Aficionado of the American West: John Jennewein

I recently traveled to the nation’s capital to celebrate the graduation of two of my siblings, with all of my siblings and various related tagalongs enjoying time together in Washington, D.C. We took in many of the sights and hit up various museums. I always appreciate those who curate exhibits; it’s certainly an art to be able to put together items and research in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and provides information and insight into a topic in a way that makes people want to stop and take it all in! Especially in today’s world, where our handheld screens vie for our attention constantly … 

I recently came across a bit of information about a man from South Dakota who spent his life distributing data about the past. An article in South Dakota History, Vol. 47, No.4, describes, “John Leonard Jennewein was an aficionado of the American West with a passion for preserving and sharing the past through his various roles as historian, educator, and museum curator.”

Jennewein was born on June 5, 1910, in Bath, S.D., and grew up on the Hat Ranch near Bison. He married Marjorie Bullock in 1933, and the couple would have two daughters, Linova and Sylvia.

Jennewein worked various jobs throughout his life, and the first was as a rural schoolteacher near Bison. He graduated from Northern State Teachers College at Aberdeen in 1935, after which he relocated to Pierre to work as district director of employment for the Works Progress Administration. “Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he served in the United States Army, as state director of recreation for the Federal Works Agency in Mitchell, chief clerk of the post engineers at the Black Hills Ordnance Depot in Igloo, and district property officer for the Bureau of Reclamation at Huron,” the article states. “In 1953, Jennewein and his family settled in Mitchell, where he taught history and English at Dakota Wesleyan University until his death in 1968.”

The article describes that Jennewein’s father, Fred, was an avid collector of cowboy memorabilia, and this sparked Jennewein’s interested in western history. The South Dakota Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in the general category in 1978, describes that other interests included photography, lecturing, book collecting, antiques, antique cars, and writing, all of which started when he was young. “Their home was filled with antiques,” the website states. “Finally the town of Bison built a rammed earth museum to house the Jennewein collection. Leonard’s father, Fred, was curator until he died, when it was moved to the basement of the Custer State Park Museum. (Leonard’s) Family vacations were always planned around locating and photographing historical sites, monuments, interviewing people of interest and, of course, visiting every museum possible.”

Jennewein’s love of history translated into many publications that he wrote, including “Calamity Jane of the Western Trails,” “Prelude to Barbed Wire,” and “Black Hills Book Trails,” and he co-edited “Dakota Panorama,” a collection of historical essays commemorating the centennial of Dakota Territory.

“As executive secretary of the Friends of the Middle Border, Jennewein tirelessly collected and documented artifacts for the organization’s museum in College Hall on the Dakota Wesleyan campus, both before and after fire destroyed the building in 1955. Now named the Dakota Discovery Museum, the facility is located near the Dakota Wesleyan campus, where the Jennewein Western History collection is housed at the university’s McGovern Library,” the article describes.

During his life, Jennewein was involved in numerous historical organizations and received various honors and awards. “A noted lecturer, he was frequently called upon to emcee events across the state. The City of Mitchell named Jennewein Park in his honor in 1968, and he was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1978,” the article states.

The South Dakota Hall of Fame website describes that Jennewein was a member of North and South Dakota Historical Society, Montana and Colorado Historical Society, Mississippi Valley Historical Association, American History Association, national Congress of American Indians, South Dakota Institute of Indian Studies, National Council Teachers of English, Phi Kappa Phi, South Dakota Education Association, American Legion, and Sigma Tau Delta. “Teaching the college students was not a chore,” the website states. “He loved it. Every day was an exciting challenge. Students say he made history come alive, especially when he was teaching South Dakota and the Midwest.”

Jennewein died on Jan. 4, 1968, and is buried in the American Legion Cemetery in Mitchell.

This is a week to celebrate our history — I hope everyone had a happy Independence Day!

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