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The 1881 Custer County Courthouse Museum has a storied past and a bright future, according to those who still hold court at the historic structure.

It has held murder trials, gold-claim disputes and in 1973 the hearings for American Indian Movement demonstrators, who made their own mark on history when they left a charred entrance after starting a fire there.

The 1881 Courthouse Museum in downtown Custer and its popularity as a destination spot for tourists resulted in record attendance of more than 7,500 visitors in the summer of 2013. This summer, the museum is well on its way to breaking that record, Enright said last week.

"A big part of it is word of mouth," Enright said of the surge in interest the past two years. "That's the reason why the majority of people come here. They hear about it from friends or family who've been here." 

On average, about a 100 people a day visit the musuem during the summer season, Enright said. Many are just driving by and decide to stop, he said.

"I've been here 100 times, but I've always been rushed for time," said a man who was on a tour of the museum. "We're here for a week now, so I'm going to take my time and comb through it all."

But it is the sweeping nature of the courthouse museum that really sets it apart, according to its director, Gary Enright.

While most of the other museums in the area tend to have themes, the 1881 Courthouse Museum dabbles in every little bit of history it can fit into its three stories, he said.

In addition to its polished courtroom, the museum pays homage to Black Hills industries, Native American culture, the Custer Expedition and other noteworthy events.

It's also one of the oldest buildings in the area. 

Looking ahead to Saturday, Sept. 6, the museum will be part of an event that marks the 140th anniversary of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's Black Hills Expedition in 1874, which blazed the trail for South Dakota's gold rush.

The Custer County Historical Society, which operates the 1881 Courthouse Museum, decided to commemorate the expedition and its lasting impact on the area, said Rachel Nepper, who's helping to organize the event. 

"It was basically the start of everything for the Hills when Custer came and discovered gold," she said. 

The event will feature presentations on the expedition and tours of Custer's camp, which will include re-enactors and gold panning, Nepper said. The event also should provide perspective into the early days and Custer himself, she added.

Custer is the oldest town in the Black Hills and located three miles from the famous general's permanent camp along French Creek. The 1881 Courthouse Museum solidified that fact when it was built in 1881, Enright said. 

"The courthouse was kind of the foundation of it all. It was the premier building in the community and the Black Hills," he said. "It was kind of the cornerstone." 

For 10 years, it was the Dakota Territory courthouse. When South Dakota achieved statehood in 1889, it went on to serve as the county courthouse for the next 82 years.

It became a museum in 1974 when the current Custer County Courthouse was built across the street.

But the courthouse is still able to hold trials while being intricately tied to the law and history in the Black Hills, said Matt Brown, who was recently sworn in as a magistrate judge for the 7th Circuit Court in the museum's courthouse.

"This is a humanizing atmosphere without the technology," Brown said. "It goes back to the basics of law — the argument, the history and the people." 

Brown has been in many courtrooms during his time as a lawyer. The courtroom in the 1881 Courthouse Museum is probably one of the most well preserved, and the museum adds to its charm, he said. 

"The old historical courthouses like this one always have these gems in them that are reflective of the people," Brown said. "Just to be able to go through and understand the people who came here to settle down makes it a beautiful place." 

As a landmark in the Black Hills, the museum wants to continue to grow and evolve with the times, Enright said. The swearing in of Brown is one way it can contribute to the preservation even while the museum develops bigger plans for the future. 

"Our plan is to be a catalyst for activities that take place in Custer and the Black Hills," Enright said. 

That includes transforming many of the museums exhibits, digitizing old Custer County Chronicles and putting together a large event for the 150th anniversary of Custer's 1874 expedition in 2024. 

"This is one of the most unique things in the Black Hills, and we want to draw as much attention to the museum as possible," Enright said. 

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Contact Jackson Bolstad at 394-8419 or jackson.bolstad@rapidcityjournal.com

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