Any successful trip for a couple is about compromise. Otherwise someone ends up disgruntled or bored. So my wife and I have an understanding, I drag her to some historic place or comic book store she cares nothing about and I have to waste a couple hours at some mall or shopping center somewhere (or read my comic books in the car). Both of us get what we want, both of us sacrifice, everybody wins. Compromise.
So it was no big surprise that on our 2014 vacation I would be taking her to the mall in Rapid City, SD along the way. But instead of just wondering the mall or sitting in the car, I actually had somewhere I wanted to check out.
Fort Hays Old West Town is a tourist attraction outside of Rapid City. After the movie Dances With Wolves was completed, the owners were able to procure some of the buildings used as set pieces. Specifically the ‘Fort Hays headquarters’ building where Kevin Costner’s character, LT John J Dunbar, is assigned to his post in the wilderness and the Fort Hays ‘supply house’. They also have a recreated boardwalk with several Old West style buildings you would have seen in the period. There is also a large building that I assume is a restaurant with a stage perhaps, I have read about them doing meals and entertainment on location but I didn’t go into that building so I could not tell you exactly. Admission is free to see the set buildings and ‘Old West town’ so I just strolled right past the big building.
As a movie nerd, I found the ‘headquarters’ building quite fascinating. They had a whole wall in a hallway covered in movie posters of films that had been filmed in South Dakota, from personal favorites like Nebraska, Into the Wind & Dances With Wolves to other critical & box office successes like North by Northwest, Armageddon & Hidalgo. I just stood there, nostalgically staring at the wall for a few minutes, before heading into the main room.
The main room was exactly as it is in the film. You can even see the tape placed on the floor so Costner could hit his marks. There was memorabilia on the wall and a documentary on the making of Dances With Wolves playing on a TV, which I actually found very intriguing. I stood and watched it for quite a while.
There is a fake bullet hole in the glass in one of the windows from where, in the movie, after Major Fambrough stations Dunbar in Fort Segwick, Fambrough kills himself with his pistol. It was kind of weirdly chilling to be in this somewhat familiar setting, looking around at a place I had never actually been to before, but recognizing it.
Next I went into the ‘Supply House’, which was not quite as interesting as the ‘Headquarters’, some parts of it was closed off, the rest made into a gift shop. But it’s always interesting to walk up on an old boardwalk and feel like you’re stepping back in time.
Storm clouds loomed in the distance, I took a second to snap a picture of the oncoming storm before continuing on down the boardwalk of the ‘Old West Town’. The first stop was the rope maker’s shop. Inside was a friendly enough man, making rope. For the next… what felt like forever, the rope maker bombarded with Jesus and how rope is like Jesus. I was trying to be polite and feigned interest in his rant about how he makes Jesus fish out of rope (or signs or crosses or something) and how the 3 strands of rope are like the holy trinity and how the end of a rope is like redemption or grace or something. I really couldn’t keep up or get a word in.
Probably about a half hour later, the guy’s still rambling, it’s raining and my wife is texting me, saying that she is done at the mall and is ready to be picked up. So I finally have my out to get away from the Jesus rope man, but I haven’t seen any of the rest of the boardwalk. So I run as fast as I can through the rain through the rest of the shops, trying to take everything in without making my wife wait too long to be picked up (I still have to make it back across town). I then ran through the rain back to my Jeep to go pick up my wife. I had missed most of the Old West Town. Thanks, Jesus Rope Man.
In retrospect, I found the buildings from the set absolutely fascinating, especially the headquarters. The rest of the boardwalk, if I had actually gotten to really experience it, might have been interesting, although I’ve seen enough Old West main street recreations to know that this one wasn’t really anything special. It was pretty standard fare. If you liked Dances With Wolves definitely stop by and see Fort Hays. If you like really long, weird, sermon-like rants from a peculiar little rope making man, stop by the boardwalk. Otherwise, keep trucking to a better Old West town. Old Trail Town in Cody, WY is the best I’ve encountered so far, along with Front Street in Dodge City, KS & Buckskin Joe in Colorado. Or, if you’re heading east through South Dakota, check out 1880 Town, which also features Dances With Wolves memorabilia.
View an advertisement for Fort Hays below, complete with Jesus Rope Man.