Vanished South Dakota: Catching Up on Alsen, Tinton and Terry
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Lori Walsh: Welcome back to In the Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. For the past several months, SDPB's Stephanie Rissler has been scouring the state following your lead in finding South Dakota's towns that once were. The series is called Vanished South Dakota: Towns of Yesterday. At last check, she had discovered more than 50, and she joins us today from our Vermilion studio to talk about where she's been and what she's learned. She joins us now. Hi, Stephanie. How are you?
Stephanie R.: Hi. Good. Good to be here, Lori. Thanks.
Lori Walsh: I guess you haven't discovered personally 50, but you've been on the trail, definitely. How's it been going?
Stephanie R.: It's been fun. You know, every day we are learning about a new town. I learned of one yesterday called Preston, that's an old mining town that I hope to make it to soon. We're learning.
Lori Walsh: All right. Do you stop during the winter, or are you going to get your snowshoes out?
Stephanie R.: We have gotten our snowshoes out. We were in The Black Hills this last week, and we went into some old mining towns. There were a few inches of snow, so we put our snowshoes on and our hats and off we went.
Lori Walsh: All right. We've got some towns to talk about today. Let's start with Alsen. Is that how you say it? Alsen?
Stephanie R.: Yes. Alsen. This one actually is on the eastern side of the state. It's in Union County. If you think about I-29 between, oh, I guess it would be the Alcester- Beresford exit. It's right in there. It was founded by a gentleman who came from Sweden around 1871. Olaf Erickson was the gentleman who founded it. And at one time it was a pretty big community. There was a creamery there, a general store, a telephone exchange, they had a model T garage, a shop, like a hat shop for the ladies and men, a local watering hole or a saloon, if you will.
And today there's not much left. There is a beautiful farm and a couple of families. They've turned this farm into a historical farm. So it's been left as is, and it's beautiful to see. But we've visited with one of the gentleman whose family oversees this farm. His name is Ron Larson, and he shared some stories about Alsen that still make people chuckle today.
Ron Larson: Olaf Erickson was a man that came up out of Nebraska. He came here and homesteaded in, oh, about 1887. He originally was from Sweden. After a few years when they got the general store here, he started calling it Alsen, which was his home parish in Sweden. It started out with the general store, and that was the hub. When people needed the supplies, a lot of the supplies came in up to Vermilion on the river. Before long they built a livery stable and some other places for ... a harness shop and blacksmith shop, those things.
It became a village of probably maybe eight, nine houses. Most of the people came from the surrounding areas. Every section probably had four or five families on it. But there was a timber claim right on the south side of Alsen with a large open field in front of it. Every summer they would have a huge picnic there. And all the people would come from all around and have a picnic. Hundreds of people come, and they'd play baseball. They would even have barnstorming. An airplane would come in and fly around. In fact, it crashed in those trees at one point. It got a little low, ended up upside-down in the ground. So it was kind of famous for Alsen, then.
Lori Walsh: Alsen has a story that you'll never forget. How was the pilot?
Stephanie R.: The pilot was fine, which is why we share the story. And they actually have a picture. All of those folks that showed up are with this plane upside-down in the trees, so it was fun.
Lori Walsh: I would say, could have been taking a dark turn in Alsen. It sounds like a rather nice day to play baseball and have a picnic out there.
Stephanie R.: Absolutely.
Lori Walsh: Terry, South Dakota. Take us there. Where is that on the map?
Stephanie R.: Well, when we were in the Hills earlier this summer, we visited a handful of old mining towns in Lawrence County. Terry is one of those. And the history in Terry is very, very rich. Today there's not much there. It sits on private land owned by a mine. But at one time there were close to 1,000 people that lived there. There were a handful of railroads that came through there. It was a booming community. We interviewed author, historian, former history professor, David Wolfe, about Terry as he has written many papers on it. And one of the things I asked him was about Calamity Jane, because she had made Terry famous a little bit in a way. And what Professor Wolfe told me was her time at Terry actually was very small and exaggerated. So this is what he had to say.
David Wolfe: The only thing Calamity Jane has ever done for Terry is die here. Now, if the Terry people were as smart and on the ball as the Deadwood people, she'd be buried right next to us here in the Terry cemetery, but she's not. By the time Calamity had come to The Black Hills in July 1903, she was on her last legs, physically and literally. and she knew it. She knew she was checking out. And she was kind of going on a last binge. She had been through Deadwood drinking and begging drinks. And she'd been in Spearfish. And so one friend of mine told me that when she was in Deadwood they got tired of seeing here, because she put on ...
It was great to see, "Hi, Calam, let's buy a drink." Two or three days of that, you grow tired of it. And so they put her on a train to Terry. And she was up here, and she checked into a hotel, The Callaway Hotel, which is on the Sanborn map of 1903. And she was here for, I think I read about a week and died, inflammation of the bowels. Well, The Black Hills' pioneers, some of the same folks who ran her out of Deadwood probably hurried up here, put her on a wagon and hauled her back to Deadwood and planted her next to Wild Bill, much to Deadwood's benefit and much to the loss of Terry.
Lori Walsh: That's a pretty good story.
Stephanie R.: It is a good one. Yeah. She was 51 years old when she passed away.
Lori Walsh: Wow. There's a whole lot happened. It was tragic, too. I mean, yeah, there's a lot happening in that story.
Stephanie R.: And there's much more history that will be told in the documentary. But that was a fun one we thought we'd pull for today.
Lori Walsh: Yeah. So give us an update on the documentary itself. We have one more town to talk about today. But before we do that, how are you gonna sort of condense all this amazing knowledge into one doc?
Stephanie R.: Well, it will be challenging, but it will be a lot of fun. A lot of these towns is they moved westward with the railroad will really be how the program itself unfolds. We do foresee not being able to put everything that we've been able to capture into the doc, but we'll what the future holds. We've got a lot of wonderful mediums here at SDPB, whether it's on our digital platform or through In the Moment. I have a feeling we'll be able to share much more than maybe the documentary will hold.
Lori Walsh: Tell me a little bit about your process as you go, because you have South Dakota Focus every week. You've got a governor's debate coming up that we are preparing for when the session starts. You have this whole other life where you're covering the daily lawmaker conversations. And now you're on the road in the summer, and you're taking a pretty long drive to head to one of these towns to sort of stand in a space where something once was. That has to have an impact on you even after so many years of working for SDPB.
Stephanie R.: You know, it does. It's kind of a breath of fresh air. Many folks can relate when you've been doing something for so long. Sometimes it gets old. It gets routine. And then suddenly something pops into your life, and it's just like that breath of fresh air. This particular project, I think, would be a great way to explain that. As I traveled in Harding County, I had not been to Harding County much. But when we were there this summer it's wide, it's open, and I've never felt so small yet so blessed to be in such a beautiful state. That wide open blue sky and the hills, just something that maybe a lot of folks won't have the opportunity to see and the stories that we get to hear and put them down.
We interviewed with the only guy who lives in the town of Harding that was once known as Nashville. That history is not known by many. And it took a lot of convincing for him to want to sit down and share that story. And I think he has a very good mother, because after constant, "Nope, nope, nope," he finally called me back and said, "Harding needs to have its story told, too." And we sat down, and he shared with us about all of the hardworking people that settled out there, and we're gonna share some of those stories. And I just look at whether I'm doing debates or South Dakota Focus, this is just one more element that I'm just blessed to be able to be a part of.
Lori Walsh: And one of the things I find interesting is that ... And I'm not saying that you'll capture every story out there, but there's so many things that have vanished, but the story has not, as long as the right person shows up to ask the question.
So there's a lesson there about ... that I think listeners can take into their personal lives of, "It's okay to ask the question and sort of receive some of those stories, that living history among us."
Stephanie R.: Well, this next town, Tinton, that we're gonna talk about, it was an old mining town not far from Spearfish. It's about 20 miles from Spearfish. And while the rest of The Black Hills had a gold boom, they found tin in the town of Tinton. There was about 300 people that lived there at one time. The railroad never came through. It was the biggest tin mine in the world with a mine that reached about eight stories high. And right now it's owned by a private family. You cannot enter the land. You have to have permission to enter it, which we were able to get. But folks that have done history on Tinton are not sure what the future will hold.
But what they do hope is that at least the history is documented, whether it's through a program like this or a book. And the gentleman that we found used to work with some of the folks that lived on the mine years and years ago, and they've since passed on. And he wondered what his role would be with Tinton. And all of a sudden we came along, and we've asked him questions. And he's digging out old stories and pictures and historical information. And you could just tell in his interview that he wants people to know this history. Whether or not we can access it and touch it and see it, it's history worth knowing. And he shared some of that in his interview.
Chris Hill: Growing up in Spearfish, Tinton was kind of always in the background. There was a place called Tinton Road. And in high school we used to go up Tinton Road and would do things that we probably shouldn't have done. But I've always been outdoors-y, so when I went to the woods I went up Tinton Road. And in 1983 I went hunting with a buddy of mine, Scott Christianson, and we drove up here. And the next thing you know we went by the town of Tinton. It was the first time I'd seen it since, well, probably the early 70's. And I just thought it was great.
I mean, here was a ready-made town sitting in the woods all by itself, and it was kind of mysterious and interesting all at the same time. The construction of Tinton began in November of 1902, but it didn't begin to function as a community, per se, until the late spring, early summer of 1903. There was a boarding house for the bachelor miners. There were cottages for the miners that had families. There was the post office in the early days.
There was a bank. There was a stage coach that came up here three times a week in the early days. By the summer of 1903, it was a thriving little metropolis. It was kind of the darling of The Black Hills at that point. There was a school. It changed locations. These buildings, their functions changed over the years. One time the mercantile was the boarding house. And then the boarding house became the schoolhouse, and then it was torn down.
They switched places for the post office at least twice. But the school that everyone associates with Tinton now was built in 1936, and it was on the north end of town. And there were approximately 25 students and two classrooms. As far as I'm concerned, Tinton is still the best example of a ghost town in The Black Hills region. And the term "ghost town" is alluring all by itself. Now once you start looking at photographs of how it used to be maybe 100 years ago or 120 years ago, interest picks up in most people.
The last step in this process is to actually visit it. It doesn't take too much imagination once you visit a ghost town to get a sense of what it must have been like. It's like putting together a century old jigsaw puzzle that explains the past. You put enough pieces together it becomes obvious, at least to me, that Tinton isn't a ghost town. It's a place where history comes alive and the past becomes real.
Lori Walsh: Stephanie, the best way to sort of follow you on social media to find these stories as they unfold, what would that be?
Stephanie R.: Vanished South Dakota is our website at www.sdpb.org/vanished. That's a great place to start, and you can always get there as well through our SDPB Facebook page. And we are posting pictures and interviews daily as are some of our followers when they find things, so that's a great place to start.