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Winter in Keystone

Officials in Keystone post three-hour parking limits on Winter Street during the busy summer season, but such restrictions are hardly necessary when the weather turns cold.

Tis not the season when you can don petticoats for a picture at Professor Samuel’s Portrait Emporium. Afternoon gunfights at the Red Garter Saloon are done, and nobody roasts prime rib at the Ruby House.

Winter has arrived in Keystone. Life in the busiest tourist town in the West slows to a crawl. The three-hour parking limit seems superfluous on the empty road called Winter Street. Yes, you can almost feel a community-wide sigh of relief as the 327 full-time residents catch their collective breath.

“I do enjoy winters here myself,” says retired tattoo artist Mike Trike, a self-described escapee “from the city of southern California.” He discovered the Black Hills while doing tattoos at the Sturgis Rally, then he “fell in love with this hokey tourist trap and I swore I would someday live here.”

Trike thinks his little mountain town is prettiest in winter. “I take pictures and send them to my friends in the metropolises.” He spends cold winter days working on new designs for his T-shirt shop. On warm afternoons, he might take a bike ride on empty mountain roads — the same roads that lead 2 million tourists in the spring, summer and fall through Keystone on their way to nearby Mount Rushmore. But in the depths of winter, traffic slows to a crawl on Winter Street, and the town focuses on itself. Youth skate on Friday nights at the community center. Adults enjoy a Saturday night dinner and bingo at the senior citizen’s center.

Smoke from wood stoves adds aroma to the chilly morning air. A yellow school bus collects children for a 15-minute ride to school in Hill City. A few locals sip coffee at The Country Store, near an ATM machine and a bulletin board with a notice for a small apartment for $384 and photos of a mountain lion spotted near town. A gas pump has been grandfathered into the wood sidewalk, just outside the store’s front door.

California transplant Mike Trike enjoys the leisurely pace of winter in Keystone. He illustrates T-shirt designs in his shop in the Old Town.

More than two dozen bars and restaurants serve travelers in the summer, but only the oldest is likely to be open in winter. The Halley Store was built in 1895. Halleys and Nelsons have operated it for almost all of the last 120 years. It was a rundown general store when Robert Nelson bought it in 1988. He fixed the foundation and converted it into an antique store. A few years ago, his son Trygve installed a horseshoe-shaped bar and started selling drinks and burgers.

“We’ll serve food anytime anybody wants something,” Nelson says. “If we’re here we’re open.”

Snow sleds hang by Halley’s front door, near a pile of firewood, a chain saw and several shovels. Inside is a raggedy buffalo mount that Nelson bought at auction from the Buffalo Bar in Deadwood. “As the story goes, Buffalo Bill Cody shot the buffalo and donated it to the bar,” he says. “At least that’s what I read.”

Nelson, a lifelong resident of the Black Hills, has dabbled in many trades. He had an antique shop at Piedmont, helped operate a bowling alley at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, ran a sawmill and taught school. For a time, he and his family toured the country in a VW bus.

Today he’s happy in Keystone, winter and summer. “We don’t have much winter,” he says. “Just a few heavy snowfalls. Usually not much wind. We’re pretty sheltered.”

Though winter brings few tourists, James Anderson still cuts taffy at the Rushmore Mountain Taffy Shop.

Not far from Halley’s, in a neighborhood known as Old Town, is a tourist mine called Big Thunder that has outlasted and possibly out-earned any of the gold, feldspar, quartz and mica mines that operated in the valley more than a century ago. Sandy McLain has been the owner for 23 years.

Big Thunder is really a museum, restaurant and gift shop. McLain’s staff — including Hayward Halo, Rattlesnake Randy and Claim Jumper Chris — also guided 350 would-be miners on panning expeditions last year. She says 40 percent of the gold in local mines was never found, so there’s still plenty. A full day of panning costs just $65. “It’s a day in the boonies with no bathroom. You stand in water and do hard labor,” says McLain, wondering out loud why the tours are such a success.

Winter gives McLain time for such wonderings, and for planning the next season. She says it’s also a chance for the community to focus on its own needs. “In the winter we do community activities that get pushed aside in the summer,” she explains, starting with Holy Terror Days, a September celebration that includes a parade, ugly truck contest and street dance. The first Holy Terror Days was started in 1899 by pioneers who worked the mines. Proceeds from the festivities help families down on their luck. “It helps us pay for peoples’ heating bills if they fall behind — or groceries, medicine or utilities. Many of our people only work six months of the year and then they’re laid off until spring.” At Christmas, Mike Trike dresses like Santa Claus and delivers toys and food baskets to families who might be having a tough year.

The community also hosts a haunted house in October at a big, old white-frame schoolhouse that was built in 1899 atop a hill in Old Town. The school was designed for 300 students because everyone thought the mining boom would last, but enrollment never reached half that number and then dwindled — as did mining — until the doors closed in 1988. Today the Victorian-style school serves as the town museum after the Halloween ghosts and goblins are put away.

Off-season events help fund charitable causes, and McLain says they’re good for community spirit. She hopes they also help the few businesses that do stay open through the winter months like The Rock Shed, another Old Town staple run by Shawn and Gene Kuhnel, a father-son team of lapidaries. They offer travelers everything from a $4,500 fossil fish to stone bookends and petrified wood for $3 a pound. Linda Haverly works at a restaurant on Winter Street in the summer months. In the winter, she helps the Kuhnels at The Rock Shed.

She says the shop’s online trade allows the Kuhnels to keep the doors open. For her, it’s a nice change. “This is my relaxing job. Summers are busy. It is a madhouse with every table full of people and often people waiting in line. This is peaceful.”

Online and wholesale trade also enables The Rushmore Mountain Taffy Shop, one of the town’s signature businesses, to stay open in winter. George Stverak bought the candy factory in 1967, including a quaint 130-year-old taffy cutter that can be seen from the street. Candy maker James Anderson lovingly tends to the machine, lubricating its 50 zerks with vegetable grease just in case any drops on the taffy. “The taffy puller is where you add the color, the flavor and air,” explains Stverak. “If you don’t add air it’s hard as a rock.”

Although the Rushmore Borglum Story is closed, this statue of Abraham Lincoln still receives attention.

The Stveraks, transplants from East River, stay open every day, regardless of the weather, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. They make special eggnog taffy for the holidays, one of more than 100 flavors they’ve developed. Cinnamon is the all-time favorite.

Near the taffy shop, Dean and LaVeta Giannonatti keep their Black Hills Gifts and Gold shops open as well, largely to keep their staff employed year-around. Their two shops — one on either side of Winter Street — are a special joy to visit in the off-season because the Giannonattis have more time to talk. They know and love West River history. LaVeta was born to a mining family and attended the old school. Dean was a Harding County rancher before they bought the store in 1983. He has collected record racks of elk and deer, including the “King of the Bucks,” a whitetail shot by Francis Fink in Marshall County in 1948 with an 18x13 rack, a state record and one of the largest in North America. He also has a monstrous rattlesnake skin, two fighting rooster pheasants and a record elk rack among a big taxidermy collection that’s displayed on the walls.

On winter Sundays, the Giannonattis bring a TV to the shop so visitors and other Main Street workers can tease one another about NFL football.

Just down Winter Street, the Uhrigs also keep a souvenir shop open. Called The Indians, the store was purchased by Eugene and Lucille Jelliffe in 1970. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” says their daughter, Kathy, who now runs it with her husband Bruce Uhrig and their three sons. In winter, the family members clean, inventory and re-stock.

A quarter of their sales comes in July, and 90 percent from May to October, but a few travelers straggle in on winter days unless snow is forecast. “Then the visitors don’t drive, especially if they are not used to mountain driving. But by November we’re ready for a slower pace anyway,” Kathy says.

Further up Winter Street near the Rushmore Borglum Story, someone dresses a statue of Abraham Lincoln in a knit cap and scarf. The sun fades beneath the mountaintops by mid afternoon. Soon the children will be back from classes in Hill City. The taffy shop and the rock shop will close for the day, and the town that hardly sleeps in summer will say an early goodnight.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the November/December 2015 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


05:50 am - Fri, April 20 2018
Randy Graham said:
This is really nice to read about Hill City and how the merchants are handling the off peak season.
06:55 pm - Thu, January 17 2019
Sarah Digmann said:
Did you forget about the Keystone Country Store? It's open year round in Old Keystone. They have fuel, groceries, snacks, toiletries, beer and wine, a little of everything.

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