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Wind Cave National Park: The First 100 Years

Author : Peggy Sanders
Published : 2003-04-15

Dozens of new books about America’s national parks are published every year, so you have to have a pretty darn good reason to dig out and review a book that was released into the wild six years ago. This one is worth the trouble, and I’ll tell you why.

While there is a good supply of national park photo essays (take a zillion photos, choose the best few, write some captions and commentary), national park historical photo collections complimented by excellent “extended captions” are very scarce. Books like this densely illustrated history of Wind Cave National Park are genuinely rare.

I’ll freely admit that I’m crazy about old photos, especially ones taken in the national parks. Give me a rainy afternoon, a hot cup of coffee, and a box of old national park photos, and you can have all the rest.

I’ve never met Peggy Sanders, but it strikes me that she’s a kindred spirit. She must have had a wonderful time working her way through the Wind Cave photo archives and various family photo collections (primarily from the the Suters and the Sawyers). And I know she must have had a devil of a time trying to choose the best ones to put in this book. Right this minute I’m wondering about the photos that didn’t make the cut. How I’d love to see them all!

Here are a few things you should know about this book and the woman who wrote it.

Peggy Sanders is not just a talented regional historian who knows a lot about Wind Cave National Park. She is an Oral, South Dakota, farm wife and fifth-generation descendant of South Dakota homesteaders. Her background has given her a remarkably good feel for the western Dakotas landscape in general and the Black Hills vicinity in particular. She knows at a visceral level that this beautiful locale -- a land of forests and prairies and hills and caves -- is also a rugged, no-nonsense place. Landscapes like that weed out the incompetents, so after four or five generations all you have left is tough, resilient people. If you’ve read Willa Cathers’ My Antonia, you know what I mean.

This book is just about the most photo-dense work you will ever see. There are 128 pages between the front and back covers, and 125 have photos. (When was the last time you hefted a book that had photos on every page except the table of contents, acknowledgments, and introduction pages?) There are two photos on almost every page, and all are black and white. Most photos are quite good, some are downright excellent, and there aren’t any clinkers.

This is Peggy’s second book in Arcadia’s “Images of America” series – the other being Fall River County and Hot Springs [SD]: 125 Years -- so she’s pretty much worked the kinks out of her writing. Each of the caption-cum-narratives in this book is crisply written and crammed with interesting facts. I am frankly amazed at the sheer amount of information packed into those photo captions.

This book is most emphatically not about the scenic wonders and novelty of Wind Cave. The author understands that the history of a national park, especially the early history, is truly a story of people and their work. It is, in brief, a story of creating infrastructure. The great majority of the photos in this book accordingly show people working, people getting ready to work, or people resting after work, Nearly all of the rest show the results of work. Over the past century and more it has taken a LOT of work to establish, improve, and maintain Wind Cave National Park, not to mention provide visitors with essential services.

Thanks to Peggy’s work, the people who created and managed Wind Cave National Park speak to us across the decades. When they toiled to make this park the very special place it is today, they were aware that they were doing work for the ages. The cavers, contract workers, CCC laborers, rangers, and others who mapped the cave, fitted it out for public access, built the roads, constructed the visitor center, established the bison herd, and tended to myriad other duties were all aware that of the legacy they were passing along to us, our children, and our grandchildren’s children.

Wind Cave National Park: The First 100 Years is not without its shortcomings.

This book is supposed to be about the park’s first century, but the introduction reads like nothing particularly interesting happened after about 1938. After reading the book you can see that this skew in the direction of the early years is more than a mere suspicion. The book’s final section, the one that’s labeled “The Last 50 Years,” accounts for just 25 of the book’s 128 pages.

In several places, the book seems to become very unbalanced or unfocused. Indian encampments at Wind Cave are interesting, but is it really necessary to devote a dozen pages of the book to this topic? And why does one get the feeling that the last 25 pages of the book were thrown together with little regard to temporal sequence or thematic significance?

Although general photo source information is provided in the introduction, no source information accompanies each photo. The lack of a Photo Credits list is even more perplexing. I guess if you have questions about the source of a particular photo you need to ask the author.

There is not a single map in this book. Not one! The editor was just plain OTL on that one.

There is no concluding section. The book just sort of …….ends. It’s as though somebody said “we’ve got our 128 pages, so let’s stop here.” That’s not a good way to end this or any other book. A well written conclusions section provides perspective, summarizes major concepts or ideas, highlights events of special significance, and where appropriate, points to problems, needs, and opportunities that will shape the future.

All things considered, though, I really like this book. I suspect that you will too, so I commend it to your attention.

A caveat is in order: You can learn an awful lot about Wind Cave National Park history by reading this book, but a lot of important information that does not directly relate to the selected photos is simply left unsaid. Serious students of Wind Cave National Park history will accordingly want to treat this book as a supplemental work. This is not a criticism of the book so much as a jab at the book’s title, which implies a lot more than it delivers.

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