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Sioux Falls: It’s Been a Boom Town Before


Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has been in the spotlight recently as America’s latest “boom town.” Touting the city’s consistently low unemployment rate – currently at 3.3 percent – the National Journal reported, with a headline that used the “boom town” theme, that the city’s “multiple thriving industries” (banking, healthcare, agriculture) made Sioux Falls the envy of other urban areas. And Forbes again listed Sioux Falls in first place on its annual list of The Best Small Places for Business and Careers. So, more and more people go to Sioux Falls.

Talking with National Journal reporter Amy Sullivan, Sioux Falls mayor Mike Huether explained what the city’s booming success looks like on the ground:

We do have between 3,000 and 4,000 people moving here each year . . .. This year, we will blow away the record for construction in a single year. We’re already 150 percent of where we were last year, and last year was the second-highest construction year in our city’s history.

. . .

We had 30 businesses in downtown Sioux Falls that either opened or expanded last year. There is no vacancy right now for people who want to live in downtown Sioux Falls.

Sounds like a boom to you? Oh, please. You don’t know the meaning of “boom.”

If you really want to know what Sioux Falls looks like when it’s booming, you have to look back 125 years to the period right around the arrival of the railroad there in 1878. Fortunately, we have a fascinating record of what that booming period looked like, compiled by Gary Olson, a now-retired professor of history at Augustana College in Sioux Falls and an expert on the city’s history. Olson sifted through census data, newspaper accounts, and archival materials to provide an illuminating “snapshot” of Sioux Falls in the late 1870s. The city’s extraordinary growth was a thing to behold:

In March 1878 the Sioux Falls Pantagraph reported that . . . every day brought large numbers of new arrivals. The hotels, the Pantagraph observed, ‘are crowded to their utmost capacity; the boarding houses have eager customers for all their hash;. . . [and] the lumber dealers are up to their eyes in business.’ . . . In April the Pantagraph announced that new arrivals were increasing, averaging about forty-five per day, ‘coming by stage, by livery, by freighters’ wagons and on foot.’ . . . Naturally, the population pressure had an impact on real estate prices. In June 1878 a visitor from the Sioux City Journal reported that houses and buildings were scarce – ‘remarkably so’ – resulting in real estate prices doubling during the previous three years. The Pantagraph confessed in June that Sioux Falls had been overwhelmed by being ‘the vortex of a whirlpool of immigration for months.’

1908. Panoramic photographic of the main street of Sioux Falls, SD. Library of Congress

In April of 1878, the U.S. Land Office in Sioux Falls handed over nearly 200,000 acres of land, a 50 percent increase over the previous month. The office was processing an average of more than seventy claims a day. On one Monday in May, 1878, the office handled 134 claims, “a disposal of 160 acres every three minutes.” Olson writes: “This is how the term ‘doing a land-office business’ gained its meaning.”

In late July 1878 a correspondent for the Sioux City Journal visited Sioux Falls and reported that . . . houses, additions to hotels, livery stables, and business buildings were ‘springing up in every direction …’ A reprinted article from the Bodhead (WI) Independent reported that Sioux Falls had eleven dry-goods stores, fourteen groceries, six hardware stores, and an equal number of lumberyards plus several each of the usual tailors, shoemakers, harness makers, and so on. There were ten blacksmith shops, two newspapers, six doctors, seven or eight saloons, fifty or more lawyers . . . .

Let’s pause for a moment to consider one of those details: two newspapers!

[JF note: the Sioux Falls Argus Leader is now the town’s main paper. By the standards of today’s beleaguered newspaper industry, it is still editorially ambitious and in less-dire-than-most business shape. It has launched some ambitious reporting projects, for instance tracing the ties among the area’s recent refugee population and their homelands in Sudan and elsewhere. It also runs a civic-issues discussion series called “100 Eyes,” a charming homage to its name.]

Here’s what’s amazing about the growth described so far: it was all in anticipation of the railroad’s arrival. When the railroad finally was completed into town on July 30, 1878, the Sioux Falls boom accelerated still more. According to one reporter, in the following months, new stores were opening up “as fast as the buildings can be got ready for them, which is from three to four a week.”

A writer from the St. Paul Press, visiting in November of 1878, observed that what was happening in Sioux Falls was “one of the most marked instances of sudden growth and success” he had ever seen. And he reported that it was destined to become “a city of ten thousand inhabitants in ten years.” The reporter was prescient. The population of Sioux Falls exploded, growing from about 600 residents in 1876 to a little more than 10,000 in 1890.

1908. Panoramic photograph of the Sioux Falls business center, looking west. Library of Congress.

Sioux Falls had some advantages and important economic resources that other growing towns on the Plains did not have – most notably, the cascading falls of the Big Sioux River and, as we’ve seen, the acquisition of early rail connections to settled areas to the east and south.  The other important way in which Sioux Falls proved atypical, as Olson notes, is that “it did not boom and bust but continued to grow and prosper long after many other boomtowns of the ‘Great Dakota Boom’ had stagnated or even disappeared.”

It’s true: the history of Sioux Falls is one of almost uninterrupted growth and economic vitality. What’s remarkable is how strong its economy has remained throughout its history — with the exception, of course, of the Great Depression, when South Dakota was especially hard hit. But even then, Sioux Falls fared better than the rest of the state. And during the two most recent severe recessions – in the early 1980s and from 2008 to 2010 – Sioux Falls had very low unemployment during both periods.

The question is: what’s the secret to the city’s extraordinarily long-lived success? I understand that Jim will offer another hypothesis, about its role as “fringe city,” in the next installment.

Below, part of the city’s still-in-process riverfront-revitalization projects.


This post originally appeared at


The Great Molasses Disaster of 1919


Today is the 94th anniversary of one of the strangest events — and biggest disasters — in Boston history: the great molasses flood of 1919.  Read about it here and here.  One of the interesting things about this legendary event is that it is a familiar story to most Bostonians, but barely known by others around the country.


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Recalling the Cuban Missile Crisis


Fifty years ago tonight, President John Kennedy went on television and told the American people that he had ordered a blockade of Cuba. The purpose was to prevent the Soviet Union from successfully completing the shipment there of parts for ballistic missiles that could be used to strike the United States. It was a perilous moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for the next seven days Americans and others around the world nervously waited to see what would happen.

Would Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev instruct Soviet ships to try to run the blockade? Would the Soviets launch a preemptive strike against the United States? Would American naval destroyers or Air Force jets sink a Soviet freighter, sparking a Soviet reaction? Would any of these possible events — or some error or miscalculation — lead to nuclear war?

It’s often said that the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of events that brought humankind to the brink of nuclear conflagration, marked the most dangerous moment so far in human history. The decisions and actions of American and Soviet leaders during those tense two weeks in October 1962 have been the subject of dozens of books and articles. We know a lot, and are learning more, about what went on in the meeting rooms and corridors of power. (For an interesting look back on those events, watch this video from a new National Archives exhibit.)

Thinking about the arrival of its 50th anniversary, I realized that I knew surprisingly little about what ordinary Americans did during that crisis period. How did they behave? How did they react to those frightful events? There’s almost nothing written on the subject. The notable exception is a fine book by Alice George, Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis.Here’s part of what I’ve learned from reading George.

Most people, of course, did absolutely nothing. They didn’t plan out ways to flee to “safe” areas; they didn’t stockpile supplies; they didn’t discuss with family members what to do in the event of attack. Partly, this was because of massive denial; partly it was a recognition of the futility of action. People understood that all-out nuclear war was not something they were likely to survive. Other people chose inaction not because they were in denial, but because they assumed the crisis was overblown political theater or that it would not lead to war.

My own family, living in Denver, did nothing. I don’t know if it was because of denial or a belief that war was not on the horizon. I recall sitting in front of the television as my family watched Kennedy’s address to the nation on the night of the 22nd. And I remember going to school the next day, afraid that missiles might blow us all up at some point in the following days. Out on the playground at lunchtime, the macho fifth-grade boys joked about kissing our asses goodbye, but there was genuine anxiety lurking behind our usual bluster. George reports that the common joke among youngsters — a joke that said a lot about that generation’s world view — was “what are you going to be if you grow up?”

We were a generation of schoolchildren steeped in the civil-defense ethos of the time, which consisted of simple-minded platitudes concerning preparation: We were taught to seek cover under our desks in the case of incoming missiles. We knew by heart certain passages from the ridiculous “Duck and Cover” film that was staple fare in schools in the 1950s. Bert the Turtle modeled the desired behavior:

Alice George’s research reveals that, during the missile crisis, Americans matured, moving beyond the “duck and cover” mentality of the previous decade. They came to realize that their government was unprepared to protect them in the event of nuclear war. Despite Cold War nervousness and the wisdom of planning for a nuclear conflict, civil-defense spending had been minuscule.

Consequently, public civil-defense shelters were relatively few in number and were woefully equipped. Newspapers published lists of designated shelters, but unfortunately most people would find no room there if war broke out. Worse yet, the shelters were drastically under-supplied: “None had been stocked with supplies in New York, Chicago, Buffalo, Camden, Newark, Louisville, El Paso, Denver, Des Moines, Wichita, Salt Lake City, Long Beach, Sacramento, Phoenix, or Seattle. The District of Columbia, with a population of 784,000, had enough stocked shelter space for 5,514.”

George writes that “a reporter checked one of Denver’s ‘stocked’ shelters and found two dozen chairs, twelve empty 17.5-gallon water cans, several hundred boxes of survival crackers, fifteen stretchers, first-aid and radiation-detection kits, and civil defense literature.” This was 16 months after the US started construction of the the North American Aerospace Defense Command [NORAD] center in Colorado Springs, 68 miles away. So the Denver metropolitan area might well have been considered a prime target.

Some people had built bomb shelters in their homes, but the actual prospect of survival in such shelters was slight, and other citizens saw such behavior as irrational: “Almost 60 percent believed that family shelter owners would have to fight to keep neighbors out if war began, and 64 percent said that living in a shelter for a long time would drive many people insane.”

While there were civil-defense sirens in most places, and a national warning system that would sound in the event of approaching missiles, “for most people in target areas, this would provide only a few moments for desperate measures and prayers.”

As the crisis went on, many Americans began stockpiling in the event of war, but such behavior was uneven. In San Francisco, Columbus, Boston, and Chicago, there were no reports of such behavior. And people who were proactive were not always practical. George cites the case of a woman who reportedly bought 40 jars of instant coffee. When asked what she would do for water in the event of a nuclear attack, she replied that she had never thought of that.

In some cities (Dallas, St. Petersburg, FL, and Charlottesville, VA), gun sales were brisk. In New Orleans, it was transistor radios; in Houston, batteries; in Columbus, SC, auto tires; in Denton, TX, new cars (somewhat inexplicably). In Fort Worth, TX, the civil defense director observed, after noting a rush on grocery stores, “The idea is to survive — not to get fat.”

In short, with little realistic prospect of surviving an attack, most Americans, especially those in likely target zones, appear to have done nothing other than face the crisis with a grim fatalism, and the kind of false bravado displayed by my fifth-grade friends. One wonders how Americans today would face such terrifying prospects — and whether the government is really any more prepared to defend us now than it was then.


This piece originally appeared at

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“Paul Revere’s Ride,” by David Hackett Fischer

Regular visitors to this site know that my reading habits show a penchant for fiction.  Having spent most of my adult life reading the truly horrible academic writing of political scientists, I have devoted my reading hours in recent years to enjoying the best contemporary fiction I can find.  But occasionally I still like to read political or historical nonfiction. Today, I finished reading David Hackett Fischer's Paul Revere's Ride. What a great book!

2po78yw Fischer is a distinguished professor of history at Brandeis University.  It was an act of intellectual and academic bravery by him in the early 1990s to undertake a historical examination of this iconic story in American history.  Pointing to the preference of contemporary historians to delve into large-scale causes rather than events, and to genuflect to multiculturalism and political correctness, Fischer candidly noted in his introduction: "As this volume goes to press, the only creature less fashionable in academe than the stereotypical 'dead white male,' is a dead white male on horseback."  Lucky for us that Fischer had the character to pursue the events surrounding Revere's ride in spite of the narrow-mindedness that surrounded him in academic circles; this is a truly fine historical narrative, a riveting account of the events of April 18, 1775.

Fischer's aim here is to see the coming of the American Revolution "as a series of contingent happenings, shaped by the choices of individual actors within the context of large cultural processes."  He focuses on two actors in particular — Paul Revere and General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief of British forces in America.  Fischer wants to explain the series of events that lead up to the Revolution as a sequence of choices made by Revere, Gage, and many other leaders. The book is especially strong in showing Revere not as the solitary rider of mythology, but as a key organizer of collective efforts leading up to the Revolution. 

If you have enjoyed some of the great biographies of American figures by David McCullough (for example, John Adams or Truman), you'll enjoy this book.  Fischer's work is not a biography, but he brings the historical figures to life here and tells a really compelling story.  It's a historical page-turner.  That is no small achievement.

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An Exceptional New Blog

Original A friend of mine — someone I admire a lot — recently started a new blog. This isn't like most blogs.  Unlike my blog, for example, his is not cheap, shallow, intemperate, snarky, and filled with foul language.  Rather, his blog is erudite, literary, and intellectually interesting.  Moreover, it has a real, tangible connection to the world around us.

The blog I wish to refer you to is this: Walking the Post Road.  I'm loathe to categorize it, but I cannot resist.  It is part travelogue (walkalogue?), part American history, part slice-of-life, part thoughtful reflection on nature and development.  But in characterizing it this way, I sell it short.  It is a piece of many parts, a symphony of observation, research, and intriguing encounters.

The author* of this blog is walking (!!) the ancient Indian trail that "roughly follows the route of U.S. 1 . . . the most ancient and documented route from Boston to New York."  Along the way, he will provide us with carefully researched historical information, with thoughtful consideration of the natural and developed world he encounters, and with mini-portraits of the people whose paths he crosses.  A modern-day Thoreau, he also is certain to enlighten us with his observations about solitude and the pleasures and pains of perambulation.

His is a most unusual undertaking.  I intend to be with him, every step of his way, learning from his fieldwork and his humanity.  I urge you to be there, too.  Walking the Post Road.  See it now.  Subscribe to the RSS feed. Become part of this adventure.  We'll all learn a lot.


* Despite his aptitude for historical and geographical scholarship, his appreciation of the tension between nature and development, and his general bonhomie, the author intends for now to remain anonymousWhy?  I dunno.  But his identity is safe with me.

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Duck and Cover

Here‘s a trip down Nostalgia Lane for those of you in your later 50s or older.  It’s one of the famous “Duck and Cover” films, produced by the Civilian Defense Administration in the early 1950s and aimed at teaching you how to survive a nuclear attack.  Of course, we know now that is laughably preposterous.  They’d have done a much better public service by producing a “Gumby” video, teaching everyone how to be flexible enough to “kiss your ass good-bye.”

And, for those of you 45 and younger: maybe this film help explain why at least some of your elders are screwed up.