Friday, June 28, marked the end of an era, when Miller’s large, well-known “Cowboy” was removed, and hauled to a new location on a flatbed trailer. Although the dismantling wasn’t publicized, quite a number of onlookers still were on hand to watch and take pictures.
The Cowboy has an interesting history.
Way back when, in 1966, Jean DeHaven from Wessington led a mule train caravan 1,800 miles-from Death Valley in California back to Wessington, S.D. The 10 teams of mules comprising the mule train made the trek in about four months. The trip was undertaken to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service.
DeHaven started Cowboy Park campground, just east of Wessington that same year. He commissioned a sign company to make the cowboy “sign,” based on a photo of himself. He “was” the cowboy depicted, and the face originally was smiling and genial.
Bruce Sign Company made the sign, at a cost of between $5,000 and $6,000. It was 12 feet wide and 48 feet tall. The sign was placed on the north side of Highway 14, just across from the campground. It was outlined with colorful neon lights. DeHaven’s daughter, Dwan DeGeest, remembers, “You could see it all the way from Holforty’s Corner, 10 miles away,” where motorists would turn west toward Wessington.
When the park closed, Virgil Lips, who had Lips Café in Miller (now-again-the Hondah), offered to buy the sign and erect it by the café. DeHaven’s widow, Norma, says the Cowboy made its move in 1970.
Lips repainted the Cowboy, added a vest, and changed the facial expression (which Norma DeHaven thinks looks “mean”).
For some 43 years, the huge Cowboy sign was a Miller landmark. It was something of a source of pride for locals. Visitors always noted the Cowboy, kids loved him, and any photo of Main Street shows him “standing tall” just to the north of the restaurant.
But time and the elements took its toll, and the 5,000-pound sign posed a safety issue, for fear wind might blow it over and cause damage. An estimate for repair was about $30,000.
Dwan DeGeest decided to take the Cowboy “home.” She contacted L & M Crane Service, which was doing work at Miller Grain, and the company was willing to take on the job.
Taking down a Cowboy requires precision and expertise. It took the crew about an hour and a half to lift the sign from its long-time location and wrestle it onto a flatbed trailer.
The Cowboy was taken to the farm of DeGeest’s son, Chris Johnsen, near Wessington.
“We’ll see if it can be restored and repainted,” says DeGeest, noting her electrician husband Pete DeGeest is handy doing such things, and she would like to see lights again attached.
“We’d like to someday have another Cowboy Park,” she said. “Camping is more popular than it was 40 years ago.”
And maybe the Cowboy will have a smile on his face again.