Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

NORBECK, PETER (1870-1936)

Peter Norbeck was governor and U.S. senator from South Dakota and a pivotal figure in South Dakota politics in the early twentieth century. Norbeck was born in Clay County, South Dakota, on August 27, 1870. He was the son of the Reverend George Norbeck and Karen Larsen Norbeck, immigrants from Norway. The Norbecks soon moved to Charles Mix County, where Peter grew up. After attending the University of South Dakota, Norbeck invented an improved method of drilling wells to extract water from aquifers. He and his partner, Oscar Nicholson, established a well-drilling business in Redfield, South Dakota. The business prospered in the drought-stricken Great Plains, and Norbeck became wealthy. He married Lydia Anderson in 1900, and they raised four children.

Inspired by the progressive Republicanism of Theodore Roosevelt, Norbeck entered politics. He was elected to the South Dakota Senate in 1908 and served three two-year terms. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1914 and governor in 1916 and 1918. During Norbeck's governorship, statewide populist parties were established in several neighboring states, including the Nonpartisan League of North Dakota and the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. Nonpartisan League organizers tried to establish a similar party in South Dakota, but Norbeck incorporated many of the League's policies into his own platform. Norbeck's popularity among farmers and his progressive views were instrumental in preventing the establishment of a third party in South Dakota, whose Republican Party remained allied with progressives throughout Norbeck's lifetime.

In 1920 Norbeck was elected to the U.S. Senate. He was reelected in 1926 and 1932. As a senator, Norbeck was especially active in agriculture and conservation issues. He played an instrumental role in the establishment of Mount Rushmore as a national memorial. In the 1930s Norbeck generally supported New Deal legislation, but he was distrusted by Republicans who regarded him as too progressive and by Democrats who shunned his loyalty to the Republican Party.

His last years were also overshadowed by the onset of cancer, which led to his death in Redfield, South Dakota, on December 20, 1936. Norbeck is recognized as a leader of the progressive forces of the Northern Plains and as an instrumental figure in preventing a split between progressive and conservative Republicans during the interwar years.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Fred M. Shelley Southwest Texas State University

Fite, Gilbert C., and Peter Norbeck. Prairie Statesman. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1948.

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