In Rattlesnake Under His Hat, Sam Hurst tells the story of the Rapid City I know

by Mr. Sheehy

Like many Americans, I live in a car town. Tasks of life here–shopping for groceries, attending school, visiting a worship service–require cars. Or they at least are designed to require cars, as the zoning of our districts into residential and commercial areas was built on the assumption of the automobile. Without a car or a notable effort, residents have few options for going anywhere beyond the neighbor’s house.

I also live in a tourist town. Thirty minutes from Mount Rushmore, the downtown street corners are decorated with statues of the Presidents. Those are fairly nice, actually–not obnoxious and kind of fun. The middle of town, though, is also overseen by a giant dinosaur. Which is also harmless and fun, but definitely ridiculous. It surely gives the place that unadulterated tourist vibe.


Given these two integral parts of life in Rapid City, I am pleased to see how Sam Hurst’s Rattlesnake Under His Hat: The Life and Times of Earl Brockelsby accounts for them both. It is a history of a man, Earl Brockelsby, who founded Reptile Gardens, a tourist trap of the highest quality, but that story is also the history of a town, Rapid City, and how it came to be what it is.

To set that context Hurst opens the book by following Peter Norbeck on a trip across South Dakota before roads truly led beyond Pierre. Norbeck drove a Cadillac through the wagon ruts and bison trails into Rapid City, and though he stumbled to the finish, he could envision how cars would “someday leapfrog the railroad as the primary means of American transportation” (21) and open up his state in ways the railroad had not.

Later, tracking Earl Brockelsby’s family on their move west from Kadoka, Hurst notes the way the vehicle had changed western South Dakota, and Rapid City in particular.

As governor, Peter Norbeck matched federal highway funds with state funds, and the washboard gravel roads began to be conquered by asphalt and oil. The trip from Kadoka to Rapid City was reduced from five hours to two, and small railroad depot communities like Kadoka were transformed into automobile satellites of Rapid City. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, it would have been rare for a homestead family to visit Rapid City. By 1927, families like the Brockelsbys could looks west to the Black Hills as a vacation destination. (54-55)

The story of Earl Brockelsby has to be a story of automobiles, for Reptile Gardens is a roadside stop–one of the best ones, I might add. (See the alligator and bird shows if you’re heading there.)

So I am appreciating how the story of automobiles suggests to me the fuller sense of my town, particularly as it helps me grasp the silly parts of my town, like those dinosaurs. For what it’s worth, Cody Ewert says they were the idea of the president of the South Dakota School of Mines, who suggested

that a park could both showcase the region’s growing reputation as a haven for fossil hunters and divert some of the visitors flocking to Mount Rushmore, which was still under construction, into Rapid City. . . .The cartoonish critters looming over Rapid City might seem like another piece of roadside kitsch, hardly comparable to a site of perceived national import like Mount Rushmore. Yet, both sites were born of the same effort to promote Black Hills tourism.

There is more to the history of Rapid City than cars and tourism, of course, but what makes Hurst’s book interesting to me is that he’s telling me a kind of origin story of Rapid City. It’s the origin of the Rapid City I know–a town whose economic engine and cultural vibe have are products of the automobile and tourism.

Photo: ICPC_RapidCity_rp00648 on Flickr