25th Anniversary Fort Hays Chuckwagon: Along the Way

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN)- 25 years ago, a local family, converted an open field on the outskirts of Rapid City, into what is now a local landmark.
Fort Hays Chuckwagon is inspired by equal parts history, Hollywood, and homesteading.

To see what they are now is one thing. To see how they got here is another.

On a hot August day, a wooden fence, along a dusty gravel road, leads us past a stack of worn wheels and barbwire, where a peek through an old wagon, reveals Fort Hays Chuckwagon.

"Both my great grandparents homesteaded here, and so consequently I have roots here that go clear back to the 1881," says Fort Hays Chuckwagon owner Herman Jones.

So what does that have to do with this? Turns out: everything. Because more than 100 years later, Hollywood came seaching for sites to shoot a movie that would end up winning 7 Academy Awards: "Dances with Wolves".

"The starting was very simple. The movie set was built on my Great Grandfather's homestead in Caputa, South Dakota. A cousin of mine acually leased the property to Kevin Costner and they built Fort Hays as a western movie set," the 74 year old owner says.

And once the Hollywood folks left, time passed, one thing led to another, which ultimately led to here, the site of the Fort Hays Chuckwagon just off Highway 16.

"We bought the movie set, took it completely apart, moved it piece by piece to this property which was my kid's horse pasture," he says.

They built a Chuckwagon building at the same time to serve meals, including a theater, for live entertainment.
Pictures in a photo album show the movie site, the moving buildings, and memories of building a future.

In June of 1993 they opened their doors. Now Herman says they draw 70-thousand visitors a year here. Some folks like the 99 cent all you can eat Cowboy Pancakes that fill the whole tin plate. For a quarter, a player piano can take you back in time, playing nostalgic old music.

But he says the Chuckwagon supper and Western Music Show is their mainstay, sometimes drawing as many as 400 to 500 people a night.

"And that goes on every night at 6:30. Roast beef, baked potatoes, baked beans, baking powder biscuits, spice cake, apple sauce, lemonade, coffee, everybody gets the same meal," Herman says.

On the walls, there is picture after picture of the making of the movie.

"This is the actual Headquarters building where Lt. John J. Dunbar went in to get his orders from that crazy Major and he was setting here at the desk and he walked up and stood about where I'm standing here," Herman explains as he stands in front of the desk.

"And the supply house building was a facade. It had 3 sides on it. The back wasn't even in the building," he says.

But the supply house facade, has since been completed. It's now the gift shop.

"Our long range dream is to have a working, functional, turn of the century, town square where they can see the way things might have been done 100 years ago," Herman says.

"Well we're actually making a binder twine rope out of hemp, now this nothing more than bailer twine," Jones says as demonstrates the process for making a rope.

Not all their old west town buildings are from the movie.

"This building is the original post office from Provo, South Dakota which was an ammunition dump near the town of Edgemont, South Dakota," he tells us while standing inside by PO Boxes.

"This was my children's horse barn and we actually moved it from one edge of the property back to this area and this is where we put together the tin plates that we make," he tells us while standing inside his kids old horse barn.

A picture of Fort Hays in August of 1993, shows a partially completed Chuckwagon building. "Open" a sign reads on the left side. On right side is a sign that reads "Cowboy Pancakes".
Now, celebrating their 25th anniversary, the building has been finished for a long time.
Herman says he paid 65-thousand dollars for those 5 buildings from the movie site.

"I told my 6 kids when we bought the movie set and started moving it, it was gonna be good for 5 years. 5 years from now nobody's gonna remember the movie and we just spent an awful lot of money moving some buildings that nobody's gonna remember. And I was as wrong as I could be. People are still coming here. "

But sometimes being wrong is the best thing to be, lasting not only 5 years but 25...and still growing.

There were multiple movie sites for Dances with Wolves. The Fort Hays location in Caputa was a major site, but not the only one.

They also offer packages which include a bus tour through the hills, along with breakfast, dinner, and the music show.

As a seasonal business, they're open 7 days a week, 153 days a year.

If you've met someone cool "Along the Way" please call us or e-mail me at stevel@blackhillsfox.com to let me know.