Native Americans have treasured the pipestone quarries for thousands of years. The Dakota, the Mandan, and the Iowa tribes have all hand-quarried the spot in southwest Minnesota named for its soft red stone, which they used to carve ornate ceremonial and prayer pipes. These pipes were so highly prized in pre-Columbian America that archaeologists have unearthed them from Manitoba all the way to Georgia.
But today the world comes to Pipestone, as the beautiful little city draws over 75 thousand visitors each year. Pipestone National Monument, its most popular attraction, is an oasis of natural prairie, where visitors can see the sacred gathering place just as it has been since time immemorial.
Established by an act of Congress in 1937, the Pipestone National Monument was created to protect the rights of all Native Americans to quarry pipestone. Unlike most national park sites, members of federally recognized tribes may apply for permits to remove one of the monument’s natural resources. Only Native Americans may quarry the pipestone, which they do with traditional sledgehammers and wedges.
Here is the neat thing: Archaeologists one thousand years from now will find authentic pipestone pipes in Ireland, South Africa, Brazil, Japan and Australia, all of which would have been taken home as souvenirs by ancient tourists.
“Pipestone National Monument currently has 56 active quarries with dedicated quarriers who are preserving a living tradition, many of whom learned the skill from their ancestors,” said Erica Volkir, executive director of the Pipestone Area Chamber and CVB. “Today, pipestone carvings are appreciated both as works of art by people of all cultures as well as by Native Americans who use them in traditional ceremonies and for prayer.
“Many of the area’s carvers, both men and women, also work as cultural demonstrators inside of the visitor center at Pipestone National Monument through a cooperative agreement with the Pipestone Indian Shrine Association. This non-profit organization is dedicated to preserving the vanishing art of pipemaking. The visitor center also features an award-winning interpretive film, several exhibits about the area’s natural and cultural history, a petroglyph display, and other authentic Native American artifacts.
“The monument is a wonderful summer destination! The 3/4 mile Circle Trail provides great views of Winnewissa Falls and the tallgrass prairie, an environment which supports over 500 different species of plants and a variety of wildlife. The trail starts at the visitors center and leads to the Old Stone Face, and then to the Sioux quartzite ridgeline overlooking the quarries. Visitors coming from the Twin Cities will recognize the name of Joseph Nicollet, whose expedition placed a marker by Leaping Rock just north of the trail’s waterfall. It is amazing just how much history remains in this single square mile of land.
“Another popular attraction is the World’s Largest Ceremonial Pipe, which is less than half a mile south of the monument. It was installed by the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers in 1999, and at 30 feet long it makes quite the selfie backdrop. The Keepers have their own shop just inside the Rock Island Railroad depot where you can schedule your own pipe carving class.”
Pipestone is also home to Fort Pipestone, an authentic replica of a settlers’ encampment from the 1860s, as well as the Pipestone County Museum downtown. All of Pipestone proper is a work of art, as 26 of its buildings are made of stone hewn from nearby quarries – not pipestone, which is marvelous for carving but which would crumble beneath Midwestern weather, but rather Sioux quartzite which has a lovely pinkish to purplish hue. While admiring the architecture in this quaint downtown, you will find charming clothing boutiques, gift shops, and delicious dining options.
You may have to stay overnight if you want to enjoy all of Pipestone’s restaurants. The Stonehouse Supper Club and Quarry Lounge is arguably the spot for cocktails and patio dining in southwest Minnesota, and Lange’s Cafe is as true as small town diners come, right down to its display case full of the finest substance known to man: pie. The locals love Los Tulipanes Mexican Restaurant and Dar’s Pizza, a fourth generation pizzeria.
Wait 30 minutes after eating to visit the Pipestone Family Aquatic Center, where your kids will be rewarded for learning so much about history by plummeting down waterslides. If they’re old enough to behave themselves alone in a waterpark, you can sneak off to play nine holes at the Pipestone Country Club or shop at the farmer’s market (Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings). Bring the bikes! Casey Jones State Trail makes its way east from Pipestone to offer even more views of the area’s immaculate prairie.
Like an inexperienced quarrier, you are only scratching the surface of Pipestone by reading this article. Please visit pipestoneminnesota.com to learn more about everything Pipestone has to offer and plan your visit this summer!
By David Scheller