Memories of the first Custer Sign
Written by Marcus Heerdt
March 23, 2020

Since 1945, a large sign with the city’s name on it has welcomed visitors as well as residents returning home to Custer, South Dakota. The sign sits above the city in Big Rock Park and is illuminated at night. According to the Custer City website, the sign was the idea of the Custer Women’s Civic Club. The current sign is currently made of metal, but this was not always the case. (Main photo: Ralph and his father, Leland)

Ralph Kelley is a lifelong resident of Custer and knows a lot about the history of the city and has many stories to tell. Some of his earliest memories are of his father, Leland Ray Kelley, and uncle, Clifford Kelley, building the first Custer sign in the mid-1940s. Leland and Clifford owned a business called Kelley & Kelley Contractors, and agreed to build the sign for the city. Instead of a monetary payment, the city agreed to give Leland a piece of property on Montgomery Street in Custer in exchange for his work on the sign. According to the Custer County Historical Society, “Leland made a deal with Mr. Stan Fellows, who was mayor, to buy a lot in the north part of Custer where the old Custer school house stood on the hillside on lot 6, block 12, by building and putting the CUSTER sign up on Big Rock…” Below photo: Leland working on the Montgomery Street lot.

Work on the sign began when Ralph was about 5 ½ years old. The Kelley’s used 2 x 10 wood planks, three layers deep and lightbulbs of the time to construct the sign. The sign was built at the Kelley shop, which was near present day Vector Printing and K2 Masonry & Concrete. At that time, Highway 16 went underneath the old railroad tracks (current Mickelson Trail), and in later years, the train bridge was dismantled, and that area was filled in and built up so that the road and trail are now at the same level. Below photo: The old railroad bridge in Custer, building on the extreme left is the Kelley shop.

When the sign was completed, the Kelley’s hauled the sign up the hill to Big Rock Park piece by piece.

At the time of writing this article, no old picture could be found of the Kelley’s original wooden Custer sign. Inquiries were made to various people and places, and I spent much time looking through pages and pages of historic Custer Chronicle newspapers, but no luck. If you or someone you know has a picture or any additional information, let the Chamber know. Eventually, the wooden sign rotted out and was replaced with the current metal sign (below photo).

All B& W photos from the Ralph Kelley personal archive

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