It’s been more than a year since the South Dakota National Guard Museum completed upgrades to its building and notable attractions, but visitation numbers remain slow.
In May 2020, the museum began work to add a new concrete pad, ADA-compliant ramp, canopy and exterior insulation totaling more than $387,000 in work funded through the Office of the State Engineer.
Part-time curator John Fette and full-time Museum Director Sonja Johnson inventoried and prepared for future displays during the construction. Fette and Johnson — both state workers — are the museum’s lone two employees.
“It was quite the undertaking, but little and little, it got done,” Fette said. “The final sidewalk was put in to accommodate accessibility.”
He said the new concrete under the outside military equipment is at least a foot thick. Before the project, some of the equipment sat on gravel and others a thin layer of concrete.
He added the contractors recovered the north windows to match the rest of the building after being blocked in years before. The building also received a new roof and covering over the main entrance doors on the west side.
It wasn’t just the building that received some attention. The museum also repainted most of the large military equipment in front of the building, including the tank, which started leaking oil after returning.
“Go figure, after all these years after World War II, it still had oil in it,” Fette said.
The repairs ended in August 2020, but the museum isn’t seeing the pre-construction and pre-coronavirus numbers it once enjoyed.
As a young couple stopped in on Tuesday, Fette greeted and reminded them the museum was free to visit as he offered to discuss anything they saw.
Fette gave his best guess of how many visitors stop in but noted the bulk of the drop is from school field trips.
“It’s not that we don’t care,” he said about not having exact figures. “I just don’t keep track of that. Sometimes you might have three or four kids with their parents. When we had classes coming through here — and we don’t now because of COVID — some weeks, we’d do maybe four classes, say of 15-20 students each. That makes a lot of difference now with between 15-20 people within a month and a half.”
Before the pandemic, approximately 3,000 people visited the museum annually.
During the construction, the museum was closed, but field trips weren’t an issue since the work took place during summer.
So far, the Stanley County GOLD program in Fort Pierre has brought its children to visit the museum, but schools are more hesitant, though optimistic.
“We are open to any field trip opportunities,” Kennedy Elementary Principal Kelly Hansen said. “Obviously, in the past year to year and a half, our students haven’t been able to take advantage of these opportunities.”
Pierre School District Superintendent Kelly Glodt said programs such as Reading Buddies are back in schools, and the school wouldn’t restrict future visitations to the museum.
T.F. Riggs High School Assistant Principal Rod Coverdale said students and staff are fortunate to live in a community with so many culturally relevant places for field trips, like the National Guard Museum.
The South Dakota National Guard Museum began as a small military museum the 147th Field Artillery Historical Society created. In 1975, the society requested the old OMS#7 vehicle and weapons storage building — built in 1941 — after the new armory’s construction east of Pierre.
In 1982, the state Legislature authorized the creation of the South Dakota National Guard Museum under the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Office of the Adjutant General.
The museum’s mission is to provide a repository for South Dakota National Guard memorabilia and documents.
The main floor is the museum, and the upstairs is yet-to-be-readied artifact storage. The museum has hosted the Korean War Commemoration exhibit and the “Fallen Heroes” banner display, created in honor of South Dakota military personnel who lost their lives in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
National Guard members and visitor donations, membership club levels and an endowment fund provide the daily operating money for the free-admission museum.
Veterans and family members typically donate memorabilia to the museum. The museum asks people interested in donating items to its collection to contact them first. Fette said some people leave boxes and sacks of items outside with no information or background — leaving museum staff to investigate what they are and take care of any necessary repairs.
Visitors can explore the origins of South Dakota’s National Guard through its present day.
In 1861, Territorial Gov. William Jayne issued a proclamation to raise two volunteer militia companies after protection concerns grew following U.S. Army troops leaving Fort Randall. About a month later, the territory enlisted enough volunteers to form Dakota Cavalry Company A on Jan. 27, 1862, under Capt. Nelson Miner in Yankton.
Since then, the South Dakota National Guard joined combat operations in the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and Korean War. Guardsmen also participated in Operation Nobel Eagle, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn.
The South Dakota National Guard also supported peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Since the Spanish-American War, Fette energetically pointed out that the South Dakota National Guard participated in every United States war, except the Vietnam War.