Life Travel

Back to the wild, wild west 0

WAYNE NEWTON, Special to QMI Agency
A statue in downtown Deadwood, S.D., immortalizes late rodeo star bronco rider T.C. Halloway. Deadwood hosts an annual rodeo. This year's is July 24-28. (WAYNE NEWTON PHOTO)

A statue in downtown Deadwood, S.D., immortalizes late rodeo star bronco rider T.C. Halloway. Deadwood hosts an annual rodeo. This year's is July 24-28. (WAYNE NEWTON PHOTO)

There's no sugar-coating history at the Adams Museum.

Violence, gambling, prostitution, stuffed pet cocker spaniels left by a rich pillar of the community, a two-headed calf and a children's play area. It's all there for visitors to absorb at the too-often-overlooked Deadwood, South Dakota, institution.

While Eastern-style honesty might not have been a hallmark of Deadwood when it was set up as a rogue mining camp in the Dakota territory during the 1800s, integrity and frankness have become hallmarks at a museum, which should be the starting point for tourists who truly want to appreciate Deadwood and its colourful, controversial history.

First-time tourists arrive for the main street stroll, where historical re-enactors stage gunfights with quick storylines, check out where legendary Wild Bill Hickok held his dead man's poker hand of black aces and eights, and maybe make the arduous trek to Mount Moriah Cemetery to view the graves of Wild Bill, his adoring Calamity Jane and sheriff Seth Bullock. Those without children in tow will find scores of casinos, where poker remains the big draw amid the enticing din of modern slot machines.

It's my second trip to Deadwood, and after a first tainted by a spike in my tire that had me thinking its rough past wasn't that long ago, I've discovered the Adams Museum where, if the decent historical displays don't hook you, the friendly and knowledgeable museum staff will.

They'll introduce you to characters such as Potato Creek Johnny, a Welshman who stood 4-foot-3 and, despite arriving in Deadwood and the Black Hills after the main gold rush at age 17, is credited with finding the area's largest nugget of 7.75 troy ounces.

Or Dirty Em, one of a parade of several madams who openly operated brothels in Deadwood from the gold rush days through to 1980 when federal and state authorities closed them down, a move local residents protested.

The museum, on the day I visited, devoted considerable space to the story of Deadwood prostitution, carefully explaining the grim conditions of abuse, opium-dependency and anonymous death, which was the story for many. But there were also the uplifting stories of the quiet generosity of community women, a system of doctors recommending women and of Second World War soldiers forming patient queues. It was, in fact, in the 1940s when Deadwood prostitution flourished most.

In the gold rush years, when it's believed men outnumbered women 200 to one, it's not difficult to see the business opportunity for brothels. The first wagon of "sporting girls" arrived in 1876 to an eager clientele of approximately 10,000, mostly male, inhabitants of the Deadwood camp who were also served by 75 saloons.

Those familiar with the potty-mouthed HBO series Deadwood will know well how saloons and brothels provided relief and relaxation for prospectors.

Deadwood series viewers and museum visitors will also be keenly aware of the shoddy treatment afforded the Chinese who lived there during the gold rush, mostly providing laundry services. A network of tunnels connects the Chinese laundry businesses, or some might say provided anonymous passage to opium dens.

Mount Moriah Cemetery, located on a hill overlooking the town site, illustrates the large number of Chinese who lived and died in Deadwood, occupying a large and segregated section of the cemetery. And while prospectors, lawmen, prostitutes and gamblers have elaborate, work-of-art tombstones, the Chinese section does not.

Within spitting distance of Deadwood, the town of Lead became home to one of North America's largest, most lucrative gold mines and an excellent promotional film about the Homestake Mine from 1954 is available for viewing in the museum's lower level.

The mine is abandoned, its deep shafts soon to be used for scientific experiments. Near the Adams Museum, a remnant of the mining heyday has been repurposed. The massive industrial building closed in 1973 as a slime plant (used to wash and recover gold) is now the Deadwood Mountain Grand, a casino, music and soon-to-open 98-room boutique hotel complex owned by William Kenneth Alphin, aka Big Kenny of the country music duo Big and Rich.

Deadwood Mountain Grand is a $50-million endeavour, one of the largest historical preservation projects in the United States.

A walk from the museum to Main Street takes visitors past a statue honouring legendary rodeo star T.C. Halloway and to several gambling halls, each with $100 bet limits. The two most sought out by tourists are Saloon* No. 10, which claims to have on display the actual chair Wild Bill Hickok was sitting in when he was shot from behind by the coward Jack McColl in 1876.

The actual scene of the murder is further along the street, where a saloon still operates and welcomes even non-drinkers to amble in and explore the lower-level poker room where Wild Bill died. Mannequins recreate the card game that ended so suddenly.

Further along, the Bullock Hotel still stands. Built by sheriff Seth Bullock, some of the rooms on the second and third floors are said to be haunted -- a fact neither confirmed nor denied during a stroll along Main St. with a South Dakota tourism representative who once slept there.

Ghostly fact or fantasy fiction, it's just another entry on the list of things making Deadwood one of the most colourful towns one could visit in South Dakota.

Cowboy kitsch?

Cowboys get their due in South Dakota in expected and unexpected places.

Visitors might expect to find a cowboy museum like the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish, where displays include the original Deadwood-to-Spearfish stagecoach and saddle shop.

From the foyer, dominated by a statue of a cowboy raising a six-shooter while on horseback, you can see three states --Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. Inside, galleries pay tribute to old west pioneers, including natives. Outside, longhorn cattle roam.

Those driving through South Dakota along Interstate 90 can't help but notice the 220 billboards for Wall Drug and if you concluded this store which serves 15,000 customers on a busy day was a kitsch kingdom, you'd only be partly right.

An unlikely emporium that seems to have grown by taking over neighbouring storefronts to create a business doing everything from filling prescriptions to selling cowboy clothes. The business was built on a Depression-era bargain, drawing highway travellers in with free ice-water and 5-cent coffee.

The kitsch comes with the permanently bench-dwelling Cowboy Pete greeting shoppers and ea photo-op teepee for kids.

The tribute to cowboy culture began 50 years ago when Bill Hustead, son of the store's founder started buying illustrator art to decorate the Wall Drug restaurant.

It's grown into one of the most important collections of western art in the United States, says Ted's grandson, Rick. The collection includes works by the likes of Frank McCarthy, Matt Clark, Gerald Farm, Harvey Dunn and N.C. Wyeth.

"It gives us some depth," Hustead said. "Western art is quality. It's estimated the collection is valued in the millions of dollars."

Among the favourite paintings are Punching it Out by Harvey Dunn, Tea for Two by Gerald Farm and The Devil's Whisper by N.C. Wyeth.

IF YOU GO to South Dakota

GETTING THERE

By car, Deadwood is a 20-minute drive off Interstate 90, the main east-west freeway in South Dakota. Rapid City airport, 50 minutes from Deadwood, is served by major American airlines. For more information, go to deadwood.com and adamsmuseumandhouse.org.

ALSO NEARBY

Tatanka: The Story of the Bison, 2 km south of Deadwood, is a museum funded by Dances with Wolves star Kevin Costner, featuring a larger-than-life buffalo hunt bronze statue by artist Peggy Detmers. Sturgis, home of the famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally being held this year Aug. 6-12. Spearfish, home of D.C. Booth National Fish Hatchery and Archives and, outside of town, Termesphere Gallery featuring artist Dick Termes' artwork on spheres.


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