When John Raeck showed up at Sylvan Lake Resort looking for work during the 1960s, he found a job — and a home.
The tall, rawboned loner, who was then in his sixth decade of life, fell in love with the forested mountains and granite formations of Custer State Park. He took off on long hikes, began writing verse, nicknamed himself The Vagabond Poet and discovered an ideal spot for solitary inspiration — a place known today as Poet's Table, where many people visit but of which few know the history.
High up and over the granite-studded terrain east of Sylvan Lake, about 6,600 feet above sea level, Raeck found a cool and silent patch of shade under a natural recess in a rock face. Like a giant viewfinder, the darkened nook framed a far-reaching view of the southeastern Black Hills.
Eventually, Raeck apparently hauled lumber to the high-elevation alcove and built a plain and sturdy table, a pair of chairs and a couple of small benches.
Soon he was distributing calling cards that described the site as The Poets’ Desk at Paradise Retreat, “Est. 1968.”
His placement of the apostrophe after the “s” in “Poets” — indicating the place belonged to all poets, not just one — was a subtle invitation, and other vagabonds began to show up. He supplied a box for them to leave their poems behind.
For decades, Raeck’s retreat remained a little-known but unofficially sanctioned Custer State Park attraction, as awareness of its existence spread slowly by word of mouth. The place came to be known simply as Poet’s Table, and although the table and chairs have been moved a short distance from their original location, they appear as though they could be Raeck's original handiwork.
In recent years, smartphones and social media have brought more visitors to Poet's Table. With every new arrival, word of the existence and exact location of the site can spread to hundreds and even thousands more people who are eager to find the quirky and hidden gem, which is not on maps and has no signs pointing hikers to its location. The trail to Poet's Table, which branches off from a trail to Little Devils Tower, has become worn enough that it's easy to spot.
Some problems have accompanied the site's growing popularity. The rock wall at Poet's Table is now defaced by graffiti from hundreds of hands, and a bookcase beside the table is stuffed full of notebooks scrawled with writings both profound and profane. Last month, Custer State Park officials removed a makeshift shelter nearby that someone had built from logs and branches.
The state of the modern Poet's Table would probably sadden Raeck, who penned this ode to his hideaway:
“A castle that secluded lies
Beyond the Gates of Paradise.
A soul-restoring mountain ark
In South Dakota’s Custer Park;
Where time and life are reconciled,
And man-of-years is like a child.”
A copy of that poem, printed on one of Raeck’s calling cards, has been kept all these years by Donald "Nick" Clifford and his wife, Carolyn, of Keystone.
Nick, 96, is the last surviving member of the crew that carved Mount Rushmore. He also served in World War II and then ran a dry-cleaning business in Custer before submitting a winning bid for the concessionaire contract at Sylvan Lake. Clifford’s first summer running the resort was in 1957.
Raeck, meanwhile, grew up in rural Two Rivers, Wis., and farmed with his brother, Edwin. Neither married, and Edwin died in 1960. Raeck sold their farm and worked two years for the purchaser, and then headed west. Those details are among the few that were eventually printed in Raeck's newspaper obituary.
Clifford valued older workers at Sylvan Lake because of the stability and maturity they added to his summertime staff of mostly college-age employees. When Raeck came looking for a job during the early 1960s, Clifford put him to work at the gas and service station that was then a fixture at Sylvan Lake. The Cliffords remember Raeck as honest — one of the most honest people they ever knew — and dependable, with few material wants or possessions.
Raeck continued to work at the lake into his mid-70s. One of his poems, “The Auditorium,” reflected the comical tribulations of an elderly bachelor living among rambunctious youths in what was then a dormitory-style facility.
“... The inmates carouse
Past midnight till three.
They mess up the house,
Leave cleaning to me.
“Their bedrooms are strewn
With clothing and brash.
But once in a noon
They clean up the trash.
“As morals go down
From year unto year,
There’s hardly a clown
We haven’t had here …”
Raeck spent several winters in California, partly to be near a pastor who moved there from Rapid City, according to the Cliffords. But according to Carolyn Clifford, “John couldn’t take California.”
Raeck made that clear in a poem titled “Exodus California.”
“I’ve seen California,
And first I was glad,
But close observation
Has left me most sad.
“I found, to my sorrow,
That here is a state
Where fond expectation
Is turned into hate.
“Her streets are deficient
In sidewalks and drains,
And quickly they’re flooded
By moderate rains.
“Her mornings are hazy,
And all summer long
No sunrise inspires
The mockingbird’s song.
“Her landowners worship
The god of inflation,
For mere speculation.
“Her standard of living
Is highest on earth,
And people are spending
For all they are worth …”
Clifford gave up his concessionaire’s lease at Sylvan Lake after 1967, but Raeck continued to work there until 1976, after which he moved to Spearfish. Raeck died there in 1982 at the age of 81.
The Cliffords kept some of Raeck’s poems, along with some letters he sent them and a photo of Raeck looking every bit the old bachelor-farmer in a pair of jeans and a denim jacket over a flannel shirt.
After reading recently about the unauthorized structure that was removed at Poet’s Table, and about the graffiti there, the Cliffords decided to share their memories of The Vagabond Poet and his Poets’ Desk at Paradise Retreat.
They figure people need to know something of the love that the father of Poet’s Table had for the place.
“I would hope they would treat it with respect,” Carolyn said, “and not destroy it.”