Vermillion, South Dakota. This is a place where students, faculty and community members live and where many call home.
This home also has a rich history that community members learn from every day and is something that the Clay County Historical Society (CCHS) tries to preserve.
A unique story
Wess Pravecek, executive director of the CCHS, said the mission of the CCHS is to bring together people interested in the history of Clay County and the surrounding areas to always have something new to learn.
“We want to make sure there’s stuff left in this community people can appreciate and build on to keep things moving,” Pravecek said.
The Austin-Whittemore house is an Italianate style home located at 15 Austin Street. Inside the 19th century structure, old artifacts tell the stories of Vermillion.
According to the CCHS Austin-Whittemore House brochure, in 1882, seven years before South Dakota was granted statehood, Horace J. Austin looked to start a life in Vermillion with his wife, Rachel Ross Austin.
Horace worked as a surveyor for the South Dakota state legislature and Rachel was a school teacher at the first schoolhouse in Dakota Territory. From 15 Austin Street, the Austins made a life for themselves by adopting a daughter named Helen, who was also known as Pansy.
From there, Pansy spent her life at 15 Austin Street and raised five children until her death. After her death, 15 Austin Street remained empty until members of the Vermillion community came together to save the house. From there, the CCHS was founded and 15 Austin Street has been renovated since then.
Pravecek said that she wants the legacy of the Austin-Whittemore house to be remembered.
“I want (the house) to sit here and be gorgeous. I want people to know about the history (of this) household and how it can hold future history,” Pravecek said. “Today is tomorrow’s history and that’s the way we look at it.”
According to the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company website, before the Austin-Whittemore house was built above the bluffs, Vermillion was a town on the Missouri River. It wasn’t that long after on August 24, 1804, that Lewis and Clark stopped at the mouth of the Vermillion River before their voyage to Spirit Mound.
Over time individuals slowly immigrated to Vermillion. However, the Great Flood of 1881 destroyed Vermillion and the city was rebuilt above the bluffs, where it sits today.
A city perspective
Since its rebuilding, Vermillion has continued to evolve. More recently, the township has experienced milestones including the university’s move to Division-I athletics, the creation of Bliss Pointe, the Vermillion swimming pool, The Heights and The Quarters, the National Music Museum expansion, the Bluffs Golf Course and the inauguration of President Gestring.
John Powell, mayor of Vermillion, said the city is a forward-looking community that works with the university.
“I really feel that the relationship with city and university is awesome, not a lot of places have that kind-of togetherness,” Powell said.
Powell said it’s important for the city of Vermillion to remember its history.
“If you don’t study your history, you’re bound to repeat it, and I think you have to know where you came from and it’s helpful to have some direction in where you’re going,” Powell said. “I think from the standpoint of the city we want to make sure we have the facilities, utilities, etcetera that a growing community needs.”
Nate Welch, president and CEO of the Vermillion Area Chamber & Development Company (VCDC), said the history of Vermillion begins before the history of South Dakota.
“We’re proud to be the spirit of South Dakota. We say that for many reasons but one reason is we really have a great representation of a lot of the amazing different aspects that South Dakota brings,” Welch said. “Vermillion has a great representation of that throughout the entire community.”
Arts and culture, richness, a workforce pipeline, good housing and quality of life is important for a community to prosper, Welch said.
“I think we have a really exciting future ahead of us. When you look at many different aspects of development, of communities growing, communities being strong you look to try and add to your community in many different ways,” Welch said. “Vermillion has really recognized the value of what the university really brings and probably even recognizing it just like what our forefathers did when they fought so hard to be able to have the university here in the community because they saw that potential.”
Welch said the VCDC focuses on industry and the opportunity to grow Vermillion into the future.
“You really do have that great balance of that small town genuine charm, as well as those amenities that you’ve got available and I think that’s something that not only attracts people it retains people,” Welch said.
Pravecek said from the rich history of Vermillion, the future looks bright.
“Vermillion has got a lot of really cool stuff going on here. I don’t call this just a town, I call this a true community,” Pravecek said. “You see the same faces lots of places you go…. You’re going to keep running into these same people because they’re that thread in this community that keeps it all yanked together.”