HILL CITY, S.D. — A ride on Hill City’s 1880s train is always like a step back in time. But during the Western Heritage Festival, the entire town seems to be in a “time-warp” mode with cowboys, miners, a horse-drawn wagon rumbling down Main Street, even a robbery at the local bank!
It’s all pretend, of course, but festival director and founder Chris Van Ness says her goal in establishing the annual event was to protect all the stories of the past. “We thought things were changing rapidly in the Black Hills; there was a lot of development and things were going away from what the original pioneer feeling of the Hills was.” She explains that she wanted to revitalize that.
The two-day long Western Heritage Festival features parades, live music and a cowboy “chuck wagon” dinner. People dressed up as characters from Black Hills history entertain festival visitors with action from the Old West: that bank robbery, a train robbery, as well as less dramatic interactions among townsfolk. Van Ness notes these “re-enactors” have many cultures to choose from. “The Indians were here. The miners were here, [as were] trappers and fur traders. The ranchers came in and then the railroad. So, there’s all kinds of things that we try to feature in our activities during the day.”
Sunday’s events include a rodeo. “The ranchers get to bring their horses in and show what they can do, pulling logs and going over bridges, opening gates and all kinds of stuff like that,” Van Ness says.
It is “stuff like that” that brings hundreds of visitors from around the region and across the country to Hill City for the event. Nick Taylor and his family spent part of their vacation in the Black Hills. He says the idea of a festival to preserve an area’s culture and history is a positive anywhere. “I think it’s a good thing that they’re doing that ’cause, you know, there’s a lot of the old stuff that’s being torn down and done away with, and I think it’s very important that we keep that heritage going as long as we can.”
Not surprisingly, local residents feel the same way. Businessman Rich Sieveke, dressed up as a cowboy, helped foil the bank robbery at high noon on Main Street. He says he can’t stress enough the importance of having events that highlight an area’s history and culture.
“I think it’s an absolute must. If you don’t keep bringing this to people’s attention, they lose track of it. It gets lost and further on down the road, children that are growing up now…they won’t have that unless we keep track of it for ’em.” He says reading about history is not the same as seeing it happen. “The re-enactments and stuff like that, they’re gonna stay in their minds forever.”
The image of re-enactor Terri Engle, in a flowing 19th century dress, pleading with the train robbers will be etched in the minds of many festival visitors. The area resident says the importance of keeping the history of the Black Hills alive becomes even more significant in the face of increasing development.
“It gets the word out that there are groups that are very keen on preserving the history and preserving the culture that goes with this area of the state,” she says. “As far as the Native American cultures and other cultures that live out here, the Black Hills have long been sacred to the Native Americans and we need to respect that and do what we can to preserve the Black Hills in any way we can.”
The Native American musical group Brule performed at this year’s festival. Brule’s founder, Paul LaRouche, sees these events as a way to not only preserve the past, but build bridges to the future. “I think it’s well under way. I think that we live in a point in history when most of our country recognizes, for the most part, an accurate depiction of what our culture has gone through — on the good and bad side. And, knowing that, it is a perfect time for us within the culture who work on the side of peace and unity to move forward in a positive direction.”
Of course, beyond supporting historic preservation and cultural unity, there’s at least one other reason to encourage events like the Western Heritage Festival, according to historical re-enactor Jerald Penwell. “I guess we all have a little bit of cowboy in us from when we were young. You dress up … and use authentic weapons and clothing and it’s a blast. We have a good time.”
— By Jim Kent, Voice of America