Notable Black Hills People-Peter Norbeck
Written by Dolsee Davenport
May 27, 2018

Peter Norbeck, South Dakota’s first native-born governor, was the son of Scandinavian immigrants.  After attending the University of South Dakota, Norbeck invented an improved method of drilling wells to extract water from aquifers. He and his partner, Oscar Nicholson, established a well-drilling business in Redfield, South Dakota. The business prospered in the drought-stricken Great Plains, and Norbeck became wealthy. He married Lydia Anderson in 1900, and they raised four children.

Norbeck entered politics in 1908 when elected to the South Dakota State Senate. In three terms, he sponsored progressive reform legislation, and in 1914, was elected lieutenant governor.  He was elected governor in 1916, and led an activist Progressive Republican administration. Norbeck led South Dakota during World War I, leading efforts to sell war bonds, aid draft boards, and conserve food and fuel.  As governor, he also founded Custer State Park, South Dakota’s first state park.

After two successful terms as governor, Norbeck was elected to the United States Senate in 1920. During his 16 years in the Senate, he continued to promote South Dakota. He brought Gutzom Borglum to South Dakota to carve Mount Rushmore.  In addition to Mount Rushmore, Norbeck aided in the development of Iron Mountain Road, Sylvan Lake, the Needles Highway, Wind Cave National Park, and Badlands National Monument. He also promoted the Black Hills in 1927, when he convinced President Calvin Coolidge to make the State Game Lodge his summer White House.

Norbeck died in Redfield on December 20, 1936. He is memorialized at the State Capitol with a bronze bust by Borglum in the Senate lobby, and in the Black Hills by Custer State Park’s Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, Black Hills National Forest’s Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, and the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, which runs through Custer State Park near Mount Rushmore.

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