Sunday, November 11, 2018

Potter Family leads Veterans Day program in Spearfish

by Larry Miller

The High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish
It was 100 years ago today that an armistice brought World War One to an end.  The so-called "Great War" was also dubbed "The War to End All Wars."  Alas, it's never quite worked out that way.

Although the fighting had stopped on November 11, 1918, it wasn't until the following year – 1919 – that the Treaty of Versailles formally ended the war.  Many countries around the world adopted November 11 as a "Day of Remembrance" to commemorate the end to the war and pay tribute to  veterans.  It wasn't until 1954, after World War Two and the Korean War, that the United States officially selected November 11 as Veterans Day – a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

And our country has been doing just that for 64 years.

Today, we attended the Veterans Day program at the High Plains Western Heritage Center (HPWHC) in southeast Spearfish, perched on a bluff overlooking the city.  

The event was subtitled, "Honoring All Who Served."  What a grand experience it was!

We knew this was going to be something special as we approached the museum parking lot shortly after 1 o'clock, less that a half-hour before the program would start.  The parking lot was nearly full.  Of course, having the talented Potter Family perform their "USO-style" music was sure to be a big draw.

The foyer was filled with people waiting to get into the theatre, where there would be standing room only in the back of the hall.  The above photo was snapped as the show was about to begin.

We knew nothing about the guest speaker, Colonel Mike Kain.    His talk was entitled "Veterans Day and Political Correctness."  He promised it would be short...and not necessarily politically correct.  He kept his word.  

He further indicated that it was not his intention to offend anyone. Not surprisingly, his comments reflected conservative values.  If anyone took offense, nothing was said.  I doubt that few, if anyone, was offended.  Colonel Kain spoke of values likely embraced by an audience comprised mostly of senior citizens – many of them veterans.  His talk was well done and received a strong round of approving applause.

And what can we say about the Potter Family that hasn't already been said by others?  Of course, we'd been entertained by the Potters many times over the past decade or so – since we first arrived in this region 14 years ago.  That's about the time we recall hearing Clover Potter (may I call her the Potter family matriarch?) as an announcer at KBHB Radio in Sturgis.  We knew nothing then about the musical exploits of the Potter Family – but recognized Clover as a superb talent and great asset for KBHB.  

The Potter Family 
It should be no surprise that the Potter Family knows how to put on a good show.  Their website notes that they've "been singing and performing since childhood.  Mother Clover Potter cut her teeth on gospel music in church before adopting the role of entertainer and professional singer, performing in such venues as the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas and with such artists as Wanda Jackson."

Daughters Natana and WoAbba – as well as son Orion – grew up singing gospel music in churches and other religious venues across the country for eight years.  Orion would spend many years traveling and performing a wide range of music.  In 2000 he met his musically-talented wife, Stacey, who would later become a part of the Potter musical family.  In 2007, Orion was invited to sing not once – but three times at the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York City.

Stacey believes in audience participation!
In 2005, Natana and WoAbba formed the "Potter Sisters" duo and were nominated at the Canadian Country Music Association for "Duo of the Year." 

While we don't know the exact date that the "Potter Family," as we know it today, was formed.  Likely within the last decade.  

What we do know is that they are a professional troupe that works hard at what they do – and we are blessed that they're based in "our neck of the woods."  Their offerings of music from the 1950s and 1960s, a nice blending of country and classics, and a fervent touch of patriotic tunes, makes their performances a nice fit for those of us in the American heartland.

Thanks to the High Plains Western Heritage Center for serving as the impetus for what was an impressive afternoon.   Colonel Kain rightly recognized HPWHC's Director Karla Scovell as the driving force behind this stirring event.  Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't acknowledge sponsors who helped finance, organize, and execute this tribute to Veterans.  They included First Interstate Bank of Spearfish; Spearfish VFW Post 5860 Auxiliary; Safeway; Spearfish American Legion Auxiliary, Connie White, and Northern Hills Golf Carts of Spearfish   The Color Guard helped all of us remember just why we had gathered, and who we were honoring – our Veterans.

We know of few institutions that work any harder than the Western Heritage Center to preserve and share area history, while also working hand-in-hand with other organizations toward things that benefit the community.  All $1,282 the donations received from the audience at this performance go directly to support the Spearfish Veterans Monument.

The Potter Family will be returning Spearfish on Friday, November 30th for "The Potter Family Christmas Concert."  You won't want to miss it.  It's the annual "Friendraiser," benefitting the High Plains Western Heritage Center.  

A Social Hour with Hors d'oeuvres from Cheyenne Crossing and Perkins starts at 5:30 p.m.  The Christmas Concert begins at 7:00 p.m.  We understand that reservations are required, so make plans early to attend – that's less than three weeks off!  Tickets are $40 per person, but we think you'll find it worth every cent!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

George Blair – a B-25 Pilot – remembers World War Two

(Editors Note:  With Veterans Day upon us, we'd like to re-visit a story we posted two years ago about area veteran George Blair, well known by many across the region.  Thanks to Duke Doering for sharing it.  ~~ Larry Miller)

by Duke Doering

Writing in a long-ago declassified report, an officer from Sturgis rancher George Blair’s World War II Air Corps Squadron described enemy response as “…meager inaccurate to accurate fire…”

On March 28, 71 years ago, Japanese machine gunners were “accurate” enough to cripple Blair’s B-25J medium bomber, put the 10-ton airplane into ocean off Indo China (today’s Vietnam) and compel Blair to generate a vision of his girlfriend that prevented him from drowning.

As South Dakotans join others across the nation to celebrate Veterans Day, the re-telling of Blair’s Army Air Corps service in the Pacific Theater reminds everyone how the skill, bravery and sometimes luck of this veteran contributed to victory against Axis forces.  Part of the 16 million men and women who served in uniform during that war, Blair also is symbolic of the countless veterans who returned to civilian life to marry, raise a family, be successful in a career and continue to serve, in Blair’s case with four terms in the South Dakota House of Representatives.

Blair was born in 1921 in Pleasant Valley, six miles south and east of Sturgis.  Learning in a one-room school, graduation from Sturgis High School in 1939 and work on a busy family cattle ranch were predictable milestones in his life until the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  From that point, Blair wanted to support the war effort as a pilot.  However, to be accepted as a flying cadet during the start of the war, at least two years of college had to be part of a volunteer’s academic resume, something Blair lacked.

So Blair traveled to Spearfish and talked with already legendary aviator Clyde Ice.  The largely self-taught barnstormer, air transporter and flight instructor advised Blair to ignore the two-year college requirement because the military would soon be unable to recruit enough pre-qualified potential pilots.  To enhance his eligibility for selection, Ice recommended immediate enrollment in classes at Black Hills Teachers College plus simultaneous evening courses in ground school.  Along with classroom instruction, Ice could provide flying lessons in his two-seat Aeronca.  By March 1942, Blair was in class with nine other College Training Program students and in the air over the Black Hills and surrounding prairie.  Blair also started a courtship with Viola Hays, a college algebra classmate.

Next came extensive physical, mental and psychological testing.  In May, Blair was sworn into the Army Air Corps.  Learning the rudiments of being a soldier-airman followed at Randolph Field, Texas, where Blair was accepted into flight training in October.  His military flight school began at the dual controls of the Stearman Kaydet bi-plane, followed by a second phase in the more powerful and complex BT-13A, the Vulcan Valiant, also nicknamed “The Vibrator” for its ability to shake aviators’ bones plus the nuts and bolts that held everything together.

Commissioned as a 2nd Lt., and wearing hard-earned flight wings in August 1943,  Blair wanted an assignment with the B-25 medium bomber in honor and respect for Lt. Col. “Jimmy” Doolittle, the leader of the nicknamed Raiders who completed a daring bombing mission over Japan in April of 1942, flying the versatile twin-engine plane from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.  Just 16 months after joining the military, one of the Air Corps’ newest pilots and former rancher got his wish.  McClellan Army Airfield in northern California was Blair’s next duty station where he learned the fundamentals of operating the B-25, the winged workhorse that the nation’s aircraft industry eventually duplicated in several variants more than 9,800 times.

During night training missions, Blair and fellow students sometimes flew over Los Angeles where intense spotlights constantly scanned the skies.  Blair still remembers getting “great advice” from instructors who cautioned the students to ignore the searing lights by looking down at the instrument panel and never outside.

Once qualified in the B-25, Blair was transferred across country to Columbia, S.C., for six months of additional flight training.  By April 1944, Blair was cleared to join an operational bomber unit.  He became part of three crews that flew shiny B-25s from a base in Savannah, Ga., back to his bomber starting point in California.  The crews remained there for a week preparing for an island-hopping journey to Hawaii, Christmas Island, Guadalcanal and, eventually, a maintenance facility at Townsville, Australia, where the aircraft were painted in combat colors and retrofitted with newer machine guns.  The first tactical duty station for the newly qualified aircrews became Biak, New Guinea, where Blair and his colleagues learned the fundamentals of in-theater operations and launched their first combat mission against a Japanese airfield.

All returned unscathed from their first taste of battle.  Blair still can recall, “While we were dropping the bombs, I noticed some black spots occasionally appearing in front of me.  It took a few seconds, and suddenly I realized they were shooting at me.”  For nearly a year, he flew 46 more combat missions with the 501st “Black Panthers” Squadron of the 345th Bombardment Group, moving operational bases closer and closer toward Japan.

On March 28, 1945, Blair was part of a large mission that involved aircraft from all four of the Bomb Group’s squadrons.  In his routine report,  1st Lt. Issac Baker, the squadron’s assistant intelligence officer, wrote the primary target for that day was to intercept a shipping convoy that had been sighted moving north in the Indo China Sea, with a secondary target of any land installation on the coast. By the time Group leaders got the formation over the anticipated ocean target area, no ships could be found.

They turned inland, with Black Panther aircraft assigned to sweep 60 miles of coastline from Phan Thiet to Phan Rang.  Three flights of B-25Js found the My Thanh rail yard, dropping 27 bombs at maximum speed from very low altitudes and strafing the area with .50-caliber machine gun fire.  Return fire from the defenders was not heavy, but it was enough to create a crippling oil leak in the starboard engine of Blair’s plane and pepper another Black Panther aircraft with holes.
Blair made a quick decision to shut down the 14-cylinder Wright Cyclone engine and “feather” its propeller to avoid further damage.  Flying 15 more miles back to the mainland became a swiftly discarded option.  If they landed safely, all would immediately become prisoners of war.  Ditching at sea or landing on an unoccupied island were alternatives, with the more realistic hope that a U.S. submarine would be in the area to provide rescue.

Writing a summary of the attack the next day, Baker tersely described the few known details: “Plane 175 (Blair’s plane), hit by ack ack was forced to go on a single engine and when last seen was flying on a single engine at 1,230/I [altitude] 15 miles off Cape Faux Varella on a 102 degree course.  Pilot radioed squadron leader that everything was under control and he was trying to make it to Two Island.”  He then goes on to identify Blair and five additional crewmen as “missing.”

What Baker did not know or did not report was the tense radio traffic drama in the sky in the minutes after Blair’s bomber received enemy fire.  The leader of a different Black Panther flight quickly learned that Blair’s aircraft was in trouble and radioed the surfaced submarine U.S.S. Guavina that was patrolling in the area.  Blair started transmitting a “Blue Fish, this is Blue Flyer,” message to contact the sub.  The Guavina’s signalman then provided its location to Blair on the radio frequency his crew was monitoring.  Ditching at sea, as close to the 311 ft. vessel as possible, became Blair’s best option.  “We never had any practice ditching an airplane,” the longtime rancher ironically recalls, a maneuver impossible to rehearse with a land-based aircraft.

As the bomber started skipping across the ocean waves, Blair hit his head on a gunsight and was knocked unconscious.  The plane settled into the water and temporarily remained afloat, an unconventional landing that Blair says was, “more luck than skill.”
Within minutes, Blair regained consciousness and joined the other crewmen who were able to escape from the soon-to-sink aircraft.  Blair was on the wing of the plane for a few moments before it went under, struggling to inflate both sides of his life jacket.  Just half of the jacket filled, a perilous circumstance that nearly killed Blair as he fought “to get in sync” with the 10-foot swells that covered the airplane as it went to the floor of the Pacific Ocean.  Tailgunner Staff Sgt. J.R. Richardson made it out of the fuselage but told a crewmate that he could not swim and was not seen again.

Wave after wave covered Blair’s half-supported body each time he tried to breathe.  Exhausted, Blair remembers thinking, “just quit.”  He laid in the water, ready to surrender, “when, I looked up in the sky and saw my girlfriend - in color - just her shoulder and her head.   I thought, if I am ever going to see her again, I better start fighting for my life.”

Still struggling, Blair estimates no more than two minutes later, a crewman from the Navy sub was in the water next to him with rope that pulled them both to the safety of the boat. Others who survived included the co-pilot, navigator, engineer and radio operator.  The sub buttoned up and headed east for San Marcelino, Philippines, the home base of the 345th Group where Blair continued to heal from the 13 stitches he received to close the gash on his head.

The attack on the rail yard became Blair’s last combat mission.  By then he had exceeded the 100 points necessary for departure from the front lines of the war in the Pacific.  Back home in Meade County, discharged from the Air Corps and married to his “vision” girlfriend Viola Marie.  

Members of the Blair family are shown in this 1995 family photo.
Left-to-right are:  Gayle, Mary Beth, Nancy, Jerry, George and Viola, Jeff, Kathleen, Janet, and Ann.

The couple soon was busy with post-war life, eventually raising nine children and managing the ranch.  Viola passed away in 2002, just a few months before Blair was honored to receive a belated Purple Heart medal during a surprise, family arranged ceremony.  Blair, now 95, continues to live on his ranch in Pleasant Valley.

(Editor's note:  Our thanks to Duke Doering 
[shown at right] for sharing this fine story
 and associated photographs.  You can take a look at
 all photos related to this story 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The War to End All Wars

“Everyone says the war is over but it is hard to believe,” Leo Alvin Ihli wrote in his diary on Nov. 12, 1918.

The Great War had been raging since 1914. The Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were pitted against the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Japan.

On April 6, 1917, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution declaring a state of war to exist between the United States and the German Empire.

Ihli from Pierre and Ernest Roth from Columbia both served in the U.S. Army during the First World War. Their war diaries, contained in the South Dakota State Historical Society – State Archives, provide insights into war. To read the diaries online, visit the South Dakota Digital Archives.

Living quarters for Company B, 316th Military Police, 91st Division, Montigny-le-Roi Harne, France - 1918

The two South Dakotans arrived in France in January 1918.

World War I saw an introduction of modern weaponry such as machine guns, tanks and chemical weapons.

Roth wrote of another of the horrors of war: trench warfare, in which opposing armed forces dug deep trenches in the ground as a defense against the enemy.

Roth reached the trenches on the front line on March 16. His diary entry for that day reads, “Our 5th and 6th squads occupy the same dugout … The enemy trenches are about one kilometer away, (.62 mile) but can be seen.”

In a later diary entry, Roth describes how he and another soldier placed sticks and other debris in the bottom four inches of their foxhole to keep from lying in water that seeped in from rain. Standing in cold water for long periods of time could cause trench foot. Many trenches also had pests such as rats and lice living in them.

Roth’s company fought in the front lines in one of the major battles of the war, at Chateau-Thierry.

“Our ammunition supply ran short at 7 a.m. and I was sent back to find and bring up the ammunition carte. This proved to be a great game of alternately running and ducking into shell holes to avoid being hit by the buzzing enemy bullets. Have had no food for three days and only water from contaminated creeks to drink,” Roth wrote about the late July battle.
Roth encountered a gas attack and was sent to a field hospital. He rejoined his company on Sept. 1.

Many of Ihli’s diary entries focused on taking care of horses. At the start of the war, horses were used for cavalry. A mounted cavalry proved impractical because of trenches, barbed wire and machine gun and artillery fire. Armies on both sides relied on horses and mules to move ammunition, supplies, ambulances, weapons carts, artillery pieces and for riding.

In August, Ihli and another soldier were given jobs as mounted messengers. Ihli rode to and from gun positions, battalion headquarters and guided ration wagons. Cognac, the horse assigned to him, was wounded twice while hauling ammunition and had to be put down by the veterinary doctor.

It was as difficult to get rations for horses as it was for soldiers.

On Nov. 3, Ihli wrote in his diary, “We have just about half as many horses as we started out with and they are not much more than skeletons.”

By the end of October, there were rumors of peace. Roth wrote that Turkey surrendered to the Allies on Oct. 31, followed by Austria-Hungary’s unconditional surrender on Nov. 4.

“The French in this vicinity are ringing bells and blowing horns to celebrate the occasion,” he wrote on Nov. 4.

On Nov. 11, Roth wrote, “The armistice terms were accepted by the Germans. Hostilities ceased at 11 a.m. This means -- The war is officially over.”

Ihli wrote, “Walked to Jubecourt. Had a little celebration on the way home for an armistice is supposed to be signed this morning at eleven o’clock. Also had some champagne in honor of the event.”

World War I took the lives of more than 9 million soldiers; 21 million more were wounded. Civilian casualties caused indirectly by the war numbered nearly 10 million. One account states that more than 8 million horses died on all sides on the Western Front.

According to the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs, 32,791 soldiers, sailors and Marines served in World War I. A total of 554 South Dakotans died overseas from wounds, disease and other causes.

A digital display called “The World Remembers” is in the lobby of the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre through Nov. 11, showing the names of World War I soldiers from all countries killed in 1918 and official war-related deaths from 1919-1922. The display also includes a list of South Dakota soldiers killed in the war. The Cultural Heritage Center’s education room contains a display of photographs from World War I from the photo collection of the South Dakota State Historical Society – State Archives.
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.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Cogan House tapped for National Register of Historic Places

The Arthur and Ellen Colgan House in Edgemont is one of six South Dakota properties recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, the official federal list of properties identified as important in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture. 

Built around 1900, the Arthur and Ellen Colgan House (shown at right) is located at 407 3rd St. in Edgemont.  It is listed in the National Register for its architectural significance as a transitional form occurring between the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles.  Distinguishing exterior features of the house include a wraparound porch with pedimented entries, cottage windows with leaded glass in a diamond and oval design and a three-sided bay window with decorative sawtooth woodwork. 

The State Historic Preservation Office of the State Historical Society works in conjunction with the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register program, to list the properties. 

"South Dakota's history is rich in American Indian culture, pioneer life and change," said Jay D. Vogt, state historic preservation officer and director of the State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. "Properties listed on the National Register are important for their role in South Dakota's culture, heritage and history. And when properties get listed, it shows that their owners take pride in their role in preserving that culture, heritage and history."

Buildings, sites, structures and objects at least 50 years old possessing historical significance may qualify for the National Register, according to Vogt. Properties must also maintain their historic location, design, materials and association. Listing on the National Register does not place any limitations on private property owners by the federal government. 

The other listed properties are the Happy Times Carousel in Faulkton, the First Presbyterian Church in Flandreau, the American Legion Community Hall in Fort Pierre, the McWhorter House in Miller and the Stadum-Green House in Sioux Falls.

For more information on the National Register or other historic preservation programs, contact the State Historic Preservation Office at the Cultural Heritage Center, 900 Governors Drive, Pierre, SD 57501-2217; telephone 605-773-3458 or website

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Deadwood dying?

by Larry Miller

Historic Deadwood is losing actor Kevin Costner's Midnight Star Casino and Restaurant after a run of nearly 26 years.  While the news hit local print and broadcast media in the Black Hills, we found an online casino review site with a rather fascinating take on the closing.

Downtown Deadwood at dusk. (SD Dept. of Tourism)
Writer Kevin Horridge of wrote that gaming revenues in Deadwood are down 3.5 percent this year and observed that – under the subheading Deadwood Dying – "No longer does the South Dakota history-rich town have the enticement of casinos to bring tourists to the remote hills."   Even if true, we doubt that spells the demise of Deadwood.

We're not big on gaming, but we're pleased at what it has done in bolstering the Deadwood economy since 1989 – and the significant residual benefits for historic preservation.

We wonder about plans to build a $40-50 million dollar casino and "entertainment destination" along the Missouri River at Yankton.  That idea was run up the flagpole earlier this year.

Of course, the real trick for folks promoting the Yankton initiative will be to get the South Dakota constitution amended.  They'll need the kind of latitude with gaming that thus far has been granted only to Deadwood.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

SD Cultural Heritage Center wins True West recognition

True West magazine has ranked the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre No. 9 on its list of “Top 10 Museums of the West 2017.”

“Home to the South Dakota State Museum and Archives, this center is attractive enough as a location to dig into the history collections of the state, but go there to also learn the stories of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota people,” the magazine says in its September 2017 edition. “The ‘Proving Up’ exhibit features stories of explorers and settlers, ranging from the placing of the Verendrye Plate in 1743 on a hillside west of the city to the establishment of the state capital.”

Started in 1953, True West is the world’s oldest, continuously-published Western American magazine. The magazine has won multiple awards for its coverage of American Old West history.

South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre
“I am elated that our museum has been listed in the top ten history museums in the west by True West magazine,” said Jay D. Vogt, director of the South Dakota State Historical Society, headquartered at the Cultural Heritage Center. “This designation will hopefully bring new attention to the Cultural Heritage Center and the work that the State Historical Society is doing. Our goal is to reach people of all ages, and the museum is a key element in attracting visitors to the Cultural Heritage Center.”

Vogt said the museum tells compelling stories about the people of South Dakota, and is able to help illustrate those stories with some amazing artifacts, such as the Great Sioux Horse Effigy, the Verendrye Plate, the Jefferson Peace Medal, the President Harrison Statehood Pen and the Whitebird Congressional Code Talkers Medal.

“It is a great honor for us, coming from one of the most respected western history magazines in the nation,” said Jay Smith, museum director. “The recognition from True West is a sign that we continue to move in the right direction with the museum, in both our planning and execution, and that people are responding positively to our work. It allows us to reach out to a national audience in ways that are both tangible and in keeping with our mission.”

The Cultural Heritage Center was the only South Dakota museum to make the magazine’s top 10 list, which was topped by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo. The Days of ’76 Museum in Deadwood was listed among “12 More Museums to Know.”

The museum in the Cultural Heritage Center is open 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. CDT Monday-Saturday through Labor Day (9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. after Labor Day) and 1-4:30 p.m. on Sundays. There is a small admission fee for adults; children 17 and younger are always free.

Archives hours are 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and the first Saturday of most months.

Call 605-773-3458 or visit for more information.


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.