ARMOUR, SOUTH DAKOTA — Looking for a great place to visit in South Dakota that’s unique, affordable and off the beaten path? You won’t find many attractions that match such a description better than the Douglas County Museum and Country School.
This little gem of a complex is located along U.S. Highway 281 in Armour. It’s just a few miles south of state Highway 44, which is a great alternative to Interstate 90 if you’re traveling to the southern Black Hills.
Armour is a clean, quiet and quaint small town. Arriving in town on Highway 281 from the north or south, just keep driving until you spot the big, beautiful courthouse on the east side of the road. Nestled alongside the courthouse is a complex of small buildings you might miss if you weren’t looking for them — a museum, schoolhouse and 1886 home.
The complex is said to be open 1 to 4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from Memorial Day to Labor Day, or by appointment any time. Regardless of when you plan to be there, I’d recommend calling ahead. As of this writing, the numbers to call are 724-2129, 724-2795 or 724-2423 (all with area code 605). Those numbers will put you in touch with local volunteers who can give you a tour. If you can’t reach anybody at those numbers, I’d recommend calling any of the offices in the Douglas County Courthouse next door and seeking assistance.
There is no charge to visit the complex, but a free-will offering is in order, given that the complex is community-supported.
The entire complex is nicely shaded, so it makes a cooling stop from the heat of summer travel. When you step inside the buildings, you’ll be amused by what you see.
The museum is a small, red-brick building built in 1902 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976. It housed some county offices until the new courthouse was built next door. The museum’s collection is a unique assortment of historical treasures, including old wedding dresses and military uniforms, late 1880s newspapers, American Indian artifacts and photos, and even a taxidermied two-headed calf.
Next door to the museum is a one-room country schoolhouse that was built in 1884. It served as the Hockey-Helland School until 1963 and was moved to its present site in 1981. The schoolhouse is characteristic of the hundreds that formerly dotted the South Dakota plains, until modern advances in transportation and a decline in rural population caused country schools to close in favor of consolidated schools located in towns. Today, the schoolhouse is furnished to look as it might have decades ago.
From the front door of the schoolhouse, look directly north across a city street to find the most undiscovered part of this undiscovered attraction — the Railroad House, which is nestled among a grove of trees between occupied houses. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d never notice it.
The house looks as though it’s always been at its current site, but it was actually built at a different location in 1886 — the year of the town of Armour’s incorporation — and moved to its current site in the 1980s. The house was home to railroad foremen and their families for decades, until the Milwaukee Road through Armour was abandoned in the 1970s. The house was donated to the Douglas County Historical Society, which worked with the aid of the community to restore the house and furnish it with early 1900s-era items.
Entering the house is like stepping back in time. From the giant phonograph in the living room to the ancient appliances in the kitchen and the period clothes in the bedrooms, you get the feeling that an early 1900s-era family could move right in.
With your visit of the house complete, your tour of this unique little complex is over. You may also want to view the beautiful courthouse and veterans memorial next door, and grab a bite in one of Armour’s three local eateries — the bowling alley, the Blue Moon Bar (which is more like a restaurant during the day) or the Hoi Polloi restaurant. Armour’s Lions Community Park and Lake Alcazar are great places to stretch your legs.
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