In 1876 Augustus Hilton left Maine for the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. Lured west by the Black Hills gold rush, he soon decided that his fortunes lay instead with ranching, and by 1880 had established a homestead just over the South Dakota border into Wyoming. This is where my grandfather was born in 1881, and where my father and his brothers grew up.
My grandparents lost the ranch in 1926--a long hard winter forced them to buy feed, contagious abortion took the new calves, they were deeply in debt. They moved to Sundance, the county seat, where my grandfather put together odd jobs and my grandmother raised chickens and, for a while, taught in the local high school.
The last Hilton left Crook County almost 50 years ago. But my generation was raised on stories of Shepherd Canyon and the ranch. We knew the names of the percherons who plowed the fields and took my father and his brothers to school through the snow drifts and the name of the dog that twice walked the 18 miles between Sundance and the ranch. We admired the sharp edges on the arrowheads my grandfather had brought with him when he moved in with us and hefted the black hammerhead, worn smooth where it would have been tied to a handle. We knew about the dam my uncle Butler built on the creek and about the waterwheel that, 60 years later, my father recreated in nothern Michigan for my youngest brother. We heard the poems my father memorized in the one room school in Beulah where his mother taught. We knew that no sunshine warmed your bones like Wyoming sunshine, no other gardens were as productive, no one ever again worked so hard for so little reward.
We drove back from time to time, six of us in the red Hudson, camping in the canvas tent with the big redwood pole in the middle. We'd spend a night in Sundance and take the hike around the Devil's Tower before continuing west to Yellowstone and my uncle's home in Pinedale. After I grew up and married, I too brought my husband and later my children back to hike around Devil's Tower before pushing on to Yellowstone and points west.
In 1999 my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. We crossed our fingers and planned one last trip to Wyoming. By the next June he had recovered enough from his radiation that he could make the long drive from Michigan. Although we met up in Billings, and spent most of our time in Yellowstone, those of us who had driven out returned through Sundance. For the first time I stood with my father in Shepherd Canyon and walked with him to see if there was any water in the creek.
My father died on December 27, 2002. In June 2004 we came to Wyoming to scatter his ashes in the places he loved and to dedicate three new tombstones in the Sundance cemetery in memory of Butler, Ernest, and Earl Hilton, the three boys of Shepherd Canyon. The Crook County letterbox series commemorates our visit and celebrates this beautiful corner of the Black Hills.
Technical notes: With the exception of the Bear Lodge box, all are within 10 minutes of I-90. None of the boxes have stamp pads or pens, so be sure you have your own. All are orphans. If maintenance is needed and you can do it, please do.
Box 1: Beulah School Letterbox
Beulah is the first Wyoming exit on I-90 coming from the east. The Beulah School is now a community center, but there's no mistaking the white one-room schoolhouse as you come down the hill into town. In 1914 there were more than 110 one-room schools in Crook County. My grandmother taught at at least three of them--Red Canyon, Hewes, and Beulah, and later at the consolidated high school in Sundance. My father and his brothers often moved with their mother to wherever she was teaching, returning to the ranch on weekends and during the summer.
The Beulah school looks much as it did when my grandmother taught there more than 80 years ago. The letterbox is not hard to find. There was no indoor plumbing at the school in 1920, and it appears from the nice two-hole facility in back that there's none now. Check along the fence behind that facility and think where you'd hid if you were a letterbox. That's it. The incredible stamp was done by Rachel. This box was last found in the summer of 2008 . It needs a new logbook; if you could provide one that would be fabulous.
Box 2: Sand Creek Letterbox Although my father was born on the ranch in Shepherd Canyon, his birth certificate gives his birthplace as Beulah, Wyoming. He later attended the one-room school in Beulah, where his mother was teaching at the time. They lived in town those months, in a house that backed up on Sand Creek. In his memoirs, my father writes " We lived in one of the better houses in town, formerly the home of the town's grocer. It came to us after he shot his wife, her lover, and himself. It had a rosewood player piano, and hop vines growing on the porch. No flush toilet, but the usual outhouse. Water came from Sandcreek. We had a little pier jutting out into the creek, and dipped the bucket from there. We fished from the pier too, and up and down the creek. From the opening of trout season till the end of school, and from the beginning of school to end of trout season, Mother bought no meat. We substituted trout, caught with worms and cane poles."
Today, Sand Creek is Wyoming's most productive trout stream, yielding more trout per mile than any other body of water in the state. If you've brought your fishing gear with you, there are public access spots along the dirt road that travels south from the Beulah exit on I-90.
Beulah is just off the first I-90 exit as you drive west from South Dakota. The road crosses Sand Creek in the middle of downtown Beulah. If you stand on the bridge and look upstream, you will probably be able to see trout, using their fins to stay in the deep hole on the left. If you scramble down the bank on the northwest corner of the bridge you will find the letterbox, placed on one of the girders underneath the bridge. Stamp by Paula. This box has now been reliably reported missing.
Box 3: Vore Buffalo Jump
Like every small town in America, Beulah, Wyoming, population 33, is hoping to find something that will allow it to survive. In my father's time it was the flour mill and the general store. But the flour mill is long gone (along with the wheat farmers--it's all ranch land now) and there's a Wal-Mart just over the border in Spearfish. Beulah gets some spillover from the Sturgis motorcycle rally, but is otherwise a pretty quiet place. Someday they hope to have a museum at the site of the Gore Buffalo Jump, a spot used by Native Americans for hundreds of years to slaughter the wild buffalo that provided them, literally, with their food, shelter, and clothing. For now, though, the jump, which is actually visible from I-90, is a sinkhole with a path leading down and a signboard at the top.
The Vore Buffalo jump is two miles east of the Alladin exit on I-90. If you're driving through on 90, you can exit at either Alladin or Beulah and follow the service road along 90 to the next exit, passing the Jump on the way.
Stand between the two buffalo that mark the entrance to the jump. With your back to the sign, walk 80 steps north along an old ranch road. Looking to your right, you will see something that makes you wonder what range they were talking about in that song, "Home, home on the range." The letterbox has found its home there.
This letterbox was reliably reported missing June 2008
Like all of our Wyoming boxes, you'll need your own pen and your own stamp pad. This box is an orphan. If there is any maintenance required, and you can do it, we'd be grateful. Special thanks to Mjane for her recent rehab of this box, which she found in June 2006