South Dakota’s Old Highway 16

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A few weeks back, my wife and I were back visiting her parents in her home town of Mitchell, SD.  They are great people.  They’ve been married for 46 years and live on the outskirts of town in a house that my father-in-law built himself about 30 years ago.  In fact, they’ve lived their entire lives within about 30 miles of their current home… as a result they have a wealth of knowledge about local history and are eager to share it if the audience is willing to listen.

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My father-in-law recalling the past while his daughter listens attentively

During this particular visit, we decided to take a day trip down Old Highway 16 which proved to be both a catalyst for interesting stories and a path toward some interesting sites and experiences.

“Old 16” as my father-in-law (FIL) calls it was the main east-west thoroughfare in South Dakota until I-90 first cut through the state sometime in the 1960s. Today, this now lightly traveled two-lane highway leads you through several towns that have mostly dried up since commuters abandoned it for the faster Interstate situated just a hundred yards or so away. The stretch we traveled that day took us west for 73 miles starting in Mitchell and ending just across the Missouri River in a town called Oacoma.

These are some of the most noteworthy, interesting and amusing things that happened during our trip.

The Interstate Paving Record

Shortly after our journey started my FIL (a semi-retired civil engineer) mentioned that he actually helped build I-90 as a young man.  His job was to coordinate all of the different trucks that had a specific function (pouring, paving, smoothing, etc.) in the roadway construction process.  It might sound simple, but it was extremely complex.  Each step in the process had to be executed in a specific order and within a specific amount of time after the preceding step – all without the high-tech gear that exists today.  In fact, his crew was the first to ever pave a full mile of Interstate in a single day.  And that was a big deal… such a big deal that troughs filled with icy cold beer cans were brought out by management to celebrate the achievement once the whistle sounded, and all of the men partook in the festivities.  Ironically, all this celebrating caused the next day’s work to go much slower and they didn’t cover nearly as much ground.

Balloon Landing

The first sign I shot on this trip was an old, beat-up neon arrow that simple read “Motel” and pointed across the street where the motel and a convenience store stood.  After I had snapped a few photos we headed over to that store to buy some water and use the bathroom.  We parked out front next to a couple gas pumps adorned with a “No Gas” sign and walked inside.

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Broken neon arrow sign pointing to the motel across the street

The store was not well stocked but we managed to find a few small bottles of water and some sunflower seeds for the trip.  Behind the counter was an older man with a plaid shirt draped over his almost perfectly round waistline, tucked into his Wranglers and finished off with a woven leather belt.

Situated over on the far side of the lottery ticket dispenser was a slightly younger man keeping him company who appeared to have no place else to be.  You immediately got the sense that these two gentlemen spent a lot of their time in these exact positions.

I asked the man behind the counter (who I presumed owned the store) if he also owned the adjacent motel and said he had since the 1980s, although he didn’t seem too excited to answer my questions.  Regardless, I also asked him about the neon arrow sign across the street and he reckoned it was from the 50s.  Seemed about right.  Then my FIL came over and asked if there was “anything historical” around here.  The guy loosened up a bit once someone he could better relate to was asking the questions. “Well, the balloon landing happened just a few mile from here”, he replied.

He pulled out an old Thomas Guide and proceeded to locate the precise spot.  While he was flipping through looking for the right page, the 4 of us cycled through the bathroom which was clearly marked “For Customers Only”.  Inside the bathroom, this point was further driven home with a framed newspaper article that outlined the merits of leaving public restrooms clean – complete with a section that detailed the average per user costs for business owners.  By the time we had all taken care of our business, the man behind the counter had found what we has looking for.

He pointed to the spot on the map and rattled off some directions.  We smiled and thanked him before heading back toward the car.  We quickly decided that a trip to the balloon landing spot would have to wait until next time.  After all, we had more of Old 16 to see.

Creepy Thrift Store

Although the vast majority of Old 16 lies just north of I-90, there’s a 10 mile stretch that runs south of the Interstate.  Since we were heading west, the end of that stretch was in a town called Kimball.

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The “restaurant end” of the store and a broad sampling of the merchandise

As we approached the I-90 overpass I was immediately distracted by a vintage neon sign that read Kimball Liquor.

When I got out to shoot that sign I realized that something even more interesting was sitting right next door:  an old travel-stop-turned-creepy-thrift-store complete with several abandoned cars parked in its front lot.  A weathered wooden façade held up two different scaffolding signs identifying where the restaurant and store portions of the business used to be.  As we peered through the windows (the store wasn’t open at the time) of what used to be the restaurant, all you saw were racks of clothes and other thrift items.

Out front sat random items like children’s bikes, strollers, a swing set and some old washing machines – none of which were in particularly good shape.  Overall, it was just a fascinating place to stumble across and I can only imagine the kind of character that runs such a place… I imagine them to be the type of person that I could do an entire post about.

“The Oil”

It was around this time when I first noticed my wife’s family refers to paved roads as “the oil” – presumably a reference to the oil-based asphalt used in modern road construction.  In this part of the country there is no guarantee that your route won’t include a gravel or dirt road.  If fact, they live on a gravel road so their route always does.  I think you get it, but just in case, here’s one example of how it was used during our trip: “Take a left here to get back to the oil.”  I love this phrase and will be using every chance I get from this point forward.

GAS House

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The GAS House, by far my favorite shot from this trip

As we headed toward the town of Pukwana, my FIL was convinced that we were close to a placed called Bijou Hills.  We were not – we were nowhere close.  Hard to blame him though, he was trying to recall the location of a rural South Dakota ghost town that he hadn’t been to in decades.  So after I was able to locate the real Bijou Hills (thanks Google Maps!) we headed south towards that location.  But as we were leaving Pukwana I had my FIL pull the car over so I could shoot an abandoned house that has caught my attention on the way in.  It was situated close to the road and was the only building around.  The word “GAS” was painted in large letter on one side but hadn’t been touched-up in many years.  After taking my exterior shots, we took a peek inside the house and could see that there was not too much left inside.  Based on the smell and the abundance of poop – specifically in the kitchen sink, strangely enough – it was clear that several birds and who-knows-what-else had taken residence there.  If you’ve ever been inside an abandoned grain elevator (and really, who hasn’t) you know the smell I’m talking about.

Bijou Hills

So back to this mysterious Bijou Hills place.  As my FIL’s story goes, Bijou Hills was a once thriving community whose residents slowly migrated to nearby Chamberlain over the course of several years, eventually leaving it to be a ghost town.  As soon as he said the words “ghost town” I pictured tumbleweed blowing down a dirt road between two rows of rotting wood storefronts with saloon doors.

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This building was once the local store in Bijou Hills

I told him we had to find it.  After heading south on Highway 50 for about 10 minutes, we turned off the oil (see what I did there?) and followed a dirt road that split a couple of famer’s fields.  We took another left onto another dirt road and soon thereafter we saw it… it was a vineyard.  Huh?  So much for my abandoned Hollywood ghost town with rows of saloon doors.  It turns out that there are a few folks that still live in Bijou Hills, but probably less than 10.  Aside from the small vineyard, there were maybe 3 other houses still standing.  We took a right onto a road that looped back through the other buildings, stopping at an old aluminum-sided building.

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South Dakota’s mysterious Bijou Hills

I would soon find out that this building used to be the local store, as my FIL started to recall memories of stopping there as a young man after getting off work for the day.  At the time he was working construction… back-breaking labor that primarily involved erecting pole barns for local farmers.  Stepping foot in this store back then marked the end of a long day for him and his work pals.  I could see the memories flooding through his head as we circled the building.  After all, this was his first time stepping foot here in over 40 years.  Pretty cool stuff.

Rural Wayposts

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One of the wayposts along Hwy 50 in Ola, SD

As we headed back north on Highway 50 toward Old 16 there were dirt roads that presented themselves from the west about every mile or so.  I noticed that at each of these seemingly desolate intersections stood a wooden structure consisting of two posts with several wooden boards running in-between.  On each board were some handwritten words and a number.  Upon closer inspection, they each listed a family surname, a direction and a number.  It was suddenly clear that these were essentially community directories that told you how many miles from each waypost you were from whomever you were trying to find.  I’ve travelled a lot of back roads and this was my first time noticing anything like this.  I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the simplicity, innocence and effectiveness of these guides.  Such a stark contrast when compared to the technology dependent, privacy-concerned world most of us live in these days.

Best Quote of the Day

There are a handful of great vintage neon signs as you drive through the town of Chamberlain.  The one that got me the most excited was the Bel Aire Motel sign.

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Changing bulbs was not what he wanted to be doing that day

The only problem was that it was being serviced that afternoon… figures.  There was a man on a ladder replacing some of the light bulbs around the marquee and I knew I’d have to get creative in order to keep him out of my shots.  I approached the sign with my camera and when I got close enough yelled up “How’s it going?”  His answer came back without missing a beat “Not worth a crap!”.  Hilarious.  He actually turned out to be a nice guy, he just wasn’t where he wanted to be on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  Hard to blame him.  Sure did make for a laugh-worthy moment, though.

Al’s Oasis

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Al’s Oasis in all its kitschy glory

We had decided from the outset that we wanted to make it as far as a place called Al’s Oasis.  That is where we finally stopped for a late lunch before heading back.  I had been there once before… the first time I ever met my wife’s parents we took a trip out to the Black Hills and stopped there to eat.  The restaurant is famous for their bison burgers, and for good reason – they are mighty tasty.  That’s what I had the first time and what I couldn’t resist ordering again on this trip.  I am a sucker for anything that a restaurant promotes as its claim to fame.  I just think its part of the whole experience.  If it ever comes up in conversation, the only thing anyone will ask you is if you tried the (fill in the blank).  You don’t want to tell them that you opted for the salad bar, right?  Anyway, the whole complex is more or less a tourist trap.  Picture a long shopping center that has been made to look like an old west town – kinda like the ghost town image I put in your head earlier but before it turned into a ghost town.  Really kitschy and completely worth the stop.

–  —  –

What a day that turned out to be.  We saw a lot and learned even more.  If you ever find yourself in the area and want to experience some of these things for yourself, check out this map I created to pinpoint the places mentioned above.

 

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