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Tom Sawyer, as we found him at Deerfield Store in 2005.
Tom Sawyer, as we found him at Deerfield Store in 2005.

End of the Deerfield Chapter

Dec 20, 2013

Deerfield Store had been shuttered for 10 years we met Tom Sawyer in 2005. He was living in the old building, deep in the Black Hills, with a tabby-colored old tom cat. His wife, Sherrill, had died a few years earlier.

A "Closed For Good" sign hung out front but it didn't deter old customers and friends from stopping to say hello. Tom's living room was the main store. Shelves still rose above the old wood floors. A piano, once the center of attention at many impromptu parties, was gathering dust in the corner.

Sherrill, who had studied music in California, was the spark of the tiny community. She would play for anyone, anytime. She could cuss as well as anyone if the situation warranted, but she was clearly the first lady of Deerfield. "She was hell for the first 25 years but she got soft later," Tom joked.

Tom said the store began its decline in 1972 — 40 years ago. And it wasn't because of competition from Rapid City or Hill City. It was a stupid, stupid murder.

Tom and Sherrill raised two sons at Deerfield, Mike and Jim. The boys loved the excitement of the store, where good times flourished. "I don't think the folks ever planned the parties," said Mike, many years later. "Local people and the visitors, the fishermen and hunters, would just show up and everybody would have a few drinks and have a good time. Mom was good on the piano."

Mike still raises cattle in the Deerfield community, among other things.

Jim was a Custer policeman who helped the Southern Hills on the night of the tragic flood of 1972. He was so busy that he didn't sleep in a bed for the next three nights.

On the fourth night after the flood, the young policeman was called to investigate a break-in at a Custer saloon. The suspects were still there, and they took the young officer hostage. On a nearby hillside, he was shot with his own gun. The murderers escaped with $37 and a saddle.

They were later caught and given life without parole. But of course the damage was done. Tom and Sherrill and Mike were grief-stricken. Sherrill closed the piano cover and the store changed.

"That was pretty much the end of her piano playing," Tom told us in 2005.

A dozen years later, the store closed. The Sawyers had run it for 42 years.

Tom regained his good nature. He held court at the closed store for a few years before moving to Rapid City. He died this week at age 92, ending a chapter in Black Hills history.

Today, visitors get their fuel, bait and beer at the Deerfield Lake Resort, two miles east of the old store. It's a nice place, run by very friendly folks. But there's no piano.

Change is inevitable, and it often hurts. But for $37 and a saddle?


11:40 am - Mon, December 23 2013
mary willrodt said:
That is so sad. What a tragedy.
03:46 pm - Wed, July 30 2014
Dan Daly said:
Back in 1972, I tagged along with my friend Dave and his parents on a Black Hills vacation. Dave's dad was friends with the family that ran the Deerfield store, so we camped one night just outside the front door. The adults spent the time inside catching up, while Dave and I roamed around the meadow trying to catch a trout in the stream.

Later Dave's dad told us that their son had been murdered.

These days, I live in the Black Hills. Every time I drive by Deerfield, I wonder what happened to that family. Now I know.

Thanks for providing the answer.
11:23 am - Mon, August 18 2014
John said:
Jim Sawyer and I were college roommates. Jim was a mountain of a man and kept the gang of us on our floor in line and out of trouble . . . mostly. We in fact often referred to him as 'the cop' long before he left school to join the force in Custer. A kinder more gentle soul never existed. It's been fifty years since then, but I will never forget him.
06:49 pm - Thu, October 30 2014
Richard Dawson said:
My brother Justin, and my younger sister Sarah and myself were on our way to Custer to attend Jim's wedding when we heard the news on the car radio. Murdered on his wedding day. RIP I also learned how to play piano on that old upright of Sherrill's. A better family you will never find again.
10:29 pm - Fri, October 31 2014
Shannon Holden Doutt said:
I will miss your wonderful smile and kindness, your stories about your family & of course the store. You always worried you might be a bother but anytime spend with you was a joy. You'll always be in my memories and im so glad I got the chance to meet you. Rest well Tom I know you're with the angels.
07:20 pm - Tue, August 11 2015
Pat Kelley said:
My parents had one of the trailers out at Deerfield. I remember the Sawyers from when I was a kid and especially when I was in high school as my parents were out there every weekend. I knew Tom Sawyer as Dale and they used to refer to Dales father as Tom. I saw Dale in the nursing home shortly before he passed. Dale and Cheryl were awesome folks as a kid Cheryl always seemed gruff to me but now as I am older I understand. as one person stated a better family you will not find.
06:17 am - Mon, October 31 2016
John Culberson said:
Jim took me under his (substantial) wing in 1971 when I was the summer cop in Custer. He was a great guy and a dedicated law enforcement officer. I greatly enjoyed working with him and was devastated when he was murdered. A great guy and good friend.
10:17 am - Mon, October 31 2016
Jim Hattervig said:
I remember Jim and had worked with him. It was such a sad thing to have happened to a great man.
03:31 am - Fri, March 31 2017
Justin Dawson said:
Dale was the Best! He helped teach me mechanics, before and after I started buying Ramblers, as he owned several. His advice was sought and used. I would spend many hours at the store learning so much from him. He set me up with local ranchers for summer jobs. In return, I babysat the store when he and his wife went out for a special occasion, such as their wedding anniversary, and I helped re-shinge the store/home.

He taught me about his joy for business. He encouraged and was supportive when I started my own business, (fishing bait), being my first commercial account. This put me on a life long path that stood the test of years well.

He was the best most caring friend a teenage boy could have. I last saw him when he attended my mother's funeral and we had the chance to catch up on things for the last 30 plus years. I am glad I got to tell him just how much he meant to that young boy, and me as a grown man. So once again, Dale was the Best!
07:57 am - Sat, January 20 2018
Shelly said:
I wonder if this was the store that I think was near Deerfield that had a young fawn that just lived in the store. It clipped clopped on the wooden floor and we got to pet it. This would have been in the early 70's.
06:17 pm - Sun, May 9 2021
Tom Duffek said:
My grandmother Hughes sold the store to the Sawyers. She raised 3daughters and 2 sons in a cabin a couple of miles away. She also taught school and ran the store. Spent many days at the cabin. Always stopped at the store.
11:41 am - Sun, October 22 2023
Kathy Phelps- Audus said:
When I was a kid, my parents took all us kids to vacation in the Deerfield area. I remember Toots (Sawyer?) Who worked at the store. We rented an old cabin (very rustic, no electric or plumbing) from her that was about 5 or 10 miles west of the store.(1950-60s) How I loved that area. We fished for rainbow trout n we hiked all over those big mountains. It's so special to me. My Dad , Glenn Phelps, and his buddies from Bradley, SD, hunted there and stayed in that same old cabin every winter for many years. Some of my best memories are from those trips. I'm so sad that the store is closed. I wonder if the cabins are still there. I suppose not. But I hope I get to see it again some day.

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