Essay by Betty Whittington
When I arrived in
1976, Deadwood, S.D., was 100 years old and still a living gold
camp. I was 22, married and fresh out of suburban Minneapolis.
Deadwood felt like home from the moment I set foot here.
It wasn't an easy place to live. You weren't
considered a local until you made it through a winter, and if you
thought a corporate ladder was the stairway to heaven, you were in
the wrong place. But if you had an independent streak and a little
bit of resourcefulness, you could carve out a comfortable niche for
Mine was a little cafe called Pop's
Grabit "N" Growl. My first husband and I bought it for what might
have sufficed as a down payment on a house back in the Twin Cities.
Pop's was something of an institution in Deadwood, having been in
existence for 39 years. The original Pop was a crotchety little man
who handed out greasy hamburgers for a quarter and insults for
free. It was a tough act to follow.
most endearing quality was its 1,830 people: miners and loggers,
prospectors and trappers, mountain men and ranchers, gamblers,
musicians, shopkeepers and saloon girls. These weren't
carnival-types putting on a show for the tourists, although
tourists did come to Deadwood to see them. They were real people,
quirky maybe, but real.
True historians - if any
of them escape the politically correct revisionist school - will
record May 21, 1980, as the beginning of the end for Deadwood.
That's the day state and federal forces combined to close down the
remaining three brothels once and for all. The local police were
not even told about the raid for fear they would warn the madams.
Most of Deadwood not only tolerated the "upstairs girls," they were
also fond of them. The women were generous contributors to local
charities and kids used to trick-or-treat at the brothels on
Halloween. The houses were a time-honored tradition and an integral
part of Deadwood's mystique.
Other storm clouds
were forming on Deadwood's horizon. Local retailers were suffering
the effects of new malls and discount stores in nearby towns. A
zealous campaign against drunk driving was also taking its toll.
It's tougher to visit a party town when people have to plan ahead
to stay overnight.
By the mid-1980s, Deadwood was
still a little too naughty to form a religious retreat, but not
naughty enough to live up to its reputation. The experts on such
matters told us we didn't have enough for people to
Enter a group of bright, well-meaning
boosters called the Deadwood You Bet committee. Our idea, for I was
one of them, was to give our tourist industry a boost by legalizing
limited gambling. It seemed like a natural. The rest of the state
agreed, and a constitutional amendment passed, giving Deadwood an
exclusive franchise to conduct its little
Key to the whole plan was the word
"limited." We proposed a five-dollar bet limit and no more than 15
slot machines or card tables per building. Pure casinos were not
allowed. We did not want to be overrun by big business whose only
interest was gambling. I soon learned the painful lesson that greed
has no limits, because no one at any level of authority can be
trusted to enforce the rules.
In one year,
Deadwood's Main Street became a gambling strip. The casinos were
small by Vegas standards, but Deadwood had gone corporate just the
same. Some of the retailers gladly sold out; others were forced out
by skyrocketing property values and taxes. Bars and restaurants
were so jam-packed with slot machines there was no place to sit and
socialize even if you could make yourself heard over the constant
jangling, pinging and clinking of hoped-for
Only one bar had managed to add gambling
without destroying its ambiance. Deadwood's most famous saloon had
long been the favorite watering hole of locals and tourists alike.
I had worked there myself for several years during the pre-gambling
era. On the afternoon of my 37th birthday, it was the only place to
Just inside I was stopped by a doorman who
looked like a choirboy. I wasn't offended when he asked to see my
I.D.; it just seemed a great joke. I looked around for someone to
share it with. I looked at the bartender and the waitress, the
customers at the bar and around the room. I didn't recognize a
Not being one to fold my tent at
the first sign of rain, I decided to wait for a familiar face to
come in. The bartender was a pleasant, clean-cut young man in a
white shirt. After serving me, he resumed his conversation with a
man wearing a three-piece suit. Most other customers were playing
machines with their backs to the room. One man eventually left his
machine and took a stool near mine. I couldn't help wondering what
would possess someone to iron creases in their blue
When my glass neared the refill point, the
bartender fairly skipped down the bar to check on me. Perhaps he
remembered something in his job description about hospitality.
"Where you from?" he asked.
"I live in Deadwood,"
I said. "But Deadwood doesn't live here anymore."
Betty Whittington writes
from Deadwood, S.D. She and her husband, a miner at Homestake Gold
Mine, are looking for a new home.