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Halloween in Custer State Park

The crown jewel of South Dakota’s state park system is Custer State Park, located in the southern Black Hills approximately 50 miles from the Wyoming border. It is consistently compared to, and ranked with some of the country’s finest national parks, and I have been privileged to live in or near it ever since I permanently moved to the Black Hills in 1971.

The establishment of this 72,000 acre park was the brainchild of conservationist Peter Norbeck, who shepherded its development from the very first land set-aside in 1898, to marking off the original buffalo pasture, to designing magnificent scenic roads deliberately routed to force impatient drivers to slow down and appreciate the natural beauty, to helping sculptor Gutzon Borglum find the most perfect piece of granite he had ever seen for the carving of Mount Rushmore.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Indeed entire books have been written about Peter Norbeck’s influence on the state’s politics and tourism development during his service in the statehouse and the Nation’s Senate. I have written about much of the above myself.

But this particular story is more personal, and it strikes me that it may be a life experience you’ve never heard before.

Custer State Park is a natural haven not only for wild animals, some of which were endangered when the park was first envisioned. It includes magnificent natural vistas, historic sites, (including the actual site where gold was discovered in 1874 by George Armstrong Custer, thus triggering the last great gold rush in America), lakes and lodges, outdoor recreation of every description, and even the oldest continuously operating summer stock theatre in America. I had the great good fortune to be a company member of the Black Hills Playhouse for eight years, five of which I was even more privileged to live there year-round. By that time I had married, and was raising the first two of three children. It was without a doubt the happiest time of my life.

After the long hours of rehearsals, performances, daily chores and just plain stress of living with 70 other ambitious divas for three months straight (with one day off every two weeks), the company members would disperse, the tourists went home, and we had the place to ourselves. Fall is still the best time of the year in the Black Hills, and we gloried in the blessed solitude. Nearly every year we were visited at season’s end by a few maverick buffalo bulls, who were in no hurry to move on - so at those times we were obliged to stay indoors for our own protection.

There were many other happy experiences that took place over those years. Most of the park personnel lived there year-round as well. They have now phased out the practice of allowing private cabin ownership within the park, but at that time we still had a few scattered neighbors that we befriended, and some of the lodges also had caretakers (which, in fact, was our role at the Black Hills Playhouse as well.) So under these circumstances, Halloween became a well-timed event to socialize. One that we missed later when we moved to town.

After weeks of anticipation, designing costumes and planning possible tricks, we would pile the kids into the car and drive to our nearest neighbor. The kids would knock on the door and do their Trick or Treat thing. But instead of moving immediately on to the next house we would all be invited in to the house to take pictures, have some hot apple cider or other appropriate beverage and chat for a half hour or so. We would catch up on the gossip and perhaps perform a trick or two, and eventually move on to the next cabin, which could be miles away. After only three or four stops the entire evening had flown by and we were all content to return home from our unique and satisfying Custer State Park Halloween tradition.

And the frosting on the cake (so to speak) was that most of the treats were home-made or in some way personalized. We all knew each other, and this was before some bad-actors in city neighborhoods forced parents to go through all the treats to check for tampering before the kids could have even one bite. These treats were obviously made with loving care and were delicious! Because there weren’t that many families with children living in the Park at the time, our appearance was very much welcomed.

We remained in the country - but on our own place - for seven more years, plus one more kid, before finally moving to town. Halloween has never been the same. But the memories of community and warmth derived from a unique rural custom are still very much with me.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings.  Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.

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