Joe Foss Field & the first modern hot air balloon: Sioux Falls namesakes and trivia

Joe Foss Field balloon

From Joe Foss Field to the production of the modern hot air balloon, Sioux Falls has seen it’s share of high-flying history. (Alan Ward/Gannett News Service)

DealChicken spends a lot of time hunting and pecking around Sioux Falls in search of the best daily deals. So it’s no surprise he’s come across more than a few interesting facts. Do you know why it’s called Joe Foss Field? Or, that the city was once called the “Divorce Capital of the Plains? DealChicken does. He’s found other fun facts and historic moments as well.

Sioux Falls did its part for the war effort when it housed an air base during World War II. The base, located on the site of today’s Sioux Falls Regional Airport, served as a radio training school and home to tens of thousands of soldiers. Also known as Joe Foss Field, the airport honors former WWII ace pilot Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Foss, South Dakota Governor and first commissioner of the American Football League.


The next time you see a hot air balloon floating in the sky, you can thank the folks at Raven Industries. The Sioux Falls company created the first modern hot air balloon in the late 1950s. Initially the helium-filled globes were custom-made for the U.S. Navy, and by 1960 Raven developed them as sporting equipment. Floating thousands of feet above the ground wasn’t enough for some, so they started balloon racing—a custom that’s carried on to this day at the annual Great Plains Balloon Race in Sioux Falls.


In the 1890s, Sioux Falls experienced the dubious honor of being crowned the “Divorce Capital of the Plains.” Thanks to liberal residency and marriage termination requirements, thousands who failed to experience wedded bliss, including many wealthy easterners, flocked to the city to put a quick end to their unions.


Though Sioux Falls lies miles from the ocean, the city boasts a memorial to one of the most decorated battleships in WWII history. The USS South Dakota Battleship memorial is adjacent to Sherman Park. The military used the ship in a number of key battles, including the attack on Japan on July 14, 1945.


History notes 1873 as the year Sioux Falls ran out of luck. While the city was in rapid growth mode, a severe depression swept through, causing widespread unemployment among the townsfolk. And if that wasn’t enough, local farmers felt the sting when a plague of grasshoppers also struck, munching on their cash crops of wheat, corn and oats and guaranteeing empty larders for miles.


Sioux Falls was founded in the mid-1850s, but residents evacuated the town in 1862 because of safety concerns. The Dakota War was raging between the Sioux Indians and settlers in nearby Minnesota. Residents returned in 1865 when Fort Dakota was established to ensure their safety. The fort remained in operation until 1869. In 1870, a new Sioux Falls arose from the abandoned fort.


When county workers moved into the Old Courthouse building in 1890, the structure had yet to be crowned by the 165-foot clock tower that still accurately displays the time today. Speculations abounded as to whether the addition would ever be built, as construction funds had run dry. Fortunately, they raised sufficient money and finished the clock tower by the end of 1892. The cost of constructing the entire building was $135,252 and the cost for the clock was $2,320.


If the Sioux Fall’s street-numbering system has caused you to scratch your head, let us clear things up. According to the Siouxland Heritage Museums, all of the current street addresses originate from the intersection of 9th Street and Phillips Avenue, the location of the Cataract Hotel. Built in 1871, this prominent building was a hub of activity during early Sioux Falls history. It even served as the town’s stagecoach stop.


What is now known as the Pettigrew Home & Museum was actually constructed in 1889 for the McMartin Family. Thomas, a young lawyer, and his wife Jennie built the home, where they raised their son Bowen. Influential Sioux Falls politician and businessman Senator Richard F. Pettigrew purchased the home in 1911 for $12,000. Today you can take a guided tour of the restored residence.


The University of Sioux Falls rose from lowly beginnings. The Christian liberal arts college had its start on September 8, 1883 in a church basement. Professors held classes in the subterranean location for two years until 1885 when they moved to a campus site located along the pioneer Old Yankton Trail. That year the university graduated its first class.

Found out about Joe Foss Field and other Sioux Falls facts? Take in the history of Des Moines.