'This stuff is our legacy.' Deadwood preservation efforts give glimpse into life of late 1800s mining town
Gaming legalization funds massive research efforts
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a larger series that will include stories on the history, violence, vice and historical preservation efforts in Deadwood, a community of approximately 1,200 residents in the Black Hills of South Dakota that boasts a history rich in famous figures, gold and western expansion from the 1800s into the 20th century. Stories on these subjects will appear in upcoming editions of the Mitchell Republic.
DEADWOOD, S.D. — As Kevin Kuchenbecker makes his way through one of the rooms in the basement of Deadwood City Hall, he points out several items dating back to the late 19th century. The artifacts, which fill the small receiving area, range in type from thick glass bottles to firearms.
As he peers around the dusty enclosure, he remembers a particularly interesting piece of inventory visitors are interested in.
“Do you want to see a human skull?” he asks.
It is actually a plaster reproduction of a skull that was excavated during historic preservation efforts in the small Black Hills mining community, but like most everything else in the historic city archives, it helps fill in pieces of history about the life and lore of one of the more notorious wild west communities in the United States.
Kuchenbecker, the historic preservation officer for the city of Deadwood, guides guests through the city archives and archeological sections where he and his colleague Mike Runge, archivist for the city, spend many an hour organizing, cataloging and researching everything from county tax records to opium smoking paraphernalia.
The impressive space is all a part of the Deadwood Historic Preservation Office, a part of the city government structure that works with property owners, city departments, organizational and agency partners, as well as the general public to preserve, promote and protect Deadwood’s historic resources along with its rich and unique past.
Its holdings are part museum and part research laboratory. Since the early 1990s, it has been one of the go-to resources for those looking for historic information on Deadwood.
“(The department) started in about 1990, when they started doing restoration in and around Deadwood, and things were coming out of the woodwork. Literally. From basements, crawlspaces, attics,” Runge told the Mitchell Republic recently. “The city and historic preservation office started accumulating those items.”
Since that time, the historic office collection has grown to include about a half-million artifacts from Deadwood’s most famous time period, many of which are on display in small exhibits in a dedicated room in the city hall basement. But there is even more in storage and in the areas dedicated to research, generally out of the public eye.
There are few archives like it in the United States, and probably none like it in a community with a population of approximately 1,200 people. That’s thanks to small-stakes gaming being legalized in the town a little over 30 years ago. Since then, the funds brought in from that gaming has contributed roughly $16 million a year into historic preservation efforts, tourism promotion, Lawrence County and its municipalities and schools, as well as the general fund of South Dakota and other governmental entities.
The funds collected from taxes on gaming helped establish the Deadwood Historic Preservation programs that include grants, loans and dedicated funds for large-scale restoration projects. It also helped build the historic preservation facilities that both Kuchenbecker and Runge haunt on a daily basis.
“They really thought about just about everything. It’s climate controlled. We have our own HVAC system that’s down in the basement and we keep it between 60 and 70 degrees at 35% to 45% relative humidity, which is good for documents and photographs,” Runge said. “We have a preactive sprinkler system in here, heat detection and a smoke and fire system. Security-wise, we have surveillance cameras, and waterbugs installed in case we have water issues.”
It’s a serious environment to do a serious job: preserve historic materials from the heyday of one of South Dakota’s most famous towns.
“This is something to be taken very seriously because it is such an amazing assemblage of materials,” Runge said. “We are one of the few in South Dakota, if not in the nation, that has something like this.”
The historic material is everywhere. Lawrence County tax and criminal record ledgers, some of which were going to be thrown out before Deadwood Historic Preservation took them into its collection, fill a wall of bookshelves. Architectural plans for historic downtown buildings, one of the largest such collections in western South Dakota, fill another cabinet. Vintage horse harnesses are set aside to be cataloged.
The variety of the collection is considerable, and it takes at least two full-time employees to keep up with preservation efforts that are still going on today.
“It goes all over the radar. There are some jobs where you get bored doing one thing, but here there is so much that is going on. You pick your day and you work on it, so it is pretty cool,” Runge said.
There are many facets to the work being done down in the basement. Paper records are microfilmed, digitized and transcribed for easy research online. Artifacts are researched with the help of experts across the nation. Runge helps city government offices and the public with information requests ranging from historic infrastructure information to genealogical research.
The entire city is listed as a National Historic Landmark, and thus renovation and new construction work is carefully monitored to help preserve the historic integrity of the community.
“We get it into the database and have (the records) digitized and microfilmed, so you can turn around and we can look this stuff up with relative ease, which would take you forever normally,” Runge said. “We get about 100 to 200 requests every year. The street department will ask if we have any curb and gutter plans for this address, or a person may need genealogical information on an individual. As part of that we do our best to answer any questions that come our way.”
The huge cache of information is valuable, but the department is filled with unique artifacts that act as a physical connection to a time when miners were panning for gold during the early days of the boom town.
Kuchenbecker puts on a pair of latex gloves and pulls out a pistol dug up during an excavation. It’s a Colt Army Model 1860, the type that likely helped settle disagreements among the early inhabitants of the community. Researchers were able to determine a surprising amount of information from the hunk of rusted metal, Kuchenbecker said.
“It was encrusted in rusty metal, and it was identified as a revolver. But until we sent it to a conservator to be cleaned and preserved, we didn't realize the brass did not oxidize the same as the metal. So we got a serial number,” Kuchenbecker said. “We contacted a historian at Colt who said it was manufactured in February of 1862 and it had been converted to fire cartridges. There are still two cartridges in there.”
The gun was still fairly new when it arrived in Deadwood. But what happened to its owner?
“So, what’s the story?” Kuchenbecker asked. “This gun is 16 years old or older when it gets to Deadwood. What if it could talk?”
Some of the items actually can talk, so to speak. Kuchenbecker pulls a large tray from a wall cabinet, revealing what appear to be pages of burned paper. It’s the remains of an old burned newspaper, and it’s preserved well enough that a discerning eye can still make out the print on the charred pieces.
It provides another look into an often overlooked segment of the early Deadwood population.
“We had a pretty substantial Jewish population. I’m sure what we’re looking at here is parts of a newspaper written (mostly) in Yiddish,” Runge said.
Using modern technology like Photoshop, scans of the pieces can be used to invert the print, making the copy more legible. He could then use those scans to have a rabbi from Maryland attempt to translate some of the newspaper, and research into its contents is ongoing.
Representing the Chinese population of the community at the time are some pieces of vintage clothing that were also burned, this time as a part of a Taoist ritual where personal items of the deceased were incinerated shortly after death in the belief that it would help carry the items to the afterlife.
What at first appeared to be just a ball of old fabric turned out to be what they believe is a Manchurian riding jacket.
“It was his vest and pants, and it was all balled up. When they incinerated it, they didn’t fully incinerate it, so we were able to preserve it,” Runge said. “This is something you won’t see anywhere else, probably.”
And then there is the skull. The one on hand at the research facility is a reproduction, but it represents more of the in-depth research work the experts do. The skull is part of a burial excavated near the corner of Taylor and Jackson streets in Deadwood, and researchers have been able to tell a great deal about him through modern scientific methods.
“He had gold teeth. He was buried between 1876 and 1878. He was male, and we know what side of his mouth he chewed on. He had some early dental work, so he likely came from a fairly well-to-do family,” Runge said. “He was about 18 to 24 years of age because his wisdom teeth had not fully erupted yet.”
Using DNA samples obtained from a femur and a tooth, they could create an even more complete image. Today’s science can use that to determine his hair, skin and eye color and even his genealogical background.
“Even though he was buried for 150 years, we determined he had curly reddish-brown hair and had brown eyes,” Runge said.
It’s a lot of work, and thankfully gaming taxes help pay for it all. The facilities themselves are expensive, as is the time of the experts who work to preserve and understand the artifacts and information drifting into the office.
But it’s not just a two-man job. The office uses volunteers with some of the large-scale work, often from the ranks of the Black Hills Job Corp and area high school students. Like Runge and Kuchenbecker, those volunteers have a fascination with Deadwood history, and helping preserve that history is a way to connect with a world long gone.
Runge said his office, and those occasional volunteers, will continue to make sure Deadwood’s history is preserved as well as it can be.
“This stuff is our legacy, so when you get them involved and get them excited about this they want to help out and be a part of it,” Runge said. “It gives us a better understanding of what Deadwood means not only to this area but to the United States and basically around the world. It’s really humbling to be a part of this. It’s super amazing that we have the facilities and resources and the ability to do this kind of work.”