Down Home History in Keystone
I’m looking up at a somewhat moth-eaten buffalo, with a saddle to match perched behind his hump, and wishing Halley’s Store was open today. Even saddled up, the buffalo looks somewhat alarming – despite being stuffed, dead and inexplicably positioned on the sagging front porch of Keystone’s oldest continuous business.
And there are quite a number of moth-eaten saddles along the front of this general mercantile store built in 1895, causing me to wonder if some might be as historic as Halley’s is.
I’m quite engrossed, because I am in the middle of my curiously fascinating Keystone “Old Town” Walking Tour. As I stop at the various “old town” sites, each with a descriptive sign explaining its significance, I am particularly struck by the authenticity of the history on display. For the most part, these buildings haven’t been renovated, refurbished, upgraded or turned into “historically accurate” renditions of their former selves. They are themselves.
Sure, some old structures sport a new coat of paint, but that is just another layer of their ongoing history. Maybe it’s the interplay between junk, good junk, antiques and heirlooms that one sees in the yards and through the windows of this community’s assortment of businesses and homes.
The sign at the blacksmith shop tells an amusing story about “Peg Leg” Haase, one of those eccentric souls often found in small towns. The last horse shoer in downtown Keystone, his four-legged customers always needed four shoes, and that is what they got. With only one leg himself, Peg Leg could never understand why the town’s salesmen wouldn’t sell him only one shoe, but insisted he buy a pair.
T.J. Hoy & Co. is another stop. In the early 1900s, this business offered a unique combination – a pharmacy and pool hall. It was also the site of the only telephone in town.
And there’s the landmark Keystone Schoolhouse, now home to the town museum, where visitors will find displays of early-day mining tools, historic photo collections, rock and mineral collections and memorabilia from Carrie Ingalls, the sister of Laura Ingalls Wilders of “Little House” fame, who lived in Keystone for 36 years.
Even when, according to the sign, a historic building burned down in one of Keystone’s many fires, history still lives in rebuilt buildings, many now aging themselves. In fact, it’s somewhat remarkable that Keystone’s long fire history has been unable to destroy the sense of continuity I’m picking up as I stroll along – an ongoing timeline of interlocking generations of pioneers and prospectors that first established and now sustain this tiny town at the foot of Mount Rushmore.
It’s that sense of living history that makes this walk so appealing, I decide as I walk past some old houses, some fixed up and some on a slant, that are still family homes, some with iron plaques identifying the original homebuilders. And the businesses now housed in these unique old buildings have their own allure, with many offering items –antiques, collectibles, local jewelry and crafts – that the owners are passionate about.
It’s the kind of neighborhood where people can indulge their enthusiasm for rarities, both as shopkeepers and customers. One-of-a-kind characters still live here. There is no telling what you might luck on to.
I’m already feeling lucky as I circle back to Big Thunder Gold Mine where I began my excursion. I take a few pictures of the popular attraction, originally registered as Reed’s Placer Claim in 1893. A few families are making their way up the wooden bridge into towards Big Thunder’s “company store,” probably planning an underground tour of the old tunnels. It sounds like fun, but I hope they have time on their schedule to enjoy Keystone’s Old Town Walking Tour, too.