Story and photos by Ed Martley
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
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’
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.