Deadwood Magazine

GIRLS OF THE GULCH

Queen of the Rimrock

by Rena Webb

Cut from the same bolt of cloth as Calamity Jane and Poker Alice, a modern day Black Hills woman was known for similar characteristics.

Like Calamity Jane, she was a strong-willed woman noted for salty language and a big heart. And like Alice Tubbs, she raked in many a high stakes poker pot. However, unlike those notorious women, she never wore trousers or men’s clothing.

In fact, Bernice Musekamp believed a woman should wear dresses and "look like the woman God intended her to be."

"You don’t have to buy a circus ticket nowadays. Just stand on the street and see those women with big colored flowers on their slacks, a flower on each side of their fanny. Not for me!"

Bernice became a Black Hills legend in her time. And 25 years after her death, people who knew and loved her are still telling stories about the unforgettable woman who reigned as Queen of the Rimrock for more than a half-century.

Stories like the time a Minneapolis radio crew came to the Black Hills to interview locals about the burgeoning tourist business.

"There’s too damned many tourists running around the Hills already," Bernice snapped. "I wish they’d all go home."

She was in the tourist business herself at the time – at Black Forest Inn on Highway 385, the former Moosecamp Lodge she sold to Carl and Kay Burgess in 1962.

And then there’s the story about a private party held at Black Forest Inn.

Wearing a black silk dress, hair nicely coifed, Bernice cordially greeted her guests and quietly supervised dinner service before retiring to her quarters. A woman who’d never met the hostess, but had heard many a tale about her behavior and language, wondered how this could be the same person.

All doubt was erased at midnight when Bernice apparently decided it was past her bedtime. She abruptly flipped on all the glaring overhead lights and loudly announced, "I just wanted to see what you drunken sons-a-bitches looked like in the light."

That ended the party.

Bernice’s original Moosecamp was a cabin resort and restaurant in the valley that now confines Pactola Reservoir, a 785-acre lake formed by a dam on Rapid Creek about 18 miles west of Rapid City.

Before Pactola Reservoir was built in the 1950s the picturesque area was known as the "Valley of a Thousand Smokes" because of the smoke rising from moonshine stills set up in every draw.

There wasn’t a highway in the valley until the 1930s, only treacherous dirt roads. A 38-mile narrow gauge railroad line from Rapid City to Mystic brought in passengers and supplies

In the spring of 1926, Bernice rode the Crouch Line to the Pactola depot with two dogs, two cats and a pet pigeon in a cage.

Bernice loved animals. The pigeon was just one of dozens of pets she collected over the years. She once taught a duck (named Donald, of course) to curtsy. Dressed in the red vest and cap Bernice made for him, Donald greeted tour bus passengers with a courtly bow.

She made her initial plunge into the tourist business that first summer in Pactola Valley.

"We had a good Jersey cow that gave more cream than milk. I picked wild raspberries growing on Minnesota Ridge, made angel food cakes and put up a handwritten sign on the road advertising raspberry shortcake."

Travelers on the dusty road would stop to sit on the porch, legs dangling, while they ate Bernice’s shortcake. "It was a big day if 5 or 10 cars went by," she said.

Borrowing $1,000 from the First National Bank, Bernice bought a tarpaper shack. "I think I’ve owed them money ever since. We damn near froze to death before I got enough money to buy more tarpaper."

When workers with teams of mules began building the highway Bernice boarded the men – and played poker with them.

The Rapid City engineering firm that had the contract never made a dime on the road, according to the company president. Bernice "fed the men until they were so full they couldn’t work, then played poker with them all night until they weren’t fit to work," Morris Adelstein said.

Bernice kept expanding her Pactola Moosecamp Park. By the 1940s, a restaurant, cabins, small park and a dance attracted crowds of tourists and locals.

The fame of her fried chicken, cooked on an old wood-burning range, was exceeded only by stories of her independence and outspoken manner. Sunday dinners and Bernice’s place were synonymous for many area residents.

She fed, housed and played poker with educators, military brass, statesmen, loggers, construction workers, deer hunters, miners and men from the nearby CCC camp, treating them all alike irregardless of social status.

Her dance hall, the only one between Deadwood and Custer, drew a lot of men, but female dancing partners were scarce. Tough guys from the little towns around the area hated the Civilian Conservation Corps personnel and "came to the dance to fight," Bernice said.

"There was a corral out back and there used to be a bootlegger set up in each corner of the corral. I was a deputy sheriff for eight years. Whenever things got rough at a dance and I thought someone might beat the hell out of me I’d run and put on my star."

A Rapid City woman whose parents had a cabin at Pactola remembers watching the deputy sheriff in action. A man from the CCC camp became drunk and disorderly at a dance. Bernice grabbed him, ran him out the door and right into a parked car.

She’d learned to be tough enough to fend for herself at an early age.

Born November 3, 1892, at Kankakee, Illinois, to Leslie and Mary Hagaman, Bernice was just eight years old when her mother died.

"We were poor as Job’s turkey. I was so ornery when I was a kid that we couldn’t keep a housekeeper."

Eventually Bernice’s father made enough money to send his obstreperous daughter to a girls finishing school in Chicago. She was 15 when he bought land in the Pukwana area and moved to South Dakota. He remarried and Bernice didn’t get along with her stepmother.

"When my dad married this old gal I said our house wasn’t big enough for that – I won’t tell you what I called her – woman and me."

She got a job cooking on a ranch, feeding 14 people at every meal. "I fed the chickens with the food I spoiled. Chickens are crazy for burnt beans."

Moving to Rapid City Bernice "got me a job hashin’ at the Patton Hotel."

Leslie Hagaman bought the Ben Rush sawmill at Rockerville after World War I ended and put his feisty daughter to work cooking for the mill workers.

Frank Marsh managed the sawmill for Bernice after her father’s death and claimed the mill was where she acquired cooking skills and the expletives that peppered her conversations the rest of her life.

The saw blades were vicious, Bernice recalled. "I spent two years yellin’ at the guys around that whirlin’ blade."

Six years after they were married on November 6, 1920, Rudolph and Bernice Musekamp moved to Pactola Valley to "the Nisson place about a mile north of the present junction of Highway 385 and Rimrock Highway." (Now the Martin Collins Buffalo Ranch.)

Money was tight in those days and all the residents of the area, except two families who ranched, were moonshining. They "made awful good whiskey," Bernice said.

She told about a Crouch Line engineer who’d stop the train at Pactola and hang a little white rag by the tracks, a signal for his moonshiner, before continuing on to Mystic. On the return trip he’d pick up his keg of bootleg booze.

"He’d stow it in the tender and start to tap it. He’d be singing ‘Casey Jones’ about the time he reached Big Bend." There was an "awful curve" by Hisega, a few miles out of Rapid City, Bernice said, and "he rolled the damn train right off the track into the creek."

Her colorful tales entertained Moosecamp patrons who easily recognized the warm-hearted and generous soul beneath Bernice’s gruff exterior. "She had a heart as big as all outdoors" was an apt description.

Although Bernice refused to talk about her private charities, she provided for several foster children and informally adopted the daughter of an impoverished Pactola family, taking the young girl into her home and paying for her education.

She was equally reticent about her personal life. She told a waitress at Black Forest Inn she’d never had any children of her own, but Cliff Ebright, who died in Rapid City in 1983, was her son, born during a brief marriage to Hugh Ebright of Pukwana.

In 1953, when Moosecamp was included in the Pactola impoundment area, Bernice sold her land to the government and built the new lodge south of the lake.

She’d "worked tooth and toenail" with Senator Francis Case to get the Pactola Dam project approved but she didn’t relinquish her property easily.

In the early 1950s she told a newspaper reporter she was "having a little argument – not too damned friendly – with the federal government about price. It’ll probably be settled in federal court at Deadwood."

It wasn’t the first disagreement she’d had with the government. Bernice once refused to collect or pay state sales taxes until the highway department oiled the dusty road in front of Moosecamp.

Bernice earned her reputation as a fighter, but her conflicts weren’t generally prompted by self-interest. On behalf of the Pactola community she engaged in pitched battles with a plethora of government officials – depression relief program administrators, county commissioners, the forest service, and "them damned Democrats." She blamed Franklin D. Roosevelt for creating the majority of the country’s problems.

Once she settled on a price for Moosecamp, Bernice and her companion George Lester moved up the hill and started building a new lodge. She served her first meal in the new place on Easter Sunday 1954. And every morning before she started cooking, Bernice and Lester fed dozens of deer, wild ducks and a flock of peacocks.

At age 70 Bernice decided she was "getting too old to bake enough biscuits, pies and cake for 200 people a day." She sold the lodge to Carl and Kay Burgess, built a new home on land adjacent to the property and devoted her time to poker, music, sewing, knitting and raising funds for Rimrock, Silver City and Big Bend volunteer fire departments.

She began writing a book about Pactola characters she’d known.

"But I’ve got to wait for a couple of damn good funerals before I can publish it because some of them are still living."

"Mixed Nuts" was never published (perhaps because the rhetoric was a little too crude for the times). Many people would like to know what happened to the manuscript. Bernice’s unladylike language wouldn’t raise an eyebrow now, when four-letter words proliferate in print and on television.

A Minneapolis Tribune columnist once wrote of Bernice Musekamp, "She’s as real and honest and natural as the morning sun that dips into the Valley of a Thousand Smokes."

The Queen of the Rimrock died at the age of 86 at her Pactola home. Memorial services were held September 5, 1979, at the Pactola Visitor Center, overlooking the valley she loved.

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Deadwood Magazine ©2004