Families of poet John Neihardt and South Dakota rancher seek ‘silver lining’ to removal of monument

By: - October 16, 2023 4:47 pm
The monument to Hugh Glass, as seen today, at its new location. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)

The monument to Hugh Glass, as seen today, at its new location. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)

LINCOLN, Nebraska — Later this week, a backhoe is scheduled to tear into the prairie along northwest South Dakota’s Shadehill Reservoir, removing a 100-year-old monument to the heroics of a mountain man.

The removal of the small, concrete obelisk dedicated to the determination of Hugh Glass, who reportedly crawled 200 miles after surviving a vicious mauling by a grizzly bear, has some people upset.

The monument is “being snatched away,” wrote Hettinger, N.D., author Francie M. Berg in a letter to local newspaper editors last week.

The marker, hand-fashioned by poet/author John Neihardt and a local rancher, was a “gift to communities of Shadehill and Lemmon, S.D.,” wrote another nearby resident.

“It seems right to leave it where it is,” Ellen Ketterling wrote.

Descendants seek solution

The descendants of Neihardt and Otto Weinkauf, the rancher who helped build the monument, said they have heard the pleas loud and clear, and they are hoping to do something about it.

“There has to be a silver lining to this,” said Arden Saunders of Rapid City, a grandson of Weinkauf, on whose land the monument initially stood.

Monument inscription

The inscription on the monument reads:

“This altar to courage was erected August 1, 1923 by the Neihardt Club in honor of Hugh Glass who wounded and deserted here began to crawl to Fort Kiowa in the fall of 1823.”

But standing in the way of replacing the monument with a historical marker of some kind is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which maintains that while it can permit the removal of the Hugh Glass memorial to facilitate the removal of a time capsule inside, it cannot, by statute, allow the erection of something new.

Both Saunders and Coralie Hughes, a granddaughter of Neihardt, are hoping there’s some way to allow the placement of an interpretive sign or marker to explain what their ancestors did 100 years ago.

“There are two overriding principles: One is do what my grandfather asked  (open the time capsule), and the second is preserve history,” Hughes said.

Her family is scheduled on Saturday to retrieve the monument, which John Neihardt said holds a time capsule that includes “an original manuscript.”

Removal is only way to crack into it

The Bureau ruled that the only way the monument could be cracked into was to remove it. So the Neihardt family plans to haul it to Bancroft, Nebraska, the site of the John Neihardt State Historic Site, to chip into it, fulfilling the poet’s wishes that the time capsule be opened in 2023.

Some background:

John Neihardt and some members of a “Neihardt Club” from what is now Wayne State College drove up to Lemmon in 1923 and built the monument to Glass, the subject of Neihardt’s epic poem, “The Song of Hugh Glass.” The site was at the confluence of two rivers where the mauling was said to have taken place.

The Nebraska poet/author — best known for writing “Black Elk Speaks” — issued a challenge for Wayne State students to return in 100 years, open a time capsule encased in the concrete obelisk and celebrate like mountain men would have. A group of students trekked to the site in June.

But the Bureau of Reclamation, on whose land the monument now sits, and the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, which operates a state recreation area on the reservoir, balked at letting the students crack into the concrete.

Ultimately, it was determined that “ownership” of the monument rested with the Neihardt family. But if they wanted to break into the concrete, the monument had to be removed from federal property.

A replacement was always intended

Hughes said Friday that it has always been the family’s intention that an interpretive sign of some kind — explaining what happened in 1923 to honor Hugh Glass — be erected as a replacement.

Author/poet John Neihardt, left, supervises the final construction of a concrete monument erected in 1923 to commemorate the heroics of mountain man Hugh Glass, who crawled miles after being left for dead after a grizzly bear mauling. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman and University of Missouri)
Author/poet John Neihardt, left, supervises the construction of a monument erected in 1923 to commemorate the heroics of mountain man Hugh Glass, who crawled miles after being left for dead after a grizzly bear mauling. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman and University of Missouri)

Saunders, a history buff, agrees.

He said last week that he’s had some sleepless nights knowing that a monument his grandfather helped build with his homemade cement mixer, and faithfully maintained for several years, will soon be removed.

“It’s a part of my family history that’s going to be gone,” Saunders said.

He said he doesn’t blame the Neihardt family, who are just trying to fulfill their grandfather’s wishes to open the time capsule.

“The government forced her hand,” Saunders said.

On Thursday, a representative of the Bureau of Reclamation said that installation of a replacement sign or monument would not be allowed.

Rule says no new monuments

“Federal regulation 43 CFR Part 423.28 explicitly outlines that ‘you must not … place memorials, markers, vases, or plaques on Reclamation facilities, lands, or waterbodies,’ ” stated an email from Elizabeth Smith, a Bureau spokeswoman in Montana.

Smith said the removal of the monument doesn’t conflict with the rule, but erecting a new one would.

The Bureau has noted that a second monument to Hugh Glass, erected by the state in 1964 using local petrified wood, will remain. Only the “smaller, lesser-known” monument will be removed.

Saunders said he hopes that decision can be relaxed or reversed and has reached out to the office of U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, to see if something can be done.

Hughes, from her home in Indiana, said the last thing the family wants is to leave people in the Lemmon area upset.

An official with the Neihardt Center in Nebraska is also supportive.

“There should be something there to replace it,” said Marianne Reynolds, the executive director of the center.

‘The Revenant’ based on Glass’ crawl

The Hugh Glass story is an important one in Lemmon, which holds an annual “rendezvous” festival in honor of the mountain man’s crawl to safety. The odyssey was depicted, with some Hollywood adaptations, in the movie “The Revenant” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Saunders said that a letter written by his grandfather in 1963 filled in some details about the monument.

Everyone present for its construction, the letter stated, signed their names to a paper that was placed inside a metal box. The box was locked and encased in concrete. The key was given to the wife of the then-director of the South Dakota State Historical Society for safekeeping, until the box/time capsule was to be reopened in 2023.

There was one addition: A pair of newlyweds showed up too late to have their names included in the time capsule. So a piece of paper with their names was placed in a pop bottle that was forced down into the still-wet concrete. The newlyweds were J.D. and Myrtle Young of Lincoln, with whom Neihardt lived for a time prior to his death in 1973.

Saunders said he’s still amazed at how a poet from Nebraska navigated gravel roads and cow paths to get to Lemmon in 1923, and then had the fortune of finding a tough, German rancher, who had the equipment to build a concrete monument at the now-famous site of the mauling.

Now, he said, “We just have to make the best of what we got.”

Hughes said the family plans to unveil the contents of the time capsule, if it can be successfully removed from the concrete monument, at the annual spring conference of the Neihardt Foundation.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Paul Hammel is the senior reporter for the Nebraska Examiner. He has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and was named editor of the Papillion Times in 1982. He later worked as a sports enterprise reporter at the Lincoln Journal-Star. He joined the Omaha World-Herald in 1990, working as a legislative reporter, then roving state reporter and finally Lincoln bureau chief. Paul has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation and secretary of the Nebraska Hop Growers.