Legacy of Achievement: Hall of Fame Inductee Joy Nelson


Joy Nelson is passionate about many things, but she is best known for these – horses, selling real estate, giving back go her community and helping people with special needs through Joy Ranch, a nearly $12 million western village on the bluffs overlooking a small lake northwest of Watertown.

Born in 1955 to Carol and Harry Nelson, Joy became a visionary at a young age. Ideas, she learned, can spring from the South Dakota prairie and become reality.

She loved horses from about the time she started walking, even though horses were not part of her family's life. As a young girl, her mother would clothe her in fine dresses, but Joy would add a cowboy hat and boots to complete the outfit, Eventually she laid a sales pitch on her father that he could not refuse and one day he came home with a horse.

Nelson began learning the art of selling as a young girl, hitting the road in the early 1960s with her father, then the advertising manager for KELO television.

Often Joy would appear in commercials and because of KELO's relationship with WCCO in Minneapolis, she spent time hanging out with Festus from Gunsmoke and the girls from Petty Coat Junction.

The exposure to the television industry gave her insight into a sales world where creativity and ideas Combined to make things happen.

In junior high she organized the neighborhood kids into starting a night-crawler sales business. The kids gathered the night crawlers and Nelson developed a list of clients. Her father dropped off the worms at various resorts while he was on sales trips and Joy later would distribute profits to all involved.

“I always loved to sell,” she said. “It was like a shot of adrenaline.”

After graduation from Watertown High School in 1974, Nelson entered the business world as a banker and eight years later she joined her long-time business partner Peggy Haugan in what would become a stellar 34-year- plus real estate career.

"Joy and Peggy" as they are known in Watertown, are the city's primary residential developers, turning country dirt into paved Streets, sidewalks and new neighborhoods full of children. Over the years, she has helped people find new homes and businesses. The two have helped the city expand by more than 400 acres and they have created more than 450 building lots in Watertown.

But she never forgot her primary passion, raising horses. In the 1980s and early 1990s she spent many days traveling with her show horse, Angel. In 1995 the duo would win a national championship.

Along the way the life-long Watertown resident built a ranch with a riding arena, corrals, a horse barn on the eastern shores of Lyle Lake. Because of her love of South Dakota history, she moved in a historic one-room school house and later a country church from down by Erwin, SD, historical buildings that could have been lost to the ages,

Eventually, she opened her ranch for special events and horseback riding and she noticed how the horses interacted with people with disabilities.

“I really believe that horses are spiritual. They are so therapeutic in every regard and so intuitive. They pick up on things in people,” she said.

Nelson realized the blessings bestowed on her were meant to be shared. She said she lives a simple life and she always has felt a need to help take care of people. Material things, other than those necessary to support a horse ranch, meant little to her.

As more people came to visit, she realized her ranch was a special place and it needed to be made more broadly available. She saw how horses interacted with military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, how they responded to children with disabilities or autism.

So she decided to donate the nearly 100-acre ranch to Lutherans Outdoors of South Dakota and has been a force in raising the money to build Joy Ranch, a camp resembling an Old-Western Main Street for the estimated 48,000 young people and adults in the region with special needs.

Since 2012 when the camp opened, more than 10,000 people annually enjoy the atmosphere that the ranch's staff, animals and surroundings provide. While it is aimed at people with disabilities, it is available for everyone.

Creating Something like Joy Ranch out of an idea and a piece of grassland never fazed Nelson.

"I have found it easy in my life to see things and envision how things might be. You have to be futuristic and an out-of- the box thinker to accomplish these things.”

Joy Ranch is just the tip of Nelson's community service.

She served on the boards of Lake Area Technical Institute Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, Prairie Lakes Healthcare Foundation, Jenkins Living Center Foundation and governing board, the Codington County Historical Society and the Grace Lutheran Church Foundation and church council.

She is on LATI’s Building Trades Advisory Board and in that capacity has helped provide opportunities for hundreds of students to learn skills necessary to succeed in the construction industry.

She was honored by U.S. Congresswoman Kristi Noem with the Congressional Challenge Coin for Spirit of Giving. The Watertown Chamber of Commerce gave her its Spirit of Watertown award. She was the Northeast South Dakota Board of Realtors Realtor of the Year. The Office of the Secretary of Defense gave her its Support of Guard and Reserve Award.

The Association of Lutheran Development Executives’ gave her its National Award for Philanthropy. The Elks Lodge Foundation named her its citizen of the year and Beta Sigma Phi honored her as its Woman of the Year.

She is the current president of the Watertown Art/Sculpture Walk and a member of the Northeast South Dakota Board of Realtors and the Watertown Area Home Builders Association.

Nelson said her primary passion now is helping Joy Ranch grow and expand and to continue her philanthropy.

“The happiest people in the world have found the road to giving,” she said. “We all have the ability to change somebody’s life.”