Growing up I never stayed put in one place for any extended period of time. The conditions surrounding my childhood were such that I had lived in seven states all before the age of eighteen. Looking back now, there is one place that brings back more fond memories than any other. That place is the historic old-west city of Deadwood, SD.
Main St, Deadwood Gulch – circa 1876
This frontier town was a place born out of adventure. It was certainly a rowdy place in 1876 when Wild Bill Hickok was shot playing poker in Deadwood’s infamous Saloon #10; and it was still a place of excitement in 1985 when I moved there at the youthful age of 12.
For those of you unfamiliar with the place, Deadwood is located in the picturesque Black Hills; about 30 minutes from Sturgis and an hour’s drive from Mt. Rushmore. The entire Black Hills region was once the sacred land of the Lakota (Sioux) people; but after George Armstrong Custer led a gold-mining expedition into the hills in 1874, people came pouring in from as far away as China- all afflicted with a very serious case of gold-fever! Deadwood has been the home to all sorts of notorious folks including Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock. Even Teddy Roosevelt considered Deadwood one of his favorite stomping grounds.
A photo from Custer’s exhibition into the Black Hills
For a 12-year-old boy, Deadwood was a place that fueled the imagination like no other. Upon entering the downtown district it was like taking a step back into the annals of time. There were Old-west style buildings with false fronts; numerous museums and historical buildings, elegant Victorian houses, and even abandoned goldmines to tour. The summer months brought along gunslinger reenactments in the streets, rodeos, and authentic Sioux powwows at the parade grounds. Deadwood or Deadwood Gulch was a place where the ghosts of the past were not allowed to move away.
A winter photo of Deadwood‘s historic Main Street.
Though I spent many carefree days in Deadwood, it was also the place I landed my very first job. Just before my 13th birthday I was hired on as a paper delivery boy for the Pioneer Times. Now before you scoff, let me tell you- being a paperboy for the Pioneer Times was no easy job. In the winter months there were blizzards so severe one had to dig his or her way out the front door; once outside, if the near-zero visibility didn’t stop you in your tracks the snow drifts certainly would. The summer months were definitely a welcomed occurrence , but still not without their own particular perils. First of all, don’t think I had it like those kids you see on TV. You know the ones, they simply pedal past the various houses on their routes and just haphazardly fling a paper into the yard. No Sir! The Pioneer Times required that each deliverer place the paper in a mailbox, door, or other designated spot off of the lawn or drive. And then, worse of all, there was Mrs. Wortley.
Mrs Wortley would strike fear in the heart of every kid in that town just by the mere mention of her name! Kids avoided her house at all costs. When she was out in the yard gardening, you walked an extra block to avoid even the slightest chance of eye-contact with the elderly woman. If a baseball, football, or Frisbee landed in her yard you accepted your loss and lived to play another day. The fact that Mrs. Wortley was a customer on my route made my job one that would certainly qualify for hazardous duty pay.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances leading up to my resignation from the Pioneer Times, but the fear I felt surrounding those events remains forever etched in the recesses of my mind. On any given day, I understood it a matter of survival to deliver Mrs. Wortley’s paper prior to 6:45. At precisely 6:40, Mrs. Wortley would be standing inside her house with a cup of tea in one hand and an attentive ear pressed to the front door. By 6:45, if the sound of my steps weren’t heard approaching her humble abode, with her paper in hand, well…, there would be hell to pay!
I think it was on a Wednesday in the summer months when the inevitable finally happened, I hit the snooze button one too many times on my alarm clock and made it out the door twenty minutes later than usual. By the time I reached Mrs. Worley’s house it was 7:05. I started to walk up the walk towards the porch and then abruptly turned around. I needed a plan and quick! I needed some life-altering excuse to give as to why I was late. I thought about getting hit by a car, but there was no traffic on her street and I would still be lying directly in front of her yard after the collision took place. I thought about paying one of the neighbor kids to deliver her paper but I was broke and they weren’t crazy. After tossing around ideas for a few minutes, while the clocked ticked dangerously away, I soon came to the conclusion that there was no way around it. I would have to get that paper through the mail slot on her front door. Being super-duper stealthy, I slowly tiptoed down her walk towards her front door. Utilizing my youthful prowess, coupled against her hard-hearing and poor vision brought on by old age, I hoped to gingerly slide the paper into the slot undetected. With a bit of luck I would be a block away before she even realized the paper was safely lying right inside her door.
Everything seemed to be going in my favor. I made it all the way up to the door without a peep. I placed my ear near the mail slot and heard not a sound from within. I reached carefully into my canvas bag, retrieved a paper, folded it neatly, and very gingerly pressed it against the hinged plate of the mail slot. For some reason it was stuck. The mail slot just would not budge! I pushed harder with the paper; still it was as if something or someone was securing it shut. I gave one final shove just as all resistance was eliminated from the slot. My hand shot straight through the slot and was immediately seized upon at the wrist by a course and powerful grip unseen on the other side. Mrs. Wortley had me! She was twisting and wasn’t letting go. I dropped the paper inside her door and let out a yowl! I was in it now and had no means of escape from her evil clutches! Next her door flung open. She released my arm at the same time grabbing the crock of my left elbow and yanking me in. She slammed the door trapping me inside. With her index finger waving wildly in the air, she cornered me against her curio cabinet of colorful porcelain kittens. Her eyes were blood-shot and crazed. Her blue frizzy hair sprung out from head like thousands of bursts of electricity. She got so close I could smell the peculiar odor of cat food emitting from her breath. Her words were slow, threatening, and deliberate. “If you EVER make me wait for my paper again, as my tea grows cold and the hours of my day are just spent away, well…. well it will be the last time you ever decide to lolly-gag your way over here! Me and you will go round and round! I will lay you out, boy!”
Though I barely escaped with my life that day, it wasn’t but two days later that I happened to oversleep again. It was a Friday morning when I awoke to birds chirping and 7:30 flashing ominously on my alarm clock. I wasn’t a stupid kid; I knew what needed to be done. I went about my route as usual and delivered all but one paper. Later that evening, I was playing in a very important Little League game down the street. I had just struck out as usual, with schoolgirls watching , and was heading towards the dugout . My little brother, Aaron, had entered into the ballpark and caught me on my way to the bench. “Mom has been looking for you all day”, he said. “Mrs. Wortley, along with the Pioneer Times, has been calling the house non-stop! Mom, says you need to get home right now and bring that woman her paper!”
“I can’t just leave.”, I tried to explain. “Tell Mom I’m in the middle of a game!”
I don’t recall the outcome of the game. I only remember making it halfway home with some kids from school before running straight into my peeved off mom. Boy, was she ever mad! She grabbed me by my ear and escorted me in that painful fashion the rest of the way home. Whatever scolding or corporal punishment that I endured under my mother’s wrath was nothing compared to what would lie in wait at Mrs. Wortley’s residence. Needless to say, I avoided that situation like the plague! I resigned from my position at the Pioneer Times a day later, and started a new route delivering the more reputable Rapid City Journal.
So, should you soon find yourself at one of Deadwood’s fabulous gambling tables, resting comfortably inside Seth Bullock’s Hotel, or visiting Hickok’s gravesite at Mt. Moriah Cemetery, don’t forget those in Deadwood’s history that really made news happen – don’t forget the paperboy!
Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood SD
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Posted in Adventurous Places, Historical Journeys, North America and tagged deadwood, paperboy by Big John with 4 comments.