My great grandmother, Susan Irene Olmstead, grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota from her birth in 1889 to the day she left to homestead in Montana around 1910. As an adult, she returned to the Black Hills and lived out her days in a town called Mystic. Her daughter Marjorie described her in one word: “pioneer”. She believed if a thing had to be done, you did it – or at least gave it your best try.
For a week in August, my husband and I honeymooned at Irene’s home in Mystic, South Dakota. The property the house sits on is National Forest, but the house itself is preserved by a family organization (which I am a member) as a historical landmark. The house, the garage, the shed, and even the outhouse are designated landmarks and have plaques to prove it. The house was built by Irene and her second husband, Bill Frink, and my grandfather and his sister grew up there. Bill ran the first gas station in the Black Hills with a general store across the street from their house. We hoped our trip to the Black Hills would give us a much needed chance to relax and recharge after the chaos of the weeks leading up to the wedding.
Irene grew up in Rapid City with a sixteen siblings. Her father was a Civil War vet and he married Rebecca Lee just as soon as he was released from service. The young couple hopped through four different counties in Illinois before coming to Pierre in what was then Dakota Territory in 1884. Harmon Olmstead and three of Irene’s brothers walked about 200 miles from Pierre to Rapid to scope out a place for the family to live. The rest of the family joined him travelling by covered wagon, with the milk cow trailing behind (that is until one of the horses died and the milk cow was hitched to the wagon with the remaining horse).
There were no hunting or fishing laws in those days so the family subsisted largely on deer and fish to supplement the food they grew in the garden. Nowadays, much of the Black Hills is regulated by the National Forest Service. As such, wildlife spottings were not just a daily occurrence for Kyle and I, but seemingly hourly.
When Irene was 12, her newly married older brother Wilbur was running a boarding house with his wife Flora up in Mystic at the Gold Mill. Irene spent the summer helping with cooking and cleaning there. This was Irene’s first experience in the town that she would eventually build her family home in.
Irene was a good student and made it to her sophomore year until she left to work on a ranch in the Black Hills. When she was 21 and thirsty for adventure, she packed up her bags and teamed up with a 72 year old woman named Mrs. Miller to claim a homestead in Montana. Mrs. Miller was not your typical 72 year old woman. As Irene’s daughter described:
Mrs. Miller was a very different lady. She lived by herself out in a less settled part of Rapid, in a log house. One night some ruffians came to her door and demanded entrance, and did some rough talking. Mrs. Miller reached up over the door and took down a rifle and told them to get out of there. One fellow said, “I believe you really would shoot us!” With her gun still trained steadily on them, she responded, “I’d just as soon shoot a dog as see one.” They left and never came back. She told Mom about it, and said that this was her father’s rifle, and it hadn’t been shot in twenty years. She doubted if it would even shoot.
Irene and Mrs. Miller packed all of their belongings in a covered wagon and traveled either in the wagon or by foot. The journey was over 75 miles and took them about 6 days.
There are two letters the descendants have saved that Irene sent to her mother during the trip:
“Well here it is Friday. We made pretty good time today. No bad luck and good roads, but the wind sure blew some. My face and hands are as sore as can be. We thot it was going to rain this evening, but it hasn’t yet. We are about fifteen miles out of Belle (Belle Fourche, South Dakota) – don’t know whether we will get to Alzada (Montana) tomorrow or not. The ponies are doing fine. Teddy’s foot is healing. Well, so long.
The first letter, postmarked April 22, 1910 from Belle Fourche, South Dakota.
Weather was certainly variable in the Hills. Kyle and I encountered some pretty strange weather when we were there. On the first day, on our way back from the grocer, we drove through the remains of a hail storm I’m certainly glad we didn’t get caught in.
It hailed multiple times throughout the week. We were in constant fear that we’d get hail damage on our rental car (which I had refused to purchase extra insurance on).
“Alzada, April 25, 1910. Dear Ma – How’s Dad? Here we are in Montana, one day’s ride from the ranch. I guess we will be there this time tomorrow. Just think – we had breakfast in South Dakota, dinner in Wyoming, and supper in Montana. Well, my card is full, so will quit. Irene”
The second postcard postmarked Alzada, Montana, April 25, 1910.
One of the most exciting things I found at Mystic was a box of Irene’s recipes. There are perhaps a hundred recipes, some hers and some given to her by other people and yet others clipped from magazines. We made one of her recipes in her kitchen, but I’ll save that for another post.
Kyle and I went on our own grand adventure while in Mystic, on the last nice sunny day before the weather went cold and rainy. We decided to take a hike up Angel Trailhead, a tiny deer trail that snakes up the hill behind the Mystic stop on the George S. Mickelson trail (but that trail costs money to hike???). My girlfriends and I hiked this trail about ten years ago and I was confident we could loop around the back of the hill and get back to the road. So began a three hour ordeal and test of our new marriage…
We enjoyed many other activities while on our trip as well. Though these activities did not connect directly with the documentation I found of Irene’s life, I still felt connected with her as I enjoyed showing all these sights to my new husband. In many ways, our path through the Black Hills throughout the week reflected the experiences of President Calvin Coolidge on his visit to the Hills in 1927. We went to Custer State Park, hiked Sylvan Lake, drove the Needles Highway and the Wildlife Loop, saw Mount Rushmore, and ate lunch at the State Game Lodge in Custer that Coolidge and the first lady used as their “Summer White House”. The only thing we didn’t do that he did was fish in streams that had been pre-stocked with trout by the locals. The connection with Coolidge’s trip is actually more closely related to Irene than you’d think, because the man who drove Coolidge’s lumber wagon on his outing to McKelvie’s camp was none other than the brother of Irene’s second husband, George Frink.
We enjoyed our trip so much that we resolved to return next summer and Mystic part of our family tradition.