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Famous 2-headed calf.
Famous 2-headed calf.

Adams Museum: Deadwood's Attic

Field review by the editors.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Bullet-riddled and booze-fueled, Deadwood was a notorious Wild West outpost filled with miners, money, and madams. Those who survived had children and grandchildren who were proud of their frontier lineage, and felt that the rootin'-tootin' mayhem would enthrall tourists as well. So in 1930 they convinced William Emery Adams, who'd made his Deadwood fortune in groceries (rather than gold), to spend his own money and build a museum to preserve Deadwood's past.

Adams Museum: Deadwood's Attic.
Adams Museum: Deadwood's Attic

According to Adams Museum exhibit designer Darrel Nelson, the museum satisfied two needs: it gave Deadwood respectability, and it gave Deadwood's citizens a place to unload all of the guns and weird relics they'd saved over the years.

Most museums circa 1930 aspired to the standards of the cultural elite. Not the Adams Museum, which saw nothing wrong in displaying a two-headed calf, a pair of stuffed dogs, and the gold nugget of Potato Creek Johnny, whose discovery earned him a place of honor in Deadwood's annual parade, where he pushed a wheelbarrow and danced.

"People don't come looking for lectures," said Darrel, of the Adams Museum. "They come looking for fun stuff."

Darrel's job is to put that fun into some kind of order, an enjoyable and challenging task for a place nicknamed "Deadwood's Attic." For example, a small showcase of the death relics of Wild Bill Hickok contains the gun he possibly carried, cards from the deck he was probably gambling with when he was shot dead, and his lucky pocket rock, which surprisingly everyone accepts as genuine. The museum also shelters Deadwood's former outdoor sculpture of Wild Bill, reduced by 20th century souvenir-hunters to an armless, headless torso. "I composed it like a Greek statue," said Darrel of its staging. "It's as close as we're getting to a Venus de Milo."

Potato Creek Johnny's gold nugget.
Potato Creek Johnny's gold nugget.

Darrel said that the Wild Bill Hickok Death Chair exhibited in the nearby No. 10 Saloon can't be real because it, and nearly everything else in Deadwood, burned to cinders in a fire in 1879. Infernos frequently swept the town, destroying much of Deadwood's history but also contributing to its citizens compulsion to save whatever they could, leading to the Adams Museum's eclectic collection. "They kinda built the town in the wrong place," said Darrel, "but that's where the gold was."

The museum's "Risky Business" exhibit features artifacts from Deadwood's long association with prostitution, opium, whiskey, gunrunning, and mindless violence. The meat cleaver of Isadore Cavanaugh, for example. "He got drunk, threw the cleaver at his landlady's dog, and hit the landlady," said Darrel. Next to the cleaver is the noose with which Cavanaugh was hanged. "It just didn't turn out well for him at all."

Hand-carved nudist colony of Robert Poe.
Hand-carved nudist colony of Robert Poe.

Also in the display is a lavender door with multiple locks and a peephole from one of Deadwood's bordellos, and a pair of high-heels donated by a Deadwood prostitute. These are genuine relics, but Darrel said that many of the items purportedly from Deadwood's last brothel -- closed in 1980 -- were in fact junk purchased at flea markets by the madam, who then sold them to collectors for a considerable profit. "She knew how to make money."

Wild Bill Hickok death cards?
Wild Bill Hickok death cards?

One of the museum's most popular exhibits, now part of its "Black Hills Believe it or Not" display, is the hand-carved nudist colony of Robert Poe. He was a disabled former gold miner who spent his time whittling miniature naked people dancing, shooting arrows, and playing volleyball. 96 of the 97 figures are women. The one man is assumed to be Robert Poe. "It's somewhere between voyeurism and summer camp," said Darrel, who arranged the figures as best he could, since Poe left no instructions. "I also put a mirror in there so that people could see themselves looking at a bunch of tiny naked women."

Darrel added, "With very few exceptions, when people who visited the museum as children come back as adults they'll ask, 'Do you still have the two-headed calf?' and 'Do you still have the nudist colony?'"

Deadwood celebrates its own mythology in the museum's "Legends" exhibit, which features people who would be outcasts anywhere else. "Calamity Jane was largely a drunk," said Darrel. "Wild Bill was a bad gambler. Poker Alice smoked cigars. She shot a guy. To be a Legend in Deadwood you've got to shoot people, I guess." Darrel added that William Emery Adams should be a Legend, but won't be because he doesn't fit the town's romantic model.

"I've never seen a ghost in the Adams Museum," said Darrel, "but sometimes, if I'm here at night, I'll say, 'Mr. Adams, I hope you like what we're doing!' I want to be on good terms with him."

Also see: Deadwood Round-Up

Adams Museum: Deadwood's Attic

54 Sherman St., Deadwood, SD
Downtown. From US Hwy 14 ALT/Pioneer Way turn east at the stoplight onto US Hwy 85 S./Deadwood St. Drive one block. You'll see the museum on the right.
Summer daily 9-5, off-season T-Sa 10-4 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Donation $5.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Wild Bill's Stone HeadWild Bill's Stone Head, Deadwood, SD - < 1 mi.
Neon Tootsie the CoyoteNeon Tootsie the Coyote, Deadwood, SD - < 1 mi.
Deadwood: Signs and WondersDeadwood: Signs and Wonders, Deadwood, SD - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Statue #29: Warren Harding, Rapid City, SD - 32 mi.

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