There’s no sugar-coating history at the Adams Museum. Violence, gambling, prostitution, stuffed pet cocker spaniels left by a rich pillar of the community, a two-headed calf and a children’s play area. It’s all there for visitors to absorb at the too-often-overlooked Deadwood, South Dakota, institution.
While Eastern-style honesty might not have been a hallmark of Deadwood when it was set up as a rogue mining camp in the Dakota territory during the 1800s, integrity and frankness have become hallmarks at a museum, which should be the starting point for tourists who truly want to appreciate Deadwood and its colourful, controversial history.
First-time tourists arrive for the main street stroll, where historical re-enactors stage gunfights with quick storylines, check out where legendary Wild Bill Hickok held his dead man’s poker hand of black aces and eights, and maybe make the arduous trek to Mount Moriah Cemetery to view the graves of Wild Bill, his adoring Calamity Jane and sheriff Seth Bullock. Those without children in tow will find scores of casinos, where poker remains the big draw amid the enticing din of modern slot machines.
It’s my second trip to Deadwood, and after a first tainted by a spike in my tire that had me thinking its rough past wasn’t that long ago, I’ve discovered the Adams Museum where, if the decent historical displays don’t hook you, the friendly and knowledgeable museum staff will.
They’ll introduce you to characters such as Potato Creek Johnny, a Welshman who stood 4-foot-3 and, despite arriving in Deadwood and the Black Hills after the main gold rush at age 17, is credited with finding the area’s largest nugget of 7.75 troy ounces.
Or Dirty Em, one of a parade of several madams who openly operated brothels in Deadwood from the gold rush days through to 1980 when federal and state authorities closed them down, a move local residents protested.
The museum, on the day I visited, devoted considerable space to the story of Deadwood prostitution, carefully explaining the grim conditions of abuse, opium-dependency and anonymous death, which was the story for many. But there were also the uplifting stories of the quiet generosity of community women, a system of doctors recommending women and of Second World War soldiers forming patient queues. It was, in fact, in the 1940s when Deadwood prostitution flourished most.
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