In the summer of 1874, the first expedition of American settlers entered the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, the heart of the Lakota homeland. The expedition was led by Colonel George Armstrong Custer. A prospector with the expedition discovered trace quantities of gold in French Creek in July, and launched a gold rush. Within months, hundreds of prospectors flooded into the Black Hills, and set up illegal mining camps to pan for gold. The Gordon Party from Sioux City, Iowa, built a stockade and wintered into the Spring of 1875. The city of Custer was staked out in 1875. But when gold was discovered in Deadwood Gulch, 56 miles to the north, the gold boom busted, and Custer city became a near ghost town overnight.
Read more about the history of Custer County on the county’s website, here.
Arts & Culture
Custer is home to the internationally known Native American artist, Arthur Amiotte. However, he is not the only artist to make his home in the community. Custer’s only commercial gallery, A Walk in the Woods, sells local as well as regional art. It showcases the work of Custer artists Dave Lampert, Robert Fischer, Peg Freitag, and Ronald Reiner, as well as stained glass artist Lynne Kline and photographer Paul Horsted.
Other Custer artists participate in the annual Custer Stampede Buffalo Art Auction each fall. Among them are Isa Kirk, Bonnie Hartpence and Nancy Cambier. Craft artists include potter Pat Lindemann, and wood lathe artist Jerry Green. Artists of the Black Hills, a regional artists marketing cooperative, also includes Custer County artists.
Music is an important part of the cultural climate of the Custer County community, with free concerts throughout the summer. Local groups include the French Creek Folk and the Pleasant Valley Sunday band.
Throughout the summer, the historic Black Hills Playhouse, located in Custer State Park, offers professional performances of the highest caliber. Popular musicals and delightful comedies attract audiences from a wide area. Every summer the Playhouse attracts theatre professionals, faculty and students from all over the country. With a national reputation for excellence, the Playhouse consistently produces a season of high quality entertainment with something for everyone.
The most well-known Custer County writer is Linda Hasselstrom, an award-winning poet and essayist from Hermosa. Also living in and around Custer, Lilah Pengra is recognized locally for her historical works and J.E. Terrall has published a variety of books.
The Custer Area Arts Council serves all of Custer County with four initiatives: Custer Stampede Buffalo Art Auction, Custer Characters Community Theater, Student Art Programming and the Theater Seat Plaque Program.
Museums, Libraries & Archives
1881 Courthouse Museum: This museum in downtown Custer provides a dynamic snapshot of pioneer life in the region and a host of activities to invite community members and visitors into a living relationship with history. The historic structure contain items of historical value arranged thematically, including exhibits on General George Custer expedition, mining, forestry and family life.
Crazy Horse Memorial: Located on U.S. Highway 16 north of Custer, Crazy Horse Memorial was planned by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Native American Chief Henry Standing Bear in 1947. The memorial depicts Lakota leader Crazy Horse astride a horse carved into a mountain – the first blast came the following year and the project continues today. The Memorial’s Mission is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians.
Indian Museum of North America: Located at the Crazy Horse Memorial site, the Indian Museum of North America houses “an extraordinary collection of art and artifacts reflecting the diverse histories and cultures of the American Indian people." The museum has a unique design that strives to educate and enlighten present and future generations about American Indian life. Special collections in the museum include the tribal flag collection; the Robert Big Elk exhibit, featuring the work of a Sioux potter whose work is in numerous museum collections, including the Smithsonian; the Standing Soldier – Keith exhibit, featuring artwork by these two men which depicts Native American life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and the Dancey collection, a collection of photographs showing Native American life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
- Badger Clark Historical Site:Also known as the Badger Hole, this site was the residence of South Dakota’s first poet laureate, Badger Clark. Built on Legion Lake, the cabin was his residence until his death in 1957. The cabin, south of U.S. Highway 16A on Badger Clark Road, remains the same as it was when he lived there. It is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
- Peter Norbeck & Wildlife Station Visitor Centers: The Peter Norbeck Visitor Center is located on U.S. Highway 16A and named for the former governor who was instrumental in establishing the park. Both the Peter Norbeck and Wildlife Station Visitor Centers were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp and exhibit displays and information about the Black Hills, including life-sized animal mounts. The Wildlife Station Visitor Center is located on the Wildlife Loop and was constructed as the buffalo herdsman’s house.
- Four Mile Old West Town: Located four miles west of Custer, Four Mile Old West Town is a living history town where people in costume greet visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Visitors can not only walk through a variety of buildings and look at historical photos and memorabilia, but also listen to recorded messages of how people lived in Four Mile during its heyday.
- Jewel Cave National Monument: Located twelve miles west of Custer on U.S. Highway 19, Jewel Cave National Monument serves to preserve the third longest cave system in the United States and allows visitors to explore the caverns. Its visitors’ center offers displays and cave tours are available all year.
- National Museum of Woodcarving: Two miles west of Custer, the National Museum of Woodcarving offers displays by nationally recognized woodcarvers, scenes created by a Disneyland animator, a wooden nickel theater and a carving studio. Classes are also offered through the museum.
The Custer County Library is located on Crook Street ½ block west of U.S. Highway 16 in Custer. The conveniently located library offers books, movies, sound recordings and reference materials. In addition, the library has computers for use by the public, including one exclusively for genealogical research, and regularly displays works by local artists and photographers. Services through the South Dakota State Library, such as South Dakota Titles to Go, which enables patrons to download eBooks and audiobooks, are also available. A branch library is also available in Hermosa for patrons who live in the eastern portion of the county.
The Custer County Historical Society was created in 1961 and has the goal of “collecting, preserving, exhibiting and publishing material for the study of history, particularly the history of Custer County and the adjacent Black Hills area”. The original Custer County Courthouse, now serving as the 1881 Courthouse Museum, is a project of the Custer County Historical Society.
Historical Photos & Documents Online
A number of historic photographs of Custer County are available from the Prints and Photographs Department, Library of Congress including Depression-era works by Arthur Rothstein and an 1890 image of Custer City by John Grabill. To see Grabil's photograph of Custer City in 1890, click here.
Postcards: A Rapid City Collection: Postcards: A Rapid City Collection contains postcards depicting various South Dakota landscapes, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the Needles, Spearfish Canyon, and other natural wonders. The collection also includes postcards and photographs of the 1934 Stratobowl balloon, gondola, and crew.
Western South Dakota Photographs: A Rapid City Collection: Western South Dakota Photographs: A Rapid City Collection documents the diverse industries, monuments, people, and events of the region throughout the twentieth century. The images also capture the aftermath of the Rapid City Flood of 1972.
To explore other Black Hills area anthologies on the Black Hills Knowledge Network, see our Digital Archives page.
A 2010 survey of religious denominations in the United States provides a limited profile of religious affiliation in Custer County. While the largest group of those surveyed (5,432) did not list a specific institution or denomination, 1,671 residents were identified with Mainline Protestant churches, 368 were listed as belonging to Catholic congregations and 735 were affiliated with Evangelical Protestant churches. We have created a chart of this data.
For a list of Custer County Community Churches along with contact information and service times and locations, please see the attachment below.
Custer County is the home of a weekly newspaper that is published every Wednesday. The Custer County Chronicle was established in Custer City, Dakota Territory, September 11, 1880. The Chronicle is the official newspaper for the City of Custer; the towns of Buffalo Gap, Fairburn, Hermosa, and Pringle; the County of Custer; and the Custer and Elk Mountain School Districts. A yearly subscription to the Chronicle is $44 for Black Hills residents and $54 elsewhere.