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I would be willing to wager, most of us have probably never heard the name of arguably the most important man in Sioux Falls History!  Without him there is no telling what Sioux Falls or Minnehaha County would be like today!

Yet there isn’t a single street, park, or school bearing his name!  While men and women with Sioux Falls household names like Phillips, Dunning, McKennan, Pettigrew, and others were all still finding their footing in this part of the country – one man was more or less single handedly and selflessly shaping the Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County we know today!

Today we are shining the spotlight on the “Father of Minnehaha County,” “the best friend a pioneer could have,” Charles K. Howard.

Charley Howard as he was affectionately known spent the first 20 years of his life in New York before striking out and making his way west.  He worked for a time as a trapper in Fort Pierre trading with the Native Americans in that area.  He was a steamboat pilot and captain up and down the Missouri River. He was a drug store owner and trader in Sioux City, before in 1863 he bought the old Sutler’s Store from the military post in Sioux Falls and started a trading enterprise.

It took him a couple of years to get his bearings, but by 1865 he had erected the first post frame building in Sioux Falls on the northwest corner of what today would be known as 10th St. and Phillips Ave. C.K. Howard was known to provide, sell, and trade just about anything.  Seed, furs, cotton, tools, kerosene, soap… you name it and Charley had it.  As pioneers came to this part of the country they all got to know Charles Howard a gruff, but tender hearted shop keeper who could get you just about anything you needed.

But it wasn’t his shop keeping that endeared CK Howard to every early pioneer in this area.  Between the years of 1873 and 1877 the whole region was victim to terrible Grasshopper Plagues.  Swarms of grasshoppers miles wide descended on the area, causing devastation to the crops and livelihood of the settlers in the area.  Many farmers whose only source of income as well as food for their families would have been left broken and destitute, except for the kind hearted nature of Charles K. Howard.  As the owner of the local store where most early pioneers bought their seed, farming equipment, and additional food supplies, Howard was able to give to the local farmers on credit.  The newspaper reported he carried farmers for over $100,000.00 of credit on his books, giving out extra seed and provisions to keep them from starving or freezing to death through the winter.  That is the equivalent of over $2.2 million dollars in 2020, that C.K. Howard loaned to his neighbors on credit, and with much of it never being returned to his own coffers.

A couple of stories about Howard’s generosity pop up over and over again in old reports.  The first one states one farmer from Crooks who owed Mr. Howard more than $100 (just over $2k in today’s money) had his crops ravished by the grasshoppers and decided to call it quits.  He and his wife packed up what little they had on a small wagon, gathered their last pitiful surviving livestock and came into town.  The farmer told Howard will you take the last of my belongings to square my debt, and just give me enough money to make it to some relations I have that don’t live too far away.  He went on to explain that the crops had been terrible due to the grasshoppers and he just couldn’t go on like this any longer.  CK asked him, what would be a “good crop” the man replied if he could get 13 bushels of wheat per acre he wouldn’t have to worry anymore.  Charley replied that he would make a deal, he would give the man supplies to make it through the winter, and then seed to plant in the fall.  When the crop came in, and he reassured the man it was going to be a beautiful crop, you keep 13 bushels an acre to sell and give me whatever comes in beyond that as payment.  The man not wanting to take a handout asked for a full contract to be drawn up, it was signed and an agreement put in place.  The next harvest the farmer gave CK over 700 bushels of wheat in excess of the 13 bushels of wheat he kept for himself! It has been said that this man would stay to become one of the wealthiest men in the county though no name is given as to who the story is referring to in any account I have uncovered!

Another story told by Col. C.H. Brown goes that a young man from one of the newer families to the area had died when the sod house they were living in collapsed on him.  Howard who as the store keeper got to know just about everyone in the area attended the funeral, but being that the family was poor and didn’t know anyone else in the area it was a very sad affair.  No casket, just an open pine box, a shallow hand dug grave, no minister, and 6-8 people in attendance.  The boy’s mother began to sob, “My darling is to be laid away without a single word being spoken.” To this CK stepped up, a big gruff, cowboy of a man, not known for flowery words, in fact well known for his altogether severe demeanor, and gave a beautiful eulogy bringing everyone to tears and providing solace to the boy’s mother.

These heroics won Charles the name “savior of the country,” and a lifetime of well regard from his neighbors.  In 1877 when Sioux Falls was first incorporated as a village, Charles K. Howard was elected as its first Village President.   He was re-elected 3 more times to a total of 4 consecutive terms! He served as Minnehaha County Treasurer winning 11 straight elections.  CK was a well-known Democrat who always ran as an Independent, in an overwhelmingly Republican State.  But as one citizen put it, “It’s always Charley Howard, no matter the politics!” Such was the favor of Charles K. Howard.

He would go on running the store after the grasshopper crisis for a few years before selling his in town holdings in 1883, never receiving reimbursement from many of the families he borrowed to during those trying times, and perhaps more impressively never once asking for it.  He bought a piece of land to build a farm and cattle ranch west of town near present day Kuehn Park and Oscar Howe Elementary School.  In 1890 he moved out West River and ranched there for nearly 25 years.  Many newspapers stories tell of the same larger than life hero who was so well beloved in Minnehaha County.  Everything from being wrongfully accused of rustling cattle to shooting a man who had broken into his house and threatened to kill him!  Through many ups and downs CK Howard persevered out in the Black Hills before returning to Sioux Falls for the last 2-3 years of his life.

In 1913 early settlers of Sioux Falls got together and raised money to build a memorial to CK Howard.  Of the ways intended to honor him the two favorites were to paint a mural at the corner of 10th St. and Phillips Ave. outside where his old store used to be, showing him dealing with white settlers and Indian traders alike out in the sunshine as was his manner.  The other was to erect a full sized statue of him either at that same intersection or in the center of Sherman Park.  The idea of a sculpture caught on and hundreds of dollars began being raised. The process made it as far as having a clay model produced by nationally renowned sculptor and Sioux Falls citizen Gilbert Riswold.  But, with the outbreak of World War I the project was delayed… never to be taken up again.

Charles K. Howard passed away in Sioux Falls on November 4th, 1918.  Prominent Sioux Falls citizen W.H. Lyon said this of his passing, “In the death of Charles K. Howard, not only the people of this country, but the entire state have been bereaved.  It was largely through his efforts that the pioneers of the grasshopper days were able to continue to struggle for existence…”

Having no surviving family in the part of the country Senator R.F. Pettigrew paid for his burial at Woodlawn Cemetery.  Pettigrew also added to what little remained in the fund to erect a life-sized statue of CK Howard together with his own money to erect a 32 foot obelisk (similar in appearance to the Washington Monument) at his graves site for a total sum of $4,500.