Norbeck, Peter (27 Aug. 1870-20 Dec. 1936), governor and senator, was born near Vermillion, Clay County, Dakota Territory, the son of Goran Person Kjostad, a Swedish immigrant who changed his name to George Norbeck, and Karen Larsdatter Kongsvig, an emigrant from Norway. Norbeck lived on his family's farm and attended local schools. The family moved to Charles Mix County in 1885. From his father, a Lutheran minister and legislator, Norbeck learned the fundamentals of politics. He attended the University of Dakota for two terms in the late 1880s but did not earn a degree. In 1892 he started working as an artesian well driller and six years later formed a partnership with Charles Nicholson and Oscar Nicholson. The company of Norbeck and Nicholson, located in Redfield, South Dakota, eventually became the leading artesian well drilling business in the state. In 1900 Norbeck married Lydia Anderson. The couple had four children.
Norbeck's political career began in the early years of the twentieth century. A member of the Redfield city council for two terms, he was elected state senator from Spink County for three consecutive terms, serving from 1909 to 1915. President of the Progressive Republican League of South Dakota in 1911, the year in which he formed the Siva Oil Company, Norbeck actively participated in national politics. In 1912 he at first favored Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin for the Republican presidential nomination. When La Follette's political strength declined, Norbeck switched his allegiance to former president Theodore Roosevelt, whom he greatly admired. Norbeck was one of the leaders in South Dakota of Roosevelt's Bull Moose party, which carried the state in the presidential election.
Norbeck's career in politics gained momentum after the Progressive campaign of 1912. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1914 and governor of South Dakota in 1916 and 1918, the first native South Dakotan to attain the latter office. As governor he outlined a program of governmental action and sponsored several measures designed to improve the social and economic welfare of the people. Foremost among these enactments was the plan for rural credits, which enabled the state to extend loans to farmers. Other proposals included a road-building program and creating the office of marketing commissioner, a highway department, and a workmen's compensation system. An industrial commission was among the five new departments established under Norbeck's guidance in 1917, when a busy legislative session enacted 376 laws. Amendments to South Dakota's constitution permitted the state to engage in certain business enterprises, such as packing, cement making, coal mining to establish hydroelectric plants, flour mills, terminal elevators, and providing hail insurance on crops. Public approval of these initiatives for reform was overwhelming. Norbeck had mastered the political scene. An advocate of conservation and preservation of natural resources, the governor secured passage of a law establishing the Custer State Park and Game Sanctuary in the Black Hills. He also favored old-age pensions for Native Americans, and for his efforts on their behalf, he was adopted by the Sioux tribe with the title of "Chief Charging Hawk." During the First World War, Norbeck delivered speeches in favor of the war effort.
The year 1920 was a turning point in Norbeck's political career. At the Republican National Convention that year in Chicago, Norbeck headed a delegation pledged to General Leonard Wood as the party's presidential standard-bearer. Later that year Norbeck was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death. A postwar depression in agriculture, deepened by a glutted market and a continuing decline in crop prices, hurt Norbeck financially and increased his determination to help farmers through legislative action. He endorsed the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill, which would have sanctioned price fixing by a federal farm board. It was vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge, who viewed the measure as an improper use of the taxing power and as unwise legislation that would benefit special interests and lead to overproduction and profiteering. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Norbeck supported the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933, a plan that sought to restore the producer's purchasing power by establishing parity prices for certain commodities and subsidies for acreage reduction. Later he sharply criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for its invalidation of this program.
In addition to supporting legislation to cope with agricultural distress and serving as a spokesman for farming interests, Norbeck was active in other areas. He pushed for the completion of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the enlargement of Yellowstone National Park, and the establishment of Grand Teton National Park and Badlands National Monument. He also introduced a bird sanctuary and migratory bill, which Congress passed. As chair of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee from 1927 to 1933, Norbeck investigated the operations of the New York Stock Exchange, blaming its manipulations for the Great Depression.
In the election of 1932, South Dakotans returned Norbeck to the Senate while voting for Franklin D. Roosevelt for president. Norbeck supported most New Deal measures. He endorsed Roosevelt for reelection in 1936, warning Republicans to offer more than mere criticism of Roosevelt and fears about subverting the Constitution and urging them to give progressives a voice in party affairs. His views often exasperated conservative Republicans, while those espousing more radical solutions charged him with being too conservative. Opposed to political radicalism, Norbeck embraced the moderate progressivism embodied by Theodore Roosevelt. Instead of growing more conservative in his later years, he steadfastly maintained his principles through Republican and Democratic administrations. He was a man of honesty and simplicity who never forgot his roots among the people of the northern plains. He died at his home in Redfield.
Norbeck's papers are at the University of South Dakota Library in Vermillion. Some letters are in the manuscript collections of contemporaries, including those of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt at the Library of Congress. His speeches are in the Congressional Record from 1921 to 1936. The major work on Norbeck is Gilbert C. Fite, Peter Norbeck: Prairie Statesman (1948). See also Peter Norbeck and George Norbeck, The Norbecks of South Dakota (1938); Lydia Norbeck, "Recollections of the Years," ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal, South Dakota Historical Collections 39 (1978): 1-147; Gilbert C. Fite, "Peter Norbeck and the Defeat of the Non-Partisan League in South Dakota," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 33 (1946): 217-36; Fite, "South Dakota's Rural Credit System: A Venture in State Socialism, 1917-1946," Agricultural History 21 (1947): 239-49; and Fite, "The History of South Dakota's Rural Credit System," South Dakota Historical Collections 24 (1949): 220-75. An obituary is in the New York Times, 21 Dec. 1936.
Back to the top
Leonard Schlup, . "Norbeck, Peter";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.