Like most other institutions in American government, the county was originated in England. The origins of the American county can be traced back ten centuries to the counties of Anglo-Saxon England. They performed judicial, police, public works, military functions, and almost all the needs of government.
When the English colonists came to America, they brought with them many of their local government institutions and adapted them to the new environment. The county commission system found in South Dakota is a direct descendent of the form of county government established in Pennsylvania in 1724.
With the advent of the popular Jacksonian democracy, the age of the common man, county officials became independent of state control and were elected. It was thought that the cure to many of our problems was to have as many officials as possible elected directly by the people for short terms, and thus keeping democracy close to home.
America’s new democratic spirit was boldly displayed in the Presidential election of 1828. This campaign marked the beginning of modern American politics. Open-air speeches, parades, rallies, cookouts, campaign posters, and slogans were all employed to influence voters. This was a popular rejection of the idea that specialized skill and training were necessary for county government, or government service at any level.
The first legislature of Dakota Territory met in Yankton in March, 1862, and created eighteen counties in the southeastern part of what is now South Dakota: Bon Homme, Lincoln, Minnehaha, Brookings, Yankton, Clay, Hutchinson, Gregory, Charles Mix, Cole (now Union), Duel, and others. Provision was made for county organization in the settled areas, but there was little attention to the matters of local government until after 1865.
In the 1880’s a large volume of legislation was created concerning county boundaries, construction of county jails and courthouses, the issuance of county bonds, and the refunding of county debts. Cattlemen, in the West River area vigorously opposed the organization of county government. They wanted to postpone initiating herd, or fence, laws which made owners of livestock financially responsible for damage to crops.
The early 1880’s were called the “Great Dakota Boom.” As settlers moved on to the prairie, the population of Dakota Territory now included in South Dakota was 11,915 in 1870. By 1880 it had grown to 98,711 and by 1885 it had reached 262,560. Many towns and communities sprang up on the prairie. Some flourished and others disappeared. Intense rivalry prevailed among those that remained. This was increased by “county seat fights” when two or more towns contested for the location of the county courthouse.
As later legislatures created more counties and their rapid growth in the central part of the state followed, sectional rivalries were accentuated. This gave momentum to a separate statehood movement in the southern section of Dakota. Internal county conflict was also abundant, as spirited contests for location of the county seat developed.
Nehemiah J. Ordway was appointed Governor of Dakota Territory by President Hayes in 1880. He served during the peak years of the “Great Dakota Boom.” The entire Territory was in a state of change where boundaries and communities were redefined. There was much speculation and conflict over the organizing of county governments, including intense rivalries over the location of the county seat.
Doane Robinson, State Historian, wrote that during 1881 and 1882: “. . . many of the counties in the territory were organized and scarcely one of these escaped a county seat scandal in which the name of the governor, his son or his reputed agents were involved.”
Two of his biggest scandals involved the location of the county seat in Faulk and Hyde counties. Representatives of the governor asked for and received thousands of dollars and hundreds of acres of land for the location of the county seat. Some real estate involved in the negotiations was valued at $15,000 to $25,000. The governor appointed certain county commissioners who would in turn select the location of the court house.
The editor of the Press and Daily Dakotaian at Yankton in a front-page editorial on March 28, 1883 wrote: “We state as a fact which cannot be successfully contradicted, that he has shown himself the most unfit, unscrupulous and selfish governor that ever came to Dakota. He has continually disgraced the office he holds and is a detriment to the people and an unmitigated fraud and failure, and the sooner we are rid of him the better it is for the people.”
Doane Robinson, State Historian, published in 1930 a list of nineteen conflicts involving the selection of the county seat which he considered the more exciting contests. Gregory County was the site of one of those quarrels. Fairfax, the oldest town in the county had been selected as the county seat in 1898.
In 1913 it had four general stores, two banks, three hotels, two restaurants, two large hardware stores, a good drug store, two millinery stores, two abstract offices, a large farm implement store, a harness shop, meat market, three cream stations, a flour mill, three elevators, two lumber yards and coal yards, a newspaper and job office, two blacksmith shops, a livery stable, an auto garage, a cement block works, two dray lines, a large nursey, two barber shops, two pool halls, and two saloons. There were three attorneys, two physicians, a veterinary surgeon, four carpenters, a brick mason, and a plumber.
Fairfax was often referred to as the “Mother of the Rosebud Towns.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on December 9, 2020