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DEADWOOD -- When some tourists hear about the Days of ’76, they think 1776 and the events of 235 years ago last weekend, when the U.S. officially declared its independence.

But a new museum here will make it clear that down in Deadwood Gulch, it’s 1876 that matters -- the year miners and madams founded this once-lawless town in pursuit of the riches that flowed from the gold mines.

The new Days of ’76 Museum building, under construction at the city’s north entrance, recalls the town’s pioneer days as well as the Days of ’76 event and later rodeo that began in 1923 to celebrate those early times. The building, now framed in, is changing the small city’s skyline and is expected to open next June.

It replaces an unheated pole barn that formerly housed the museum’s meandering collection of stagecoaches, clothing, photographs, Days relics, taxidermy, furniture, firearms and other items.

“When we started planning for this museum, we had eight decades of history, and none of it was organized,” museum director Deborah Gangloff said. “You could look at the stuff and see what it was, but it didn’t make sense.”

When the 32,000-square-foot museum opens, the collection will go from a jumbled display that was closed all winter to an organized, cohesive story that has been professionally curated and properly safeguarded from the elements.

There are four main collections: wagons and vehicles, clothing, rodeo and Deadwood collector Don Clowser’s Old West art and artifacts. Clowser, who died in 2004, had sold the collection to the city, which entrusted it to the museum, where it has been displayed since 1990.

A $3 million gift from the city in 2004 began the drive to build the new museum. The museum board hired a conservator to assess the collection, and it was clear the pole barn wasn’t adequate. The board hired Gangloff, who had overseen the restoration of the Historic Adams House, first as a consultant and now as director.

Now, the collection has been organized and is being stored on site in a different building, awaiting its new home.

“It’s a really good collection,” Gangloff said. “It’s uneven, but it has some things that are spectacular.”

The two-story museum will house the carriage collection on the ground floor, along with a programming room for community events.

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The second floor will include the displays of art, rodeo history, costumes, firearms and artifacts, along with a research library for archives and a gift shop.

The Days of ’76 event was from the start an economic development tool to attract tourists, Gangloff said. Some locals thought it was a bad idea: Why look back on the city’s lawless days when trying to promote Deadwood as a modern home to industry?

But the event, modeled after Wild West shows and featuring costumes, a parade and feats of shooting and riding, proved a success. It evolved into today’s popular rodeo, planned this year from July 26-30.

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This museum, right at the rodeo grounds, should be another draw for visitors and another way to expand Deadwood’s economy, Gangloff said.

“It serves as an anchor to this part of town,” she said. “It gives people something else, when they’re coming into town, that says history is important here.”

The museum building is owned by the city, and city historic preservation officer Kevin Kuchenbecker said that even with the recent focus on falling gambling revenue in Deadwood, the museum will be a reminder that historic preservation is the reason for all those slot machines.

“Without the gaming revenues we wouldn’t be able to do the projects we’ve been talking about,” he said. “What this does is it keeps history and historic preservation to the forefront.”

With gambling now available in so many more cities and states than in 1989, when it was legalized in Deadwood, the city’s focus on its past remains a draw that few other gaming capitals can boast.

“History is the main reason to visit Deadwood,” he said.

Contact Barbara Soderlin at 394-8417 or barbara.soderlin@rapidcityjournal.com.

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