While I did not expect the “vicious institution” or a “veritable abomination,” as the history book “Deadwood: The Golden Years” calls the Gem Theater, I did not expect to be the lone patron at the bar at 9 on a Saturday night.
The “theater” gained new fame in the short-lived HBO series named after the mining camp. Today Deadwood lures history buffs, gamblers and motorcycle enthusiasts to the Black Hills region of far western South Dakota, a couple hours north of perhaps that most iconic of American tourist attractions, Mount Rushmore.
But this dispatch isn’t about the Gem, but instead about the people of Deadwood. Not the well-known old-timers like Wild Bill Hickok, whose assassination by the “coward” Jack McCall has been exploited by many businesses in town, or Calamity Jane, or the lesser-known Seth Bullock, whose ferocious sanctimony Timothy Olyphant tried his best to bring to life in the series.
Nor is this story about George Hearst, the depiction of whom I only half-jokingly claim is the reason the series was canceled after three seasons. Hearst’s well-heeled living heirs must have clout, and they can’t have been pleased.
Hearst struck it rich in the Comstock Lode in what is now western Nevada, and then again in Lead, just up the road from Deadwood. The show made him a murderous-by-proxy villain intent on crushing all competition in the mining camp and brutally turning it into the quintessential company town, which he did in Lead. Come to think of it, maybe the show wasn’t that far off.
But this dispatch is about the bartenders of the present, and the enduring lure of the West.
After ordering a beer and the least expensive steak dinner on the menu, I began a meandering conversation with the young bartender, whom we’ll call Sarah, including whether Al Swearengen, pimp and owner of the theater in its bawdiest days, actually died trying to hop a train – the official story – or was murdered. The current establishment believes he was murdered. “He had a lot enemies,” Sarah pointed out.
Our conversation moved to whether prostitution is still a popular profession in Deadwood. We agreed it probably was, though now done on the down-low instead of out in the open. And then to the difficulty finding good help in what is, after all, a small town in a rural area in a state with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
I was more interested in what brought Sarah to Deadwood. Raised on a farm outside a small town in the center of the state, after graduating college Sarah – like many others over the years – struck west, in pursuit not of riches, but stable employment in a place that might have a bit more life than her sleepy hometown.
Sarah lives in nearby Spearfish. Though only 15 miles away, unpredictable winter storms often shut down the interstate between the two towns, stranding many. The hotel that is attached to the Gem puts up its workers for the night. I didn’t think to ask what happened to those not lucky enough to be employed by a hospitable place of lodging.
I asked if she liked Deadwood. She shrugged and said it was ok. I asked if she considered going back to Pierre. She scoffed.
She said a lot of the people who work in Deadwood during the busy summer months live in RVs they park just outside of town, and then when the season ends head to Texas or other places in need of seasonal hospitality workers.
She seemed to speak of such a life wistfully, but when I asked if she’d considered doing the same said she couldn’t live that type of restless life, and that she was still hoping to get a professional job nearby that put her communications degree to use.
After finishing the excellent steak, I bid adieu and made my way across the street to the Wild Bill Bar, where the bartender – a young man adorned in cowboy hat, resplendent black vest and intricate and impeccable boots – was serving wine-based faux tequila and rounds of beers to an intoxicated bunch. The Wild Bill Bar doesn’t have a full liquor license. Then again, the original establishment – where Wild Bill was killed – didn’t either, at least at first. For a time, the camp was an illegal settlement without much use for licenses, after all.
I took up residence at the far end of the bar and sipped on my lager which the bartender, whom we’ll call Mike, said was the last drink he’d serve for the night. (I didn’t think to ask for permission to use his or Sarah’s real names since I wasn’t planning on writing a story about them). Mike gravitated toward my end of the bar whenever the group wasn’t demanding more rounds of beer or shots of “tequila.” Last call is a fluid notion in this Deadwood haunt.
When one of the more inebriated patrons complained about the job he had to get back to in a few hours, Mike proclaimed, “If you don’t like your job you should quit and move a thousand miles away. I did.”
Though he looked the part, Mike admitted his attire felt like a costume. He explained that his family had owned a dairy farm for generations in Wisconsin. His boss since he started working as a young boy until he left had been his father, his co-workers were his siblings. Though the farm was doing well and he could have continued on indefinitely he felt suffocated.
He felt like his decisions had been made for him, and that every time he met someone they looked at him differently when they knew who he was. Other people in his town thought about him in relation to his family and not on his own merits.
I asked if he was the youngest. He said he was.
I said I was too, and that I could relate.
When I got up to leave after what was at least the third last call for the rabble at the other end, Mike shook my hand and thanked me for coming in and talking to him.
I asked if he thought he’d stick around Deadwood.
“Maybe. I like it here, but you never know. I’m not going back. That’s for sure.”
Courthouse News Service has covered the federal courts for the District of South Dakota for more than a decade and state courts since 2013.
Minnehaha County Facts
County Seat: Sioux Falls
Named After: Sioux word for Mnihaha, meaning “rapid water” or “waterfall.”
Pennington County Facts
County Seat: Rapid City
Named After: John L. Pennington, governor of the Dakota Territory when the county was formed.
Hughes County Facts:
County Seat: Pierre (Also the state capital)
Named After: Legislator Alexander Hughes