Take a Drive on my Adventure Road

Flag Mountain, once location of a fire lookout, is on the edge of Reynolds Prairie.

Story and photos by Ed Martley
Copyright 2018, Top Dog Publishing

As I turn off Highway 385 toward Rochford, I get a little ill at the possibility of a gold company ripping out the heart and poisoning the water of my favorite area of the Black Hills.

At present, the Canadian company, Mineral Mountain, is drilling test holes near the village of Rochford and surrounding area to see if there is sufficient gold to warrant full-on mining. Should that occur, a spokesman for the company assured it would be a neat and tidy operation. But then, someone happily speculated, “this could be another Homestake.”

Picture this: As the crow flies, or as veins of gold might meander, the Homestake Mine at Lead is only 16 miles due north of Rochford. By road, it would take a half hour to get there.

I would imagine many who have been in this area since the beginning of time have strong personal feelings about this proposed mining and other incidences of environmental degradation. I certainly do, and I’ll tell you why.

Rochford Road is “my” adventure road and has been for seven decades. It more or less forms a horseshoe from Highway 385 to Rochford and the Moonshine Gulch Saloon. The road continues on across spectacular Reynolds Prairie and sacred Pe’ Sla, past Deerfield Lake, and down to Hill City.

Share my adventures

From Rapid City, Rimrock (Hwy 44) to 385, the adventure loop (in BLUE) takes off, and meanders for about two hours, depending on your tendency to stop and feel the wind, ending in Hill City.

Let me take you on a personal tour, away from highways and tourist haunts.

Not long after leaving Highway 385, the turnoff to Mystic leads to areas of historic mining, and personal recollection. Back in the late 1940s, a woman and her toddler son, who were part of our group, were using an outhouse at a cabin near Mystic. The facility was precariously suspended over an abandoned mine shaft. We heard screaming and the adults ran to see the biffy slipping into the bottomless hole. They didn’t get there in time and … but that’s another story, perhaps to be revisited when we contemplate the potential residual effects of gold mining. Back to Rochford Road.

‘The best day of my life’

“This is the best day of my life,” said Samantha as she and her little sister Sarah cut their Christmas tree near Rochford Road about 35 years ago.

One snow-covered day about 35 years ago, my two little daughters, Samantha, 9, and Sarah, 6, joined me in the forest to cut our own Christmas tree. We found the “most beautiful tree in the world,” not far from the Mystic turnoff. Rapid Creek runs through the area, so the trees we found were water-loving Black Hills Spruce and indeed beautiful. We took turns with the bow saw, and then all three of us grabbed the rope and pulled the tree through deep snow to the pickup. Once our prize was loaded, we broke out the hot chocolate. Sammie, with the sincerity only a child can project, said, “This is the best day of my life.”

Will the spruce and the clean water on which they thrive be there for the next generation?

A few more miles along the road reveal the occasional pond or marsh or other artwork of Rapid Creek, the source of water not only for trees, but pond and marsh critters and the citizens of Rapid City. Nearby, we come to the Standby Mine, which is one of several areas slated for gold exploration.

Stand by for the Standby

This photo of the mill at Standby gold mine near Rochford was probably taken in the 1960s, before visible collapse of the roof began.

The iron “hammers” inside the Standby mill presumably were used to crush the gold ore taken from the adjacent hillside.

In decades past, there was a huge mill building at the foot of a mountain — everybody who has been around here a while has either seen the building itself or photos and paintings of it. Over the years, I watched the structure decay. First was a sagging of the massive roof, then a little hole that grew steadily, and then the entire roof nearly went. It was a deadly, dangerous structure, and the only people I knew dumb enough to go in it were me and my sidekick Wayne. We poked around the old machinery until the creaking and groaning of the rickety building scared us out.

Eventually the Standby was torn down and today, if you know where to look, you can see traces of it.

The Moonshine Gulch Saloon is in the “heart of downtown Rochford.”

Less than two miles along, at a junction that will take you either to Deadwood or further along the Rochford Road, sits the village of Rochford, the most notable feature of which is the Moonshine Gulch Saloon of hamburger fame. One of their burgers is worth the 40-mile drive from Rapid City,

I have never figured out why the hamburgers there are so good. For years, a gentleman with a cigarette dangling from his lip crouched over the grill. We thought maybe the tobacco ash gave the burgers that extra little something. He died a few years ago, and we feared the secret of the burgers might have gone with him. These days, there is no evidence of ashes on the grill but happily, the burgers are as good as ever. And the beer is still icy cold.

I scoff at ATV riders

The saloon has been discovered by ATV and snow machine riders, and sometimes on weekends you could barely get to the door. I scoff at these people who let machinery carry them around. When I was young, and Wayne was young, it was just the opposite. We carried our machines. We had little trail bikes — motorcycles — and several times attempted to ride those high, sharp ridges that parallel the road. The rocks were so bad that we had to carry the trail bikes to the top. Then, the top was so rough and rocky, we had to carry the bikes until we could find a place where it looked safe enough to descend, and carried the bikes to the bottom, where we fell in an exhausted heap. Try that, ATV guy!

The saloon is a fine place, but the best thing I ever learned in Rochford was at the large white building kitty-corner across the street.

There’s a killer in the basement

George Sitts

On April 8, 1947, triple murderer George Sitts’s days ended when four bolts of electricity ripped through his body in the electric chair at South Dakota State Penitentiary. He had led lawmen a grueling chase from Minnesota to South Dakota’s northern Black Hills and into northeast Wyoming before he was caught. At one time during the manhunt, Sitts disappeared. There wasn’t a trace of him for about a week, but he eventually resurfaced and was captured a short time later.

In the late 1950s or early 1960s as I remember, the white building was a grocery store that offered the best longhorn cheese ever. Wayne and I stopped there whenever we had any money to buy a chunk of the longhorn and chat with the amiable proprietor, Mrs. Dunn, widow of well-known area lawman Ross Dunn. Among many other law enforcement duties, Ross had served as police chief in Deadwood and Spearfish, according to news articles.

On one of our cheese missions, Mrs. Dunn told us a story about George Sitts. Wayne and I were plenty old enough then to remember the outlaw, so she had our attention immediately. She talked about that week Sitts had disappeared: He had sneaked into ­­­the basement of her Deadwood home, living on canned goods until he sneaked out again a week later. They learned only later that he was down there, although she recalled the basement smelled a little funny.

Sacred ground

This is one of several entrances to Pe Sla

A few miles past the saloon, the road breaks out of the forest onto a huge meadow, known as Reynolds Prairie, more than 2,000 acres of which was purchased from the homesteading Reynolds family­­­­­ by the Great Sioux Nation and is sacred to Native American tribes.

Decades before the purchase, Wayne and I roamed this vast expanse frequently. One day, we noticed a tiny, weatherworn house, obviously abandoned. We had to look, so we peeked in the windows. The place housed many Aladdin kerosene lamps and was bristling with their tall glass chimneys. We never learned any more.

Standing above the end of Reynolds Prairie is Flag Mountain. Today, there is a good road up the mountain that provides spectacular views of the prairie and its surroundings.

The first time Wayne and I drove in there on what was a narrow trail to the fire lookout above, we surprised a big herd of whitetail deer. There were dozens and dozens, and they were leaping all around us; it was like being in a popcorn popper.

Now, not only Flag Mountain, but flags of the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, fly in the wind over Pe’ Sla, their name for the site. Variously translated, it means “the bald area” or “the center of our world.” Some members of those tribes have challenged gold exploration plans in court.

A-tenting we will go

Grandchild Rowan goofing off at Custer Trail picnic ground

Custer Trail Campground and boat launch on Deerfield Lake is such a place, also rich in memories. The campground is often used by Boy Scout troops, no-wake boaters, and many others. Closer to the lake is parking for RVs, and close to them is an outhouse. Here is one of life’s irritating mysteries, and it is ever thus in many campgrounds: Self-contained RVs get to park close to the outhouse or shower facility while tent dwellers often must walk a considerable distance. (I speak as a disgruntled tent dweller.)

Here’s an added treat. As you drive down the narrow gravel road to the campground you see little birdhouses attached to fence posts. And flitting back and forth in front of you like electric sparks are mountain bluebirds.

From Deerfield it’s all downhill, literally, if you want to get to Hill City, the end of my adventure road.

Time marches on, nothing stays the same. I get upset at the prospect of gold mining near Rochford because it would be another part of the nationwide federal theft and destruction of the people’s land occurring today.

Whether the Forest Service OKs exploration on federal public lands also remains in the future. Gold exploration and mining has long been a part of the Black Hills National Forest. But that 100-mile-long, 70-mile-wide source of economic activity is also a treasure trove of recreational and ecological wealth, so officials will weigh the trade-offs, including those in places along Rochford Road.

Many of us have adventure roads and secret places we cherish. If we can keep the lid on development, maybe we can leave some of the wonders of our lives to our descendants. Such a fine thing if they, too, can enjoy those Moonshine Gulch burgers, and if not a beer, perhaps a glass of clean water.

From partway up Flag Mountain, one can see most of Reynolds Prairie and the Pe Sla sacred ground.

 

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Memories of deadly blizzard far from sweet

Downtown Rapid City during the Blizzard of 1949. Courtesy South Dakota Archives.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our current snow storm (April, 2019) reminds us of a story we posted here several years ago. So we pulled it up out of the archives and here it is for your snow day.

Sweets were in short supply 50 years ago at the Fred Kammerer ranch. So when 10-year-old John found a box of candy hidden on a shelf, he began sneaking the chocolate treasure. It would have been better if this had not occurred while the Kammerers were trapped by the historic blizzard of 1949 — because the sweet was not really candy.

John, Maurice and Marvin Kammerer pose for a photo during the late 1940s.

So far, winter had been pretty decent at the K Reverse K Ranch in western South Dakota near Rapid City. Temperatures had been civilized and snowfall within reason. Then came that Sunday in early January.

Fred Kammerer stepped outside that morning and looked at the sky. He went out a short time later and looked again. It scared him. “Boys, we gotta get the cattle in because we’re gonna get it.” Fred and sons John, 10, and 11-year-old Marvin and Maurice (fraternal twins), jumped on their horses. They no sooner reached the herd of 100 when the wind hit.

“Man, it was blowing,” John recalls. “Before long it was about 70 miles per hour and cold, oh, God, but it was cold. Then the snow started. We got all the cattle into the corrals where they were safe.

John Kammerer

Dad always kept plenty of feed on hand for emergencies like this; we had enough to last all winter. His savvy paid off. We lost one heifer, and that was not directly related to the storm. Some of our neighbors lost hundreds and hundreds.”

After the cattle were safe, the Kammerers fought their way to the barn to bed down their horses, and then groped through the cutting wind and blinding snow to the house, stringing a long rope so they could find their way back.

Fred Kammerer (born in 1888) said later the blizzard of ’49 was the worst in his memory, but it certainly

The old outhouse still stands on the Kammerer K Reverse K Ranch near Rapid City. During the Blizzard of 1949, Fred Kammerer strung a rope between the outhouse and the main house so people could feel their way through the blinding storm.

wasn’t the only one. He knew that without a rope to follow they would not be able to trudge safely from house to barn. And while they were at it, he and the boys stretched a rope between the house and the outhouse.

The ground floor of the ranch house was warm. There was a potbelly stove in the living room, and the kitchen stove was an old Monarch wood-burner. However, the wind-whipped snow seeped through every opening, every crack in the walls of the old building. Upstairs in the kids’ bedrooms there was no heat, and an iron-hard crust of frost soon formed on the ceiling. The youngsters sandwiched themselves between feather mattresses and heaped blankets on top of those. One bed was capped with a tanned horse hide that John swears must have weighed 50 pounds. The snow accumulated in six-inch drifts on the floor, adding a layer of white to the high-piled bedding.

“One thing for sure,” John remembers, “we didn’t dilly-dally when we got out bed. We got down those stairs as fast as we could to warm up by the stoves.”

John said it would not have been as bad if they were able to stay in the house “but we had to take care of the livestock, the cattle, pigs, chickens and horses out the barns and corrals. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. It was damn dangerous. Without Dad’s ropes to hang onto, we never would have lived through it.”

After the chores were done each day, the family was able to rest and recover from their efforts. All except John. He was poking around the house and there, hidden on a high, dark shelf, he found a little box of candy. The Kammerers had always been well-provisioned, and all their lives had feasted on beef, tons of canned goods their mother had put up, and the heavy, wonderful bread she baked every day in the old Monarch. But candy, sweets of any kind, were rare, and therefore craved.

John had sneakily pocketed the little box of candy, and before the day was over, ate it all. It wasn’t candy, of course, but Ex-Lax, the fabled laxative that poses as chocolate. He clearly remembers being doubled over by cramps, racing to get into his heavy clothing and then desperately clawing his way along that frozen, wind-blasted rope to the outhouse. Time and time again. Today, more than 60 years later, he still has little taste for chocolate, preferring mints instead.

It was deep out there as shown by this famous photo from the South Dakota State Archives.

As John remembers, the storm screamed for three days. “On the fourth day, it was quiet when we got up. We looked out and saw the sun, hanging frozen in that hard blue sky. It had no warmth, but nearly blinded us reflecting off the snowdrifts. And there were drifts, drifts like mountains, everywhere. They were as hard as mountains, too. We could walk across the big one between the house and barn and touch the electric wires. We hitched up a hay wagon, and the horses were able to pull it right over the drifts, just like they were walking on rock.

“Then we started to shovel. We’d no sooner get a path dug out when another storm would come along and bury it. My brother, Marv, reminded me of digging a trail out to the stock dam and then breaking the ice so the cattle could drink. One of the worst things was hacking the snow out of the animal sheds. It would drift in, and the animals would stomp it into solid ice, and it kept getting higher and higher. The whole rest of the winter was a blur of wind and snow and shoveling and shoveling some more.

“It was the middle of March, and Dad and I were out feeding cattle a quarter-mile east of the house. It was cold, terrible cold, when a chinook wind hit. We started peeling off our coats. Dad leaned on his pitchfork, looked upward for a long time, and whispered, ‘Thank God, it’s over.’”

Fred Kammerer lived well into his 90s and died in 1987. John, who now lives Rapid City, gets cold easily. “I’m not sure why this is,” he said, “unless every time the thermometer falls a little, it awakens an old memory of the blizzard of 1949.”

This painting by Johanna Stensaas shows the Fred Kammerer ranch as it was in the late 1940s. The white building at lower left is the main house.

Snowbirds report: Messing around in Mesilla, New Mexico

Snow geese at Bosque del Apache in Socorro, New Mexico

By Ed Martley

c 2019

The best result of my decision in the late 1970s to start a business in Las Cruces, N.M., was the discovery of the nearby village of historic Mesilla.
In the following decades, we visited Mesilla from time to time and developed a real affection for the little place (population about 2,000). This winter, we decided to flee the blizzards of South Dakota for the warmth of the Southwest deserts. Naturally, we chose Mesilla and stayed a month. Mesilla buildings are (by ordinance) either authentic adobe or adobe-look, and the streets are very narrow. Mesilla is old — our rented casita (“little house”), with its two-foot-thick adobe walls, dates to 1860, and has been in our hosts’ family for four generations. Businesses and residences surround the Mesilla Plaza, a National Historic Landmark. History calls from the architecture, landmarks, signs, and events. Among Mesilla’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) historical residents is Billy the Kid.

Mesilla’s historic plaza

Some of the buildings in the town plaza date to the early 1850s. Mesilla is only 50 miles from the border with Mexico and, in fact, was part of Mexico until acquired by the United States in 1854 in the Gadsden Purchase. Many of the residents are direct descendants of the town’s settlers, and Spanish is spoken and printed everywhere. Cultures and traditions of Indian, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American flavor the community.
Our casita — the photos show the care that went into the furniture, décor, and artwork— was rented through Airbnb. Not inexpensive, but day by day, immensely more economical than other options. In fact, no sooner had we returned home than we reserved the same place for next winter.

Casita hallway is an art gallery

Exterior patio and entry.

A fascinating aspect of Mesilla, and indeed the entire area, is the influence of Catholicism. Many of the streets bear saints’ names. For example, our casita is on Calle San Albino. Dominating Mesilla Plaza is the Basilica of San Albino, originally built of adobe in 1855. The present church was built in the early 1900s around the old adobe structure, which was dismantled and carried out the front door. The modern design on the outside opens to a “historic” appearance on the interior. The basilica has three Masses on Sundays, the first being in Español. The bells ring over the town beginning with a 6:30 call to mass.

It is no surprise that in the town of Las Cruces, crosses, crucifixes and other religious iconography are everywhere. (For more history on this important crossroads). One of the biggest holidays is Dia de los Muertos — or Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day. Or, as we northerners commonly call it, Halloween. A huge proportion of religious items reflect stylized skeletons and a host of other spooky images.

Living room

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