The Happy Valley

Palmer Gulch and its famous lodge

I can see my father now, standing on the terrace overlooking Palmer Gulch, looking down into that usually happy valley, and speaking firmly to John Bland.

I could tell that Dad was irritated. There was a tone in his voice that somehow suggested irritation. He was using words and phrases that I had previously only heard in Sunday school, and he was not using them in the way that I had heard them before. Dad’s whole attitude and conduct suggested that he was upset and disturbed in his mind, and that Mr. Bland was the cause of his uneasiness. Dad went on speaking and as he spoke he warmed to his task, and came more and more to resemble a long-constrained volcano at last developing its potentialities to the fullest, and when Dad was done speaking, John Bland was no longer connected with the Black Hills Country Club, in Palmer Gulch, at the foot of Harney Peak, near Hill City, South Dakota. 

John Bland on the front steps of Palmer Gulch Lodge with two unidentified “girlfriends”.
The interior of the Lodge, Labor Day, 1927. The porch was later used as the main dining area for guests.

Arrival

Dad, who was Troy L. Parker, had first come to the Black Hills in 1909, when he visited some college friends by the name of Trask, who lived in Deadwood. (1) They were a lovely family, with a whole flock of young and eligible daughters. The first day Dad got to Deadwood, he decided to walk around the town and hunt up those spots that he had read about in the dime novels and in the newspapers, back east, and when he got back to Trask’s for dinner that evening Mrs. Trask, to make conversation. asked him what he had been doing all afternoon, and Dad, full of Eastern innocence, said that he “had been looking for the Green Front,” a place that he had read about as far east as Chicago. 

Upon this admission on Dad’s part a silence, not to say coldness, fell upon the Trask family table, for they all knew–as Dad did not–that the Green Front was the lowest, sinfulest, abominablest dive in all of Deadwood. Good old Mrs. Trask was filled with confusion and dismay as she tried to figure out how in the world she was to going to protect her innocent daughters from this viper from the East who openly admitted that he had spent his first afternoon in Deadwood looking for the town’s most famous whorehouse. 

Interior of the Lodge, with handmade furniture and kerosene lamps.
Troy Parker standing atop the first tee at the original Black Hills Country Club.

The Black Hills Country Club

He never did find the Green Front, for that wasn’t his kind of entertainment anyway, but he loved the Black Hills ever after, so when about 1925 John Bland, an inventor and mining engineer and promoter in general, (and son of Silver Dick Bland–Dad said he was the son of somebody and that is who I expect it was), drummed up a project to create a country club, golf course, and summer home group of Chicago people out in the Black Hills, Dad joined in with wild enthusiasm. Dad’s brothers Norman and Leslie joined in, and a couple of childhood friends, and a business associate or two, and a couple more mining engineers, and this syndicate (2) bought five miles of beautiful, winding Palmer Gulch (3), made my father president of the whole corporation, and set Bland to work to build a golf course and some summer cabins. 

View of Elkhorn Mountain from the parking lot at Palmer Gulch Lodge, with the fifth fairway in the meadow cut out of the forest.

The Great Crash of 1929, however, seriously interfered with the various partners’ full and complete enjoyment of their investment, and caused them to lose faith in its original management and one day, when Dad saw Bland driving down the center of the golf course after a heavy rain, leaving ruts a half mile long behind him, the organization severed its connection with its promoter, and the burdens of its management fell in full force upon my father. 

The ninth fairway on the Black Hills Country Club golf course.
Cabin Five, one of the original lodgings at Palmer Gulch.

The Cabins

The Country Club staggered along for two or three years, during the depression days of the early ’30’s, with hardly anybody in much of a sweat to play golf on its beautiful golf course, and in time, Dad, who had been paying the bills, bought out all the other partners, and took over the ownership of the project and such of the assets as still remained. Dad had by this time built himself a big two-story log summer cabin, and Bland had constructed five of what passed for resort cottages in those days when people were more easily pleased than they are now, and there were a few corrals and work buildings scattered around promiscuously. It wasn’t much to start a business on, but in those days of financial disaster, it was better than nothing by a good deal.

Joy Cabin interior. Note the handmade split log cupboard on the right, and the wide open screen windows. Nice cool pine breezes comforted the weary traveler at night.
The Fabian cabin, just around the rocks from the Lodge at Palmer Gulch.
CB& G Black Hills Scenic Route train arrives at the depot in Hill City, up from Edgemont.

Do Not Keep Porcupines Overnight

At first Dad rented out the cabins for the whole summer, Fred Sargent, who was the president of the Northwestern Railway, came out for two or three years, with a whole multitude of colored porters and cooks and waiters to take care of him, He was a modest man, though, for I can recall that when folks asked him what he did for a living, he’d reply, “Why, I work for the Northwestern.” Sargent’s young son caught a little porcupine one day, and he loved it, and taught it to lay down its quills, so you could stroke it if you went with the grain, and he set considerable store by that little animal, and kept it with him in his bedroom, nights. One morning, that little porcupine woke up earlier than the boy did, and tried to gnaw its way out of the window, and it chewed around the sash, and gnawed up the mullions and made a horrible mess of things, although it never did quite get a hole made.

Thirty years or more afterward, that boy, who was by then a vice president of a major U.S. corporation, came back with his family to stay with us again, and we put him in that same cabin, and I tacked up a notice saying, “This window was chewed by a porcupine, Please do not keep porcupines in your bedrooms overnight.” 

It pleased that Sargent boy more than I would have thought possible to think that we had remembered him and his pet for all those thirty years. That was one of the things Dad and Mom did best: remembering old guests, and what the guests had done and what had made them happy, so we could take good care of them again.

Janet and Troy Parker, on the terrace, 1928
Postcard view of Harney Peak from Cabins Ten and Eleven, showing the meadow and rocks.

The Pacifist

Sargent brought along with him for company and religious edification the Reverend Ernest Fremont Tittle, pastor of the First Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois, as a kind of friend and resident chaplain for the summer. Tittle was an eminent pacifist. He opposed war, and soldiers, and military preparedness in general, and fighting in particular and he was what you might call vociferous, and at times even combative, in his pacifistic opinions.

Once Tittle and Dad had an experience that ought to have cured him of his pacifism, but it didn’t. The two of them went off on a camping trip, down to the Badlands, and got their car stuck in the White, or the Cheyenne, or some other unreliable river. They had to unload everything, and stack their equipment on the bank to dry, and then Dad hiked off to the nearest town to fetch a little help while Tittle sat there to keep an eye on the property.

About the time Dad was well out of sight, a big Indian–Tittle described him as about eight feet tall and broad in proportion, but I don’t believe that even if Tittle was a preacher–came along and begin to look over their goods, and poke around, and give evidence that he was about to help himself to some of their possessions. At that point Tittle, the great pacifist, picked up a big club and prepared to do battle to defend himself and his property. Even so, Tittle never could see, afterward, the value of military preparedness on a national scale, even though he had certainly got the message when it came to defending himself and his own possessions.

When the Horsethief Lake Road to Rushmore was constructed, two one-way spurs were developed to create this view of Harney Peak through the gap in the rock
Watson Parker on Wild Bill.

Manure and Difficulties

One of the things that Dad abandoned early in the resort business was the golf course itself. People who wanted to play golf could do it as well at home–they didn’t come to the Black Hills to chase a golf ball. Instead of golf, we turned to our horses to provide entertainment for our guests, and people from the East thought that horses were just wonderful. I never could figure out why, myself. To me, a horse is just a device for converting hay and oats into manure and difficulties. I remember when I came back from the War–I’d been gone two or three years–I went up to our corral, and saw all of our horse milling around in it, and I called out to my particular pet horse, Wild Bill, “Here, Bill, here boy!” and he shoved his way through the other horses and came up to me, after all those years, and nuzzled up against my chest, and then he bit me. That was about the level of my experience with the horses. I would have to strip down to a positively indecent degree to show you any spot on my body that never was maimed by a horse. I have scars all over my outsides, and I have creaking bones and defective organs distributed all around my insides, and horses gave me every one of them. If I had never worked with horses I would still be a youthful and limber person; as it is, look at me now, a human ruin!

Watson Parker on horseback, leading a second trail pony. Parking lot of Palmer Gulch Lodge, ca. 1948
Group of horseback riders near the corral.

Horseback Riding

We used to take folks off on those horses, up into the Black Hills, and show them the wonders of nature, and feed them generous picnic lunches, or go out, evenings, to boil up ear corn and have a wienie roast, or go off on pack trips and in general we entertained our guests on horseback as much as we could: that’s one of the big things a dude ranch has to offer. I always warned people that if you rode on a horse long enough you would get yourself hurt, but it didn’t scare them off. We did have one girl fall off her horse, and her family sued us. They said that poor teenager was crippled for life, and would never be able to stand up straight again, or move without grievous mental and bodily pain, and so forth, and it worried us to think of the poor girl suffering so, and we supposed to be the cause of her sufferings.

We needn’t have worried. They were some kind of society family, and our lawyer found a picture in their home-town paper, taken a week after the alleged accident, that showed the poor sufferer jitterbugging at some kind of society dance. That was pretty much the end of that lawsuit, and I don’t recall that we ever had another.

Picnic at Franklin Mills’ place. Ellen Parker Schmidt is second from left. ca 1930
Split rock above Elkhorn Spring, on the Palmer Gulch Trail to Harney Peak.

The Palmer Gulch Trail to Harney Peak

One incident in connection with our horses struck me as about the rewarding and uplifting thing that I was ever connected with. Our good wrangler had taken a mob of thirty or forty people to ride up to the top of Harney Peak. It was a long, hot, weary, uphill, all-day trip, and he had put people on every horse that we had, so I thought it would be a good day to drain out our big horse trough, and let it dry in the sun, and then paint the inside of it all over with tar so it wouldn’t leak anymore, and so we did that, the hired man and I, and ran the water back into that trough just about the time that mob of people came back down off Harney Peak (4), late in the afternoon.

Well, along on that long, hot dusty, weary trip had been a particular pestiferous and annoying boy, maybe ten or twelve years old, and he was a pure-quill limb of Satan and an immortal hellion. He galloped up and down and scared the horses, and he got underfoot, and he got lost when he was wanted, and he was underfoot when he wasn’t wanted, and he was sassy, and up on the top of Harney Peak it kept a man and a boy busy full time to keep him from falling off the mountain, and that wasn’t work that earned much gratitude from the other riders.

Bridge built by the CCC on Palmer Gulch Trail, Harney ridge . Bridge is no longer there, having been replaced by a dirt fill in the late seventies.
Troy Parker and Fletcher Marsh relax on the fence surrounding the corral.

The Tar Baby

By the time the wrangler and all those riders got back down to our corral after that all day ride, they were all just about fed up to the ears with that infernal boy, and when they at last rode into the corral our wrangler figured that now was the time to cool him off, so he took that lad by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his britches, and he stuck him into the horse trough, and shoved him clear down to the bottom of it, and held him there, to see if he couldn’t wash some of the deviltry out of him.

It was a mistake. That tar hadn’t dried of course, and when that boy surfaced he was the awfullest looking outrage that I ever saw in my life. He was black and sticky all over, and when the wrangler hauled him clear out of the trough and set him down in the dust of the corral he was dirty in addition. I suppose if his parents hadn’t been along with him all day and seen his behavior for themselves they would have been irritated, but seeing that they had had to put up with themselves they laughed and laughed, and everybody was happy, but they had to throw away that kid’s clothes, and it took a gallon of diesel fuel to clean the tar off of him.

Watering tank in the horse corral, where a rude obstreperous young man was tossed after a hot and dusty horseback ride.
Cabin Seven

More Cabins

Our cabins — and we kept on building cabins until we had a dozen of them — were all out in the woods, of course, each one off in the timber by itself, with a lovely view across Palmer Gulch up towards the mountains, and they were just lovely, because people, even when they thought they were roughing it in the West like to have as much luxury as they could afford — Dad called that attitude “wanting their champagne in a tin cup” — and we tried to make everything just as nice as we could make it. Anyway, being built of logs and slabs, and standing idle all winter out in the pines, those cabins did accumulate their share of insect life: nothing noxious, but now and then a moth or beetle or two.  Well, one day a man came in, and we could tell, just by talking to him, that he was the sort of person who would tend to be particular– the kind of man who feels of the bed before he takes the cabin–but we had taken care of lots of fussy people before so we didn’t much worry about him. Next morning he came around to the office, and he was mad as a cat in a rain barrel, and he had a piece of paper screwed up in his hand, and he was hollering, “Look what I found in that cabin you rented to me: bugs!” and he kept on jumping up and down, and hollering. Well, Dad looked at him, and opened up that piece of paper, and looked at those two or three little bittie harmless pine beetles, each about a quarter of an inch long, and then he looked at that man, hopping up and down, and Dad said, “Beetles, eh? What did you expect, hummingbirds?” That was the end of that particular guest, but we figured we could manage to squeak along somehow without him. (5)

The Parker Family sitting on the steps at Palmer Gulch Lodge. L to R: Watson Parker, Troy L. Parker, Janet Smith Parker, Ellen Parker. ca 1937.
Willow Falls, above the dam that supplied water to the Lodge. Janet Smith and Renslow Scherer (?), ca 1927.

Our Water Supply 

Getting water to all of those widely separated cabins was a major engineering undertaking. At first we put shallow wells down in various swamps around the valley, but the water in them was kind of thick and discolored, sort of like gruel, and although it probably was nutritious, it wasn’t what you might call particularly palatable, so after a few years we ran a three-inch pipe a mile and a quarter up Willow Creek, onto the side of Harney Peak, and built a dam there to tap a spring of more reliable and less tasty water. Two of the original members of the Country Club, Francis G. Fabian and Dibrell P. Hynes were mining engineers, and they recommended that pipe to us. It was spirally wound sheet iron, dipped in tar to keep it from rusting. They said they had used it in various foreign places, and it worked just fine, and maybe it did, if you kept it full of water, but we had to drain it every fall to keep it from freezing in the wintertime, and when it was drained that tar flaked off, and then the pipe rusted, and holes formed in it.

The dam on Willow Creek that supplied drinking water in the summer for Palmer Gulch Lodge and the cabins.

One of my chores, when I was a little boy, was to walk up and down that pipeline every morning and drive toothpicks and plugs into new holes that had rusted out since the day before, We had one piece of that pipe that we kept in service just as a curiosity: it had so many plugs in it that you couldn’t lay your hand on it without hitting one or more of them. That pipe line was about the poorest investment we ever made while we were in the dude ranch business. Hynes and Fabian are dead, now, and I have long since forgiven them for recommending that pipe to us, and if I could, I would send each one of them an air conditioner.

Detail showing the rusty spiral tin pipe used to carry water from the Willow Creek dam to the Lodge. Foot for scale.

Group on terrace of the Lodge. The large bell tower is visible in the background.

Happy Guests

All things considered, our guests were the main thing that made the business a continuing pleasure to us all. There wasn’t more than one, as a usual thing, in a whole year that I would wish had not done business with us; almost all were a pleasure to know and to serve. Sitting around relaxing on the big terrace that overlooked the Gulch, with Harney Peak and Elkhorn looming up before them was one of the main attractions of our more sedentary guests. 

They would congregate on that terrace after dinner, and sit, and smoke, and look at the mountains, and talk, and tell lies and funny stories and boast about how important they were when they were home, and spend the entire evening entertaining each other generally. That was why were always so careful to try to get a group of guests who would get along well together: just being together, in a congenial and interesting group, was one of the things that made their vacation Palmer Gulch Lodge pleasant for them. We had a lot of business men, and doctors, but I suppose the most interesting of our guests were college professors — we had a lot of them. (6)

The Stewart family below the terrace at the Lodge.
Horseback riders in the parking lot near the Palmer Gulch office. Cabin Eight in the background.
Troy Parker, Janet Parker, Ellen Parker, Paul and Mrs. Martin, daughter, on Lodge Terrace.

Stories on the Terrace

I remember one day an old chap telephoned in from on college where we did a lot of business, and said he had heard of our place, and wanted to put up with us for a while, and we figured he knew the folks who were already there, and we found room for him. Well, when the gang of professors we already had on hand heard about him they were all up in arms. They said he was the dullest, driest, dimmest intellectual light that they knew of, and that he would cast darkness upon the proceedings, and lower the tone of the conversations, and in general be pretty much of a social and intellectual wet blanket, so we awaited his arrival with some trepidation. When he arrived he was a little crusty, shriveled up, wizened sort of an old bachelor who taught Coptic languages: ancient Egyptian, and hieroglyphics, and things like that, which didn’t seem at first glance much likely to liven the evening festivities there on the terrace after dinner. 

Fortunately my Uncle Leslie was visiting at the time, and I believe that my Uncle Leslie could have gotten a sprightly conversation out of a graven image, and he took that professor of Coptic languages in tow, and began to draw him out, and get him to talk about his specialty, and Egypt, and the pharaohs, and all those old people generally, and it turned out that this professor had a fund of stories that dated clear back to the pyramids and he kept everybody pretty much in an uproar every evening he was with us.

I didn’t have much time, those days, to sit around evenings and partake of the conversation, so I only heard one of his stories, and as far as I can remember it went something like this: “It seems,” he said, “that during the reign of Thutmoses II there were two high priests of Osiris, who were both enamored of a certain young woman. One of them, being a man of small stature, and fearing that his suit might be rejected upon that count only, betook himself to a wise woman who lived by the bank of the Nile and… well, I see that there young ladies present, so I shall have to finish this particular story at some later time.” I always wanted to hear the end of the story, and find out what happened to the smaller of those two priests of Osiris, but I never did. It’s one of the few things that I regret about my life at Palmer Gulch Lodge.

Young Watson Parker
Badger Clark (the Cowboy poet), with Troy and Janet Parker at the office of Palmer Gulch Lodge.

Just My Wife

Dad never took in unmarried couples, if he could prevent it, because he figured, in those days, that they would offend some people, and in any case they wouldn’t be likely to contribute much to the general flow of sociability. One evening, late, I can remember, a couple drove up, and the man bawled out of the car window that he wanted a place for the night. Dad, not wanting to come out in his nightshirt if there ladies present, hollered, “Have you got any women with you?” to which the poor man, in some evident confusion, replied, “No… no women; just my wife.”

Once we did get caught, though, gloriously and admitted a guest who didn’t conform to our strictest standards. He was a friend of one of our relatives, a single man, and he telephoned and said he was looking for a place to spend his vacation, but he was a terribly sick man, and had to bring a nurse along to take care of him in emergencies, and so he’d need two bedrooms, and so on, and we made room for him accordingly, and prepared to welcome him and a male nurse. Well, in due time, he arrived, but with a female nurse in tow, and I guess she did take care of him pretty carefully, for old Mrs. Goodart, who was doing up the cabins for us that summer, came into the office the day after those two arrived, and she cackled and hooted and finally she told Dad, “That poor fellow must be an awful sick man: that nurse of his has to sleep in the same room with him!”

Goldbug Nelson and his wife Florence.
Palmer Gulch staff: Thelma Johnson, Tresa Cook, Gertrud Johnson, Phyllis Kilness on Lodge Terrace 1938

A Dedicated Staff

One of the things that made running the ranch a pleasure was our good staff of cooks, waitresses, cabin girls, horse wranglers and handymen — we hired anywhere up to 15 young people each summer. Now and again we got a sour ball, but almost always they were outstanding young people, hardworking and good natured, which was a good thing considering how little they were paid and how much they had to do.

I remember once we had a fire in the main building, and all the staff, and great numbers of their friends who magically appeared, pitched in and worked like fury, and got the cook stove and the tables, and all the equipment generally, moved to our largest cabin, where we managed to serve dinner three hours late in spite of the fire, and then those young people worked far into the night cleaning things up, and getting the place ready for use to continue in business the next day. 

We wondered where all the extra hands had so miraculously appeared from, but it wasn’t until some days later that we found out that two of our girls had planned to get married the evening the fire broke out, and that it was their wedding guests who pitched in to help us out. Dad and Mom always considered that loyalty above and beyond the call of duty, and beamed with pleasure every time we heard of the continuing success in life of any of the young folks who were involved.

Staff girls clowning around the new bell tower at the Lodge.

Not all our staff was as good as most of them were. I remember one boy who came to work for us part-time, in return for his room and board. He was a nice lad, and well recommended, and I figured I could keep him busy mowing the lawn — we had a lot of lawn, for kids to play on — and the first day he arrived on the place I set him to work with a power mower. He started in on long one edge of the lawn, and he mowed along the whole length of it, and as he mowed the grass, he also mows a hose that was laying there, the whole hundred yards of it, with rubber and brass fittings and water and corruption generally coming out from under that mower in every direction, but he never noticed, but just kept on mowing, until he hit the water spigot, then he stopped. 

Most of his work for us that summer was about on that level. For years afterwards I kept getting forms to fill out from people who wanted to employ that boy — you know the kind of forms, whole pages of little squares to put numbers into to tell just what I thought of him. I never did fill in any of those little squares: I took just took a big squishy pen and wrote across the whole page: “This boy is useless as tits on a boar hog!” It didn’t seem to do him any harm — probably it caught the eye of a prospective employer better than a compliment would have — and I understand that boy has since become a considerable success in the world of business and finance.

The original Palmer Gulch Lodge staff, l to r: Janet Smith Parker, Troy L. Parker, Watson Parker. By the entrance to the PGL office.

The American Plan 

Oddly enough, cooking for our fifty or sixty guests was never any great problem. In our early years Mother trained the cooks, and later on I did, and we set a mighty ample table, all things considered. I usually went up to Brookings in the spring, to the cow college, east of here, and hired girls who had done well in their basic home economics courses, and I tried to get the state cherry pie champion, if I could — I thought that sort of accomplishment showed the right attitude towards cooking — and I stood there in the kitchen and showed them what to do and how to do it for a week, and when I was done those girls were professional cooks, as far as I was concerned. I remember one girl we had — you couldn’t get into the kitchen when she was in business: pots and pans and hoorah and confusion knee deep all over the place, dangdest mess you ever saw. The food was wonderful, and the kitchen was clean as a pin when she left it for the day, but you couldn’t even get near her while she was cooking. Another girl who was an equally brilliant cook would never have more than the serving dishes and one pot and one spoon dirtied and many a time I’d look into the kitchen and there she’d be, stirring up the gravy with one pot and one spoon dirtied and looking at the spoon regretfully, as if she’d like to wash it off then and there.

We served buffet style, all you could eat and help yourself to seconds, back in the days when that kind of profusion wasn’t common. I found that people took less when they served themselves, than I would have to give them if I did the serving. I do recall one gentleman used to come down from Deadwood for Sunday dinners. He’d take two heaping plates of fried chicken, just to lay down a foundation, and then settle down to the serious business of stuffing himself until he bubbled. He was the unlikeliest man I ever saw to try to feed by contract — you couldn’t fill him up. On the other hand, he generally brought three or four elderly ladies along with him, and they ate about one chicken wing apiece, so it evened out eventually. It got so I had to put a scale in one corner of the dining room, so the regular guests could tell if they were overeating. I had one man who every morning ate three big bowls of oatmeal, with raisins that I had plumped out in rum in it, and dark brown sugar, and whipping cream poured over it, and he gained twenty pounds in the two weeks he stayed with us, but he’d been sick, and needed to fill out a little.

Maj Simpson, after deer hunting. Note the deerskin boots and rifle. Maj worked around the Lodge, and blazed the original trail to the top of Harney Peak in the thirties.
Mr. and Mrs. John H. Kane; Mr. and Mrs. Horace Dawson; Mr. and Mrs. Robert MacCormick, unidentified guests 1940

Give It Away

I found, not only in the dining room, but elsewhere in the dude ranch business, that the more things I gave away, the more money I made. Our advertising brochure ran to 68 illustrated pages, and told not just about Palmer Gulch Lodge, but about the whole Black Hills and what there was to see and do: caves, rodeos, ghost towns, dances, pleasant drives and scenic vistas, picnics and what have you. It was an expensive piece of advertising, but we sent it out free, and paid airmail postage on it, and people often said they came to Palmer Gulch just to meet the people, who had written it, and nobody was ever disappointed and most of them came back again. 

I carried this idea on through everything we did: free cokes for the thirsty traveler in each cabin ice box, and a cookie jar out in the dining room in case anybody got a hankering between meals, and a big jar of gumdrops in the office where you could help yourself, and free horses if you stayed with us long enough to deserve that affliction, and collect telephone calls to make your reservations with us to enjoy all this largess, and all of this liberality paid off for I found out that people will pay almost anything to get something for nothing.

Most people think that a summer resort or a dude ranch is an investment in real estate, an investment in land and buildings and equipment. It isn’t, it’s an exercise in management, as I have already made clear to you. People who come to a ranch or a resort for a vacation are not simply renting a cabin and buying meals, they are purchasing two weeks of happiness, an oasis of joy in the desert of workaday confinements and frustrations. That’s why I always told our staff, “We are not in the food and lodging and horses business: we’re in the happiness business. Our guests have saved up for fifty weeks to come to Palmer Gulch and enjoy themselves, and if anybody here isn’t happy we aren’t selling him what he’s paying for!” It was a good policy, and it kept us in business for thirty-five years, and it kept everybody, guests, staff, and the Parker who ran the place, pretty well contented.

Swimming in the stock pond: David Parker, James Parker, Troy Schmidt, 1959
Janet Parker and Troy Parker, with the new Palmer Gulch woody wagon.

The End of an Era

But at the end of the 1950’s, however, we began to see that the folks who used to come to Palmer Gulch now had enough money to go to Paris, or the Bahamas or the Virgin Islands to lay in their supply of happiness for the year, and it became pretty clear that the resort business in the Black Hills was ultimately going to change and become considerably different from the business which we had built up and managed and loved for so long, so we sold out in 1962, while the ranch was still a paying proposition, and Dad retired, and quit working and I became a college professor. Those thirty-five years were good years, and I’m glad that three generations of Parkers had them, and that we were able to make so many people happy, and to live so long and with so much joy and contentment in Palmer Gulch, under the shadow of old Harney Peak, in the very heart of the Black Hills. (7)

Troy Parker with a galvanized water container, on the path between the office and the Lodge.
In memory of Ellen Parker Schmidt, 1920-2001

Footnotes

(1) Dad was acquainted with Deacon” Trask, the son of the family, at Dartmouth College; the Trasks were involved in the lumbering attempt to tap the bug-infested timber around present-day Moskee, and were responsible for the railroad that ran westward to that area from Nahant.

(2) The original members of the group were Troy L. Parker, Leslie M. Parker, Norman S. Parker, Francis G. Fabian, Dibrell P. Hynes, Frank Parker Davis, Renslow P. Sherer, and Lorenz Scudder. By the early 1930’s all had sold out to my father, although several retained sites for their summer cabins.

(3) The operations of the Black Hills Country Club, in Palmer and Rabbit Gulches, lay mainly in sections 33 and 34 of T1S-R5E, and Sections 4 and 5, T2S-R5E, about 2.5 airline miles southeast of Hill City.

(4) Our trail up Harney Peak, laid out in the 1920’s by Major Simpson of HIll City, climbed first to Elkhorn Mountain, then along the ridge to Harney Peak, It was later improved by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Paul and Fay Beard ran both the ranger station and the souvenir shop atop the mountain, and their hospitality did much to make that weary trip worthwhile. Later Byron Hazeltine was the ranger up there, and he, too, was a pleasant host to the glories of Harney Peak.

(5) I later sent those beetles off to the American Hotel Association who in turn had an eminent entomologist examine them, and he reported that if our cabins were out in the pine forest we were lucky that those were all the bugs we had, and he told us not to worry.

(6) Dr. and Mrs. Richard Elliot, of the University of Minnesota, were perhaps our most notable professorial guests, and over many years they brought with them to Palmer Gulch a host of delightful and amusing friends.

(7) Palmer Gulch Lodge continued for several years under the ownership and management of Les and Betty Clark, who eventually sold it to a syndicate from Sioux Falls who installed a trailer park — still in operation as the Rushmore KOA — in the valley.

(8) Written information on Palmer Gulch Lode and its predecessor, the Black Hills Country Club, are not readily available. Handsome advertising brochures, prepared by the Burlington Railroad, occasionally crop up in various archives, as do our own promotional handouts. Our big booklet on the Black Hills was published in 1952, 1954 and 1958 and ran to a total of 40,000 copies, although it would be hard to find one of them now. Scattered references may be found in Warren Morrell’s column “Through the Hills” in the Rapid City Daily Journal, and an article by Elizabeth Thorpe, “A Black Hills Gulch” in Bits and Pieces, I (July 1965) gives some of my father’s reminiscences.

If you would prefer to download a pdf of this article, here is a link.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of the Black Hills, please consider joining the Black Hills Corral of the Westerners, or attending the West River History Conference each year in the fall.

Text ©2002 Watson Parker

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.