Cornelius Amory Pugsley Silver Medal Award, 1932
Peter Norbeck (1870-1936) received the Pugsley Silver Medal "for his services in the establishment of Custer State Park in the Black Hills." He was a prominent senator from South Dakota who fought vigorously for the establishment of national and state parks, forests and wildlife refuges, and for the preservation of the heritage of nature contained within them. He understood the need for parks at all levels of government, regularly attended meetings of the state park directors, and indeed, was at the 1921 meeting when the National Conference on State Parks was organized. To many South Dakotans, the career and personality of Pete Norbeck towers above that of any other resident in the state's history. From 1909 until his death in 1936, Norbeck occupied all of South Dakota's highest political offices, and he was never defeated for public office.
Although Norbeck was a rough-and-tumble well-driller and politician, he had an artistic nature and love of natural beauty which caused him to achieve national prominence in the field of park and conservation legislation. The federal Migratory Bird Act of 1959, the establishment of Custer State Park and the Badlands National Park, along with the Mount Rushmore Memorial are all testimonials to his efforts. He once declared, "I would rather be remembered as an artist than as a United States Senator."
Norbeck was born near Vermillion, Clay County, South Dakota into an impoverished Scandinavian immigrant family. His father was a Lutheran preacher and he was the oldest of six children. Since he was needed at home to help with the chores on the family homestead and had to look after his younger siblings he had little formal schooling, but he did receive a basic education and religious training from his parents at home. Norbeck was anxious to obtain more education, so his parents scraped together the resources for him to attend the newly-established University of South Dakota in 1887, but he attended only two semesters before a serendipitous event led to him becoming an entrepreneur.
Like many areas in the west, water was the key resource in the Dakotas. In the community in which the Norbecks resided, water scarcity in the late 1800s and early 1890s resulted in drought conditions. To address this problem, his father bought an old horsepower drilling machine to seek artesian water. When he asked his oldest son to fix it up, it took nearly a year to do the job, but he got good water, and decided he would drill wells for other homesteaders who needed them. This was how he launched a highly successful business career.
After a slow start, Norbeck became a major driller of artesian wells. The method he formulated was substantially less costly than that used by others, so business flourished. He ultimately left his own business and linked up with the American Well Works Company which had the resources to assist him in developing new technology for well drilling before establishing the firm of Norbeck & Nicholson whose success resulted in him becoming wealthy. By the age of 30, his early persona as a difficult, quiet, unworldly farm boy had been transformed to a vigorous, active and confident businessman.
By 1905, Norbeck had twenty-five artisan well rigs in operation in South Dakota and had expanded into several adjacent states. During his lifetime, his company drilled over 12,000 wells.
Buoyed by his substantial assets, in 1905 Norbeck made the first automobile trip from the Missouri River to the Black Hills. On this trip, he first conceived the idea of establishing a state game park in Custer County in order to preserve South Dakota's natural game, such as buffalo and antelope, which were rapidly becoming extinct.
Norbeck's friends encouraged him to run for the state senate in 1909. The assets which they believed made him electable included his Scandinavian heritage (there were many of similar heritage in the state); a wide range of acquaintances across the state from his business activities, a reputation as a successful and honest businessman, and financial independence. Because of his background, he was widely viewed as a "practical" man and not as a "politician", and he was easily elected.
Norbeck was not a good speaker, but the techniques of the politician came naturally to him. He always prepared thoroughly for debate and it was his knowledge of the topic and logic of his argument, rather than eloquent rhetoric which were his weapons for making his case. These attributes, together with his commanding personality, inspired enthusiasm and confidence in him by others.
After six years in the state senate, friends persuaded him to leave his business interests in the hands of partners in order that they could nominate him for lieutenant governor. He was elected early to this position and his widespread popularity resulted in his subsequent election as the state's governor from 1917-1921.
In his inaugural address to the state legislature as governor, Norbeck prominently featured protection for South Dakota's wildlife resources in his agenda. Few had realized during his years in the senate that this rough, energetic, well-driller loved natural beauty and preserving it became a passion. He aspired to establish a great state park in the Black Hills and its acquisition became almost an obsession.
In 1913, he was influential in getting 61,440 acres of land in Custer County designated for a state game preserve. The eight-by-twelve mile area was ideal for a park and game preserve. However, very few Dakotans were interested in this project. It was said he "could count his supporters on the fingers of one hand." There was opposition from Black Hills' ranchers who could no longer use the land for grazing and by many in the eastern part of the state who objected to the expense. However, as governor, he successfully prevailed on the legislature to provide resources to enlarge the initial park area, and then persuaded the federal government to transfer 30,000 acres of national forest land into the state park.
In 1920, the legislature proposed changing the name from Custer State Park to Norbeck Park in recognition of his effort, but Norbeck rejected the proposal because "it stands in the way of getting further work done." To establish the park was only part of the job as Norbeck saw it. It must be made accessible to tourists. He spent days walking and riding over the area laying out roadways and trails. There are reports of the governor's trousers being badly torn and his legs scratched and bleeding. It was not easy to push his 240 pounds over rugged, heavily forested terrain.
In 1921, when Norbeck decided to seek a U.S. Senate seat, his popularity as governor assured his nomination and election. When he arrived in Washington D.C., Norbeck's life-long interest in wildlife conservation and park development soon brought him into prominence in these fields. Those interested in preserving the country's natural resources quietly came to depend on him to get their bills through Congress. Many of the country's leading conservationists were among his closest friends, especially Horace Albright with whom Norbeck traveled thousands of miles in the west.
His first few years in the Senate were spent with minor conservation and park measures, and those which affected primarily his own state, but while so engaged he was preparing to deal with broader problems. In 1924 he obtained an extension to Custer State Park, which reportedly made it the largest state park in the nation, and in establishing an antelope preserve in northwestern South Dakota.
His two most prominent achievements in Congress were the passing of the Migratory Bird Act and funding the work needed to complete Mount Rushmore. Conservationists were concerned that nesting grounds of migratory birds were being drained and this was accelerating bird extinction. A bill providing for the purchase of land to be designated as inviolate bird sanctuaries first was introduced in the Senate in 1921. It failed again in 1924 and 1926 when Norbeck reintroduced it.
Norbeck's Norwegian stubbornness and tenacity resulted in the bill being reintroduced in 1927 and again in 1928 when a version of it finally passed. It provided for the purchase of bird sanctuaries from funds raised by selling federal hunting licenses priced at one dollar per hunter. He estimated this would raise approximately $1 million annually for land purchases and law enforcement. When the bill was finally passed, the federal licensing feature had been removed from it, but Norbeck countered successfully with an amendment authorizing $1 million annual appropriations from the federal treasury.
Conservationists were elated with its passage regarding it as a landmark event. The editorial in one of the leading conservationist magazines was typical: "Senator Norbeck earned the everlasting gratitude of all friends of conservation by his tireless and persistent efforts for this legislation." Norbeck, however, was disappointed because he realized the difficulty of persuading Congress each year to appropriate the $1 million which was authorized. His fears were confirmed over the next few years when less than half the amount authorized was appropriated. Nevertheless, by 1933, twenty-two refuges comprising of 1,085 million acres had been acquired, and in 1934 Norbeck got his act amended to provide for the federal license which guaranteed on-going funding for the program. This act served as a model for much subsequent major conservation legislation.
Norbeck had been an early advocate of creating a great national shrine dedicated to democracy on Mount Rushmore. He became a close friend of sculptor Gutzon Borgium who was commissioned to undertake the carvings of the presidential figures there. To garner support for the project, Norbeck persuaded President Coolidge to preside at a formal ceremony launching it. Coolidge was impressed and pledged federal support.
Norbeck led the South Dakota delegation in passing an act in 1929 that provided for the federal government to contribute $250,000 on a matching basis for the memorial's construction which was estimated to cost $500,000. After maneuvering to get it passed, Norbeck wrote to an old friend, "That was the hardest day's work I have done since I came to Washington." Subsequently in 1934 when the $500,000 cost estimate proved to be too low, he persuaded President Roosevelt to support an additional appropriation of $200,000. This was duly appropriated by Congress and ensured the memorial would be completed.
Norbeck took a personal interest in promoting and developing the Mount Rushmore Memorial's Iron Mountain Road. He insisted on directing its route so none of the area's natural beauty would be destroyed. When completed, it passed through three rock tunnels, each framing a spectacular view of Mount Rushmore several miles away. A newspaper editorial asserted Norbeck "has been a leader in the development of a new form of art...In laying out these magnificently beautiful roads, he pioneered in the framing of natural scenery for the public. He found great pictures in nature and gave them to the world by building roads to them."
Norbeck's park activities were not confirmed to the Black Hills. His planning and vigorous support was also largely responsible for the passage of the so-called Kendrick bill establishing Grand Teton National Park. He also initiated a measure extending the boundaries of Yellowstone Park. Indeed, he regularly inserted amendments into legislation at the behest of the NPS.
In the discharge of his official duties, he knew no fear, and he could not be intimidated. His politics were not merely the good of his party, but the good of the whole people as he saw it. He was a Republican only to the extent that the Republican Party was rendering a real service to mankind. Anything less than that was repugnant to his whole nature.
By 1935, Norbeck was suffering from painful cancer of the tongue and jaw. At the 1936 dedication of the Jefferson head at Mount Rushmore, he could only stand by mutely as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Borglum made their statements. He died in December 1936. Norbeck's modus operand and character were summarized by a political commentator writing in 1930 who described Norbeck as a man with:
No suppressed pride of place...one who makes no attempt to conceal his broad Scandinavian accent, which with his plain dress, gives him the cast of a prosperous butcher...Seemingly a naive and childlike spirit, 'Pete' as he is known...is one of the smartest politicians in the Senate; his nature is an affection and armament.His six foot, 230 pound stature gave the impression of rugged strength and power. At the time of his death, one of his peers in the U.S. Senate stated:
Like the rail-splitter of Kentucky, this well-driller of Dakota wrested his education from few books and many thoughts. In him, as in all great men, this thought, shaped by contact with well-chosen minds, bred vision. And that vision was ever the well-being of his neighbors, his State and his Nation. It was never clouded by passion, prejudice, nor greed.
It shone in the honesty of his battles against special privilege; the clarity of his hatred of hypocrisy; the tolerance which led him to understand the motives of his opponents; the vigor of his ceaseless pursuit of beauty and the valor of his votes for civic liberty and moral right.
Horace Albright, director of the NPS declared:
We are not likely to see soon another leader arise who will have such a broad knowledge of the conservation problems of the country and the courage, power, and legislative skill in drafting and guiding through Congress the laws necessary to provide permanent solutions to these problems.Source: