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Traveling woodworker crafts ornaments featuring every South Dakota county

By CURT NETTINGA Huron Daily Plainsman

HURON, S.D. (AP) — It began, as almost all really great things do, with the germ of an idea. But this is a germ which, during the time of COVID, flourished and etched itself into many families’ histories, across the state.

“I’ve always had this urge to do a tree in the Capitol in Pierre during the holidays,” said Huron craftsman Steve Riedel. “And for some time, I’ve had a desire to do something with wood from our family’s homestead, down around Ramona.”

What became of the merging of those two is the most unique of stories. A story about so much more than wooden ornaments, the Huron Daily Plainsman reported.

Steve Riedel is a craftsman and woodworker, who does some astounding wood carving, some remarkable painting and also writes. “The idea to do a tree at the Capitol has been in here for a while,” he said, tapping the right side of his head. “We have always really enjoyed going to see the trees at the Capitol each year and I just always thought it would be neat to decorate one.” While that idea germinated, Riedel retired from his position at Our Home, Inc., and was faced, as most retirees are, with the question of ‘What do I do now?’ He had gathered some wood – red cedar – from the family homestead, posts cut and placed by

his grandfather in the early 1900s, and decided to put a piece on his wood lathe and see what emerged. It turned into a pair of similar hanging ornaments, rich in color and capturing the grain of wood more than 120 years old.

That result stirred up the flame on the ember for the Capitol tree idea. “Just doing a tree at the Capitol would be great, but we really wanted to do something unique,” Steve said. Eventually, the idea of creating ornaments for all 66 of South Dakota’s counties floated to the surface, then morphed into creating each ornament

from wood that was actually from that county.

“We went to some friends of ours here in Beadle County and started off there,” Steve’s wife Marietta said. “We thought people might think we were kinda crazy. But they thought it was a marvelous idea and we got our first piece of donated wood from them.” That donation became a candy cane, Steve’s first, and got the ball rolling.

“Would you be able to help me with a small project, please?”

To get wood from each of South Dakota’s counties,
one has to actually go to each county. And while
the Riedel’s have friends in many places, not all were good wood sources. The strategy became: find an interesting farm – “someplace with character,” Marietta said – and simply knock on the door. Over the seeking process, Marietta said they became better at spotting places with more potential.

They started in early 2020 and had garnered some nice donations when the pandemic struck.

“So, we were pretty much closed in here and had a lot of time on our hands,” Steve said. He turned and finished ornaments and Marietta navigated trips – mostly out and back in a day – to gather more wood. “We looked to find a place where two or three counties would come

together,” Steve said, “to limit the amount of travel needed.”

They developed a bit of
a feeling about places that may yield good finds, and an approach that helped thaw natural resistance from homeowners. “Let’s face it,” Steve said, “we took precautions, but some of this took place as COVID was getting going.”

What they developed was an approach that asked
for a little help with their project. What they found, according to Steve, was “an outpouring of trust and generosity, from people we had never met before, but helped us and allowed us, in many cases, to become a part of their family’s story.”

While Steve was creating ornaments, and amid the road trips, a booklet was born. In it, there are photos of each county’s ornaments – many have more than one – that are on the tree,

a mention of the type of wood, if known, the donors and what the wood was used for in a previous life.

Copies of the booklet are with the tree in Pierre, for people to look through and get a better understanding of what they are seeing.

But books are finite.
The stories of the people they met and where the wood donations came
from could fill volumes. “None of the wood is
new,” Steve said. “When
I was growing up, my mother always said we should ‘make due’ with
what we have. So that’s what I wanted to do here. I was looking for wood with
a past, however humble.” What the Riedels found were more than five dozen new friends across the state, with nearly as many stories.

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