A few miles west of the ranch where I grew up, in Deep Creek Township in the vastness of North Dakota’s Slope County, stands an ornately fashioned wrought iron signpost. This is the signpost. According to Merle Clark of Marmarth, Slope County’s unofficial county historian, it was made by a blacksmith from Rhame, N.D.
My mother says her earliest memory of the signpost was as a child, when news came ’round that there was a prairie fire in the area. Her mother told her they would go to the sign if need be as a place to rendezvous.
I must have gone by this signpost thousands of times in my life, either in a pickup, some other ranch vehicle or on the school bus. It was a landmark more than a directional sign, a relic of a bygone time. I knew my way around these gravel roads, to nearby Rhame or to my Aunt Junette’s ranch, having ridden all of my life with adults who had spent their entire lives in Slope County. When the time came for me to drive these roads solo, I was well-prepared and needed no maps nor signposts.
The tale of this sign is a very interesting one. What it tells the passer-by is that this is the “Town” (township, actually, not a town) of “Deep Creek” and it further denotes the mileage to the nearby Yellowstone Trail. The signpost is not on the Yellowstone Trail, but near to it.
Growing up, I never paid the Yellowstone Trail any attention. What the word “Yellowstone” meant for me was that we were going to load up the camper and drive west to the iconic national park filled with wonders.
The Yellowstone Trail, for those uninitiated readers, is a historic east/west route across the northern United States. And I grew up nearby to the Yellowstone Trail, as this signpost testifies. My husband grew up in Hettinger, N.D.,right smack dab on the Trail and he often talks of it.
Of late, I’ve grown fascinated with the story of the Yellowstone Trail, which stretched 3,700 some miles from sea to sea. And so, I went digging and reading and traveling, visiting museums and the wonderful folks who work there, gaining in return a better understanding of the Yellowstone Trail. I started by reading a couple of the best books on the Trail and by interviewing my always delightful and knowledgeable Aunt Junette.
The Yellowstone Trail was the brainchild of J.W. Parmley of Ipswich, S.D. Parmley and his wife were pioneers in that area, and he is described as “a man of vision, dedication, determination and abundant energy.” (J.W. Parmley, pg. 1). He served in the South Dakota Legislature, and one of his passions was the construction of a better road that would make it easier to use the newly invented automobile for travel.
Parmley spearheaded an organization, formed on Oct. 9, 1912, for the purpose of building a good road from Minneapolis to Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone Trail organization was formed during a meeting in nearby Lemmon, S.D., and Parmley was elected president, thus Ipswich was forever known as “the home of the Trail.”
This photo shows Parmley in his automobile with the Trail decorating the side panels.
The association’s aim was to build better roads, more clearly marked for travelers, and to boost visitation to the towns along its route. Naturally, yellow was the chosen color for the markers, a variety of rock and metal and sometimes wood, painted bright yellow. Museums in many of these small towns display these historic markers with pride. Some can still be found in places along the Trail. “Joe Parmley could claim that he had spent many dollars for chrome yellow paint used to mark rocks and telegraph poles along the way.” (“The Yellowstone Trail,” pg. 9)
“By the end of 1912, 100 miles of a single road that actually went somewhere was ‘paved’ with dirt which had been graded and dragged, three counties had worked in harmony to join roads at county lines, and the march to Yellowstone Park was on.” (“The Yellowstone Trail,” pg. 11). Communities along the trail held “Trail Days” when everyone would come together to work on sections of the trail and picnic. “Most towns on the Trail had declared May 22 a holiday and closed all business houses for the day. Banker and merchant, blacksmith and watchmaker, all worked side by side … At the close of the day, the women and children were given joyrides over the newly made sections of the Trail.” (“First Year Book of the Twin Cities-Aberdeen-Yellowstone Park Trail.”)
O.T. Peterson of Hettinger writes in a letter promoting Trail Day, “Let there be a squad of men on every mile of the entire 1,100 miles of the trail. Let the trail boosters of each town see to it that some one man is responsible for the work to be done on each mile tributary to that town. Let that man get all the help he can. Let him prepare his mile for Trail Day by having it plowed, if need be, graded if need be. Let the men be furnished an abundance of cool fresh water. Let there be an equal amount of good fellowship and rejoicing. Let your photographer be on hand to take pictures of the work. Let all business houses be closed on this day. In the evening, let there be patriotic music by bands or choirs. Let the school children read their essays on good roads. Let the public-spirited men speak to the assembled people.”
“The idea of a ‘citizen work day’ was borrowed from the Good Roads Association, which had been active for decades. Lunch was made by the women, stores closed, men brought shovels, teams of horses and road drags, and the county sometimes provided materials. It was a good excuse to get out, have a picnic, and socialize with neighbors. In 1914 Trail Day was May 22.” (“The Yellowstone Trail,” pg. 17)
The Rhame Review reported on June 26, 1913 that “surveyors were working in the vicinity” and that the Trail would follow section lines, resulting in a jagged route roughly along the route of the Milwaukee Railroad tracks. Neighboring communities were reported to be quarreling over the route of the proposed Trail as each town would want to be certain that the traffic went down their main street. “The Rhame crowd was exasperated at the amount of time spent and the specious arguments made by the Bowmanites regarding the route to be taken, everything being made secondary to the one main point, that the Trail must pass through Bowman on Main street.” (The Rhame Review, May 1, 1913)
A month later, the Rhame Review reported differently: “It is a pleasure to note how the people of Bowman and this part of the country are pulling together in this movement for improving this highway. Keep at it. It is one way to build up our country.” (The Rhame Review, June 5, 1913, pg. 8). By June 29, 1914, the Rhame Review reported that the Trail was now officially recognized by the National Highway Association and “henceforth will be shown on all of their maps.”
I particularly love this photo below of the automobiles fording the Little Missouri River in the days before the bridge (still standing) was built. “There were special collections for emergencies such as the need for a bridge over the Little Missouri River at Marmarth, North Dakota.” (“The Yellowstone Trail,” pg. 9). Building the Trail in the Bad Lands of North Dakota and western Montana presented more than the usual challenge due to the rugged terrain, and the route in Slope County was chosen to avoid the deepest of the draws, as described by my aunt in an interview.
Sometimes, area boosters would be promoting a particular route of the trail and go ahead and paint fenceposts yellow in the hopes that the route would go by. Over time, when this route was not chosen, these faded away and have been forgotten as these people have died. By 1925, the state Highway Department reported the traffic density on the Trail at Marmarth at 285 cars.
My greatest interest in the Trail is focused on the southwestern North Dakota region. The route of the original Trail is shown on this map below.
Here is one of my Little Missouri National Grasslands maps with the route marked as per my Aunt Junette. She remembers that there was at one time a marker just north of Bowman on the “Farm to Market Road.” The route was going north of Bowman, then west, to avoid the most rugged portions of the Bad Lands, but the city of Rhame did not want to be left out, so the final route was changed. When Junette was working on “The Slope Saga,” Slope County’s massive history book, she and her husband walked and drove all of the original Trail in Slope County. (I guess you can see where I get this from!)
Turns out, there is still a modern Yellowstone Trail Association, made up of folks who are devoted to the history of this trail. As was true a century ago, people still enjoy traveling the Trail and finding the historic clues here and there. This organization publishes a newsletter, complete with photographs of what remains of the Trail, and stories by people who are traveling the Trail. Call it nostalgia if you like but still . . .
Our explorations of the Yellowstone Trail this year took us to the excellent museums of southwestern North Dakota: The Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman and the Dakota Buttes Museum in Hettinger. One of the old sandstone trail markers is on the grounds of the museum in Bowman.
The Dakota Buttes Museum in Hettinger is filled with interesting Yellowstone Trail artifacts and exhibits, and the wonderful people who work and volunteer there were very generous with their time and with sharing copies of documents in the archives.
“When stones were not available, telephone or telegraph poles were painted with a band of yellow a foot wide and 5 feet above the ground. Some areas used cement posts for markers. Travelers along the Trail watched for metal bands, bent around posts, on which an ‘L’ or an ‘R’ inside a circle indicated when the Trail turned left or right.”
The photo below shows an elephant that was performing in a one-ring circus in Bucyrus, N.D. The circus did not have the funds to transport the elephant on the trail, so it walked the 11 miles to nearby Reeder. Now that must have been some sight to see!
In the photo below, my husband, Jim Fuglie, and Loren Luckow, of Hettinger, stand next to the massive sandstone that is one of the two in Hettinger. This one was at one time later painted pink and will be restored by the folks at the Dakota Buttes Museum. This photo shows the scale of these markers. About two-thirds of this one was sunk in the ground in its original location.
There is also a marker on the corner in downtown Hettinger, one that shows the additional painted directional insignia. That’s me standing beside it in the photo below.
An original stone still stands in Haynes, N.D., painted neon yellow, lovingly cared for by area residents.
Our last Dakota destination on the Yellowstone Trail for 2017 was Ipswich, the home of the Parmley Museum. “Yellowstone Trail records are fragmentary, when J.W. Parmley’s home in Ipswich, S.D., burned in 1918 many personal documents were probably lost. Furthermore, when the Yellowstone Trail Association ceased to exist in 1928, many official records were apparently discarded. Thus as with other old highways, there are many gaps in our understanding of the history of this old road.” (“On the Road to Yellowstone,” pg. 41).
We drove into Ipswich on a quiet October Monday and went straight downtown. Noticing an elderly couple coming out of the Senior Citizens’ Center, I inquired about the Parmley Museum. They confirmed that it was closed for the season, but the nice lady said if we would follow her home, she would make some calls. So she did. She reached one of the caretakers of the museum, who was on his way to his farm, however, he said he would kindly meet us there. What a delight in every way. Ray Geditz proudly showed us many details within the unheated house and shared his memories of the Trail to boot.
The lovely stone fireplace has fossils embedded within, including this turtle shell. The Parmleys lived here for about 20 years until their deaths. In 1980, the home was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
As we prepared to depart, Ray told us to be certain to go see the old arch, which was built in 1919 as a World War I memorial. He told us about how it used to be over Highway 12, but when the highway was widened, the arch had to be relocated to a nearby park. He remembers all of this very well and even helped with the moving of the arch.
For me, it all started with this signpost.
“Over the years that the Trail kept to the hills north of Rhame, there were several changes in the route, and in places one can see evidences [sic] of very, very old road traces. There are no markings through this area except an ornate, local sign in Deep Creek Township that does indicate that the Yellowstone Trail is not far away. The earliest trail in this area was blazed by Parmley himself in 1913 when he appeared on a wagon with two donkeys and a can of paint, according to local history. In the 1920s the present U.S. 12 route, more direct from Rhame to Marmarth, became the Yellowstone Trail route and the old north dogleg became only a local road, as it is to this day.” (“On the Road to Yellowstone,” pg. 91). According to the local historians, at one time the signpost was painted yellow, but that has now faded away.
Here is a description of the route from “The Slope Saga” (page 1123-1124):
“He [Parmley] came into Slope County from Bowman into Cash Township from the south between Sections 34 and 35 on north between 25 and 26, next turning west on the section line between 27 and 22, between 21 and 28, 20 and 29, across 19 and 30 coming into Deep Creek Township from the east in Section 25, continuing for four miles, coming to the corner where the steel sign post stands today. Then going north two miles and west two miles to Crawford Township, and six miles to Hughes Township. This route was merely a blazing trail completely by-passing Rhame.”
“From Marmarth east to the Bowman county line the trail had been shortened and improved until now it is in excellent condition, being on the best road we have ever had to Rhame …” (Marmarth Mail, date unknown).
Personal interviews and correspondence with T. Junette Henke, Dorothy Pearson, Loren Luckow and Merle Clark, all of North Dakota, and Ray Geditz of Ipswich, S.D., all to whom I extend my deepest gratitude.
- Adams County Record. Series of five articles on the Yellowstone Trail. The Record, 2016.
- Dakota Buttes Historical Society. “Prairie pioneers: a story of Adams County.” Taylor Pub. Co., [1973?].
- “First Year Book of the Twin Cities-Aberdeen-Yellowstone Park Trail: the great highway of the Northwest, commonly known as the ‘Yellowstone Trail.'” The Association, O.T. Peterson, Secretary and Treasurer, 1914.
- Hettinger Centennial Committee. Hettinger ND Centennial: “100 years of change and challenge.” Ronda Irwin, c2007.
- J.W. Parmely. J.W. Parmely Historical Society and Edmunds County Museum, 1983.
- Meeks, Harold A. “On the Road to Yellowstone: the Yellowstone Trail and American highways 1900-1930.” Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., c2000.
- Peterson, O.T., comp. “First year book of the Twin cities-Aberdeen-Yellowstone Park trail, the great highway of the northwest, commonly known as the ‘Yellowstone Trail’ starting at the Twin Cities and extending to Seattle via Aberdeen and Yellowstone National Park.” Twin Cities-Aberdeen-Yellowstone Park Trail Assoc., [1914?].
- “Prairie Tales II.” Bowman County Historical Society, c1989.
- Ridge,Alice A. and John Wm. “The Yellowstone Trail: a good road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound 1912-1930.” Yellowstone Trail Publishers, c2000.
- Slope Saga Committee. Slope Saga. Bowman County Pioneer, c1976.
- “Yellowstone Trail & Highway 12 Guide.” Mobridge (S.D.) Tribune, 2011, 2016, & 2017-2018 editions.
- USDA, FS. Little Missouri National Grassland, North Dakota. USFS, 1986.
- Yellowstone Trail Association. Yellowstone Trail. YTA, 1928.
- “The Arrow: official publication of the Yellowstone Trail Association,” no. 14, 2007.
- “Motor news by the motorist.” Dickinson Press, June 30, 1917, pg. ?.
- Rhame Review. June 26, 1913, pg 8.
- “Motor news by the motorist.” Dickinson Press, July 7, 1917, pg 3.
- “New trail blazed from Bowman to Dickinson.” Dickinson Press, Sept. 30, 1916, pg. 1.
- “North Dakota Highway Bulletin,” vol. 1, no. 1, Aug. 1925.
- “The state highways of North Dakota.” “North Dakota: it’s resources and opportunities,” vol. 1, no. 1, Nov. 1919, pg. 11.
- “Trail meeting at Bowman.” Rhame Review, May 1, pg. ?
- “Trail meeting at Bowman.” Rhame Review, June 5, 1913, pg. 8.
- “The Yellowstone Trail.” Rhame Review, Jan. 29, 1914, pg. 1.
- Yellowstone Trail OrganizationDakota Buttes Museum, Hettinger, N.D.
- Pioneer Trails Regional Museum, Bowman, N.D.
- ND State Historical Society General Information File. “Yellowstone Trail,” 1920-