Monday, February 10, 2014

Businessman with Dakota roots won political battle in Arizona

by Larry Miller

When we escaped the sub-zero temperatures and looming blizzard-like weather of the northern Black Hills in late December, we looked forward to balmy temperatures, along with a bit more relaxed pace of living in the Phoenix-area retirement park inhabited by RV owners and snowbirds from Canada and the northern plains.

We've not been disappointed -- but we have been surprised now and then.

And last Saturday (2/8/14) it was a pleasant surprise as friends Chris and Belva Anderson -- along with our GPS system we've dubbed "Miss Smarty Pants" -- lured us to a thriving oasis community south of Mesa called Queen Cave, Arizona.  And perhaps one of the most popular eating establishments in this region of the burgeoning valley area occupied by Phoenix and dozens of smaller cities.  It's called San Tan Flat.

And the real surprise has been learning that San Tan Flat, a restaurant and saloon, was launched nearly a decade ago by Dale Bell, who is still well-remembered in Spearfish and throughout the northern Hills.

His family was engaged in retail businesses in the Spearfish area for many years.  His father, Tom Bell, operated an open market and later "Bell's Market" on West Jackson and was one of the early strong proponents of the legendary Black Hills Passion Play.  Dale was just a teenager when he took a shine to politics and became a big fan of Ronald Reagan, going to work as a Republican campaign worker in the 1970's.  When Reagan was elected President in 1980, young Bell landed a job in Washington as Director of Public Affairs for the Department of Health and Human Services. But he soon left D.C. and entered a couple of congressional raises in South Dakota, losing both -- to Tom Daschle in 1984 and then to Tim Johnson in 1986.

Bell was soon back in the Black Hills.  Among other endeavors, he started and operated a couple of steakhouses, including the Buffalo Jump restaurant in Beulah, Wyoming, which he sold before heading to Arizona and opening a steakhouse in Pinal County in 2005.   His daughter, Kristen, remained in Spearfish and still owns Dough Trader Pizza, just off of Jackson near BHSU -- within a stones throw of the old Bell Market.
We walked through the front door of San Tan Flat shortly after 4 o'clock Saturday afternoon and the place was already jumping with customers.  Looming over the dining area was "Toomey Mill Co., Spearfish So. Dak." emblazoned on what appeared to be a large framed sack.

We wandered through the busy restaurant and placed our orders at the counter before heading out back to the courtyard, which accommodates more than 300 people.  With a separate game room building and lots of cowboy memorabilia strategically placed amongst the dozens of wooden tables and benches, this is a place that is family friendly.  The four of us sat next to a couple of young families with kids.  And there were lots of other kids, too.  We were alerted that our meals were ready when our number (09) was readily displayed on a couple of small digital readout boards.

After enjoying a great meal of steaks and hamburgers, we wandered around the premises a bit, and learned a bit about Dale Bell's long fracas with Pinal County Commissioners.  They apparently groused over a number of things -- but perhaps most prominent was its ban on dancing.  Most folks believe that the high profile battle between Bell and the Pinal County Cmmissioners was a blessing for San Tan Flat., which appears to be doing a land office business.

That political battle likely encouraged the proliferation of patriotic signs posted throughout the premises at San Tan Flat -- most of them focused upon the dangers of unchecked government.

Bell's story is well told by Drew Cary in the video below, which was produced by The Institute for Justice. Dale Bell and his son Spencer provide insight into their entrepreneurial activities -- and their rather inspirational story about "fighting city hall."  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Big expansion underway at West Texas Trail Museum

We like this panoramic image of early day Moorcroft, Wyoming, which is home to the expanding West Texas Trail Museum.  You can get a closer look in our Museum Gallery.

The framed photograph -- along with hundreds of other items -- is part of a growing collection of artifacts that are housed in the museum at 100 E. Weston Street in Moorcroft.  The collections helps to tell the story of Moorcroft and the longhorn cattle trails that stretched from Texas through Wyoming and into Montana as early as 1866.

Last year, friend Don Matthesen and I made a trek to the museum at Newell, South Dakota, and enjoyed it so much that we elected to make another similar museum outing -- this time westward to Moorcroft.

After a hearty breakfast at Higbee's in Sundance one day last week (7/11/13), we headed west on I-90 toward Moorcroft, arriving about 30 minutes after the 9:00 a.m. opening of the museum.

Museum Director Cynthia Conch
New director Cynthia Conch, obviously pumped about the 1,800 square foot expansion of the museum that's underway, provided us with some background about the exhibits that remain accessible during construction.

It might have been a bit disappointing that some items are not displayed during construction, but Cynthia's enthusiasm -- and the remaining availability of many artifacts and photographs -- enticed us to explore the rooms that are still open.  And it simply motivated us to plan a return visit after the addition is completed this fall.

"We're hoping construction will be completed and we can show off the facility by the time of the Heritage Roundup in September," Conch told us.  The addition includes a conference room and break room that will help make the museum an even more viable facility.

Like Belle Fourche in Dakota Territory, Moorcroft became an important Wyoming trailhead for shipping cattle in the late 1800's.  Of course, there're no remnants of the old depot  on the south side of town, but the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q) line was certainly a conduit for prosperity during the late 1800's and early 1900's.

The museum offers lots of histories of Crook County pioneer families and railroad memorabilia, and it also boasts a wide array of quilts, sewing machines, and embroidery work.  Perhaps our wives should have been along, too!

Ranching displays highlighted western saddles and tack collected from the surrounding area, including items from "Mr. Mustang," Bob Brislawn.

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy depot in Moorcroft
Most of the railroad items are still inaccessible, but we were surprised and pleased to be able to pore over a collection of American Indian artifacts and tools.  There's also an impressive collection of household and personal items from the Helen Robinson Zimmerscheid Collection -- and even more for the Robinson Mercantile store owned by early-day merchant L. H. Robinson.

We've assembled a fair number of photographs taken while ambling through the museum, and you'll find them in our West Texas Trail Museum gallery.

Admission to the West Texas Trail Museum is free, and they're open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday.   We found their slogan, "A little bit of everything…..A whole lot of history…" to be true.  When their expansion is complete this fall, we anticipate finding even more!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A mesmerizing presentation on Black Hills floods

Hydrologist Dan Driscoll recounting historic floods
There was standing room only Tuesday night (2/5/13) as more than 100 people sandwiched themselves inside the Senior Citizen's Center in Spearfish to hear Dan Driscoll talk about flooding.

It's a topic all too familiar to many residents of the northern Black Hills, and memories of the devastating Rapid City flood of 1972 came back with little prompting as Driscoll gave the group an hour-long overview of historic floods in the Black Hills region.

An hydrologist with the U. S. Geological Survey in Rapid City, Driscoll has been very involved with studies relating to flood-frequency analysis.  Well rooted in science, he provided members of the Spearfish Area Historical Society with a thumbnail sketch of how scientists go about measuring size and frequency of flooding -- underscoring the importance of historical data, while conceding that there's still a lot of uncertainty about flow estimates in flooding rivers.

Driscoll's presentation -- including links to historic flood photographs and information -- is reported on the web site of the Spearfish Area Historical Society.  Read more here...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Forest Moon Walks chalk up 17 years in Black Hills

Nippy temperatures dropped near freezing last night (10/6/12), putting a damper on the final Black Hills National Forest Moon Walk of the season.

But for the hardy group of about 40 souls who braved the frigid temperatures to ascend Mount Roosevelt, it was well worth the goose bumps.

Black Hills Professor David Wolff, the best-known and perhaps most knowledgeable historian to research the life and times of Seth Bullock, gave the gathered throng some keen insights into the man who befriended Theodore Roosevelt and years later launched the effort to build a memorial to Roosevelt when he died in 1919.

That memorial was a 31-foot tower with a 12-foot diameter built of native stone atop Sheep Mountain just north of Deadwood.  The site was later renamed Mount Roosevelt, and the medieval-style tower has become dubbed "Friendship Tower," acknowledging the friendship between Bullock and President Roosevelt.  The tower was constructed by the Society of Black Hills Pioneers at the behest of Bullock, who had earlier convinced the organization to accept Roosevelt as its first honorary member.
BHSU professor David Wolff shared some stories
about legendary Black Hills lawman Seth Bullock

The colorful life of Seth Bullock is recounted in Wolff's 2009 book, Seth Bullock - Black Hills Lawman.

This was the second presentation on Bullock in as many weeks for Wolff.  He gave a similar presentation on September 23 to members of the Lawrence County Historical Society during their Fall Tour.  You'll find a number of photographs and notes about that tour in the LCHS Gallery.  That daylight tour provided some stunning views of the changing colors in the Hills, as well as a close-up look at the many enhancements that have been made to the "Friendship Tower" in recent years.  You'll find those items well documented in a U.S. Forest Service video produced this summer.  A link to that video is at the right-hand top of this page.

Despite the darkness, we took a few photos during the final Moon Walk of the year.  You'll find them in our Moon Walk Gallery.

Kudos to Amy Ballard the staff of Black Hills National Forest for organizing and implementing these Moon Walks.  Ballard has literally watched young Moon Walkers -- including her own kids -- grow up over the past 17 seasons of these events.

We can think of few activities that provide the kinds of opportunities these walks provide:  a chance to bask in the beauty of the Black Hills; learn more about the history of our region; and get some good exercise in the great outdoors!

See you next season!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

275 Moon Walkers enjoy the Stratobowl by starlight

Perhaps it was the splendid evening of cool temperatures and only a whisk of a breeze.  Maybe it was the close proximity to Rapid City and a good speaker with a passion for his subject.  It could have been our fascination with space and exploration.  Or it might have been all of the above. 

Whatever the reasons, it was likely a record-setting crowd of hikers that surrounded the historic Stratobowl near Mount Rushmore west of Rapid City last night (9/8/12) for the September Moon Walk sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service.

Coordinator Amy Ballard said it was a fantastic turnout. 

As the group assembled along a Forest Service road adjacent to Mount Rushmore Road, Amy reminded the group that the Black Hills National Forest is unique.  Not just for the Stratobowl, where high altitude balloons lifted off in 1934 and 1935 and moved man farther along in our exploration of space, but for some other powerful – if less flamboyant reasons.

First, she reminded the assembled group that more timber is cut in the Black Hills than in any other national forest.  Secondly,  more cattle graze on the Black Hills National Forest than graze on any other.

After a few housekeeping announcement, Amy introduced the crowd to Arley Fadness, a retired Lutheran minister, whose interest in flight may well be tracked back to the years even before he went to seminary.  A native of Bristol, South Dakota, Fadness worked for Boeing while it was developing and producing the Bomarc Missiles back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  

Eventually, Fadness completed seminary work and ministered in several communities across eastern South Dakota and in Minnesota.  He retired as pastor in Mankotao, Minnesota,  and now lives in Custer, where has more time to pursue his passion for flight and writing.  He also does a bit of pastoring, filling in most recently at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Spearfish.

After about a 45-minute trek along a two-path road to the northwest, the group arrived at the rim overlooking the Stratobowl.

We are standing by a national treasure,” Fadness told the assembled group.

This big round depression in the earth was and is like an ampitheatre waiting for the call of history.”  You'll find a gallery of photographs from this event in our Moon Walk Gallery.

Fadness outlined the significant liftoffs from the site, including both Explorer I and Explorer II.  Explorer II set an altitude record of 75,395 feet.  Fadness then gave highlights about subsequent flights that emanated from what used to be known as “Moonlight Valley” before the Explorer flights took place.  That was back in the days when the Bonanza Bar Mining Company was operating in the vicinity in the 1890’s and into the early Twentieth Century.

While the Army Air Corps was apparently a bit reluctant initially to get involved with the 1934 Explorer flight, they finally endorsed the endeavor – but they were unable to allocate enough funds to make it happen.

That’s when proponents approached the National Geographic Society, which along with Kodak and other private firms, provided funding for the event.

Fadness told how the selection of the site near Rapid City was not a slam-dunk.   There were towns like North Platte, Nebraska; Lander, Wyoming; Denver, and other communities  that were anxious to have the event take place near their hometowns.

In the end, Rapid City won out.

A virtual village popped up in the valley, and national publicity began to grow.

While the Explorer I launch in 1934 ended up going bust when the hydrogen-filled balloon rapidly lost altitude and crashed in Nebraska, the Army and National Geographic promptly planned a 1935 launch.  

That endeavor, Explorer II, had a bit of a shaky start, too.  In July of 1935, even the helium-filled balloon experienced complications, and the event was aborted -- as reported in a story published by the Rapid City Journal (see headline at right).  But efforts for a re-launch proceeded, and Explorer II finally got airborne on November 11, Armistice Day.  Success at last!  It achieved a new altitute record of 72,395 feet.  Its crew were the first humans to see the curvature of the earth.

For an excellent detailed description of the Explorer I and II flights written by Gregory Kennedy, follow this link to Stratocat.

And for another evening of fun and history, join us for the October Moon Walk to the Friendship Tower on Mount Roosevelt just north of Deadwood.  It'll be October 6 at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

August Moon Walk cancelled -- September still planned!

The August Moon Walk along Cascade Creek in the southern Black Hills had to be cancelled in August because very dry conditions that have posed a continuing fire threat to the Black Hills and surrounding region.  There were some manpower issues as well, but -- hopefully -- those issues are resolved and the seemingly always present fire threat will not force cancellation of the September Moon Walk.

Recreation Forester Amy Ballard tells us that the September 8th Moon Walk will take place on the eastern side of the Black Hills along the rim trail that overlooks the "Stratobowl."  That's the location just a mile or so off Highway 16 going south out of Rapid City on the way to Mount Rushmore.

The Stratobowl was the site of the first successful launch of a stratospheric helium-filled balloon in the mid-1930's.  The project was sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Army Air Corps.

To reach the Moon Walk parking site from Rapid City, travel approximately eight miles west on Highway 16 to the Black Hills RV Service Center gas station on the right located just past Old MacDonald’s Farm.  Forest personnel will meet participants at the RV Service Center and hike to the rim from there.  The Forest Service road accessing the Stratobowl rim is just south of this parking area.

The Forest Service suggests that visitors bring flashlights, water, and bug repellant and dress for unexpected weather and hiking on uneven land.  Long pants and sturdy footwear (hiking boots or athletic shoes) are recommended for your comfort and safety. 

The program may be cancelled unexpectedly for unforeseen reasons such as lightning, high fire danger forecasts and other reasons beyond control.  The program will not be cancelled due to rain unless lightning is spotted.  Please arrive early to aid in parking vehicles as 140 visitors per walk have been attending the programs this summer. 

For more information about the program and summer schedule go to or call the Black Hills National Forest at 605-343-1567.