Catching Up with Stephanie Rissler's Vanished South Dakota Production
SDPB's Stephanie Rissler has been on the road in search of vanished towns in South Dakota, along with the history behind them. This series is called Vanished South Dakota: Towns of Yesterday. She joined our In the Moment radio program on Wednesday, October 10 today from our studio in Vermilion to help us catch up with where she has been.
Chris: Let's begin about talking about this series, Stephanie, and how it came about. Take us back to the drawing board of what became Vanished South Dakota: Towns of Yesterday.
Stephanie R.: Well, it was about a year, year and a half ago. I had been working on another project that was taking me across the state. As I traveled working on this other documentary, we would come to many of these towns that were either a shell of their former selves or were completely gone. I did a small segment for one of our shows called Dakota Life. It was about 10 minutes long and it featured just a handful of these towns that no longer exist.
The reaction was so positive and inspiring that we chewed on the idea of creating a full hour documentary, spoke with our team here at SDPB, some historians across the state. We said, "Yeah, we have to do this. We have to capture this history." Many of the folks that we have interviewed, you know, they're in their later years and it's been a real treat to go around and not only capture the interviews, but even capture the video of some of these locations that either are nothing more than grasslands, and some of them have actual buildings and it's as if time just stopped.
Chris: I can't remember the exact date you were last on In The Moment, but at that point you had dug up, if I remember right, 30 of these towns. Now you tell me you are just shy of 50. How have you and your team been able to even know of these towns?
Stephanie R.: You know, South Dakotans are great people in terms of sharing what they know and their history. One of the things that I did was reach out to many of the museums. Our small museums across the state are wonderful resources for history. They have been very helpful. Once we went, I guess, through social media with this idea, South Dakotans reached out to us and every single day we learn of more towns. You're right, we're close to 50. Our list of towns that we'd like to get to that we don't know if we'll be able to for this particular project is in the hundreds. It's unbelievable.
Chris: Now's your chance. Do you need more of these towns? Would you accept more?
Stephanie R.: We're always looking for more. You know, I don't know what the future will hold, but the way it's going now, I don't know that our work will ever be done.
Chris: Let's being with Custer County. Focus on that for now and tell us what you've discovered about Custer County.
Stephanie R.: You know, we traveled down to the southwestern part of our state, and we have our favorites everywhere we go, but this particular county had two towns that we focused on. Dewey is one of those towns, and it's about a mile north of the Wyoming boarder so it's way down in the corner. This was an old cattle town. There are a few people that still live there, and they were kind and they came out and shared information with us.
As you drive through the town, there are definitely remnants of what the school used to be, where the general store used to be. The church, which they now use for kind of a community center, but the town itself has taken upon it, the couple of people that live there, they've created signs. They are historical signs that tell you what used to be in this town. I'll be honest, unless you know that this is there, it was hard for us to find and get to. It's a long drive to it. It was an old cattle town. This is where all the folks in the region would bring their cattle. They'd put them on the trains and then the trains would ship them out.
One of the signs that we came across spoke of a notch in the hill to the west looking towards Wyoming. As the cattle ranchers would be on their way to Dewey, they knew if they saw that notch in the hill, they would drive their cattle through that notch and on the other side would be Dewey. Their cattle would be shipped off. They could buy new supplies, meet up with new friends, rest if they needed to. Sure enough, myself and the videographer that was with me, we looked to the west and there was this notch that had guided ranchers going back to the early 1800s. It was absolutely beautiful.
Chris: That would be incredible. When I think of this next town we're going to talk about, I think of traveling a long ways, the Pacific Northwest. We're talking about Spokane that you and I think is in Washington, but you know what? There was a Spokane right here in South Dakota.
Stephanie R.: Spokane, South Dakota. It's on the other side of Custer County. It's actually in Custer State Park. It was an old mining town. This one, if you've got a good pair of tennis shoes or some hiking boots, you'll find it. Anybody can go as long as you're a paid entrance person into the park, you can go and check it out. It's not a very long hike, but once you get into Spokane some of the old mining buildings are still up. The old cement building where they would store dynamite are still there.
We had a tour guide with us that's part of the Custer County Historical Society. He was showing us remnants of some of the old cans that the miners would eat out of. There was a big chunk of metal, it looked like a piece of furniture and I asked our guide, I said, "Well, you know, do you know what this is?" It was the old kerosine stove that the miners would cook on, and it's sitting out there. This is one of those towns that, it's as if time just stopped.
The buildings definitely are falling apart. They're in ruins and I would not recommend anyone going in them, but you can definitely tell that there was an old mining town there. Gary, aka "Doc" Kuchar, was the man that we interviewed regarding Spokane. He shared with us how the miners first discovered the minerals in the mine, and then he also spoke of kind of a controversial moment, a murder that took place in Spokane:
Gary "Doc" Kuchar: There was at least 26 ghost towns listed in Custer County. Of all them 26 there is very few left that show you could find signs of them being still there. Spokane is one that has most of the old buildings and the old mine stuff there. Some places are just gone and went right back to nature, and all it is is just something written on paper that the town was there. Everybody was looking for gold. Like the family that founded Spokane, they was the Judd family and they come west and they found this little vein in the side of a hill over here in the eastern part of the hills, and they set up a claim there on a cold winter night and they had all the rocks on this stove, and in the morning there was a puddle of silver on the stove. They found out there was lead in this mine.
More people come and they built their homes there, and before you know it was a town. Then there was a Mr. Shepherd, and he staked his claim, but he stuck his stake a little farther over where he should have. This Mr. Cox is over on his side of the land, and one day Mr. Shepherd got shot with a shotgun, and it took him a while to die. Nobody witnessed the shooting so they couldn't really say that Mr. Cox shot him, but everybody knew he did. Mr. Shepherd is buried on the mine site. I often think some night when it gets dark and the moon comes and it gets real quiet, you can almost hear him out there wailing.
Chris: Gary "Doc" Kuchar, what a wealth of knowledge. How'd you stumble across him?
Stephanie R.: We reached out to the local museum in Custer and they were excited to be a part of it. When Doc showed up it was a version of Wild Bill Hickok in front of us. It was an absolutely amazing trip and we're happy he was glad to be a part of it.
Chris: Another vanished town, in case you're just joining us, SDPB's Stephanie Rissler has a great series, Vanished South Dakota: Towns of Yesterday is what we're talking about today on In The Moment. Tell us about James, of its location and history.
Stephanie R.: Yeah, James is actually on the other side of the state. This is in Brown county in Aberdeen. When we went there, the folks at the Dakota Prairie Museum were so helpful. We went to four different vanished towns there. There was Houghton, Detroit, Ordway who was actually named after Jeremiah Ordway, one of our territorial governors, and then James. James is interesting because today there's nothing left. It's just a dirt road with a handful of houses on it.
At one time, it was a booming little community. There was a hotel, a café, a lumber yard, a school, a church, and there was a saloon there. The saloon is what really made James famous because at that time, the town of Aberdeen and the next closest town Groton, were dry towns, where James was not a dry town. It attracted a lot of folks that wanted to get some alcohol. With that, it also attracted some trouble. We had the chance to talk to the curator of education at the Dakota Prairie Museum. Her name is Sherri Rawstern, and she shared this story with us:
Sherri Rawstern: Biggest thing that James was known for was, as the towns voted around the area to either sell liquor or to not sell liquor, James was noted as the town that would be the last to go dry and the first to go wet again. It was truly a source for a very large area that would allow liquor sales. There were lots and lots of buyers that would go there. They also had an interesting reputation for a lot of the transients at the time along the railroads coming and hopping off the train, finding alcohol someplace, getting a little too intoxicated, and so the local sheriff or jailer, they had a very small jail there. It was built out of two by fours, like most of the other things around.
They, of course, had to be locked up because they were becoming a public nuisance. The next day after they had sobered up, the jailers knew about the times when the trains were going to come through. They would come in to check on the prisoners and then accidentally leave the lock for the door unlocked, just about the time the train was going to come into town. Then they would leave, comeback after the train left, and of course the prisoners left. Now, that was fine for the town at that particular time. You know, we're talking the late 1890s and early 1900s, because then they didn't have to feed the prisoners.
Chris: I'm curious, you say James was a booming town in its day. Do we know what the timeframe may have been, when that was?
Stephanie R.: Yeah, James, the train depot actually was erected in 1889. The town really started to take a fall in the early 1920s. There was a fire around 1927, some of the buildings they decided to not rebuild, and from there the town would just see its demise.
Chris: I want to hear more. Is there more to be heard? Where do I go? Where can I hear more?
Stephanie R.: Well, we're on SDPB.org/vanished. If you go to, we have a Facebook group as well and it's Vanished South Dakota. There folks have been sharing all kinds of fun facts and pictures. Anytime we put together a small piece of the project, we'll upload it to our Facebook page as well. The work continues, the stories continue, and it's going to be fun working on this through the winter.