Spearfish, South Dakota

Author: Paul Higbee '90MCA

I just liked the idea of a place that put its kids aboard bucking livestock

Just about the sharpest disagreement my parents and I ever had revolved around bucking calves and silver dollars. It happened the year I turned 8, when my family drove west from Minnesota for vacation. We dropped by a little jackpot rodeo at the foot of the Black Hills, near the South Dakota-Wyoming state line, and the rodeo announcer invited kids to try their luck riding lively calves at intermission. Contestants who hung on for eight seconds would pocket a silver dollar, and those who failed, the announcer predicted, would still win appreciative applause.

I declared I was going to ride a calf and claim a shiny dollar, certain to come in handy on vacation. My folks said I wasn’t, and I knew by their tones the decision would stick. But I argued my case anyway, got nowhere, and sulked through the bareback and bulldogging events. I brooded not just because of lost cash and glory, but because I sensed I wasn’t a passer-by who belonged in the bleachers.

Vacation ended, but I couldn’t clear my head of the piney breeze, high ridges outlined against the sky, bawling cattle, and guys who wore Stetsons and pointy leather boots. That spot called to me in a way that remains vivid in memory. Plus, I just liked the idea of a place that put its kids aboard bucking livestock. I recalled how youngsters tossed into the red dust that day did, indeed, hear warm applause. A boy my age, lucky enough to ride but not for long, returned to the bleachers rubbing his shoulder. Toughen up, his mom advised.

Forty-four years later I live a mile from where that little arena sat, in Spearfish, South Dakota. My dad accepted a teaching position at Black Hills State College in Spearfish five years after the memorable rodeo, so I graduated from high school in Spearfish, met the most significant mentors of my life there, and also met my wife, Janet. She grew up on a ranch north of town. We raised two daughters in Spearfish, and the town nurtured us all.

Not that the Black Hills and surrounding prairies always strike those casually acquainted with the region as nurturing. You have to understand the historical dependence on hardrock mining, lumber milling and ranching to grasp the toughen-up mantra. Tough isn’t something to strut; it’s simply a quality that moves you toward your next paycheck. In that environment, tender words don’t count for much. Deeds do. Last year my father-in-law, the cattle rancher, underwent heart bypass surgery. My mother-in-law waited at the hospital until she knew he was through the operation safely then left before he fully regained consciousness. She headed back to the ranch to supervise moving cattle from one pasture to another, a massive, hot job involving a couple hundred bovines perfectly content to stay put. My mother-in-law found babying her husband in a hospital a pointless notion. Instead she returned the next morning to report a big deed done.

For my own father, life as a college professor didn’t mean a comfortable campus existence. Black Hills State, the only liberal arts college for hundreds of sparsely populated miles, put its professors on the road to teach extension courses in small towns and Indian reservations across western South Dakota. I remember my dad arriving home at midnight or later, having driven two or three hours after teaching a far-flung class, covering country where not a single man-made light could be seen in any direction. He preferred those lonely trips to on-campus, faculty committee work. Still, the drives could be hard, especially in winter.

Not as hard as Harvey Fellows’ drives, though. As far as I’ve been able to determine, Spearfish was the last town in the nation to claim regularly scheduled stagecoach service. For decades Fellows, until the last run in 1913, delivered passengers and parcels to and from Deadwood, 15 rugged miles up a trail so steep that the stage’s brake shoes were shot after a single week’s wear. I missed knowing Fellows by several years, but I met Clyde Ice, Spearfish’s aviation pioneer who advised Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford and became something of a legend himself for humanitarian flights. Ice, who, against all odds, lived to 103, routinely took off from Spearfish into blizzards and other onerous conditions to transport desperately ill or injured people stranded at distant ranches or prairie towns.

Outsiders sometimes think rural folk revel in isolation. In fact, local heroes are often those who take risks and demonstrate endurance in reducing isolation, delivering everything from the mail to college coursework.

In my youth, Fellows and Ice were held as Spearfish giants. Neighboring Deadwood boasted Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, characters we in Spearfish considered a bit over the top. The individual who to my mind will always epitomize Spearfish, though, and who always impressed me by recognizing me on sight, was Russell Jonas. As the Black Hills State president, he hired my dad, and I doubt there ever lived a university president who knew the true nature of the West better. Jonas grew up on a South Dakota homestead, he wrote, in the days of fording dangerous streams, fighting driving snow, and watching drought and grasshoppers destroy the land. Combine the hard lessons and ethics of that land with higher education, Jonas believed, and his school would turn out remarkable men and women. He deserves credit for his groundbreaking success in helping American Indian students get into college classrooms, in Spearfish and at those scattered extension sites.

What I personally remember best about Jonas is how I’d spot him outside, wearing his trademark cowboy hat and work clothes, dragging a hose across a campus lawn or carrying boxes of supplies. His style communicated that no one in the West should think themselves above useful, manual labor. To this day, no college or university president I’ve met seems complete without a Stetson.

While many Americans relate South Dakota to the Midwest, in Spearfish that region feels far removed and is usually referred to as East River, meaning the other side of the distant Missouri River. Spearfish folks may envy East River South Dakota for its beautiful game pheasants and relatively plentiful rainfall, but most wouldn’t trade the spectacularly rugged Black Hills for any quantity of birds or moisture. Spearfish lies in a wide valley at the mouth of a deep Black Hills canyon, a place of pines and high cliffs and waterfalls that feels like the town’s back yard. From that canyon flows cool air so fragrant it’s almost intoxicating some summer nights and a swift, clear mountain stream.

When my family first visited in 1961, about 3,500 Spearfish residents lived within a few blocks of that creek. On summer’s hottest days it seemed every kid magically produced an inner tube for an icy, spinning ride down the creek, from one end of town to the other. When the creek emptied of tubers, fly fishermen waded in and pulled trout from the waters. Just two of Spearfish’s streets were paved then, but community leaders were hammering out a plan to remedy that. They also went to work to get Interstate 90 routed directly past town. A little fine-tuning, their thinking appeared to be, and the world would come to Spearfish. There is a little arrogance in the rural West, a belief that anyone exciting will eventually come your way, and those who don’t are unimaginative types who climb corporate ladders, not rocky outcrops.

Spearfish offers precious few corporate ladders. Visitors who ask, “How do you possibly make a living here?” never will. Plenty of my neighbors, though, make quite a comfortable living by carving out unusual niches, rustling up projects, tying projects together and, not infrequently, hitting the lonely road to reach clients. If it gets overwhelming they tell themselves to toughen up.

They also keep their imaginations engaged. Here’s something I have trouble communicating to urban friends who think that cities alone drive the national beat: When my family lived in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area before moving to Spearfish, my fifth-grade teacher wasted no opportunity to remind students how central the Twin Cities were to national consciousness in 1965. She used illustrations that 11-year-olds appreciated: Hubert Humphrey a heartbeat from the White House, the Twins baseball team World-Series bound, the Beatles coming to our town. Yet a couple years later as a Spearfish teenager I felt closer yet to the nation’s psyche, part of the vast West—the West of the imagination. The Beatles played the Twin Cities. But they sang, in one ballad, of the Black Hills.

It’s regular, personal interaction with imaginative people that keeps me in Spearfish. Kent writes novels, Dick paints. Elaine and Jerry coordinate marathons across the nation. Johanna, retired from the Metropolitan Opera, coaches singers. Dan coaches Olympians. Kay and Jim produce and market radio dramas, Bob invents dental equipment, Mike runs a sanctuary for exotic animals, while Gary polishes music and jokes for frequent gigs on the Late Show with David Letterman and the Grand Ole Opry. These are just the folks with whom I’m on a first-name basis, ones I can meet to swap tales over coffee at the little Two Pines shop on Main. It’s there I sometimes also run into friends from high school who moved away for careers. Some hope to return someday, although maybe not until retirement, and they wonder whether they’ll recognize Spearfish then. The town’s tripled in population since our school days and continues to grow. The old section looks and feels much as it did, especially along the creek, and residents worked successfully to preserve beautiful native sandstone commercial buildings and our century-old opera house.

But, visiting old-timers always ask, why couldn’t Spearfish put some of its highly touted imagination to work and find a way to grow and prosper without ringing itself with big-box stores and fast-food logo signs, all spelling national uniformity? Community leaders of the 1960s were right. The world came to Spearfish but in unexpected guise.

Today, sadly, it’s possible to live here and put Spearfish’s natural setting out of mind. Years back, on weekends when the canyon’s waterfalls hit full flow or its autumn colors peaked, that’s where most Spearfish folk headed. Many still do, but packed parking lots attest that big chain stores do fine in head-to-head competition against waterfalls and foliage. So I’m grateful for people like Kevin, who phoned me awhile back and asked me to meet him the next morning without applying deodorant or aftershave. We were going elk bugling, and elk can smell those substances across vast distances. I’d put off Kevin’s elk adventure for some time; too busy, I told myself. Thankfully, he persisted.

The next morning he and I drove to a gulch a couple miles west of Spearfish, hiked along a creek a few minutes, examined a wallow where mud was gashed with huge hoof prints, and then climbed a ridge to a wide aspen and ponderosa-pine forest. Kevin motioned me behind a pine and pierced the air with a high, clear note on his elk call, an instrument with a latex reed, complete with a two-foot corrugated plastic grunt tube.

No answer.

Kevin waited a minute, called again, and immediately was answered by the rich, truly musical bugle of a bull elk. Within a couple minutes we heard branches and undergrowth snapping as the bull made its way toward us. He moved within 20 yards and dug at the ground with great antlers, six points on each side. A bull elk at that range, in the wild, is magnificently intimidating; this one, probably 900 pounds, searched for what it believed was another bull bugling a challenge. Finally he decided no other elk were present and lumbered away. Kevin attempted to lure him back, using the grunt tube to manufacture cow talk. It sounded good to me but didn’t impress the elk.

It’s moments like that when I feel most connected to Spearfish. Two miles from my home I came face to face with a wild bull elk, and another time a snorting mountain goat chased me down the canyon, but I still regret never riding a bucking calf.

Paul Higbee is a magazine and documentary TV writer.