Minnehaha County’s Marker Man
and his Magnificent Obsession
By Ron Robinson
Nearing retirement from his Sioux Falls law practice nearly a quarter century ago, J. Bruce Blake looked around for something upon which to focus his attention in his golden years. A former Scout Master and something of a history buff, Bruce noticed that his city and county boasted few historical markers—too few, he thought, for a locale that had played such an important role in the state’s development. He decided, almost casually, to do something about it.
All these years later, with the publication of his monumental book Twelve Thousand Years of Human History As Recorded on Historical Markers in Minnehaha County, SD, Bruce will crown a series of remarkable achievements, including the erection of over 160 markers representing donations of some $300,000, untold hours of research and writing, and an uncanny ability to enlist others in helping to preserve the sherds the past.
What is most notable about these achievements, however, is not the energy, the persuasive ability, and scholarship involved. Above all else towers a singular and sweeping vision. The title of the book is a clue to that vision. What may sound at first like an exaggerated legend is revealed on examination to be a dominating principle. The massive volume is by no means a parochial history, but rather an attempt to give meaning to the people, places, and events that shaped present day and to show the larger context for local and regional chronicles.
Accompanying the marker noting the visit to Sioux Falls by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, along with pages of photographs and text about the visit and excepts from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, is a brief look at the racial prejudice prevalent in the area in earlier times, shots of scores of Ku Klux Klan members acting as honor guards at a Klan funeral at Woodlawn Cemetery in white robes and pointed hoods. Similarly, spreads about the murder trial of Lakota youth Tasunke-Ota and about Zintkala Nuni (Lost Bird)—the child rescued from the carnage at Wounded Knee to become the ward of a U. S. Army General—photographs of the dead on the battle field, maps of the massacre site, and ledger book drawings depicting events of that era by Native American artists, help to place local highlights on the panorama of American history.
Not bad for a guy who seemed unsure of where he was headed in his early years. Bruce was born in Superior, WI, in 1931, lived in Mankato, MN, until 1945, when he moved with his family to Sioux Falls. He graduated four years later from Washington High School and set off to the University of South Dakota. He thought he want a career in chemistry, at first , but ended up with a B.S. degree from the business school. Then he changed his mind again and entered USD Law School.
Bruce might just as well have chosen a career in journalism He was a sports reporter on the Volante student paper at USD, after all, under the editorship of none other than Allen Neuharth, later to become famous as the creator of USA Today.
Even Bruce’s law studies were broken up by a two-year stint as an Infantry Officer at Fort Dix, NJ, the result of ROTC training in which he attained the rank of Second Lieutenant. After returning to law school, he served as business manager and board member of the South Dakota Law Review.
In 1958, with a law degree in hand, he was drawn into the practice of family law, handling divorce settlements and later turning to bankruptcy law. Along the way he became fascinated with historic law cases. One such was the murder trial of Thomas Egan, who was hanged during territory days for murdering his wife, a crime it turned out he did not commit. Another case concerned Emma Kaufman, the wife of a rich Sioux Falls brewery owner. She was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of her maid, Agnes Polreis, only to have the verdict overturned in a second trial and reduced to assault and battery. Kaufman ended up paying a $100 fine. Both cases were later to be the subjects of historical markers Bruce erected.
When his children were young, Bruce became a scoutmaster of Troop 207. Although it lasted only four years, the experience seems to have much to do with his later avocation. He seems to have embraced wholly the values of the Boy Scouts of America. More than one scout under his direction contributed time and energy to a marker project to achieve Eagle Scout status. In 2001, for example, Jacob Mentele led an effort by boys and parents of Sioux Falls Troop 151 to rebuild the “Fifth Mound,” a Native American burial site in Sherman Park. And ten years later Mark Yeager won his Eagle Scout badge by leading a team that built a concrete viewing pad for the “‘RISE’ and the Big Sioux River” marker. Bruce’s own efforts to call attention to landmarks of its past constitute one enormous good deed.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed. A dozen awards—including those from the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, the South Dakota Historical Society, the South Dakota Archeological Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Center for Western Studies, Siouxland Heritage Museums, the Minnehaha Century Fund, and the American Association for State and Local History—attest to his accomplishments. These honors were capped in 2010 when he was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame.
In the past two years, due to health issues, Bruce has let the marker program pass into other hands, but all concerned doubt that anyone could possibly match his achievements.
He dedicates Twelve Thousand Years of Human History to his wife Rita and to his adopted grandson Josh, an “A” student in computer science. “In the past several years,” Bruce writes, “I spent an inordinate amount of time hunched over my computer keyboard writing and rewriting chapter after chapter. Rita and Josh have both been pleasant and most understanding, not only with me, but also with my ‘obsession!’”
In a gathering at the Old Courthouse Museum last September, attended by hundreds of well-wishers, Bruce received yet another award amid ample evidence on display that his obsession has been a magnificent one. Prepublication copies of his book were on display as well, promising an enduring marker of a monumental legacy.