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Twin pillars formerly flanked a road that cut through Petrified Wood Park.
Twin pillars formerly flanked a road that cut through Petrified Wood Park.

Petrified Wood Park

Field review by the editors.

Lemmon, South Dakota

Lemmon, a town just south of the North Dakota - South Dakota state line, is justifiably proud of its Petrified Wood Park. Bigger than the attraction's classic post cards suggest, the Park fills an entire city block in the heart of downtown.

"The Castle" often appeared in Petrified Wood Park postcards.

It is the world's largest -- and possibly only -- Petrified Wood Park, and the peculiar vision of Ole Sever Quammen (1871-1934), a Lemmon businessman. He and his adult son, David, had kicked around the idea of "a park with no living trees" for years. Then the Great Depression of the early 1930s eliminated many local jobs, and Ole suddenly had the manpower that he needed to make his dream a reality. "Thirty to forty otherwise unemployed men received sustenance during this period," explains a bronze plaque at the site.

In prehistoric times the region around Lemmon was a swampy floodplain. Many of its trees fell into the muck; their trunks became fossils. Local ranchers were amazed that Ole would scavenge these fossil-rocks that littered their rangeland and haul them into Lemmon. The Quammens eventually acquired an estimated 4,000 tons of petrified wood, 600,000 pounds of petrified grass (yes, grass can be petrified), uncounted additional tons of round boulders from the nearby Cannonball River Valley, and 13,000 dinosaur bones.

Castle to the left, museum in the background to the right.
Castle to the left, museum in the background to the right.

According to Carolyn Penfield, curator of the Petrified Wood Park Museum, Ole was responsible for the unique look of Petrified Wood Park. "Every bit of it was his design," she said. "He wanted it done the way he wanted it done." Ole commanded his men to stack and cement together the boulders, wood, and bones into over one hundred cones, pyramids, and pillars, some over 30 feet high, then had a road cut diagonally through the display. It looks weird now, but photos from the Park's opening in May 1932 show what Ole had in mind: travelers pulling into town from the treeless open prairie would suddenly find themselves driving through a "forest" of petrified wood.

Helpful signs point out significant prehistoric features.
Helpful signs point out significant prehistoric features.

Ole also had his workforce build a small dinosaur bone castle in the Park, a petrified wood wishing well and waterfall, and the large Petrified Wood Park Museum buttressed with fossilized spires. Additional petrified wood was used as a decorative exterior for a gas station at one end of the Park, which, not coincidentally, was owned by Ole Quammen.

The Park's opening, according to local reports, drew nearly 12,000 people to Lemmon, including the grandson of Sitting Bull and a former governor of North Dakota. It was officially dedicated "to the scholars and geologists of the future." Ole and David would not live to experience that; they were both dead within two years.

Today, Petrified Wood Park looks much as it did over 90 years ago, although the diagonal road has been filled in with additional rocky sculptures, and the surrounding town now has real foliage. Regular repairs and maintenance keep the grounds clean. While we were there, someone official-looking was watering the grass. Every December the woodsy effect is heightened when the "trees" are decorated with Christmas lights for an annual Fantasyland display.

If nothing else, Ole Quammen's dream should outlast most others: petrified wood is one of the hardest substances on the planet.

Petrified Wood Park

500 Main Ave., Lemmon, SD
Take US-12 into town. Turn north at the Petrified Wood Park sign onto Main Ave. Drive four blocks to the Park, on the right.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Petrified Wood Park MuseumPetrified Wood Park Museum, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.
Scrappy Art of John LopezScrappy Art of John Lopez, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.
Scrap Metal Bronco BusterScrap Metal Bronco Buster, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Pheasants on the Prairie: Enchanted Highway, Regent, ND - 45 mi.

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