Clay County 4-H'ers, their parents, and lovers of horses in the Vermillion area had a chance to meet a living legend Saturday.
Dayton O. Hyde, 85, a noted author, conservationist, and founder of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, was the special guest of the second annual "Lassos and Legends" event, sponsored by the Clay County Lucky Trailblazers 4-H Club.
Hyde spoke after everyone in attendance was served a barbecue meal, served by 4-H'ers and their families.
The desire to one day provide a safe place for wild horses came one day long ago, he said, when he was on a trip in Nevada to buy stock for his 6,000 acre working cattle ranch in Oregon's Klamath Basin.
He passed a corral full of wild horses.
"They were all miserable and fly-encrusted and dirty and dusty," Hyde said. "It was no place for any animal."
The sight of the suffering animals upset him so that he decided to turn operation of his ranch over to his children, and traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby Congress to amend laws relating to wild horses and burros.
"I developed a lot of enemies – both in North and South Dakota and elsewhere," Hyde said, "but it's worked out. I've been there 22 years and the land is paid for, the horses are paid for, and we have lots of tourists that come and visit."
The 11,000-acre sanctuary, located 14 miles south of Hot Springs near Highway 71, is home to approximately 500 wild mustangs.
The site of the sanctuary, he said, at one time was being considered to be used as a military bombing range. Hyde and others who wanted to preserve the beauty of the Black Hills region helped convince government and corporate officials to abandon those plans.
"People were still mad; there were those who wanted the payroll, and those who thought it was going to destroy a very beautiful piece of land and destroy Cheyenne River," he said.
To Will Kennedy, Clay County Extension educator who helped present Saturday's program, Hyde is a personal hero.
"He's been a photographer, a rancher, a conservationist, a World War II veteran, a cowboy in the true sense of the word, and the founder of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary," Kennedy said.
The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is the largest private non-profit wild horse sanctuary in northern America and has been in continuous operation since 1988.
The sanctuary's locations have been featured in film and documentary projects including; Touchstone Pictures "Hidalgo," the TNT Television movie "Crazy Horse," the History Channel's "Comanche Warrior," and Paramount/Vantage Films "Into the Wild."
During his long life, Hyde said, he's lived on several Indian reservations, and has received a unique insight regarding the challenges faced by Native Americans.
"I don't know the answers," he said. "They (Native Americans) have got a real problem, and part of it is the sociological. It seems to me that they are so social, it becomes a problem."
While researching a book, Hyde learned firsthand of how Native Americans were treated in the past; how they were often tracked down, massacred with the survivors shipped to reservations, where they faced primitive conditions.
In many ways, he said, that negative effects of the mistreatment of indigenous people that happened over a century ago still linger today, he said.
Hyde told the audience details of his illustrious life, ranging from the conservation practices he adopted on his ranch, including the construction of a large, man-made lake, to the adventures he experienced as a veteran who took part in World War II's invasion at Normandy.
"He was a legend long before this evening, and he'll be a legend long after," Kennedy said.
The goals of "Lassos and Legends" include empowering 4-H youth with a hands-on experience in marketing and producing an event, promoting 4-H by recognizing local youth for their accomplishments, raising of funds for 4-H/youth development facility improvements, local charities and club advancements, honoring a person who has accomplished much in the equine industry, and providing a venue for people of all ages to broaden their horizons in the equine field.