their "environmental awareness" (a huge selling point, repeated constantly in those heady beginning days of "Earth Day") as they studied native prairie grasses and the "fabulous wiley ringneck."

Dakota State also was a main selling point. We were a hotbed of environmental research in the early 1970s, doing studies on Lake Herman, hosting a five-state conference on prairie lakes, and promoting environmental education in the schools. The park boosters also saw lots of potential crossover with the DSC education department, as the teaching staff and aspiring teachers could contribute to the development of playgrounds and programs for ecological and physical education.

Ultimately, John and DeWayne envisioned a park with all the following facilities:
  1. Botanical Garden
  2. Ecology Center
  3. International Crafts and Food Bazaar
  4. International Exhibits
  5. State Historical Exhibit
  6. State Crafts Bazaar
  7. Children's Playground
  8. Multi-Screen Film Theater Amphitheater and Restaurant Complex
  9. Aviary
John says they took this proposal to the Lake County Commission and got an agreement (at elast verbal) that the county would happily hand over the poor farm for the project if the feds picked Lake Madison as the site for South Dakota's Bicentennial Park. John was a little worried about a competing proposal from Sioux Falls... but alas, the Nixon Administration must have gotten distracted (budget crunch? Watergate?), as the nationwide Bicentennial Park initiative never materialized.

So as it stands, Lake County still holds about 150 acres on the southwest shore of Lake Madison. We just sold nine acres for private development, but the rest remains in our hands, part rented for farming, part used as county gravel pit.

And here sits this remarkable proposal, nearing 40 years old, but still filled with a lot of great ideas for a spectacular public park on Lake Madison. Instead of whittling down this gem little by little for wealthy developers, perhaps we should revisit the Bicentennial Park proposal. The county can start reclaiming the poor farm land for public use: restore some native prairie grass, establish some trails and picnic areas, and start seeking funds to build an attraction like what our boosters were able to come up with for the Bicentennial Park.

We've got 18 years; if we start working now, we might be ready on July 4, 2026, to christen the Semiquincentennial Park. Maybe we'll need those four lanes after all... on Highway 19!


  1. The 4 lane project is a wonderful idea BUT take a long hard look at the pathetic condition of some of the area highways:

    1. Hwy 34 east of Interstate 29 is plain awful.
    2. The state patched up HWY 34/81 between the Madison Golf Course and Junius. It still is in desparate need of repair.
    3. I-90 west out by the river has some of the nastiest potholes - ugly to hit at any speed.

    Fix the problems first and then tackle the 4 lane road.

    BTW- I'd be willing to bet that there will be far fewer vehicles on any road given the higher cost of gas.

  2. West River has Mount Rushmore. East River could also have a National Park that would be the centrally-located diamond for family gatherings. There are so few places to launch a boat on Lake Madison anymore. It would be nice to maintain a public treasure by converting the old Lake County Poor Farm into something grand that would serve future generations of campers, boaters, snowmobilers and swimmers. Too bad it didn't happen in the '70's.

  3. I don't think now is the time to look to the fed or state gov't to assist with this. If Madison wants it, do it ourselves. Make it a community project, volunteers for most of it. Time to rely more on ourselves and less on "free" money from the feds.

  4. Sounds like a worthwhile use of our tax dollar. Would create jobs, income, recreation, etc. The problem is the emerging powers that be in the community want to financially benefit the members of the LAIC and Forward Madison, not really the community at large. That's how I see local politics going and it's better to see things how they actually are. Nobody ever tells me I'm wrong even though I would like to be. John Hess


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