Bringing Deadwood’s History to Life

Local teachers with a shared passion for history create children’s books to teach kids about the legends of Deadwood.

Robin Carmody and Betty Jo Huff first realized they had a shared passion for history when working together at First Step Childcare Center in Deadwood. Their mutual love of the subject sparked a desire to educate young children about the legends in their own backyard, laying the foundation for their well-received trilogy of children’s books on Deadwood history.

A native of Dorchester, Massachusetts, Robin attended a history conference in the Black Hills in 1994 and was so enamored with the area she continued to visit almost every year. When she landed an opportunity to become the Director of Education and Support for First Step a few years ago, she jumped at the chance to move here permanently. Betty Jo has lived in South Dakota quite a few years longer, moving to the area while in high school. She was working as the lead Preschool Teacher at First Step when the pair met.

The idea to team up for a children’s book isn’t as unlikely as it may appear at first. Robin’s short story, Wild Bill Played in My Backyard, was published in Deadwood Magazine years ago. And Betty Jo’s frequent attendance at writing conferences in the Black Hills helped fuel a strong interest in storytelling. The challenge was in sanitizing larger-than-life mythic figures like Wild Bill and Calamity Jane, whose exploits weren’t exactly G-rated, for a preschool audience. When asked how they set out to accomplish this, Betty Jo replied with a laugh, “Very carefully!”

There’s more to the books than just history. Robin and Betty Jo worked very hard to incorporate geography and included aspects of friendship, caring, and modeling good behavior. For those interested in learning more, each book includes a list of suggestions for further reading.

It’s one thing to write a children’s book, but Robin and Betty Jo knew that kids would want colorful illustrations, as well. That’s where Alex Portal came in. A reporter for the Black Hills Pioneer, Alex is also a talented illustrator and photographer, and provided the drawings for the stories. It became a true collaborative effort, and Alex was a very important part of the puzzle. All three would bounce ideas off one another while trying to get the stories just right.

“Alex is remarkable,” Robin said. “He added different effects based on his own perspective. Sometimes he would look at the text and go, ‘what I think you’re trying to say is…,’ and he was right on the money!”

“We’re a team,” Betty Jo added. “We did it together! If we were stuck, we’d meet for coffee and mull things over.”

Each book stars Jeremiah, a young boy who is visiting his Nana in Deadwood for the summer. In a nod to the military families stationed in the Black Hills, Jeremiah’s mother is deployed in the Army and hoping to end up stationed closer to South Dakota.

The first title in the series, But Nana…Who Was Wild Bill?, follows Jeremiah and his Nana on a stroll through Deadwood. Along the way, he learns important facts about the famous frontiersman. The story is perfectly suitable for young children, and the illustrations are superimposed over photos of Deadwood landmarks, including the Whitewood Creek Trail and Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Book #2 is called But Nana…What is Friendship Tower? Jeremiah and his Nana set out on a hike to the Friendship Tower on Mt. Roosevelt and learns that Seth Bullock built the tower as a monument to his close friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Photos of the Mickelson Trail, Friendship Tower, and Bear Butte make a picturesque backdrop for the illustrations. It was originally planned as the third release in the series, but they moved it up to coincide with the 100th anniversary celebration of the Friendship Tower on July 6, 2019.

The third book, titled But Nana…Who Was Seth Bullock?, focuses on the famous lawman and first sheriff of Deadwood. It should be released in time for the upcoming South Dakota Festival of Books.

With so much Deadwood history to draw upon, there is plenty of potential for additional books in the series. They already have three more on the back burner, but want to see how the first trilogy endures before committing to more titles. So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Kids love the books,” Betty Jo said. “They love the cartoons with real pictures, and being able to identify locations they are familiar with.”

Children aren’t the only ones drawn to the books. They are written to appeal to people who don’t necessarily live in Deadwood—and that includes adults. The books are displayed prominently in the Deadwood Welcome Center, where they attract plenty of attention from visitors of all ages.

“A woman came in and wanted to buy the books because her grandchildren call her Nana,” Robin said. “Another little girl from back east wanted the books because she calls her grandma Nana!”

Next up for the trio? They’ll be presenting at the 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books in Rapid City on October 3 and Deadwood on October 5. Both presentations take place at each city’s respective public libraries. In addition, they have various book signing events lined up for this fall, and have donated signed copies to community libraries where they currently live. They are also scheduling book readings at locations throughout the area. It’s all a bit of a whirlwind, but one they are happy to be involved in.

“Finally seeing our finished product has been very gratifying,” Robin said. “I call the whole process ‘the two-and-a-half-year pregnancy!’”