In search of Ralph Herseth

A fortuitous Facebook post answered a question that had been lingering in this blogger’s mind for several years.

First a little history. The first floor of the South Dakota State Capitol displays a collection of portraits of every former Governor of South Dakota. This collection was completed in the 1960s and, since that time, portraits have been added as governors near the end of their tenures in office. This blog has posted a gallery of governors portraits here.

The current State Capitol portrait of Gov. Ralph Herseth, a hand-colored photograph attributed to Artz Camera Supply of Aberdeen.

Although most of the portraits are oil paintings, four of them – those of William H. McMaster, Warren E. Green, M. Q. Sharpe, and Ralph Herseth – are high-quality, hand-colored photographs. The first three of those were completed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, presumably to fill in the gaps in the portrait collection.

The story of the Ralph Herseth portrait is a little more complicated. An oil portrait of Herseth was unveiled shortly before he left office, in late December 1960. As The Daily Republic reported on December 31, 1960, the portrait by artist Margaret Matson McIntosh was unveiled by Herseth’s daughter, Connie with First Lady Lorna Herseth and their family in attendance. Remarks were offered by Circuit Judge Fred Nichol of Mitchell (later a federal district judge). McIntosh had been commissioned by the South Dakota Democratic Party to paint portraits of all three Democratic governors: William J. Bulow, Tom Berry, and Herseth.

Governor Herseth was quoted at the unveiling as saying, “I assure you that it is a pleasure to be here for this ceremony, which I consider a testimony of the people of both political parties… This portrait will be an integral part of the history of South Dakota as are the portraits of the other governors which are mounted in the halls here.”

The event had to be bittersweet for Herseth, who had been narrowly defeated for reelection by Republican Archie Gubbrud the previous month. Herseth likely had not planned to be unveiling his portrait so soon.

Herseth sought a return to the governor’s office two years later, losing in a rematch with Gubbrud, and then died of a heart attach in 1969. His prediction about his portrait’s future also took an unexpected turn, as The Daily Republic reported on June 3, 1971: “The portrait of former Gov. Ralph Herseth which hung in the capitol building hallway has been replaced with another… Herseth’s widow had replaced the portrait at her own expense because she disliked the original, which had been contributed by the Democratic Party. The original portrait has been given to the State Historical Society.”

The replacement portrait, as I noted above, is a high-quality, hand-colored photograph of Herseth, which the State Capitol collection attributes to “Artz Camera Supply of Aberdeen.”

When I read a few years ago about the portrait switch, I contacted the South Dakota State Historical Society to inquire as to the whereabouts of the McIntosh portrait of Herseth. The Society did not have the portrait, and had no record of ever having had it. They did not even have a picture of it – the only picture I could find was a poor-quality scan of a black-and-white newspaper photograph from the time of the unveiling.

The McIntosh portrait of Herseth, which was originally placed in the State Capitol but was removed by Mrs. Herseth in 1971. This portrait was “missing” from my perspective although it has been safely in the possession of the Herseth family and the Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen.

I thought little more of it at the time; in my book, The Governors of South Dakota, I glossed over the question and just said that the earlier portrait had been replaced. (It is also worth noting that there is at least one other instance of portrait-swapping in the Capitol collection; I have written previously about the change in portraits of Governor Leslie Jensen).

Then, yesterday, I happened to see a Facebook post for the Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen, advertising an open house on April 1, 2023 from 1 PM to 3 PM. The Open House is entitled “Welcome Home Brown County Trailblazers” and it exhibits art in the museum’s collection that has been recently restored.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the paintings featured is the missing McIntosh portrait of Herseth. I contacted the Museum, sharing this story and asking for background on the portrait, and received a nice response from Patricia Kendall, the museum director. She shared that the McIntosh portrait was donated to the museum by Connie Herseth Jacobs, the governor’s daughter, in 1998. That would be four years after Lorna Herseth, the former First Lady, had passed away. It seems likely that the 1971 news article may have been mistaken in saying that the Historical Society had received the earlier portrait. Either the Historical Society never had it, or at some point in the distant past it came into the possession of the Herseth family.

In any case, there are now two portraits of Ralph Herseth on display: the hand-colored photograph at the State Capitol, and the McIntosh portrait at the Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen. That seems appropriate, given Herseth’s lifelong ties to Brown County and the legacy of his family in serving there and at the State Capitol.

If you are in Aberdeen on April 1 (that’s tomorrow), and the weather permits, swing by the Dacotah Prairie Museum to see the newly restored portrait of Herseth.