Sanson Ranch

The South Dakota prairie is a harsh environment.  Extreme variations of temperature, moisture and wind are always present.  To eke out a living on the prairie individuals must be ready to meet these conditions head on.  August Sanson, an immigrant from Bjorksjon, Sweden, was the type of person to do just that.  He and his family successfully homesteaded a large plot of land that is now part of Wind Cave National Park.

August Sanson left his native Sweden in 1870 for the United States.  He arrived in Michigan and gained employment working the copper fields for the Snolders Mining Company.  In 1878, the mining company sent Sanson to the Black Hills to prospect for gold.  The company also established a secondary enterprise called the Wyoming and Black Hills Cattle Company.  Under Sanson’s care, the company drove 325 head of cattle from Iowa to South Dakota.  The cattle enterprise failed after one winter and the business gave their remaining 90 head to Sanson as payment. 

In 1882, at the age of 33, August Sanson received 160 acres of land as per the Homestead Act.  Signed into law in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, the act turned over roughly 270 million acres of public domain to private citizens for the purpose of settlement.  His property is situated in present day Custer County along Beaver Creek just west of Buffalo Gap, South Dakota.   This property was added to by August’s marriage to Johanna Grashorn in 1888.  Johanna and her mother, Louisa, had a nearby homestead which eventually became part of the Sanson Ranch.  With future purchases, additional homesteads and untimely deaths in the family the ranch eventually became 3,700 acres in size.

As a cattle rancher, Sanson had to adjust to the harsh, ever-changing conditions nature threw at him and survive.  He endured by being able to adapt with the time and conditions.  The homestead is a testament to Sanson and his decedents to their tenacity and how they protected and cared for the land.  According to Sanson’s son, Carl, “there were many problems along the way… dry years, grasshoppers, hail storms and range fires, but they endured them all.”

Raising cattle was the major focus of ranching in the Southern Black Hills in the 1870s and 1880s.  Many large cattle ranches sprang up near the then thriving town of Buffalo Gap, just eight miles from the Sanson Homestead.  The topography of the Southern Black Hills provided less severe winter conditions and promoted more robust livestock.  The arrival of the railroad in Buffalo Gap in 1885 allowed cattle to be shipped to eastern and European markets.  During these years cattle ranching flourished and then suddenly collapsed.  The seemingly endless prairie grasses had their limits.  Too many cattle grazing in too little spaces and catastrophic weather incidents depleted the land.

In 1916, August’s son, Carl, took over the management of the ranch.  Throughout the years they adjusted to the ever-changing prairie and fluctuating financial markets.  The Sansons understood that protecting the range was as important as protecting the livestock.  Carl explained it in his memoir, “with care and no overgrazing, the grass is still here, which can’t be said of some ranches.  To overgraze the range will get you if you keep it up.  We have sold out our cow herd twice in my lifetime when we had too long a spell of dry years but have always built back up when years were better.”

To survive on the frontier you not only needed tenacity, you needed a support community, and the local community was an important part of the Sanson story.  In his memoir, Sanson wrote “Like any business, the ranching business has many problems that had to be solved the best way we could.   The neighbors were always ready to help anyone anytime; your troubles were their troubles.  There couldn’t be a better neighborhood anywhere.  We always helped each other… if we didn’t, a lot of us wouldn’t have survived this frontier country.”

The surviving buildings of the Sanson Ranch represent a way of life in Western South Dakota at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.  The family home burned in 1910 and they lost everything.  While living at Johanna’s old claim shack at half mile east of the burned residence, the Sanson family began rebuilding the ranch house.  They celebrated the completion of the house and August and Johanna’s 31st wedding anniversary on May 19, 1919 with 150 friends and neighbors present.  The barn, chicken coop and root cellar demonstrate how each building had a specific purpose and was utilized to make the most of the modest supplies available.  The various outbuildings show that a working ranch is more than taking care of livestock before shipping them to market.

The ranch is nestled within a varied landscape due to the location of the property at the convergence of the Black Hills and Great Plains.  The western portion of the property is characterized by rock outcroppings and steep hills.  The upper most rocky topography of the landscape supports dense stands of firs and pines typical of the Badlands.  Traveling towards the eastern boundary of the ranch, the landscape is composed of vast expanses of flat, rolling prairie.  Stretching out on its own unbounded scale, the prairie supports the traditional grasses in rich red soils.  The ranch property is bisected by Beaver Creek, currently dry, and other still active tributaries which are partially responsible for shaping the present landscape. 

In 1987, the Sanson Ranch was honored as being the oldest working ranch in Custer County, South Dakota.  In 2000, the Casey family owned the former Sanson homestead and approached the National Park Service about selling the land.  In 2005, Congress passed legislation to expand Wind Cave National Park pending an appropriation to purchase the land.  The land was put up for auction by the Casey Family in 2010.  The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting important places across America, purchased the property.  The nonprofit held the land for the National Park Service until federal funding became available. On October 6, 2011, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the National Park Service had acquired 5,555 acres of former ranchland, which included the Sanson Homestead.  The acquired acreage became part of Wind Cave National Park.

New Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plan: Uncovering Hopi Life on the Awatovi Pueblo

This is not a barren landscape.

The National Park Service has just announced a new Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan, Enduring Awatovi: Uncovering Hopi Life and Work on the Mesa.

The lesson introduces students to traditional Hopi culture and farming practices at a historic pueblo of the Hopi Tribe. Through the use of maps, readings, and photographs, students examine multiple perspectives of the Awatovi Pueblo. 

The Awatovi Ruins, located in northeastern Arizona, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. This is the highest national distinction for recognizing a historic site’s exceptional value or quality in interpreting the heritage of the United States. The site, which contains the remnants of a 500-year-old pueblo and a 17th century Spanish mission complex, preserves the location of one of the most important Hopi villages encountered by Coronado’s expedition in 1540.

Although Awatovi is no longer occupied, enduring Hopi traditions and American archeological research reveal strong connections between the cultural practices of the past and the life of the present.

The unique characteristics of the landscape and a long period of historic occupation have combined to make Hopi culture one of the oldest and most stable in North America. Hopi peoples have successfully merged the valued aspects of their past into the changing conditions of their surroundings; even as residents of the reservation engage in modern pursuits and industries, they maintain many of the cultural practices that form their identity.  


One significant example of this cultural continuity emerges in agricultural traditions, where age-old techniques continue to yield larger crops than could seem possible in this landscape.  The land is remarkable and dramatic, yet undeniably arid.  The rituals and traditions associated with the cultivation of corn demonstrate the connection between daily work and spiritual life in Hopi culture.

The TwHP lesson:

1.       Illustrates the methods by which Awatovi Hopis and Hopis today successfully farm on the apparently unproductive landscape;

2.       Describes how archeology can reveal the practices of people whose past has not been preserved in written records or photographs; and

3.       Guides students to document historic farming techniques in their own states or regions.

This is the 156th lesson created for the Teaching with Historic Placesseries, a program that brings the significance of historic sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places alive in classrooms across the country and supports the teaching of history, social studies, civics, and other subjects. 

Students can discover how archeological evidence from the landscape can help us understand life, perspectives, and practices from earlier times. This Arizona landscape might appear barren and empty, but the Hopi people and their agricultural success are reminders of its enduring richness.


The lesson plan was developed by historians and education consultants for the Teaching with Historic Places program. Great work to everyone who provided advice and assistance in the preparation of the lesson plan.  Please share this with educators!

All work, no play? No way. Not all historic agricultural landscapes were born out the demands of leading a subsistence lifestyle.

These #ThrowbackThursday images show the Valley Y Ranch at the west end of the Buffalo National River in the Arkansas Ozarks.

The Valley Y Ranch was established in 1954 when Provin W. Yarborough and his family arrived from Overland Park, Kansas in search of the tranquility of a more primitive and rural lifestyle.  During the next two decades, the family built structures and accumulated land in the valley on which to raise Arabian and quarter horses. 

By 1964, the complex was much larger than typical ranches in the region.  It continued to expand its operations and reputation, nationally recognized for Arabian horses and drawing visitors to enjoy its amenities and scenery.  At its pinnacle, the ranch included a large arena, portable bleachers, a restroom, a concession area, and guest housing.  Plans for a golf course, airstrip, and other features were never actualized.

In addition to it’s importance as a ranch, the Valley Y Ranch was significant in the conservation movement.  As operations expanded, it became a source of controversy in the 1960s and 1970s when environmental groups began pressing for a protected park along this section of the Buffalo River.  The family resisted the movement.  However, when P.W. Yarborough died unexpectedly in 1973, his wife and daughter sold the property to the NPS.

Although some of the structures were removed, much of the ranch landscape is preserved for its significant associations to regional patterns of agriculture, architecture, and land use.


Ripe for Discovery

Fruita Rural Historic District, Capitol Reef National Park

In the sheltered canyon bottoms of south-central Utah, neatly-arranged fruit orchards continue to provide evidence of Euro-American settlement and subsistence practices in the area. Current visitors to the orchards can get a taste of the historic landscape by picking fruit in season. 

A single piece of fruit might have been formed by one season of growth, but it has over a century of development under its skin.

The Fruita Rural Historic District

The Fruita Rural Historic District is defined by two canyons, intersecting at the confluence of Fremont River and Sulphur Creek. The steep canyon walls restricted views and development in the historic community, which encompasses about 200 acres of what is now Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park.  

The period of significance for the Euro-American landscape begins in 1895, marked by the construction of the Leo R. Holt House and the earliest documented irrigation ditches in the valley. Leo Holt was one of four Mormon settlers that filed and received title to homesteads in the area, claiming nearly all the arable land in this region of the arid state. Before long, productive orchards dotted the developing homesteads.

The features of the landscape still illustrate the site’s role in the development of the local fruit industry and its ties to Mormon cultural traditions. The district provides an example of how cooperative agricultural practices allowed Mormon settlers to make a successful living, despite the challenging environment.

Today, the Fruita Rural Historic District contains a cluster of late 19th century and early 20th century Mormon farmhouses and associated features, as well as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)-era rustic style Ranger Station. The landscape’s period of significance continues until 1947, after the park was established but prior to the Mission 66 park development era. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

The small town of Fruita is the location for the majority of visitor services, as well as park headquarters and operations. The Holt House has provided housing for park staff, and is currently used as a curatorial storage and work area.

An Agricultural Oasis

Mormon settlers were not the first to discover the agricultural potential of these canyon valleys. The earliest documented occupants of the Fruita region were members of the Desert Archaic Culture, dating to about 8,500 to 2,000 years ago. More recently, Fremont peoples (1,500-700 years ago) and then subsequent Paiute groups cultivated the area, growing corn and other crops with the help of irrigation systems. Evidence of storage structures suggests semi-permanent habitation.

The current landscape’s vegetation is dominated by the recent agricultural history of the canyon bottom. The historic district contains approximately 2,500 orchard trees on 40 acres, as well as 25 acres of open fields and pasture lands.

Additionally, vegetation along the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek reflects years of disturbance by flooding, grazing, irrigation works, and other impacts associated with farming practices dating from the 1880s.

Fruita has long been home to the families that lived and cultivated the valley. It also provided a vital oasis to travelers through the arid region with its green fields, orchards, and shady corners offering a splash of lush color against the dramatic canyon backdrop. The area invited visitors from plateau towns to the west and canyonlands in the east, and it was (and still is) a popular gathering place for celebrations and fruit harvests. 

Continuing Harvest: Maintaining and Using Historic Orchards

Although many structures built during the period of significance have since been removed, the overall organization and pattern of the agricultural community remains. The location of orchards and many of the trees in them are historic, dating to the 1940s. Trees in poor condition have been replaced, and in some cases entire orchards of old, failing trees have been replanted to reflect the appearance of the historic landscape.

The NPS has gathered historical documentation of the Fruita District in a Cultural Landscape Report (1997), including acreage, information on historic and current trees, and changes in property ownership. Historic orchards are maintained using current horticultural practices, and fruit is harvested using a “pick-your-own” system and sold to the public.

Learn More:

  • Information about the Orchards is provided at the Captiol Reef National Park website, including history, harvest information, approximate dates for flowering and harvesting, and a list of all the fruit and nut varieties.
  • The park announces regular orchard updates at its Facebook and Twitter pages. Find out when you can get your own taste of Fruita!

Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary:

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail

The history of European settlement in the United States is traditionally told as an east-to-west journey.

A bi-national trail arches gently over the middle of the North American continent from Mexico City through the central highlands of Mexico to Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan) Pueblo, New Mexico, tracing a path towards another perspective of the European settlement story. The El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, designated as a National Historic Trail in 2000, emphasizes the shared history and heritage of Spain, Mexico, and the American Southwest in early settlement patterns of the United States.   

 This August, the National Park Service announced its new online El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary. The itinerary provides historical and cultural information, images, maps, and essays to help connect and distinguish the 17 historic sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places  The journey over the Spanish Colonial “royal road of the interior” represents three centuries of cultural heritage and interactions, elements of which continue to persist in the present-day landscape and inhabitants.

 The El Camino Real itinerary is the 58th in the online Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary Series, which supports historic preservation, promotes public awareness of history, and encourages visits to historic places throughout the country. The National Park Service’s Heritage Education Services and its National Trails Intermountain Region produced this travel itinerary in partnership with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.



September 10, 1813.  It is dawn at Lake Erie.  A lookout spots six British vessels beyond Rattlesnake Island! Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry immediately issues a flurry of orders, making preparations to sail forth and engage the British.   

Just before the engagement begins, Perry hoists his battle flag above his flagship, the Lawrence. The broad blue banner bears the final words of his dying comrade Captain James Lawrence, who was killed on June 1, 1813:


Perry’s triumph over the British navy in the Battle of Lake Erie (also known as the Battle of Put-in-Bay) was a decisive event of the War of 1812. The victory secured control of the lake and led to British retreat, culminating in a final defeat at the Battle of the Thames in early October.  Later, during peace talks, the dual victories of Lake Erie and the Thames insured that Ohio and Michigan would remain the sovereign territory of the United States.  

Perry’s words to William Henry Harrison, scratched in pencil on an old envelope, read, “Dear General: We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O.H. Perry”.

If you’re interested in historic farming landscapes and ready for an adventure, take a look at the Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the NPS at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  

The park is soliciting proposals for a long-term lease of the Chellberg Farm outbuildings and fields, and/or the Charles P. Nelson House. Both are National Register eligible properties located just east of Chicago in Porter, Indiana. The Chellberg property includes four fields and a non-extant orchard field for a total of approximately 18 acres. Outbuildings available through this lease include the barn, chicken coop, corncrib, granary, maple sugar shack, and pump house and windmill.

If you’d like to live on-site, the Charles P. Nelson House is available just across the road. Built in 1891, the brick farmhouse has two bedrooms and a 20th century bathroom upstairs, which is the only major alteration to the original house. The Nelson property also contains a workshop/shed and a windmill.