WHITEWOOD | Grazing horses sample the sweet grass of spring while the meadowlarks sing in Centennial Valley.
Heading east on the old Crook City Road, a modern-day traveler can almost hear the oxen hoofs, the muleskinner’s muffled commands and the train whistles of a century ago, a time when the now all-but-forgotten town of Whitewood served as the “Hub of the Hills” and, for many, as gateway to the Wild West.
In the days before Whitewood celebrates its 125th anniversary, current residents are reflecting on their town’s colorful past, a history filled with commerce and sales barns, ebbs and flows, bank robberies and arriving trains in an idyllic place where passing motorists still proffer a finger-wave and a friendly nod of the head.
“We’re a small town, hidden, but still a hub, with residents able to work in any of the nearby Black Hills communities,” said Rea Weyrich, the local librarian. “But most people just pass us by because they’re busy. When you come to Whitewood, life slows down a bit. The kids can walk down the street. It’s the front-porch mentality. We still wave to our neighbors. “
Weyrich’s mother, 75-year-old Mary Livingston, has spent the past eight years assembling historical documents, photographs and other memorabilia from numerous sources, all of which will be explored during the town’s 125th celebration June 28-30.
As with most residents of the Northern Plains — where you are a newcomer if your grandparents aren’t buried in the local cemetery — Livingston was reluctant to be quoted about her adopted town of Whitewood.
Nonetheless, she shared her discoveries and told of a town named for the aspen and birch that flank its hillsides and which originally attracted loggers to the area in the 1880s.
“Whitewood was the only town in the Hills that revolved around business,” she said. “Deadwood had mining, Spearfish had the college, Belle had the livestock and Sturgis was the home of soldiers. Whitewood was business — horses, pigs, cattle, dairy, grains and poultry. We had the first sales barn in the West River area, and in one day they sold $20,000 worth of chickens.”
The Freemont & Elkhorn Valley Railroad arrived in Whitewood in 1887 and before it was extended to Belle Fourche in December 1890, the town was the end of the line. Freighters transported arriving goods from the railyards of Whitewood to the boom towns of Deadwood and Lead, and left with loads of lumber, Livingston noted. Trains still stop in Whitewood for lumber products, as they’ve done for 125 years, she said.
“We still have a pear tree in Whitewood that’s over 100 years old and apple trees can still be found throughout town,” Livingston said. “I have no evidence of this, but there is a rumor that some of the fruit was used to make fermented drinks, obviously for medicinal purposes with the miners.”
Until the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, Whitewood was a destination for many West River residents, Livingston noted. The town’s annual Labor Day picnic in Oak Park would fill six or seven railroad passenger cars from Rapid City, and the Golden Wheel Dance Hall operated on Main Street for 35 years.
“The dance hall was on the second floor and the way you could tell if it was a great dance was by how many people fell down the stairs,” Livingston grinned.
Residents and visitors also enjoyed a diverse array of entertainment options from the Whitewood Community Band, the Eagle Theater and the Whitewood Drama Club, said the former school teacher.
The crash of 1929 didn’t close Whitewood’s bank, but the ensuing Dust Bowl, Great Depression and resultant agricultural downturn did stunt the community’s growth, Livingston said.
“Little did residents know that with the arrival of the first horseless carriage here, it spelled doom for Whitewood,” she said. “That meant we were shifting, slowly, shifting from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial-based economy.”
In 1932, the First National Bank of Whitewood experienced one of the more dramatic bank robberies in the Hills.
Two robbers broke into a bank official’s home at dawn, held his family hostage, and accompanied the banker to his vault, where they took more than $2,500 in cash and bonds. Alerted to the robbery by the banker’s 10-year-old son, a posse of law officers from Whitewood, Deadwood and Belle Fourche later captured and imprisoned the thieves, Livingston said, although only half of the loot was ever recovered.
Today, the town of 900 residents is often described as a “bedroom community” and boasts a police force of three officers. Former dogcatcher, fire chief and mayor Mike Weyrich said the town continues to evolve.
“The town’s population has stayed about the same, but we’ve added quite a few new businesses,” said Weyrich, who retired as a first sergeant after 36 years with the South Dakota National Guard. “We’ve got three new housing developments, a new nature trail at Oak Park and, on the outlying streets, we have major manufacturing with the timber industry, RVs, a feed store, an iron and clothing store, two gas stations, a cafe and a new fire department facility manned with 30 volunteer firefighters.”
Talk to any Whitewood resident today and they will tout the town’s neighborly feel and willingness to pitch in for the community’s good.
“It seems like anytime something needs to get done, it gets done through community support, whether it’s the schools, churches, firefighters,” said Weyrich, who is chairing next weekend’s 125th anniversary celebration. “People just want to step up and support the town. “
Second-term Mayor Deb Schmidt agreed with Weyrich’s assessment and said Whitewood residents have positioned the community for future growth.
“Truthfully, I look at Whitewood as being on the verge of more development, with more housing and additional, friendly annexation a possibility,” Schmidt said. “Whitewood is an old town that needs a lot of work. We’ve started working on capital improvement plans, upgraded our water system, we’re working on our parks and we’re planning for the future.”
The mayor, who survived a recall vote six months before she was elected to her second term in 2012, proudly points to the new $160,000 Safe Routes to School sidewalk project the town secured through a Department of Transportation grant.
“Whitewood has never had sidewalks other than on Main Street,” said the grandmother of three. “It’s our goal to have kids who walk to school or ride their bikes have access to a safe sidewalk.”
Despite infrastructure improvements, new housing developments and stable employers, the mayor said Whitewood faces issues that it needs to resolve to grow.
“Truly, we have been very modest in our approach to running the city, although we’ve made some big changes in the past three years,” said Schmidt, whose husband, Dan, manages Ridley Block, the town’s largest employer. “Our residents go to the big box stores in Spearfish and Rapid City, and obviously our town derives no sales tax revenues from that with which to fund capital improvements. So, that remains a challenge.”
Schmidt said she remains optimistic about the future of Whitewood.
“We want Whitewood to remain a place where people want to move, to raise their kids and be an inviting community,” she said. “We need to protect what we have, which is our children. We need to provide for our senior citizens, and we need to maintain the quality of life that we now enjoy.”