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The Badlands Ranch

As Badlands B&B pioneers, Phil and Amy Kruse occasionally speak at entrepreneurship conferences. They recently visited Lemmon, where they posed by a mural near John Lopez's Kokomo Gallery.

Badlands ranching was never easy. Rain is always scarce and the soil seems better suited to prickly pear cactus than anything a sheep or cow might enjoy. Still, there’s a peaceful beauty to the landscapes — which sometimes look like the moon with some grass, a rare tree and a dirt road added — so the Kruse family has been finding ways to stay put for 101 years.     

Phil Kruse was born there in 1963. He studied electrical engineering at LeTourneau University in Texas, but soon after graduating he came home to the ranch. “I knew I’d have to supplement the income,” he says, noting that the rugged land requires about 50 acres of forage for every cow. “Just in my lifetime we’ve lost about half of the farmers in our area.”

Even as a teenager, Phil recognized that there might be potential in the 1 million travelers who pass within a few miles of the Kruse ranch every summer. “I always had a dream of maybe doing a bed and breakfast,” he says.

With the help of his father and brothers, he started to build a concrete guest house in 1996. “I hooked the cement mixer to the tractor and bought 200 bags at a time from the South Dakota Cement Plant in Rapid City,” he says.

When he ran short of money, he tried to get a loan for more cement. “The banker said he couldn’t loan me anything until it was finished,” he remembers, “and I couldn’t finish it without the loan.” Fortunately his dad scraped together $20,000 and work proceeded on the eight-room lodge now known as the Circle View Ranch, just a few miles west of Interior along Highway 44.

He welcomed his first guests in 2000. “Right away, we got a lot of foreigners because they knew what a B&B was. We could see that people appreciated our authenticity.”

Bookings were slow in the early years. That began to change in 2003 when Amy Kom, an Arizona State University student from Idaho, arrived to do a summer internship at the national park. She met Phil at a branding; they were engaged by July and married by October.

Though she was new to the region, Amy shared Phil’s love of the Badlands and his vision to create a lodge for travelers. She brought a feminine touch to the business, plus some restaurant experience and her new degree in recreation management. As the years passed, she also delivered three children who have grown up making coffee, doing laundry and showing city people how to feed the chickens that are scratching in the yard.

A carrol-loving donkey called Jack is sometimes part of the welcoming committee at the Circle View, along with the Kruses' children, Russell, Jacob and Katie.

Amy says the guests are looking for a rural experience or they wouldn’t be there, but she and Phil don’t put on a show. “We just live our lives. There might be a rattlesnake on the back deck (though that would be rare) and the baby might be crying but that’s just how we live.”

The Kruses’ children — Katie, 11, Jacob, 10, and Russell, 9 — welcome tag-alongs as they feed an orphan calf or collect eggs. The children also help to serve a full ranch breakfast to the guests, who may number 30 to 40 on a summer morning.

The complimentary breakfast is a favorite for the travelers, who have often grown weary of restaurant fare, and Amy says cooking for three dozen “isn’t such a big deal when you do it every day. We have a system.”

The breakfast routine actually begins with that Badlands soil. “We harvest our own wheat that we grow at the ranch,” Amy says. “We grind wheat every couple of weeks and I make a flour for our own whole wheat and berry pancakes.” The children pick fresh eggs from the hen house, and honey is also produced on the ranch. The rest of the menu varies from day to day, but always with enough variety to suit all palates.

After breakfast, most guests head for the park but oftentimes they are reluctant to leave the ranch. Some go on rock hunting or prairie dog hunting expeditions, while others are content feeding carrots to the donkey or petting Cowboy Kitty, a 15-year-old black cat.

“People also like to watch the fall roundup, spring branding and vaccinating — whatever we might be doing,” Phil says. “People are interested in rural America. But we don’t really entertain people. We don’t have the time.”

Phil’s brother, Daniel, and Daniel’s daughter, Casie, offer horseback tours and the Kruses have welcomed weddings, retreats, class reunions and other big gatherings.

Circle View also has an accommodation for more solitary travelers — honeymooners, perhaps, or a reclusive poet: it’s a homesteader’s cabin that is cleaner but no more civilized than it was in 1880 when built by the Hamm family.

There’s no plumbing or electricity, although there is a wood outhouse and a fire pit outside. Guests bring their own bedding, water and supplies. The cabin, which lies close to the White River, ranks as one of South Dakota’s most primitive lodging rentals. A New York Times travel writer described it as an opportunity to “live the hardscrabble life of a claimer for a night or two.” The Kruses also have two other cabins with all the usual amenities, along with the eight-room lodge.

They were already busy 10 years ago when AirBnB began to change the bed and breakfast industry. Today the website accounts for a considerable share of their bookings, and they stay busy throughout the summer, but they still find time to enjoy the Badlands.

“We like to hike the park,” says Amy. “The kids especially like Notch Trail, where there’s a really thrilling ladder that you have to climb to reach an amazing view. We also like to go fishing in the dam, motorcycling or kayaking in the White River.”

The uncertainty of weather and cattle prices have taken a toll on Badlands farmers and ranchers through the years but the Kruses “make hay” from a neighborly culture that has survived good times and bad.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the November/December 2019 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


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