National Geographic : 1956 Oct
Back to the Historic Black Hills 479 The Old West Rubs Elbows with the New in a Frontier Vacationland Rich with Memories of Indians, Covered Wagons, and Gold Fever BY LELAND D. CASE With Illustrations by National Geographic PhotographerBates Littlehales « O you're going to the Black Hills of South Dakota!" Delight shone in the lady's eyes, and there was a trill in her voice. "Jim and I just discovered them, and we're going back next summer. Real mountains, only 900 miles from our home here in Chicago! They're not black, but green, like an emerald on the prairie. They're big, but so beautiful they don't overpower my ego. Have you ever seen them?" Had I, indeed! I grew up in the Black Hills. "To the Sioux they were Paha Sapa, liter ally 'Hills Black,'" I said. "And they are mountains. Harney Peak rises 7,242 feet above sea level." Friendly Hills, Exciting History Half an hour later I was still talking, in fancy at Red Canyon digging for a gold brick stolen by Big Nose George from the Dead wood stagecoach, when a glance from my wife speeded up my tale. Black Hillers are that way, I fear. Our conversational brakes grip lightly when we talk about our friendly Hills. And we like to tell of that new arrival in heaven who was perturbed to see some people in shackles. "Oh, they're from the Black Hills," ex plained St. Peter. "If we don't keep 'em chained, they'll head for home." Vacationers, too, feel the spell of these mountains on the prairie and want to return. That Chicago couple was typical. So was Calvin Coolidge. In the Black Hills he learned to grin under a 10-gallon hat-and to play. It was here, in his Summer White House, that he made history in 1927 by announcing, "I do not choose to run." The Black Hills reminded him of his boyhood in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and shortly before his death he was planning to return. I wasn't surprised, therefore, at what hap pened to Bates Littlehales, the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC photographer assigned to make color pictures for this article. I met Bates at Sturgis one mellow June afternoon. In our motel cabin that evening he was twanging his guitar and trying a new cowboy song, when he suddenly stopped. "Already I've seen enough of your Black Hills to know one thing," he declared. "To night I write my family back in Washington that they must see them too. If not this sum mer, then the next." "Not very original," I bantered, "but you're in good company. Listen to what Gen. George A. Custer wrote to his beautiful wife when he was here in 1874." I dug from my bag a book, Boots and Sad dles, by Elizabeth B. Custer, and read: "It would have been such a treat to have had you see all that we have seen this summer, and shared the enjoyment of this beautiful land. But, never mind, you shall come next summer, for we all hope to return..." "To clinch the coincidence for you," I went on, "Custer was within sight of Bear Butte when he wrote the letter, and that's where we're going tomorrow." Upside-down Ice-cream Cone Bear Butte still looked precisely as it did to me as a youngster-like an upside-down ice-cream cone. Towering 1,400 feet above the prairie just east of the Hills' outer escarp ment, it is as dramatic a landmark for tourists today as it was in years past for Indians, trappers, explorers, soldiers, prospectors, and homesteaders (map, page 485).* Geologists admire Bear Butte too; they cite it as a classic laccolith. In layman's language, this means a volcano that didn't quite make it. Eons ago internal pressures found a weak spot in the earth's skin and squished up this blob of lava. Erosion laid bare the butte, now decorated with ponderosa pines. We could hear winds soughing through them as Sumner Bovee cinched saddles and we climbed aboard his stumbleproof burros. * See "South Dakota Keeps Its West Wild," by Frederick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, May, 1947.