There are several cities that position themselves as the “Heart of America,” and Sioux Falls, S.D., is one of them.

Situated in the southeast part of the state bordering Iowa and Minnesota at the junction of Interstates 29 and 90, Sioux Falls—the state’s largest city—is within a day’s drive of most major Midwestern cities such as Lincoln, Neb., and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. (just under four hours), Des Moines, Iowa (four-plus hours), Cedar Rapids (five and a half hours), Kansas City, Kansas (five hours), Chicago (9 hours) and St. Louis, Mo. (9-1/2 hours).

The population is close to 160,000 people, with about 172,000 in Minnehaha County, which encompasses 810 square miles and is the largest county in the state in terms of population. The city has two namesakes—the Sioux Native American Tribe, who were the first inhabitants of the area, and the Big Sioux River, which runs through it. Its location along the river made it an attractive site for the founding pioneers who came here in the early 1800s, followed by homesteaders who came from all over the U.S. territories, attracted in part by the river as a source of water, as well as for the region’s distinctive pink quartzite, which is still evident in many areas and constructions throughout the city.

Settling here was not easy back in the day, in some measure due to the turbulence as a result of the Sioux War raging between what is now the South Dakota/Minnesota border, as well as the war for control of the region by two early land companies. By the late 1800s, the population was large enough to incorporate as a village, and in 1878 the first rail lines from the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railroad came through, adding to the city’s attractive commercial entities.

Eventually, Sioux Falls officially became a city in 1889. Though still relatively small today by most big city standards, Sioux Falls has managed to maintain and preserve a great deal of its early history at a variety of historical entities and attractions around town.

Back in the day

One place to get a good grasp of the city’s early history is downtown at the Old Courthouse Museum. Originally built in 1893 with the area’s native, pink Sioux Quartzite stone and as the first Minnehaha County Courthouse, the building was fashioned in the Richardsonian Romanesque style by a local architect credited with many other buildings nearby and a little further afield.

For just over 80 years, the building served as a courthouse until it became too small and was closed, restored many years later and transformed into a museum. Among the most noteworthy features of this beautiful structure now listed as a National Historic Landmark is the 1893 clock tower, soaring high into the skyline and visible from all over downtown; the 16 large murals painted in the early 1900s depicting the state’s early life as well as some of the regions natural features; and the circuit courtroom and law library. The permanent and rotating exhibits here are fascinating and provide a great overview of the city’s early history and what makes it a special place for so many today.

St. Joseph Cathedral is another historic structure that has deep roots in the area, dating back to about 1838, when the first Catholic missionary priests came here, spreading their gospel among the Native Americans and early settlers of the day. Today, the cathedral—built from 1915-1919—is regarded as one of South Dakota’s finest landmarks and remains so due to an extensive restoration project completed in 2011. The Romanesque and French Renaissance structural and architectural influences here are magnificent, and both parishioners and visitors alike come to marvel at the detailed interior highlights, soaring ceilings, intricate altar, cathedra and other aspects. Although there is still an active Catholic community here, with services and masses held throughout the week, the building is open for free, self-guided tours.

The focal point of the city is definitely Falls Park—our first stop when we came to town. Free and open to the public and a big draw not only for tourists but for locals who come here to cycle, picnic, enjoy the open green space and take in performances when in season, its location right smack in the middle of downtown makes it very visually appealing.

The history of the Falls goes back thousands of years to the ice age, when huge glaciers covered the area and melting over time created the rugged crags and cracks, streams and waterfalls covering its 123-acre expanse, where an average of 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet over the course of the Falls each second.

Some of the city’s first structures were built here, including the Queen Bee Mill, which opened in 1881 and at the time was considered to be one of the most advanced mills in the country. Reaching seven-stories high, it played an integral role in the farming community here, as it allowed locals farmers to process their wheat here instead of shipping it to neighboring state’s mills. Only remnants remain after it was turned into a warehouse then later burned in a fire in the early 1900s.

The picturesque viewing platform was once the Millrace and Dam, constructed to provide power to the mill and later to the local hydroelectric plant. And what was once the Sioux Falls Light and Power Company building is now the Falls Overlook Café. At the visitor’s center, located inside a five-story, 50-foot high tower, visitors can get a great deal of information about the Falls and area entities, as well as enjoy a panoramic view of the park and Falls for those who care to ascend to the top.

Because the Falls are natural and a not manmade, climate-controlled feature, the amount of water, runoff and velocity are completely dependent upon Mother Nature. So any time of year you visit, it will have different features. But overall it is a spectacular site, again, sitting right smack in the middle of downtown and easily accessible—and free—to all.

We’ve got lots more to see, do and eat in Sioux Falls coming up!

Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Lysa can be reached at lallmanbaldwin@kc.rr.com.

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