The Adams Museum tells the story of Wild Bill.
The summer of 1876 was fateful for the Black Hills mining camp of Deadwood (in Dakota Territory, now South Dakota). Its most famous visitor, gambler and former lawman Wild Bill Hickok, was shot in the back of the head by John (“Jack”) McCall while playing poker in the Number 10 Saloon.
But a year later, in 1877, a lesser-known arrival would further etch young Deadwood’s most turbulent days into the American memory— William Emery Adams. Soon after arriving in the rowdy camp, W.E. Adams learned that selling to the miners and prospectors was more profitable than joining their hardworking fraternity. In 1879 he opened the Adams Brothers Banner Grocery at 629 Main St. with his brother James.
On December 22, 1880, W.E. married Alice Mae Burnham; they had two daughters, Lucile and Helen. W.E. was devoted to his family and the community of Deadwood, serving six terms as mayor and staying active in community affairs. He was fortunate to see his daughters survive the childhood diseases that claimed so many children in his day. Daughter Lucile married in 1909, but died in Detroit in 1912. Helen Adams married in 1915, and her mother, Alice, traveled to Pasadena, Calif., for the birth of Helen’s first child in 1925. Alice had been suffering from cancer for some time, and she died on June 6 of that year. Devastated by the loss of her mother, Helen went into labor and died the following day. Her newborn died soon afterward and was literally buried in her mother’s arms. Instead of celebrating the new addition to his family, W.E. Adams lost his entire family in just two horrific days.
Rather then allowing the tragedy to destroy him, W.E. remarried in 1927, and in 1930 he built the Adams Museum to honor two of his great loves—his lost family and his fellow Deadwood pioneers. W.E. died in 1934.
Old W.E. would be proud of the professional staff at the Adams Museum and House. The museum, at 54 Sherman St., is the oldest history museum in the Black Hills. The house, an elegant Victorian mansion built in 1892 and purchased by W.E. and Alice Adams for $8,500 in 1920, is at 22 Van Buren Ave. A nonprofit organization, the Adams Museum & House Inc., oversees the operation.
“Every person employed at the Adams Museum is passionate about the history of the Black Hills—from the formation of the region millions of years ago to the present,” says director Mary Kopco, who once inventoried antiques at the White House. “Our staff includes professionals who are trained as historians, curators, artists, archivists, educators and archaeologists. The staff revels in telling the stories of the legendary characters and the thousands of people who transformed the former gold mining camp into a thriving city. Our curators enjoy the challenge of collecting, caring for and making accessible to the public thousands of artifacts that are engaging, inspiring and informative.”
Thanks to Wild Bill Hickok, W.E. Adams and the fine staff of the Adams Museum, the story of Deadwood will long be remembered and celebrated across the nation.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.