South Dakota’s Gas Belt Exposition

In 1907, boosters in the city of Pierre put together a week-long Gas Belt Exposition for “a showing by practical demonstration of the lighting, heating, and power of the natural gas that comes from artesian wells in and around Pierre.”  They added in an agricultural show, musical concerts, outdoor sports and ball games, aerial entertainments, “Indian attractions,” the Scotty Phillip buffalo herd, and boat excursions.  They also advertised plunge baths, the under-construction state capitol building, and the new steel bridge over the Missouri for exposition visitors.  John L. Lockhart, John I. Newell, and Charles H. Anderson filed papers of incorporation for the Gas Belt Auditorium Company in order to construct an exhibition building on a half-block of land near downtown, donated to the purpose by the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.

Photo of the Gas Belt Exposition building, South Dakota Digital Archives:

In 1909, at the Third (and last?) Gas Belt Exposition, they staged daily reenactments of “Custer’s Last Fight” using three units of the National Guard including the Fourth Infantry Band.  Native Americans apparently participated; two advertisements said the number of participants was 500, but another said 100-200 ‘fought’ in the reenactment while others were in camp nearby.  The reenactments were even filmed by crews from Denver and Chicago.

At the time of the first exposition in 1907, Pierre had been accustomed to throwing “entertainments” in hopes to attract votes for the city’s successful bid to become the state capitol.  The natural gas resources in Pierre, Fort Pierre, and around the area were one of the assets used to promote its potential as a capitol.  The exposition was also billed as a “coming out” for the central West River area, newly opened to Euro-American settlement, and the exposition was advertised with notices about homesteading opportunities.  Like the Corn Palace at Mitchell and others across the country, it was a festival to display and promote ideas of commercial progress.

The “first strike” for natural gas in the Gas Belt came when an artesian well was installed at the Pierre Indian School in 1892-93, and its possibilities for power explored in 1898 for the Hyde Grist Mill.  Testing for natural gas deposits was done west of Ft. Pierre, up and down the Missouri, in Sully and Walworth Counties, and as far as Huron, but Pierre/Ft. Pierre seems to have been the only sustained source.  Three wells in Pierre and one in Ft. Pierre were used for the cities’ commercial and domestic power.  In 1899, the value of natural gas production in South Dakota was $3,500 and it reached $31,999 in 1910.  In Pierre, there was a Gas Belt Land & Abstract Company, a Gas Belt Telephone Company, and a Gas Belt Auto Company.  In Stanley County, there was named a Gas Belt Township southeast of Ft. Pierre.  In 1910, an artesian well on the capitol grounds provided heat for the capitol building and, in 1972, was used for an Eternal Flaming Fountain near the artesian-well-supplied Capitol Lake.

News article from the Capital Journal in Pierre on the not-so-eternal flaming fountain, December 18, 2008.

The Thresherman’s Review (September 1907), 39.
Biennial Report of the Adjutant General of the State of South Dakota 1909-1910 (Sioux Falls: Mark D. Scott, 1910), 15.
G.M. Smith, South Dakota: Its History and Its People in G.W. Kingsbury, History of Dakota Territory, vol. 3 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1915), 55-56, 379.
Light (New York, August 1907), 327.
Doane Robinson, ed., “First Annual Review of the Progress of South Dakota for 1901,” South Dakota Historical Collections (Aberdeen: News Printing Co., 1904), 42-43.
Brian W. Dippie, Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (Bison Book, 1994 [1976]), 98-99.
True Republican (Sycamore, Illinois), 18 September 1909.


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