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93 Year Old Photographer's Historic Photos: "Along the Way"

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Published: Jun. 6, 2017 at 10:27 PM MDT
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Rapid City photographer has captured some of the most significant pictures in Great Plains history.

Now 93 years old, he says he bought his first camera at age 10, meaning he's been taking pictures since the 1930's.

But the photos he took on just one day may define his career...as we go Along the Way, here in Rapid City.

Photography is to Bill Grothe, a bit like oxygen is to the rest of us. He's seen more than 8 decades through the lens of a camera. Born in 1923, one of 13 kids, raised here in Rapid City. He started as an apprentice for a local photographer at age 12.

Professional Photographer Bill Groethe says: "This is the first picture I took of Mount Rushmore in 1937 in the Spring. That's from the top of Washington of Lincoln."

He was an apprentice, up there to help one of the professionals, but brought his own camera and captured a shot most of us can only imagine. Truth be told, he rather likes the production side of photography, and that's what he did in the Army Air Corps during World War 2. Based in Italy he says he worked on the ground in Photo Reconnaisance. When he got home to Rapid City, he was a busy guy.

Bill Groethe says, "I shot a lot of stuff for AP and UP and for Life Magazine when there was nobody out here."

But in 83 years of photography, one day, on September 2nd, 1948, Bill Groethe took a set of pictures that have spread from here in the Hills, across America, and around the globe. It was a reunion 72 years in the making: the last survivors of the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn, gathered at Custer State Park.

Groethe says, "In this photograph are 8 of the 9 in the group, now the picture below that's showing is Black Elk. He was a prominent Medicine Man. But at the time he was blind and he didn't want to leave his tent."

Some may not know about the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

"It was the 25th of June 1876 and these Sioux Members of 5 different tribes were on their way to Canada trying to escape going to the reservation," he says.

At this reunion 72 years later, the last living survivors had grown old.

Photographer Bill Groethe says, "Ranging in age from 85 to 90 when I photographed them. They were just young kids 13 to 20 during the battle."

Many Native Americans survived, but ultimately the reservation system took hold. Fast forward to the reunion.

"They knew me, they even called me "the kid" cause I was taking their picture alot," says Groethe.

He says he'd been taking pictures of them at dances and other events for a couple years. And Groethe is believed to be the only still photographer at the reunion, along with a moving picture photographer from Fox Movietone.

Groethe says, "The photographs are the only ones of this event and they're a piece of history. They are in the Smithsonian. They're in museums all over Europe and Asia."

Of the 9 final survivors:

"Seven of them are Lakota from Pine Ridge, 2 of them are sons of Sitting Bull from the Standing Rock Reservation, they're Hunk-papa Sioux,"he says.

Their names were Black Elk, Comes Again, Iron Hawk, High Eagle, John Sitting Bull, Dewey Beard whose real Indian name is Iron Hail, Little Soldier, Pemmican, and Little Warrior. And their pictures were preserved just in the nick of time

Groethe says, "3 years later at the 75th anniversary only 3 were alive."

He says the last to die was Dewey Beard, in 1955, at the age of 96. But through these pictures, taken on a single day, by a man who's been shooting photographs for more than 80 years-- these men are remembered.

Groethe says , "I haven't done anything more important than this, no, uh uh."

Groethe says they try to get the pictures into as many schools as possible.

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