Cramer-Kenyon Heritage Home, Yankton

I was recently able to visit the Cramer-Kenyon Heritage Home in Yankton for a crazy-short stop squeezed in-between lunch and going to the Events at the AME church to set up for a 2 p.m. presentation. I have to go back sometime and get the full experience…

It is another of South Dakota’s historic house museums with incredible integrity of building and collections – being minimally altered during the residence of family members before being transferred to a non-profit for a museum. Quite a number are Queen Anne Victorian houses, prominent Yankee people/families… The Stavig House in Sisseton is another with great integrity – but at least an immigrant family (but still prominent) and a slightly later-period architectural style… I still have a lot more on my list to visit though.

For the Cramer-Kenyon house, on my visit, I found these really interesting:

  • Curved walls to keep the spirits from having corners to hide in.
  • Lincrusta wall coverings like the Pettigrew House in Sioux Falls.
  • Many of the paintings were done by a resident.
  • Shakespeare-themed tiles in one of the fireplaces.
  • They make furniture polish in the basement based on the recipe passed along from the family.
  • Cabinet doors were installed on older shelves in the butler’s pantry during the “Dirty Thirties” to keep dust off the dishes.
  • Several pieces from the Ward family and/or Yankton College are displayed.
  • Some of the wallpaper is reproduction based on historic samples from closets, provided for free by a company in California with an agreement that the company could sell the pattern too.
The exterior of the Cramer-Kenyon Heritage Home in Yankton.
The exterior of the Cramer-Kenyon Heritage Home in Yankton, photo by author, June 2019.

Later I learned that the museum has teas, is used by book clubs, and Ben’s Brewing Co. in Yankton has done music recording sessions with local artists in the house for “The Cramer Kenyon Sessions” on their YouTube channel — cool ways to get more people exposed to the house, and build relationships with the community.

More photographs:

The museum’s profile on; and on

What I’m Reading 10

Some super coverage from Teen Vogue recently of historic sites and their problems, and how we historians, managers, staff, and volunteers at historic sites need to f-ing do better —

Benji Hart’s “What to Expect When Visiting a Plantation Where Your Ancestors Were Enslaved” (February 5, 2019) is incredibly powerful. I’ve written and re-written comments I can put here about it, but it’s really just… just read it.

I have found some words — Read it especially if you steward a historic places. And this should resonate beyond plantation homes–we in South Dakota have many places of pain, hard and unfair labor, broken families, violence, death… We should be aware of the need for treating those realities as realities, getting the tone of our space and interpretation right, providing space/time for mourning, too. When we feel the need to push our historic sites too far into tourist sites, making them ‘fun’ for fun’s sake, making them a business, or a game — Realize what that can do to them…

I’m ashamed the author has to give advice like “Be prepared to witness people ignoring and even reveling in your pain.”

I appreciate their encouragement for others not to feel the need to be polite, to feel what they feel without apology, to “reclaim” space during time at the site…

Quotes from the article: “as a new wave of young Black people attempts to learn more about its heritage, some of the only places available for us to look are sites of deep violence and trauma…. When we arrived, we didn’t find solemn ground… Be prepared to enter a site that makes no space for mourning, and papers over atrocities with benign language.”

“Though it was one of the hardest trips I’ve ever taken, I’m grateful to have new connections to my ancestors; to be able to say the names of my own people that survived enslavement.”

And then Somáh Haaland’s, “How Museums and Historical Spaces Disrespect Native American History” (February 19, 2019) is another excellent comment on the crap ways that native history gets told at historic places, put into stark relief against her mother Deb Haaland’s recent election to the U.S. Congress.

“I was suddenly brought to tears, both by the thought of pre-colonization and by the concept that this is how Indian people are still showcased: as primal, exotic attractions. These people, my people, continue to be talked about like far-off legends who lived in the past and no longer exist.”

“So many children grow up learning this Eurocentric, masculine, biased version of history, and they have to wonder where they fit in if they are not shown that their identity is valid.”

Props to Teen Vogue for publishing these great articles… they’re gonna hang with me a long time.

History is important.
Do history with accuracy, relevance, inclusion, thoughtfulness, and respect.

For Further Reading 4

Recent reading on House Museums:

I also was able to hear Frank Vagnone speak recently, the founder of the “Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums.”  I greatly understood the frustration that led him to create the book and his consulting practice — it’s scary how many history museums can bore or irritate historians, let alone the general public.  It really was inspirational to hear from Vagnone ways that house museums could be better, and to hear about efforts currently underway in many places.

We have quite a few historic house museums in South Dakota, as well as other historical villages et al., and they’re managed with varied levels of success.  A big problem is that limited visitorship (and/or limited volunteer availability) has meant that open hours are also limited, or unusual times, like only for two hours on a couple days during the work week… so actually visiting is tricky.   Most have an online presence somewhere, so that’s something.  And we don’t have nearly as many as some other parts of the country that are super-saturated.  All that said, however, programming options tend to be limited to tours, velvet ropes and “do not touch” are standard, and the stories told aren’t particularly complex.  Do SD museums in historic places that weren’t houses still telling the story of their building(s) and landscapes for visitors…?

House museums in South Dakota that I’ve visited–and these (I think) do relatively a good job with programming and/or storytelling, and have beautiful properties:

Others I’ve been inside, but not as a traditional visitor:

  • Austin-Whittemore House, Vermillion
  • Murtha House, Elk Point (until 2013 was a private residence, also barns, brick kiln ruins, and grounds — I hope improvements for the house and exhibits are still in progress)

Still on my list:

What South Dakota house museums have you visited?  Did you take a tour, go to an event or program?  What did you think were the best parts, the meh parts, and the irritating parts?  Would you go back?  Did you give feedback to the museum itself?

[Update 2018]:
I’ve now been to the Stavig House and the Pickler Mansion.  Both have excellent buildings and collections–incredible for how much is actually from those houses and families.  Both times were sort of non-standard tours, one for work and the other with a special group, so I assume the regular tours are fine.  Both use students/interns for tour guides.

The Renaissance of the Homestake Opera House

In 1984, the theater of the Homestake Opera House burned.  A two-story on Main Street, but with the city of Lead’s steep topography, it’s a three story building at the alley where the theater is located.  The blaze took a long time to extinguish.  An expedient roof was put over the space, but the restoration of the damaged theater is still ongoing.  In recent years, an active schedule of plays, weddings, and other community events has brought renewed energy into seeing a renaissance for the Homestake Opera House.  The newest project is an Interpretive Center telling the history of the opera house and Lead.  They’ll soon be continuing restoration on the decorative plaster and box seats in the theater.

The street façade of the Homestake Opera House, Lead. Photograph by author, March 2016.
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Fish on a Train: A Visit to the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery

Through the viewing tunnel that goes below the water.

Through the viewing tunnel that goes below the water.

Recently, I visited the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery in Spearfish with some friends.  I’d been there once before for a brief stop, was able to go into some of the museum buildings this time, but still want to go back and linger a while.  Despite proposals to close the facility and cuts in staff, it’s had a few reprieves and, at least for the time being, continues to serve the community, teach about our history and natural world, and raise 20,000-30,000 trout annually.  The volunteers who work with about 150,000 visitors each year are doing a fantastic job.  Those I met were very friendly and welcoming.  The Booth Society, the partner non-profit, seems to manage the bulk of visitor and educational services and grounds maintenance.  In the news and on Facebook, I’ve seen that the site participates widely in school group tours, concert series, fairs, and even artist paint-ins.  The tourism value makes a big economic impact (link here to 2013 study published in Tourism Management).  The visit is free (except for food to feed the trout – which is super fun), but tourists buy gas, stay in hotels, go out to eat afterwards… and places like this make travel adventures special.

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Engaging, Quaint, or Bat Sh*t Crazy: Heritage Tourism in South Dakota

This week I read a great post on History@Work (link below) reflecting on heritage tourism.  Joe Watkins (Chief, Tribal Relations and American Cultures, National Park Service, WASO) writes about how heritage tourism has been impacted by technology, by tentative inclusiveness, and by its own profitability since 1991.  It made me think about heritage tourism in South Dakota, and how there is such a wide range between historically-accurate, informative, and engaging sites; the cluttered attic-like sites that are good for quaint nostalgia, and the… um, scarier sites that can be downright dangerous.

I still have a mile-long to-do list for visiting historic sites in South Dakota, especially West River, but here are observations from my regrettably limited experience… I really have to get on the road this summer… Continue reading