Brookings man gives students lesson about their heritage
By:Jerrod Niedermyer, News Reporter May 15, 2000
Historian Mel Thorne, right, shows Central Elementary students a map of the United States that was part of the Louisiana Purchase. Photo by Dave Eggen
Dakotans can do it.

That was the message of Brookings resident and state historian Mel Thorne to a group of about 40 fourth-graders Thursday at Central Elementary School.

Thorne went to the Central library dressed in a purple cowboy hat and pants with black boots, a vest and a handkerchief tied around his neck.

And for about an hour-and-a-half his antics captivated the young audience members.

“You guys are all Dakotans — either by association or by birth,” he said. “That means every one of you is a leader.”

Dakotans, Thorne said, have contributed more to the United States than people from any other region.

He told about a man from Bell Fourche, whose devised a program that, in 1936, became known as social security.

He also told of a blacksmith from Philip, who create a bearing, which is now used in every wheel that turns in the world.

“I won’t tell you anything that isn’t true,” he said. “I don’t have time to come back and apologize.”

In April, Thorne was awarded a governor’s award for history for his dedication to sharing and preserving the state’s history.

At 82, Thorne traveled nearly 10,000 miles to South Dakota schools this spring to deliver his historical message.

But his presentations are far from being only about history.

“I’m trying to get those kids to think,” he said. “I want to tell them how important they are.”
On Thursday, Thorne dazzled the students, displaying saws, axes and hoes similar to the ones the nation’s settlers used to tame the prairie and build their homes.

He chronicled the nation’s history from the pilgrims’ voyage to the New World aboard the Mayflower to Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Territory, and eventually to the Dakota Territory’s pioneers.

Asking them questions like “Do you know who Jefferson was?” and “How about Bonaparte?”
He explained that many of their ancestors settled in the Dakota Territory after traveling from the east coast with all of their worldly belongings stuffed in a covered wagon. The whole time, Thorne kept the students’ attention by asking them questions like what they would take on a trip into the unknown.

He also offered the kids pointers on how to guide the creatures responsible for pulling the wagons.

“You do not drive oxen,” Thorne said. “You only talk to them and ask them where to go.”
Thorne relayed facts about how hard settlers’ children had to work, and that it takes 57 logs to build a cabin.

But even more important, those early Dakotans loved their lives.

“They didn’t know they had a hard life,” Thorne told the class.

As the final minutes of Thorne’s presentation ticked away, he asked how many students had computers.

Forty hands shot up.

Then he asked, “Would you rather know how to run a computer or know how to build one?”
“Build one!” the students bellowed in unison.

“Say that again so your teachers hear you,” he told the class. “Because that’s what your teachers are doing — they’re teaching you how to think.”

Many of the fourth-graders who heard Thorne speak said they enjoyed his performance.

Kelly Ribstein, 10, said she liked hearing about how hard children had to work because she too, liked working. Trevor Visker, 10, liked the tools Thorne wielded during the presentation.

“I learned a lot of stuff,” said Shane Moberg, 10. “I would like to live in that time because it would be cool to live outside instead of inside all the time.”

©Brookings Register 2000