VALLEY SPRINGS, S.D. (KELO) — Mary Lou Nelson taught history for more than 25 years. She thought it would have really prepared her for her job at the South Dakota Welcome Center, which is part of a rest stop on Interstate 90 near Valley Springs and the Minnesota border.
That’s not exactly the case.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Nelson said with a laugh.
While having a knowledge of South Dakota history helps, the state does a good job of educating welcome center employees on the history and highlights of the state and towns within it, she said.
Mary Lou Nelson has worked at the South Dakota Welcome Center on Interstate 90 near the Minnesota border for more than 20 years. She taught history in Garretson and two other school districts for more than 25 years.
Nelson’s work partner on June 3 was Howard Brown of Brandon. A retired postmaster, Brown is also an officer of the museum in Brandon.
Brown said he wanted to work at the welcome center when he retired. He’s been at the job for about 1 1/2 years.
Howard Brown is a retired postmaster. He’s interested in history. The welcome center job fits that interest and allows him to continue to interact with the public.
“It has been fun,” Brown said.
Ditto for Nelson. She’s been working at the welcome center for more than 20 years. It started as a summer job and now, it’s her retirement job.
The state has more than 40 welcome center employees, called counselors by the South Dakota Department of Tourism. The state has five welcome centers that are part of rest areas. The welcome centers opened on May 17. They are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. All but one center will close on Sept. 26.
The state has 12 other rest areas but those do not have welcome centers. There are also two visitor centers, including the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
Thursday morning at the welcome center
The buzz of restroom air hand dryers can be heard in the background as Nelson helps a traveler with a map. Several feet away, Brown is talking with travelers near a rack of brochures.
It’s a busy morning at the welcome center.
South Dakota drew 12.6 million visitors in and within the state in 2020, according to the tourism department. In 2020, visitors spent $3.5 billion in South Dakota. Tourism is one of the state’s leading industries and welcome center employees are part of that big industry.
More than 2,500 vehicles use this section of Interstate 90 daily, according to the South Dakota Department of Transportation.
“We started with about 100 a day,” Nelson said of travelers who signed the welcome center guestbook. “Now we are up to 200 a day.”
The numbers should increase as summer traveling really gears up, she said.
The number of visitors who use the rest area is likely higher than