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Northern Hills mourns loss of Hank Frawley

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Hank Frawley sits in the restored schoolhouse in Centennial Valley in the summer of 2013. Frawley, 80, died Saturday. In the Northern Hills, Frawley was regarded a "giant" in historic preservation. 

DEADWOOD | With Saturday’s death of 80-year-old Henry “Hank” Frawley, admirers say the northern Black Hills has lost a giant in historic preservation and a gentleman Centennial Valley rancher with a penchant for the past.

Frawley was born Oct. 12, 1936, in Deadwood to Henry and Anne (Hanna) Frawley, and graduated from Deadwood High School in 1955, where his basketball team had won the state championship the previous year. After enrolling at Black Hills State University, he transferred to the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1960.

Tall and forever lean, Frawley returned to BHSU to pursue graduate studies in theater arts, then spent a year at the Yale Drama School. He returned to South Dakota and went into the ranching business with his father.

That agrarian pursuit would occupy much of the remainder of his life. But it didn’t prevent Frawley from carrying out his civic duties, savoring his family’s pioneer past and doing all he could to preserve the remnants of their ranching and dairy operations in scenic Centennial Valley that generated needed supplies for Deadwood’s early-day miners.

“The Frawley family played a vital role in the development and evolution of Deadwood through not only Hank’s grandfather’s law practice, but by being providers of necessities to the early miners by using their ranches and dairy out on the prairie,” Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker said Tuesday. “The Frawleys were literally the bread basket of Deadwood.”

Kuchenbecker, who was working on a Main Street program in Belle Fourche when he first met Frawley in 1989, said he found a kindred spirit in the soft-spoken rancher.

“Hank was a big man with a big heart and was a true conservationist and preservationist,” Kuchenbecker said. “He was a remarkable individual who appreciated the history and what our forefathers, and particularly his family, had contributed to the Northern Hills. He was passionate about preserving that history as a descendent of those pioneers who first settled Centennial Valley.”

'A true gentleman'

In the ensuing years, Kuchenbecker said he grew to admire Frawley’s determination, first in persuading the National Park Service to designate the Frawley Ranch a National Historic Landmark in 1977, then in garnering a series of Outside of Deadwood Grants that ensured the preservation of historic stone and wood courtyard barns, a homestead dugout, one-room schoolhouse and the Anderson Dairy Ranch, as well as a massive collection of artifacts.

“Hank worked to preserve his family history — not only keeping building and lands from major development — but keeping the artifacts that were used each day to make a living, from the pot-bellied stoves to branding irons, a complete blacksmithing shop to early mechanical tools, pitchforks and shovels, all those artifacts actually used by his family and their ranch hands,” Kuchenbecker said. “And that collection is still an intact part of the history of that National Historic Landmark.”

Jay D. Vogt, director of the South Dakota State Historical Society, said from his Pierre office on Tuesday that he’d always remember Frawley as a passionate preservationist.

“Hank Frawley was a dreamer,” Vogt said. “One of his visions was to develop the historic ranch in a sympathetic manner to make it into a living historical agricultural museum, while restoring and preserving its historic buildings and sites. He was a courteous, respectful Western rancher, and he was truly a gentleman, passionate about the history and the preservation of Frawley Ranch and Centennial Valley.”

When he wasn’t tending cattle or buffalo or putting up hay, Frawley was holding up a family tradition of civic service that dated to his grandfather’s arrival in Deadwood on July 4, 1877. He served as a Lawrence County commissioner for 14 years, helped organize the Save Centennial Valley Association and the Butte-Lawrence County Water Quality Association, was instrumental in saving and restoring the Lawrence County Courthouse, was a member of the Lawrence County Historical Society, Spearfish Historical Society, Black Hills Society of Pioneers, High Plains Heritage Museum and St. Joseph Catholic Church.

As he reached the twilight of his life, Frawley grew fearful that his well-kept family archival collection would vanish with the passage of time. So he donated the extensive collection for safe-keeping to Deadwood History Inc., the umbrella organization that oversees the Adams Museum, the Days of ’76 Museum, the Historic Adams House and the Homestake–Adams Research and Cultural Center.

“I can just see the big, tall guy now walking into my office to donate a piece of his family history and tell a great story about it,” said Carolyn Weber, executive director of Deadwood History Inc. “He was such a great friend of our organization, and Hank was so generous with his time, his knowledge and his support of everything we do.”

Treasured family heirlooms 

One of Frawley’s donations encompassed 47 linear feet of archival materials that had belonged to his grandfather, frontier lawyer Henry Frawley, Weber said. The materials include documents dating from the 1870s to the 1920s from his legal practice, personal family correspondence, and farming and ranching records, as well as legal papers that spanned everything from someone suing over unpaid bills and claims of cattle rustling to mining disputes and charges of murder, she said.

“Many individuals and companies listed in the documents are familiar names in Deadwood history,” Weber said. “Hank also donated several treasured family heirlooms. One very special item is a rocking chair. It is over 140 years old, had been in the family for five generations and traveled more than 400 miles from Yankton to Deadwood, Dakota Territory, via wagon train in 1877.”

Weber said the Frawley Collection would aid future generations of researchers eager to unravel the history and mystery of the early days of a Wild West mining mecca and the pioneer ranchers and farmers who provided sustenance to those miners and muleskinners searching for gold.

“Hank’s lasting legacy will be his appreciation for and preservation of history; not just his own history, but the history of Deadwood, Lawrence County and the Black Hills,” Weber said. “He was truly passionate about it.”

Hank Frawley is survived by his wife, Molly Frawley; one son, Michael (Jennifer) Frawley; and two grandchildren, Ben and Connor. He was preceded in death by his parents.

Christian wake services will be held at 7 p.m. today at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Spearfish.

Mass of Christian burial will take place at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Joseph Catholic Church. Appropriately, Frawley will be buried on the place he dearly loved and worked tirelessly to preserve — the Anderson-Frawley Cemetery on the Frawley Ranch.

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