Goodbye, Deadwood

  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 yourself.


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.


Deadwood's 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 do.


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 experiment.


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 riches.


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 go.


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 single person.


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 jeans.


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." n





Betty Whittington writes from Deadwood, S.D. She and her husband, a miner at Homestake Gold Mine, are looking for a new home.