If you have not visited the Mead Cultural Education Center, put it on the top of your list for things to do in Yankton! The building is an amazing architectural structure and home to the history museum, children’s museum, and event center.

It houses captivating exhibits which tell the colorful stories of the development of Yankton and the Dakota Territory.

Prior to the Mead, historical collections, artifacts, and documents were stored and displayed at the Dakota Territorial Museum located in Westside Park. The museum itself has a long and interesting history. In 1936, the Daniel Newcomb Daughters of the American Revolution and a Dakota Territorial Jubilee project opened the museum in the Dakota Territorial Council Hall located in present day Riverside Park.

The building was later moved to Westside Park in 1953, and in 1961 the Yankton County Historical Society (YCHS) was formed to take over the care of the museum.

The collections were growing, so in 1971 a new and larger museum was built adjacent to the old council building which remained as extra exhibit space. Many additional outside buildings were added, including the Gunderson Rural School House, Hovden Cabin, and the Burlington Northern Caboose.

For thirty years the museum flourished with programs, events, and expanding collections while welcoming countless numbers of guests from across the globe.

According to Crystal Nelson, Executive Director and Curator, with the ongoing growth a new building was again a topic of discussion for YCHS. Many options were explored including building a new museum to the east on the museum’s property which was formerly a running track.

During these discussions in 2007, Nelson and a YCHS board member, were invited to tour the Mead building which was scheduled for demolition. The campus holds great historical significance to Yankton and the State of South Dakota. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and listed on the National Trust for Historical Preservations list on America’s eleven Most Endangered Places in 2009. Crystal’s plan while touring was to photograph the buildings in order to create a historical record of the campus.

Built in 1879 the Dakota Hospital for the Insane was the first “insane asylum” in the Dakotas. Prior to this, patients were sent to hospitals in Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska for treatment. Due to overcrowding however, these states needed to return patients to the Dakotas.

Governor Howard searched for a building to be used for a hospital in nearby towns of Vermillion, Elk Point, and Canton with no success.

In Yankton, he found two large wooden buildings. One belonged to the city and the other to the Territory; both built to house German-Russian immigrants. The Governor secured the buildings and arranged to have them rebuilt on school lands north of Yankton at the personal expense of $2,286.85.

As the patient population grew so did the number of staff and need for more buildings. The architectural style of each of the buildings were unique and included neo-classical, art deco, and Italianate. Patients and contracted labor quarried the stone for the buildings and made the terrazzo for many of the floors. They had a farm and grew crops and raised livestock and were self-sufficient. Both staff and patients lived on the campus sharing many of the same facilities. Through the years, the hospital acquired much of the surrounding land making it large enough to be considered a town!

Over time, patient populations fluctuated, superintendents, doctors, nurses, and staff came and went. Mental health treatment improved significantly which meant shorter patient hospitalization stays in many cases. Currently, only a handful of staff live onsite. The need for numerous buildings and a large campus no longer exists.

Many of the buildings became vacant, were no longer being used, and some deemed dangerous. In 1991, the State of South Dakota conducted a study of the campus and determined eleven buildings, some dating back to the late 1800s, were unsafe or it was cost prohibitive to bring them up to code. A new building would be more cost effective and a plan was made to construct the Mickelson Center for the Neurosciences. A timeline was set for demolition of the eleven buildings, including the Mead.

Crystal accounts approaching the Mead with camera in hand. Massive in size the exterior is impressive in stature. Built in a “U” shape, the building is classified as Neo-Renaissance in 1991. A three-story veranda supported by enormous columns stretches the expanse of the front of Mead and continues around its east and west sides on the first and second floors.

The building was constructed from concrete blocks, which were made on campus, and faced with Sioux quartzite chips. The blocks are held together with cement produced from the former Portland Cement Company, once located west of Yankton.

Upon entering the building and stepping into the foyer, all attention is directed to the incredible marble staircase leading to the east and west wings on the second floor. Large parlors, patterned terrazzo floors, and tall windows are throughout the building.

Completed in 1910, at a cost of 85,000.00 the building was originally known as the Women’s Receiving Hospital, and later the Mead. The building was part of hospital administrator Dr. Leonard Mead’s visionary plans for the campus. Progressive in his approach to mental health, he believed the surroundings where patients lived should be beautiful. This included a spacious bright place to live with colorful manicured landscapes. Working was considered therapeutic for those who desired to do so, and entertainment and activities were a healthy part of treatment.

Even though the building sat vacant for thirty years and the paint was peeling, there were leaks, trees were growing on the roof, and animals were calling it home Crystal said she and some of the YCHS could see past all of this. She knew the Mead could be brought back to its original grandeur, while helping preserve Mead’s architectural vision and attitude toward mental health. Could this be the museum’s new home?

Shortly after the tour, the idea to acquire the Mead was brought to the YCHS board by Robert Gehm then YCHS board member. In January 2008, the board voted unanimously to pursue the idea of turning it into the new museum and cultural center. The next step was to approach the State.

In June 2012, YCHS signed a twenty-year lease with the State of South Dakota. and the dream for the Mead building was now becoming a reality! Crystal explains “the lease stipulates that by the year 2018, they- the YCHS as the Dakota Territorial Museum -need to occupy the Mead building. Not occupy the entire building, but we have to occupy the building and be functioning solely out of that building by the end of 2018. So those plans are very set in stone. Once the YCHS feels that we are confident that we want to own the building, there has already been state legislation passed that stipulates that we can buy the building from the State of South Dakota - after twenty years or any time within that twenty years - for a dollar.”

The Mead Cultural Education Center (MCEC) officially opened its doors in December 2018. The first exhibit to open was the Children’s Museum. Bright, colorful, and interesting this exhibit is fun and educational too! This interactive exhibit even boasts a whistle which sounds just like a train.

The Lewis and Clark exhibit was the second to open. It initially opened as a “text” exhibit with panels telling the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It reopened in April 2019 and now includes 3-D objects including a bull boat, pelt room, and a famous mountain lion which made the local news a few years ago. Visit the exhibit to learn about the mountain lion who used to call the Yankton Community Library home.

This year, 2019, marks the 140th Anniversary of the Yankton State Hospital now called the South Dakota Human Services Center. To commemorate this anniversary the museum will be opening “Yankton State Hospital: Minds, Methods, and Medicine”. The exhibit will focus on “bridging the gap between the legends & truths about the campus then and now. It will be designed to help the general public understand the stories of the hospital from a historical viewpoint”.

Many people have wondered what is going to happen with the outbuildings at Westside Park? Rest assured Crystal said they will soon be making a trip across town to their new location adjacent to the Mead in “Heritage Park”! In addition to the buildings, the park will include a Wind Energy windmill and a botanical garden of native plants to this area. The new Heritage Park will allow visitors to have a more interactive experience than they have had in the past. The park is scheduled to open in 2020.

In addition to the restoration, exhibits, Heritage Park, there are several events on the horizon. The Mead hosts a series of programs called “Feed Your Mind” featuring guest speakers. Presentations include Carol Ryan “Medicine in the Time of Lewis & Clark” in September and in October Ruth Page Jones “A Century Celebration: Women’s Suffrage in South Dakota, 1868-1918”. Don’t forget the annual Haunted History tours celebrating Halloween, and a beautiful vintage Christmas complete with a Victorian Santa, crafts and activities for the kids.

What is next? Crystal has a vision and tons of ideas for the future. She would like to expand the research capabilities for the collections. In addition, she sees numerous training opportunities and the creation of a preservation and training laboratory. Crystal explained the lab would teach people how to preserve items in their personal collections. She also sees an opportunity for a collections care training where conservators train volunteers. Currently, there are few if any conservators in South Dakota, so building a pool of trained volunteers would be a benefit statewide in the preservation of historical objects.

Crystal said the community support for this project has been tremendous. Without the countless hours from volunteers and financial contributions none of the progress would be possible. Historically accurate restoration is of the upmost importance, so plaster artists constructed molds to recreate missing or broken decorative plaster moldings. Windows and woodwork are being restored by a master wood worker. Stencils were recreated to paint the beautifully embellished ceilings. The list goes on with many projects completed by volunteers.

From an abandoned building in disrepair to how it looks today is amazing to say the least.

While there is still more work ahead, the end of the road is in sight. The glimmer and shine of this gem is one of a kind. Thanks to the YCHS and community members dedicated to preserving our heritage we have this beautiful cultural and educational center. Dr. Mead would be proud to know his memory is being honored and a building from his vision is being preserved and enjoyed for generations to come. To learn more about the Mead Cultural Education Center visit their website at