Sunday, December 8, 2019

McCann Miniatures on Display at Western Heritage Center

Len McCann lives in Florence, Montana.

 by Larry Miller
While Montana artist Len McCann (at left) wasn’t raised on a ranch, he hasn’t forgotten riding his first saddle horse on an Oregon ranch when he was five years old. 
The West is what I knew first,” drawls the 80-year McCann, speaking with a strong but subdued voice – sounding like a western character portrayed by Sam Elliott – and equally affable.
 The Old West is front and center in the superb collection of nearly three dozen miniatures that McCann has donated to both the Old Fort Meade Museum in Sturgis and the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish.
My interest in donating this collection of my work is in seeing that it has a home where it will be displayed and cared for,” says McCann, “and I think I’ve found the ideal places.”
Some of the miniatures – created from a magical blending resin and epoxy – were inspired by old-time and contemporary personalities who left their marks on history.   From Robert E. Lee and Crazy Horse to Casey Tibbs.  And there’s recognition of Rodeo Cowgirls of the 1930’s.  A bust of General George Patton will grace the Fort Meade Museum, while a cutaway view of a bunk house is now on display in a High Plains Western Heritage Center exhibit.
These Len McCann miniatures were inspired by General Robert E. Lee (left) and the great
Sioux Chief Crazy Horse.  More than 30 "miniatures" are included in the McCann Collection.
Essentially, McCann’s collection of military miniatures, from Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses Grant and a range of others representing military troops, will be featured at the Old Fort Meade Museum.  American Indian and Old West miniatures – including rodeo pieces – will be highlighted in the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish.
Artist Leonard “Len” McCann was born in Burley, Idaho 1939 to Paul and Mabel McCann, but the family soon moved to Butte, Montana where his dad, Paul McCann, worked as a miner.
The elder McCann was a World War I veteran and served in the Army’s 1st Cavalry after the war.  A generation later, Len McCann enlisted in the Air Force with stints at Keesler Air Force Base at Biloxi, Mississippi and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson.  
I was a Ground Control Approach Radar Operator.”  
Those military experiences – along with his abiding interest in all things western – likely influenced his enthusiasm for Old West Cavalry art. 
The desire to honor the service men and women who have given so much in the past and the present gives me the inspiration to depict soldiers of all eras.”
While I was growing up we lived a lot of places,” says McCann, “from Idaho and Montana to Oregon and Nebraska.”  After the Air Force, he settled in the Denver area.  That’s where, in 1961, he and his wife Barbara were married.   Len had a variety of jobs from school janitor to three years working for the Coors Brewery in Golden.
Using the G.I. Bill, Len enrolled at the Rocky Mountain School of Art in Denver, graduating in 1969 with an emphasis in commercial are – “but I never worked in commercial art.”   Instead, he signed on with Bunn Studios in Denver as a “preparator” for a couple of years.
We had some interesting projects, including the creation of 55 life-sized wax figures for the Country Music Wax Museum, which is housed in the Grand Ole Opry building in Nashville,” he remembers.
For about three and one-half years, McCann worked for the Natural History Museum in Denver.
But I quit the museum in 1975 and have been on my own ever since.”
Len McCann became a prolific sculptor, working in a variety of media, and on a variety of topics – but much of it focused on the old west and the military.
His sculpting ranges in sizes from miniature to life-sized.  His specialties include military history, equestrian subjects, and miniature one-of-a kind sculptures that combine media and “replicating accoutrements.”  Among the many public and private collections featuring his work is the U.S. Cavalry Museum at Fort Riley, Kansas, which owns and displays several of his bronzes.
It’s really the ultimate compliment to have exhibits at Fort Riley.”
Len McCann's life-sized bronze of General Patton.
McCann's wife, Barbara,  is in the background.
In November 1985, McCann’s life-sized bronze of General George Patton was installed and dedicated at the Church of Our Saviour Episcopal Church in San Gabriel, California.  The ceremony marked the 100th anniversary of Patton’s birth. It stands at the entrance of the church cemetery.  Land for the church was given by the Patton family.  General Patton is the only member of his family not buried in the cemetery.
While Len McCann’s superb work as an artist is well documented, he’s also recognized as an outstanding instructor.  For some 24 years he’s taught in the Adult Education program in Missoula.  
One student, Kathie Hackler of Danville, California – after taking Len’s horse sculpting class in Stevensville, Montana, said “I learned more from Len in one week than (I had) in twice-weekly classes for the last two years at home.”
McCann and his wife Barbara live in Florence, Montana, a small town about a 15-minute drive south of Missoula.  While their daughter Judith lives in Denver, son Phillip is just down the road a ways in Stevensville, Montana. 
Examining the meticulous accuracy of Len McCann’s work, Western Heritage Center director Karla Scovell observed, “I was blown away by his work.”   McCann’s western authenticity was summed up by Old Fort Meade Museum director Randy Bender –  He sounds like a cowboy.  He looks like a cowboy.”
We don’t know a cowboy who wouldn’t want to ride with Len McCann.
The enthusiasm of staff and volunteers at High Plains Western Heritage Center and the Old Fort Meade Museum is palpable.  Visitors will find inspiration in both the quality of McCann’s work, as well as for the era and cultures that captured McCann’s own heart and imagination as a boy growing up in the Old West.
Take a peek at Additional Photos of Len McCann and his work.

About the "McCann Method of Miniatures"

Friday, November 8, 2019

Women's suffrage exhibit open until November 2020 in Pierre

The nationwide celebration of women’s suffrage continues at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre with the opening of a new exhibit.

Alice Paul, a national suffrage movement leader from New Jersey, unveils the ratification banner at the National Women’s Party headquarters in Washington, D.C., after the 19th Amendment was ratified. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution)
The exhibit, located in the Observation Gallery on the second floor of the museum, is entitled “The Right is Ours: Women Win the Vote.” The exhibit provides an overview of the movement, led by three generations of women across both South Dakota and the United States to give women the right to vote in state and national elections. It focuses primarily on the period from 1848 through 1920, but it also addresses the legacy and lessons of the women’s suffrage movement to the present day.   

The exhibit, on display through Nov. 3, 2020, follows the multifaceted women’s suffrage movement from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 through the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 18, 1920. It also focuses on people and events in South Dakota that led to the state legislature granting women in South Dakota the right to vote in December 1918. The exhibit features historical photographs of people and events important to the movements, as well as reproductions of banners, hats, and other materials used by suffragists. 

“The topic of women’s suffrage is important to an understanding of both state and national history,” said Museum Director Jay Smith. “The State Historical Society is proud to assist the public in understanding how difficult it was to accomplish this goal and what a profound impact it had on American society – an impact that continues to be felt today.” 

Smith said museum staff plan to bring in a speaker in April 2020 from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to give a presentation on women’s suffrage and promote the exhibit.

The State Historical Society is honoring and interpreting the importance of the suffrage movement with several projects, including the publication of three books over three years, as well as a small display about suffrage hosted by the State Archives. 

“We are delighted to publish three books on suffrage through the Historical Society Press,” said State Historical Society Director Jay D. Vogt. “And we have a small pop-up display from the National Archives entitled “Rightfully Hers” that will be on display in our lobby through the end of the year.” 

The press publications include “Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Radical Suffragist” by Angelica Shirley Carpenter and “Equality at the Ballot Box: Votes for Women on the Northern Great Plains,” edited by Lori Ann Lahlum and Molly P. Rozum. Both books are available for purchase in the Heritage Stores at the Cultural Heritage Center and state Capitol. The third book, “The Voice of Liberty” by Angelica Shirley Carpenter and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, is due to be released in fall 2020.  

The State Historical Society is planning several other events in 2020 to continue bringing attention to women’s suffrage. More information on those events will be coming.

The museum is open from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1-4:30 p.m. on Sundays and most holidays. Call 605-773-3458 or visit for more information about exhibits, special events, and upcoming activities.

About the South Dakota State Historical Society
The South Dakota State Historical Society is a division of the Department of Education. The State Historical Society, an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is headquartered at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. The center houses the society’s world-class museum, the archives, and the historic preservation, publishing, and administrative/development offices. Call 605-773-3458 or visit for more information. The society also has an archaeology office in Rapid City; call 605-394-1936 for more information.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

From the slaughter of the Great Plains their return!

by Larry Miller

We've just completed reading a short (111 pages) fascinating book by Dan O'Brien entitled Great Plain Bison.  It concisely chronicles how the influx of European-American settlers in the Old West presaged the slaughter of the American bison.

It's estimated that 40 million to 60 million bison roamed the Great Plains at the end of the 17th century, but by 1900, there were fewer than 1,000.   

Today, that number has grown close to 500,000, thanks to folks like O'Brien and his wife, Jill.

Dan O'Brien is a wildlife biologist.  He and Jill operate the Cheyenne River Ranch – a 3,200-acre bison ranch – along the west edge of the South Dakota Badlands.  They raise only free-range, grass-fed bison.

O'Brien's book was published two years ago by the University of Nebraska Press.  NET, Nebraska's first-class public television network, produced the following short video about the return of the American bison:

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Cultural Heritage Center: More than a Museum

The Cultural Heritage Center is a magnificent building in Pierre. In its underground setting, South Dakota history has been carefully interpreted and the state’s historical documents and objects have been safely protected and stored for 30 years.

Gov. George S. Mickelson, First Lady Linda Mickelson and other dignitaries broke ground for the 63,000-square-foot center on May 1, 1987. It was completed in early 1989 and dedicated in November of that year as a lasting legacy of South Dakota’s centennial. South Dakota became a state on Nov. 2, 1889.
Many people associate the Cultural Heritage Center with a world-class museum, but it offers more than that. It houses a whole team of people dedicated to preserving South Dakota’s past in a variety of ways. 
As headquarters of the South Dakota State Historical Society, the Cultural Heritage Center houses administrative, research and publishing, archives, historic preservation, and museum operations. The South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Society, also maintains offices in the Cultural Heritage Center. The Archaeological Research Center, operated by the State Historical Society, is located in Rapid City.
The South Dakota Historical Society Press publishes award-winning books on the history and heritage of the Northern Great Plains -- from scholarly works to picture books designed to engage children with the past. The Press’ biggest popular success thus far was the publication of “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” which made the New York Times Best Seller list.
The Press also publishes the State Historical Society’s journal, “South Dakota History,” which members of the Society receive quarterly.
The State Archives collects and makes available records which have permanent historical and research value. Genealogists visit the archives to use the records to learn their family history. Researchers and scholars use the archival collections to write articles, books and theses. Business owners, students and authors use historical photographs from the archives in their buildings’ d├ęcor, school projects and books. The records have also been instrumental in court cases, resolving land ownership disputes and ensuring that citizens receive the benefits to which they are entitled.
The archives contains 20,000 cubic feet of records, including private collections, state and local government documents, rare books, audio and video recordings, 1.2 million photographs, 12,000 maps and more than 2 million files of digital materials.
Business owners and homeowners sometimes have questions about their historic properties. “How can I protect my grandparents’ homestead from being destroyed?” “I hear preserving my old wood windows is better than replacing them with vinyl windows. Why is that and how can it be done?” “The porch on my 1932 house is collapsing. Do you have any money to help me fix it?” “Family stories say American Indians used to camp in what is now our pasture. Now some stranger wants to dig it up. What should we do?”
The State Historic Preservation Office or SHPO in the Cultural Heritage Center can help.
The SHPO implements the National Historic Preservation Act in South Dakota. The basis of the Act is the National Register of Historic Places, a program of the National Park Service which helps protect America’s historic resources. The SHPO staff helps owners determine if their property is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and, if so, can assist them in getting it listed. Those properties listed are eligible for a variety of financial incentives such as Deadwood Fund grants, the state property tax moratorium program and federal Historic Tax Credits.
SHPO is also responsible for protecting South Dakota’s historical properties and sites by reviewing any federal, state, or locally supported project which may have the potential to damage these important cultural and historical resources.
Most people think of the Cultural Heritage Center as the museum. It is the most evident aspect of the building. It features temporary exhibits in the Hogen and Observation galleries, along with the primary exhibit “The South Dakota Experience.” They bring to life South Dakota’s history from earliest inhabitants to current day. The museum collection contains more than 34,000 objects that focus on South Dakota’s history -- from the Great Sioux Horse Effigy to political buttons.
“History Explorer” backpacks for youngsters make for a fun, family-friendly museum experience. The monthly Family Fun Saturday programs are a way children and adults can come to the Cultural Heritage Center to make a history-related craft together.
Although the Cultural Heritage Center is in Pierre, the State Historical Society offers services throughout the state.  In addition to a catalog of books on South Dakota history, the Society presents off-site programming to groups and provides field service consultation and training for those needing professional assistance.  
Through, nearly 35,000 photographs and maps are available on-line and instant access is provided to collection indexes.  Businesses, community groups and schools can rent suitcase education kits and traveling exhibits.  A fourth-grade South Dakota history curriculum is accessible at and is available to anyone interested in learning more about the state’s history.  
This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Find us on the web at Contact us at to submit a story idea.


Friday, August 2, 2019

Just who was Verne Sankey: America's First Public Enemy?

On Tuesday, Aug. 13, Tim Bjorkman will tell the story of a good man gone bad when the History and Heritage Book Club meets at 7 p.m. CDT, at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Bjorkman, a Canistota resident, is the author of “Verne Sankey: America’s First Public Enemy.”

“Verne Sankey’s name is almost lost to history. But in 1934, as authorities delivered John Dillinger to an Indiana jail, the United States Justice Department announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had just captured America’s Public Enemy No. 1. The Justice Department was not referring to Dillinger, but to Sankey,” said Catherine Forsch, president of the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation.

The foundation is the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society and the sponsor of the History and Heritage Book Club.

Sankey was born on July 18, 1891, in Avoca, Iowa. His family moved to Wilmot in northeastern South Dakota when Sankey was a boy. As an adult, Sankey and his bride moved to Melville, Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1914 to work for the railroad. The family returned to South Dakota in 1931 and bought a farm southwest of Gann Valley. By then, Sankey had become a gambler, bootlegger and bank robber. In 1933, he kidnapped a wealthy Denver man and held him for ransom.

Bjorkman became interested in Sankey when he was a child, listening to two barbers talk about the outlaw. His interest was rekindled when, as an adult, he stopped in Gann Valley and read about Sankey in old editions of the town’s newspaper.

“Sankey was the first – and actually the only – Public Enemy No. 1 ever identified by the United States Department of Justice,” Bjorkman said. “That claim – first made in this book – has never been challenged and corrects oversights and misstatements on the topic of public enemies which entirely overlooked Sankey.”

Bjorkman served for a decade as a judge of South Dakota’s First Judicial Circuit, comprising 14 southeastern South Dakota counties. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion in 1978 and from its law school in 1982. He practiced law in Bridgewater for 24 years. Bjorkman was elected as judge of the First Judicial Circuit in 2006 and re-elected in 2014. Now retired from the bench, he writes, gardens and, together with his wife, travels and relishes time with his children and grandchildren.

Copies of “Verne Sankey: America’s First Public Enemy” are sold at the Heritage Stores at the Cultural Heritage Center and the Capitol, online at or by calling 605-773-6346.

People can find out how to join the program at locations other than the Cultural Heritage Center by calling 605-773-6006.


About the South Dakota State Historical Society
The South Dakota State Historical Society is a division of the Department of Education. The State Historical Society, an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is headquartered at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. The center houses the society’s world-class museum, the archives, and the historic preservation, publishing and administrative/development offices. Call 605-773-3458 or visit for more information. The society also has an archaeology office in Rapid City; call 605-394-1936 for more information.

About the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation
The South Dakota Historical Society Foundation is a private charitable nonprofit that seeks funding to assist the South Dakota State Historical Society in programming and projects to preserve South Dakota’s history and heritage for future generations.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Missile Exhibit on Display at Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre

The new exhibit “Silent Silos: South Dakota’s Missile Field” is on display at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.  It opened on June 1st.

A launch control facility in South Dakota is shown under construction. The ground breaking of South Dakota's missile field was Sept. 11, 1961. By 1963 all of the 150 launch facilities (missile silos) and 15 launch control facilities were manned and ready to defend the United States as a deterrent. 

(Photo courtesy Minuteman Missile National Historic Site)
The exhibit will be open through February 2021 and is a collaboration with the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The two institutions have been working together since June 2018 on the project. 

Featuring never-before-seen artifacts from the collections of the Minuteman site and the State Historical Society, the exhibit traces the development of the Cold War-era missile field in South Dakota to house the new Minuteman missile and later the Minuteman II nuclear weapons designed to shield the United States from Russian missiles. 

From local protests about land use to the life of the missileers who operated both above and below ground, the exhibit employs photographs, artifacts, music, video, oral histories and interactives that bring this complex story to light. The exhibit includes a 1980s-era video game called “Missile Command,” Civil Defense videos featuring a character named “Bert the Turtle” and political advertisements that serve to remind visitors how the Cold War was omnipresent in American culture of the era.  

“It was important to us not to duplicate the exhibit that presently exists at the Minuteman site near Phillip,” said Jay Smith, museum director. “So we worked closely with Minuteman Superintendent Eric Leonard and his staff to ensure that we had a unique story to tell that emphasized different aspects of both the material culture and the human face of the silent silos story.”

Artifacts such as a transport container that once held top-secret control panels, the launch keys that two missileers had to simultaneously turn to engage the warheads and other items will be displayed in the museum exhibit. The exhibit also features oral histories from the missileers who described what it was like to work in the missile field. A menu board from the above-ground barracks will display the sustenance provided the men and women at the site.  

The exhibit also addresses how and why the missile field was closed, the economic impact the missile field had on the economy of western South Dakota, as well as the anti-nuclear and anti-war protests that occurred in South Dakota in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. 

“Simply put, this is a complex story worthy of preservation and public attention,” Smith said. “The impact of the missile field on South Dakota history continues to reverberate through the creation of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site by the National Park Service. The site draws more than 125,000 visitors each year, making it one of the most popular attractions in the state.”

The museum is open from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. CDT Monday through Saturday, and 1-4:30 p.m. CDT on Sundays and most holidays. Call 605-773-3458 for more information about exhibits, special events and upcoming activities.


About the South Dakota State Historical Society
The South Dakota State Historical Society is a division of the Department of Education. The State Historical Society, an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is headquartered at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. The center houses the society’s world-class museum, the archives, and the historic preservation, publishing and administrative/development offices. Call 605-773-3458 or visit for more information. The society also has an archaeology office in Rapid City; call 605-394-1936 for more information.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Civilian Conservation Corps in South Dakota

Historical markers across South Dakota indicate the location of Civilian Conservation Corps camps, telling the stories of the CCC and the work done at the camps. But one need only look at our state’s landscapes to know this would be a much different place without the work of the men of the CCC.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was a major part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Begun in 1933, the CCC was originally designed to preserve natural resources, provide jobs for single men ages 18-25 and to help their families financially during the Great Depression. Most of the men who worked for the CCC received pay of $30 a month in addition to room and board, with $25 a month sent home to support their families. Later, the allotment going home was reduced and camps were established for World War I veterans.

More than 30,000 men served in the South Dakota corps between 1933 and 1942, according to the website of the CCC Museum of South Dakota, located in Hill City.

The majority of the 50 CCC camps and smaller side camps in South Dakota were in the Black Hills.

Enrollees in the Black Hills thinned forests; planted trees; developed trails; removed flammable debris; built bridges, dams, roads and fire towers; put up telephone lines; landscaped and fought forest fires. According to the CCC museum’s website, fighting fires consumed much of the men’s time because summers were so dry. A fire detail of at least 25 men remained in each camp, prepared to immediately respond when a fire was reported.

The largest and most difficult project undertaken in the Black Hills National Forest by CCC crews was building the stone fire lookout tower at Black Elk Peak.

CCC worker with a "Ben Hur Chariot" at work in the 1930s
All the building materials had to be transported up the mountain.

Approximately 7,500 rocks were hand-picked from French Creek and the surrounding countryside and transported by truck to the foot of the nearly 4-mile trail leading to the 7,242-foot peak. Small two-wheeled carts consisting of half of an oil drum mounted on a short axle were pulled by one horse to transport rocks and other items to the top. These carts, called “Ben Hur Chariots,” could haul only 15 to 20 stones per trip. Pack trains of 10 horses each were used to transport sand and sacks of cement to the summit. On the way up the trail each man carried a board or other light item. CCC workers dammed a spring at the top of the peak to use for water to make cement and mortar.

Some of the lakes in the Black Hills are the result of CCC projects. Sheridan Lake was created after CCC and Works Progress Administration crews built an earthen dam over Spring Creek. Dams built by CCC crews created Horsethief, Stockade, Center and Bismarck lakes. Orman Dam and the surrounding irrigation ditches were rehabilitated by CCC workers.

In Custer State Park, CCC crews built the Pigtail Bridges on Iron Mountain Road, the Norbeck building that served as the park’s visitor center and is now an education center, a lookout station and rangers’ quarters on Mount Coolidge, cabins at Blue Bell and Sylvan lakes, and Grizzly Bear Campground. They also developed five springs with water tanks for bison.

Enrollees developed Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and Badlands National Park. Some of the projects at Wind Cave involved renovating tour trails, installing an elevator shaft and concrete steps and constructing the park’s water and sewer system. At Jewel Cave, enrollees constructed a headquarters building, parking lot and foot trail. At Badlands National Park, enrollees built the park’s headquarters, a check-in station at Pinnacles, a water system at Cedar Pass Lodge and the custodian’s residence at Cedar Pass.

Although the majority of the CCC camps were in the Black Hills, camps were also located in eastern South Dakota.

CCC workers turned Farm Island near Pierre and American Island near Chamberlain into recreational playgrounds. Among the projects at Farm Island were building a causeway connecting the mainland to the island; picnic areas equipped with shelter cabins; cabins for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Izaak Walton League; and a monument to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. At American Island, enrollees built tourist cabins, a bath house, racetrack, roads and parking areas, and planted shrubs, trees and shelterbelts.

At the CCC camp at Alcester, men demonstrated soil and water conservation. The men planted trees in Union County State Park and established a tree nursery at Vermillion. Tours showing results aided in the organization of conservation districts in Clay, Union, Bon Homme and Lincoln counties.

Camp LaCreek near Martin was part of a national CCC program to develop waterfowl refuges. The CCC and WPA built levees, roads, boundary fence and an observation tower and planted thousands of trees and shrubs to develop the 9,302-acre Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Roosevelt administration directed federal programs to emphasize the war effort. The 77th United States Congress ceased funding the CCC, and operations were concluded on June 30, 1942.
This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Find us on the web at Contact us at to submit a story idea.