South Dakota 125th: The amazing life and tragic death of Governo - KSFY News - Sioux Falls, SD News, Weather, Sports

South Dakota 125th: The amazing life and tragic death of Governor Arthur Mellette

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 Tonight we continue our nearly year long coverage of South Dakota's 125th year of statehood.
 South Dakota's first governor was named Arthur Mellette.
 When we first started working on this story, we thought we were just learning about a leader.
 What we found as well: a love story....that came to a tragic end.

 On Watertown's highest hill, in the northwest part of the city, you find this nearly 130 year old home.
 The story of how it came to be, and why it's still standing, is filled with dramatic highs and lows.
 This is the home of South Dakota's last territorial governor...and first state governor...Arthur Mellette.

 "He felt very strongly about public education and that everyone should have a chance to be educated." Prudy Calvin is the president of the Mellette Memorial Association and is one of the top Mellette researchers in our area.
 Arthur Mellette came to Dakota Territory with his family in January 1879 after having been a member of the Indiana Legislature and a veteran of the Civil War.
 He arrived in the middle of a terrible harsh winter. "Charles, one of the sons..wrote it was 45 below. Maggie..the mother...wrote it was 35 below. It was....chilly."

 Mellette was here because he had been appointed the registrar of deeds for homesteads in the Springfield area.
 But a little more than a year later, he was transferred to Watertown. "It was a boom town. They thought it was going to be as big as Chicago."

 And it was after Mellette moved to Watertown that he began working with his old friend Indiana friend now in Washington, Congressman Benjamin Harrison, on an idea that would change Dakota Territory. "All this time, Mellette kind of had an idea in the back of his mind of North and South Dakota."

 And when Harrison became president, he appointed Mellette the governor of Dakota Territory...and in early 1889, Mellette went to work in the territorial capitol at Bismarck. "He did spend the majority of that year in Bismarck basically dividing them."

 It is because of Arthur Mellette that North and South Dakota exist.
 And when statehood came in late 1889, South Dakotans elected Mellette the state's first governor.
 And then....the bad times came. A nationwide depression and big trouble here at home. "We had drought and we had grasshoppers. And farmers were staving. Literally starving on the prairie." Mellette petitioned Washington for financial help and got it but then had no state funds to distribute it.
 So Mellette reached into his own wallet and paid for that aid to be dispersed.
 He could not stand to see his fellow South Dakotans suffer. "He always...always....took the high road. He did what was best for the people, not what was best for him."

 Mellette got South Dakota through the rough times but after serving four years, he was nearly broke.
 So he left the governorship to return to Watertown and his law practice.
 Soon after, his oldest son died.
 Then he discovered his former state treasurer has stolen more than $300,000 from the state; funds which were bonded in Mellette's name. Meaning..he had to pay that money back. "He lost all of his property, and this house, to the state of South Dakota, to try to retire that debt."

 Mellette left Watertown to open a law practice in the lucrative community of Pittsburgh, Kansas.
 But then, if things couldn't get worse....Mellette got sick. Very sick. "We know he went to Cincinnati to a doctor, we don't know what the doctor told him but it wasn't good."

 Arthur Mellette died in May of 1896.
 Before he did, he wrote a letter to his wife Maggie's mother, asking her to take care of his wife...because he knew soon...he wouldn't be able to. "He wasn't afraid of dying, it was the worry of the mess that was left that was overpowering to him."

 When Arthur Mellette died, he was 53 years old.
 Purdy Calvin says despite the volumes of personal papers the Mellette family donated to the state, no where is it written or stated what killed Arthur Mellette.
 His wife Maggie survived for another 43 years without him and wrote a lot about her life with him...and about how much she loved him....but never, ever wrote about his death. "I think it must have been horrific for her. because he truly was the center....when you live with someone who is larger than life as he was, it had to have left such a gap."

 When Arthur Mellette was sworn in as South Dakota's first governor, there was no capitol building yet.
 He was sworn in at the Hughes County Courthouse.
 Outside that courthouse today is a statue of Arthur Mellette, which is a part of the Trail of Governors project....which every year produces statues of three former South Dakota governors.
 To learn more about the Trail of Governors, please click on this link to be connected to the project's web site.

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