BHSU history

Pictured is Woodburn Hall at the BHSU Campus. For more news about the 125-year BHSU alumni celebration, turn to Page 14 in Thursday's edition of the Pioneer. Pioneer photo by Mark Watson

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SPEARFISH — Black Hills State University sits amid some of the country’s most spectacular nature, in evidence visually from any point on campus. It’s hard to realize that 136 years ago, when the school was founded, original faculty and students viewed that nature more as a challenge than an asset.

They wondered, for example, whether the rocky and arid Black Hills foothills could grow crops to feed newly arrived settlers. In the 1880s, first BHSU president Fayette Cook and students were key among those proving that local farming was possible through gravity-drawn irrigation and scientific crop selection. 

Yet closest to Cook’s heart was growing not fruits and vegetable, but teachers. He was a disciple of the American “normal school” movement of the late 1800s that stressed there was more to teaching than love of children and good intentions. Cook and his faculty invented methodology for teacher development. They sent most of their graduates into remote Great Plains locations to shape the region’s next generation. Geographic isolation, the fledgling university stressed, was no excuse for public schools inferior to those in urban settings. Over the decades BHSU graduates have landed in a wide range of professional positions worldwide. But none have made more of a lasting impact than those in South Dakota and Wyoming schools -- every single school in those states, by some counts.

From the beginning, the Black Hills public was welcomed onto campus for lecturers and performing artists traveling college circuits, and the same was true for student performers. Sports fans relished the development of Yellow Jackets athletics, including the fourth most played college football rivalry nationally in any NCAA division (credit goes to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for an assist there).

In times of war and peace BHSU has always been known as soldier and veteran friendly. That was especially true in 1943 and 1944 when the school entered a partnership with the U.S. Army Air Forces and prepared 1,000 military aviators for World War II service. The flyers lived on campus, earned college degrees necessary to become officers, and learned to fly at Spearfish’s airport east of town. Post-war, BHSU faculty traveled to nearby, newly-established Ellsworth Air Force Base to offer Air Force personnel college coursework.

Simultaneously faculty began teaching courses on South Dakota’s reservations, emphasizing professional development for teachers that would improve schooling for American Indian youth. In coming years the strong bond between BHSU and Native communities resulted in a highly regarded American Indian Studies program, and a role in helping preserve the Lakota language.

BHSU’s enrollment, well into the 1960s, hovered in the hundreds. Then student numbers boomed through the rest of the century, putting the school on course to rank as South Dakota’s third-largest institution of higher learning. Fields of study expanded, Masters degree programs were approved by the state Board of Regents, and in 1989 BHSU won university status. 

Nothing slowed down in the 21st century. As the Black Hills economy grew and diversified as never before, BHSU’s business school was a tremendous regional resource.

A Rapid City BHSU campus opened. Most remarkable, perhaps, was development of the Sanford Underground Research Facility less than 20 miles from the Spearfish campus, and drawing scientists from around the world to study neutrinos, other physics, and life sciences a mile beneath the earth’s surface. The subterranean laboratory was built in the depths of the former Homestake Gold Mine. Through the 20th century, many BHSU students boasted of attending the university thanks to the “Homestake Scholarship.” That meant they labored in the mine, sometimes pulling overnight shifts before driving to Spearfish for morning classes. Today BHSU students, as undergraduates, conduct significant research in the lab that students visiting from out-of-state universities don’t typically tackle until graduate school.

BHSU’s enrollment stood at 4,035 in fall, 2018. Elementary education, business administration/marketing, and biology were top majors in terms of enrollment.

Long gone, of course, are the days when Black Hills nature felt intimidating, a challenge to conquer. Popular sustainability studies at BHSU emphasize responsible uses of natural resources. And student after student reports the Black Hills factored into their school selection because of outdoor recreation: hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, skiing, and much more.

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