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Scenic: Where Characters Have a Town

EDITOR'S NOTE: The little cowboy town of Scenic, South Dakota, located on the western edge of the Badlands, received local and national attention this week when Twila Merrill, who owns much of the town, put it up for sale. The buildings may belong to someone else, but the true legacy of Scenic lies with its unique and colorful characters. Several years back, our publisher Bernie Hunhoff wrote this story about Scenic and its residents. You can find this story and more like it in our book, South Dakota's Best Stories

Scenic certainly can boast that it has South Dakota's most unique main street.

By Bernie Hunhoff

"Every town has its characters, but in Scenic the characters had a town,” wrote Philip Hall in the book Reflections of the Badlands. Traders, trappers, homesteaders, drunken monkeys, saloon-keepers, missionaries, rodeo champions, bikers, gamblers and other interesting sorts have called Scenic home.

The town site below Sheep Mountain has long been a “last stop” for travelers arriving in the Black Hills. Scenic’s very first businessman, according to Hall, was bad-luck rancher Ab Jefferson. When a May blizzard pushed all of Ab’s cattle over the edge of Sheep Mountain, he decided to open a saloon. Ab drank too much of his own merchandise, and sold some of the rest to his Indian neighbors. Selling alcohol to Indians was then a federal crime, so Jefferson ended up in jail.

Brands from local ranches decorate the ceiling of the Longhorn Bar, where almost nothing has changed for many years. Saw dust is thick on the floor and patrons rest on oil barrels affixed with metal tractor seats.

All the flat land on the outskirts of the Badlands was claimed by the time Mary Hynes and her eleven children arrived. She was told that the only land not homesteaded was an inaccessible spot atop Sheep Mountain, so Mary and her boys clawed their way up the mountain, and were delighted with the view and the rich, flat grasslands. She brought her 20 cows up, staked a claim, built a sod house and made a life for herself. 

Mary Avenell of Yankton, the granddaughter of Hynes, said growing up in Scenic in the 1950s meant living shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the most colorful people in North America. Mary’s dad, “Happy” Hynes, ran a bar that competed with the Longhorn. Once, her dad bought “black market” meat and he felt guilty about it — maybe because he learned that officials from Rapid City were planning to investigate. “Hap,” a non-Catholic, went to the parish priest to confess and ease his conscience. Meanwhile, her mother cooked and served all the evidence before the sheriff arrived. 

Scenic is a company town these days, owned lock, stock and longhorn by a single corporation and run by a petite, pony-tailed woman who came to this windswept place against her will in 1963. Twila Merrill was riding rodeo stock, not barrels and poles that are usually the domain of the womenfolk, but the real thing: bucking broncs. She was mending from injuries in Omaha when her father, a longtime Pine Ridge Reservation trader and rancher, telephoned to say there was an emergency. Twila drove all night to get back to Pine Ridge, fearing someone had been hurt in an accident. “When I got home, Dad told me Bud (my brother) was going to show me a bar and a house in Scenic that I was supposed to buy,” recalled Twila.

Twila Merrill rode wild broncs before she "settled down" in Scenic.

Knowing her dad’s determined ways, she reluctantly agreed to take a ride. “There wasn’t even a road all the way between Pine Ridge and Scenic then. We drove through Cottonwood Creek and mud was flying everywhere,” she said. “The bar was a one-room affair with a nickelodeon. I didn’t even look at the house. Tumbleweeds were blowing down the street and Scenic was the last place in the world that I wanted to live.” She and Bud returned to their dad's Pine Ridge ranch, where a big argument ensued. She lost the argument but gained a town. Her family’s corporation now owns all but one home in town. They also don’t own the Congregational church, the school or the fire department. But they do own the land where the rented post office is located. And they own the Catholic Church, built in 1913 and now abandoned. Twila is considering a renovation project that would include “Michelangelo-style murals” in the interior. But the town’s landmark — to some its very soul — is the Longhorn Saloon, little-changed since the 1960s when Twila’s father persuaded her to come to Scenic. The front is lined with rows of skulls from longhorn cattle. Brands from area ranches are painted on the ceiling. Sawdust covers the floor. Oil barrels with metal tractor seats serve as sturdy bar stools. Twila has tried not to change the aura of the place. However, she did have the sign changed. It once read “No Indians Allowed.” 

She painted over the word “No.”


10:25 am - Mon, August 1 2011
Jennifer Olson said:
This past June while on vacation, I drove through Scenic on my way to Pine Ridge from Rapid City to visit a good friend. There wasn't a soul in sight and it was as quiet as a ghost. Everything seemed abandoned and long gone. Definitely don't blink or you will miss the place as you drive through.
03:24 pm - Sun, March 31 2013
Valie Blair said:
I'm a ghost hunter and am looking to investigate these ghost towns in south Dakota. And hopefully write a book about the ghosts of ghost towns so who do I need to talk to about scenic becoming the first town I investigate
03:15 pm - Fri, April 19 2013
Carrie Pool said:
Does anyone know how to get ahold of Twila Merrill today?
09:43 am - Tue, August 13 2013
mespinal said:
trying to save our family would like a chance to run the town and have it come back to life reantly bought 79 acres in harding country give me a email twila merrill thank you so much
05:24 pm - Thu, October 31 2013
anonymous said:
was running out of gas in the badlands, myself my sister and a friend all on motorcycles, visiting during the rally in 2004, took a back road path out, hit a highway, tossed a coin an took a right, saw a sign said rapidcity 90 miles, sister was never gonna make it that far :
05:34 pm - Thu, October 31 2013
anonymous said:
came across Scenic just a few miles down the highway, pulled in, little store with 2 gas pumps, across the street was the saloon, outdoor jail an post office. A indian came wondering up wanting $$ of course my sister gave him a couple bucks, he headed right for the saloon lol . talking to the store worker we found that the population was 14 an a half ! her daughter was pregnant, the indian told us crazy storys about jets flying over an droping bombs, must have been testing range for the airfoce. will never forget Scenic South Dakota loved it out there !!
01:07 pm - Tue, November 26 2013
Calie said:
Hi there! Does anyone know how to get a hold of Twila these days? If anyone has her contact information, I would so appreciate it!
01:08 pm - Tue, November 26 2013
Calie said:
If you do know how to get a hold of her, please email me at Thank you!
01:39 pm - Wed, December 25 2013
ZeeK said:
My girlfriend and I drove thru in the mid 80's. Some old codger in the general store told us which trailer door to bang on to wake up the other old codger who ran the bar. Our efforts to wake him were futile. I sure would have loved to see the inside. As far as we could tell they were the only 2 people in town. For reasons that I can't even explain to myself I loved that place and felt eerily drawn to it. When I was there the sign still said no indians allowed.
05:17 am - Mon, March 24 2014
Larry Schlagel said:
Been there done that neet place ,, names on the ceiling between the ceiling fans blades put there during bike week very popular at that time could make a ton if ran wright , not much going on any other time of the year ' but for. Ten days in August 50,000 bikers will head to the bad lands. Could make a great stop over area with the saloon in operation , two beers ten bucks eight dollars profit DAH 400,0000 profit hum for ten days work ,!! See ya in scenic
09:13 pm - Sun, May 4 2014
Harley said:
I worked in this small town in the late 90's for about two months. We were taking out the old train tracks and this is where one of our yards was located. I was young, only 17, first time that far from home and soon found myself alone to finish the job. But the people I met there welcomed me right in. Twilla especially helped make sure I had what I needed and even fed me on more than one occasion. I will remember my experience there forever. She and her family are wonderful people. Would love to have a chance to go back.
06:38 pm - Thu, June 26 2014
Annie Palmer said:
Just drove through this place and it is all abandoned and ghostly for sure. Looks like it was a fascinating place at one time. Sad and ruined now.
07:21 pm - Mon, June 30 2014
Tammy said:
Twila was awesome. I got to know her and ended up buying one of her saddles and three of her horses, before her son was lost in a car crash. I think after that, all went downhill even as her health was declining. She was friendly. I loved that little town and was sad to see the horses disappearing and the people. I think of her often
09:30 pm - Mon, July 7 2014
stacey stoops said:
Can anyone help?When i was a kid i remember going to bar with my parents,I believe it was some where in the black hills.Possible that it may have been in the Estes Pk. Co. area too.It was built into the bottom of a mountain(cave)and I believe had a small creek flowing through it. I'm planning a trip to these areas this summer.Could anyone help?I would really appreciate any help.Thanks
05:03 pm - Thu, July 24 2014
silveradokid said:
The Wabasha Street Caves is an event hall built into the sandstone caves located on the south shore of the Mississippi River in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. The caves have been home to mobsters, speakeasies, and in more recent years have begun hosting a "Swing Night" on Thursday nights with live big-band music. The Wabasha Street Caves also provide historical tours of the sandstone caves in Saint Paul and Stillwater, Minnesota.


The caves, which technically are mines because they are manmade, are carved out of sandstone and date back to the 1840s. Throughout history the caves have been used for a number of different activities, including growing mushrooms, storage of food and belongings, music, and dancing.[1]

In the 1920s, the caves were used as a restaurant and nightclub venue known as the Wabasha Street Speakeasy. The speakeasy was said to have been frequented by gangsters such as John Dillinger and Ma Barker, however there is no evidence that these visits occurred; thus, these stories are considered legend.[2]

On October 26, 1933, Josie & William Lehmann opened the Castle Royal, which was built into the side of the caves.[3] Castle Royal was closed in the late 1930s due to the start of World War II and went back to primarily being a place to grow mushrooms. Some time in the 1970s, Castle Royal 2 was opened as a venue for Disco music.[4] The caves have also been used as a place of storage for debris and belongings that were washed up from flooding. Some of these things can still be found in the caves today.
08:25 am - Sat, August 2 2014
Pat Larkin said:
I have stayed in Scenic on several occasions; I used to work the Horse Sale in Wall, South Dakota with and old friend, Rodeo Clown and Cowboy, Buddy Heaton. I believe my first occasion to met Twila Merril and her dad Halley (Spelling)
was in the early 60's while in South Dakota filming "HOW THE WEST WAS WON".
Buddy had know the Merrill's before I think; I know I had met Bud at other horse sales in the past. Along with a fellow named Loren Palmer, I had thought he was married to Twila, but I could be wrong. Anyway; We used to stay with The Merrill's in a big old 2 story house that was out behind the their Bar. I have some great memories of those days (And some not so great). The street and Hwy; at tis time were dirt, and the Buffalo roamed right through town. Great Memories:
10:01 pm - Wed, December 3 2014
Jean Lewis said:
Rest in Peace, Twila Merrill, Rest in Peace. May your ride through the heavens be a great adventure.
02:20 pm - Mon, December 8 2014
William Riddle said:
Mr. Bernie Hunhoff,
Please consider sharing this story about Scenic with the Kirk Funeral Home on their Twila (Merrill) Palmer memorial page. Your story provides insight and detail into the life and times of this fascinating woman. Thank you.
02:00 am - Fri, December 19 2014
jessica said:
Not so beautiful! The signs have said for Years.. "No Indians Allowed"! Sad .. We all need to know the truth. The discrimination that has gone on here and yet most people are Not educated on this real and simple fact. Research this, I can promise you, there is a Ton of information out there on it!
10:39 pm - Sat, February 21 2015
Margaret McLearie said:
My grandfather, John McLearie, served as pastor of The Congregational Church
In Scenic around 1913. He had graduated from Auburn Seminary in New York
And was ordained a Presbyterian minister. In 1900 he was selected as minister
Of Rapid City Presbyterian Church until 1903 when he was appointed head of the
English department at the School of Mines.
He traveled to Scenic to minister to 15 in the Congregational Church.
10:39 pm - Sat, February 21 2015
Margaret McLearie said:
My grandfather, John McLearie, served as pastor of The Congregational Church
In Scenic around 1913. He had graduated from Auburn Seminary in New York
And was ordained a Presbyterian minister. In 1900 he was selected as minister
Of Rapid City Presbyterian Church until 1903 when he was appointed head of the
English department at the School of Mines.
He traveled to Scenic to minister to 15 in the Congregational Church.
08:51 am - Thu, May 7 2015
Loni Henning said:
In 1976 I think it was my sister Reenie, daughter Jackie and grandson James were driving thru the badlands got thirsty and came to the town of Scenic. There were no pop machines so we went in the bar. Wonderful experience and the bartender told us of many memories of things that had happened there and if we had time, to go to the post office, because the postmaster had a little museum with artifacts from his digs in the area. There were all kinds of interesting things in it. He had stuff in the Smithsonian Institute. He was so interesting to talk to. Several years later, when my husband and I visited, we were sorry to hear he had died. It was a real interesting town and have many happy memories of visits there. My three year old grandson got quite a kick out of the jail cells in front of the bar, as did the rest of us. Really not a bad idea. Hope the people that bought it will keep some of the old buildings.
05:11 pm - Mon, July 6 2015
Diane Tounsley said:
My husband and I were out for a nice drive this past weekend(July 2015) looking for somewhere new and ran across the town of Scenic..I immediately fell in love with this cute town!..What a shame that something isnt being done with it to keep it the saloon, all the cute shops..and an old fashioned candy store would be so wonderful there...rootbeer floats enjoyable it would have been to find this town out in the middle of no where, where you could stop and take a break from driving, and enjoy some shops as i suggested...even have those running the places dressed accordingly...right up my alley!!! Beautiful little speck on the map!!
06:43 pm - Tue, September 29 2015
Terry Rubalcava said:
I remember visiting this town when I was a young girl. My mother was originally from South Dakota and was a grandaughter to Mary Hynes. One of Mary's eleven children was my grandfather, George Dewey Hynes. His daughter (my mother) was Melba Lynette Hynes and moved to California many years ago. This is all much more important to me now that my mother has passed away in December 2014. I can't wait until I retire to visit South Dakota as an adult. I know it will mean so much more to me now than when I was a child.
08:17 pm - Thu, October 29 2015
Marv Anderson said:
I remember taking the back way late 60's and coming down the hill into town with a bad water pump gasket problem and there was a big old dead horse in the pasture with it's feet straight up in the air next to town on a Sunday early morning and the drunk folks laying over the hoods of cars and on the sidewalk area like the walking dead and we were freaked out and some white guy mechanic guy pops out of nowhere and fixes my car and says don't worry about them "now and then I have to us this club but they won't bother you. we gave I guy a ride who said he was the chief back to the Res.
09:15 pm - Tue, January 26 2016
Gaea Silke said:
In 1981 on my road trip to CA., I came thru Scenic and found the Longhorn Saloon. Grandpaw Halley Merrill was tending bar with his grandaughter LeeAnn. The saloon is fills with local history and items that were traded for drink. Meeting some of the local boys was and hearing their rodeo stories was great! Halley had an old white buffalo out in a corral behind the bar. According to Halley it was a retired rodeo buffalo. I had the chance to ride it. I also bought an old Indian necklace that was hanging on the wall behind the bar. Cost me one Halley Merrill kiss! I treasure my photos of them all!

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