SPEARFISH, S.D. — Generations of families in several states can probably trace their heritage back to the late 1800s, when droves of cowboys and their cattle settled in the area after making the long, arduous trek on the Great Western Cattle Trail.
The trail starts in south Texas and ends in Canada. It travels through nine states, all of which are working to revive the trail by placing white concrete markers along its path and using them to enhance tourism.
Once the cowboys and their herds arrived in the Whitewood area of the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota, they could either go north toward the railroad shipping point in Belle Fourche, or northwest through Centennial Valley, where pastures rich with nutritious grass and clear water awaited them.
Because of the trail’s history and overall significance during that time, the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish recently installed a trail marker.
“We want to place the markers where historical information is available; that’s why it’s here,” center Director Peggy Ables said. “You can’t really follow the exact trail, so the locations for future markers will be determined by a committee.”
Getting the marker installed in September was a milestone in a long journey that started in the spring of 2011, when Ables and Betty Olson, a Prairie City native who works as a state legislator, attended a national meeting of the Great Western Cattle Trail Association held at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora, N.D. A marker and information plaque on that building’s grounds tells the story of the overall trail and North Dakota’s route. While there, they met with representatives from all nine participating states. They returned home motivated to begin the process of establishing a South Dakota Chapter of the National Great Western Cattle Trail Association.
Immediately, they received feedback from several individuals interested in helping to achieve the goal. In addition to Olson, who is president, and Ables, who is secretary, the association officers consist of Tom Davis, of Belle Fourche, as vice president and Mary Buchholz, of Belle Fourche, as treasurer.
Ables said everyone stepped up to the plate, especially Olson.
“She has been an excellent leader,” Ables said. “She knows people and knows how to get things done.”
Olson said she invests her time in the project because she cares about preserving western heritage at its best.
“This trail is integral to western South Dakota,” Olson said. “There are generations of families here because their ancestors came up on the trail.”
As for how many markers the association plans to install, Olson said this is just the beginning of their efforts.
“There will be more; it’s just a matter of where to put them at this point,” she said.
Once the markers are installed, Ables said, the ultimate goal is to create a tourism map that includes GPS coordinates of each marker, so visitors can closely follow the trail and learn the history.