April 01, 1991 12:00 PM

Agnes Ayres’s plumbing supply and hardware store on Main Street is a family business that dates back to the freewheeling frontier era and the founding of Deadwood, S.Dak., 115 years ago. Ayres Hardware has survived booms and busts, Indian wars, gamblers, gunslingers, whores, pickpockets and even the hippie and drug invasions that began in the ’60s. Now Agnes vows it will survive the latest threat, even though this one—legalized gambling—could also make her a very rich woman if she’d sell her store so that it can be converted into a gambling hall.

Open-and-aboveboard gambling came to Deadwood in November 1989, and since then, “we’ve gone through 40 years of change,” says Mayor Bruce Oberlander, who was forced to increase the police force from five to eight to handle the 85 percent increase in drunken behavior, disorderly conduct and such other violations as traffic offenses. “Before, I only had to worry about streetlights and barking dogs,” says the Mayor.

But Ayres, whose family is woven into the very fabric of Deadwood’s history, is hardly surprised. Her forebears were tending the store on Aug. 2, 1876, when a ruckus broke out just down the street: Wild Bill Hickok, the gunslinger, card shark. Army scout and occasional lawman, was shot in the back of the head by a drifter, Jack “Broken Nose” McCall. Wild Bill was playing poker at the time, holding aces and eights—thereafter known as the Dead Man’s Hand. He was buried in the Mount Moriah Cemetery, overlooking Deadwood Gulch; his pal Calamity Jane was later buried next to him. Broken Nose was hanged.

A few months later, a prospector named Potato Creek Johnny found a seven-ounce gold nugget in a creek outside town, setting off the Black Hills gold rush of 1877, an event that did little to promote tranquillity in Deadwood. In that very year, Johnny Slaughter, a popular stage driver for the Cheyenne-Deadwood line was murdered during a robbery. “Johnny complied with the strange man’s request to stop, when a lead horse shied and one of the dastardly villains blasted him in the chest, knocking him out of his boots,” the local newspaper reported at the time. And so it went through the years. As late as 1980 Deadwood’s largest employers were five brothels, employing up to 40 women—more during deer-hunting season.

The town’s latest incarnation began in 1986 when a group of locals, led by Bill Walsh, a former Catholic priest who now owns the historic Franklin Hotel on Main Street, formed a committee called Dead-wood You Bet. Although it took a couple of years, the Deadwood You Bet people persuaded the South Dakota legislature to amend the state constitution in 1989 to allow limited gambling in Deadwood. Slot machines, $5-limit poker and blackjack would be permitted, roulette, craps and keno would not.

Deadwood has just 1,815 residents, so the 14 licensed gambling halls that were in place by November 1989 seemed at the time like more than enough. Mayor Oberlander and the Deadwood You Bet people estimated that a modest $2 million a year would be wagered, bringing the city treasury about $100,000 in new revenue to repair old sewers and water lines and restore historic buildings.

They were wrong.

Today, there are 1,909 slot machines, 27 poker tables and 83 blackjack tables in Deadwood—more than one for every man, woman and child in town. There are 84 gaming halls, including the town’s only Laundromat (two slot machines) and gas station (also two slots). And in the past 18 months, an astounding $334.9 million has been wagered. Some 600,000 people swarmed into Deadwood last year, according to the Mayor, most of them lured by the gambling. “It grew a lot quicker than we thought,’ ” chuckles the Mayor, whose part-time municipal post pays him just $325 a month. “We only wanted to fix a few potholes.”

Now, while the rest of the country wallows in deficits, the Deadwood town treasury is dealing with a $6.2 million windfall for the 1990 calendar year. Since the entire local budget is only $1.4 million annually, the town is doing a lot of historical restoration and water and sewer repairs.

Since gambling was legalized, $35 million in private capital has been invested along Main Street, 15 new restaurants have opened, and property values have soared. A downtown clothing store was sold in 1988 for $54,000 and resold a few months later for $1 million. Goldberg’s grocery, which had operated continuously since 1876, was reborn as Goldberg’s Gaming Hall and Soda Fountain. No more groceries. (“Thank God we still have the Safeway,” says Agnes Ayres.) Recently, Kevin Costner and his brother, Dan, who lives in nearby Lead, paid $1 million for an old building at 677 Main Street, which will open May 1 as the Midnight Star gambling hall.

“I’d like to have a couple more cops,” says Police Chief Les Bradley Sr., a Marine Corps veteran who has lived in Deadwood all his life. “We sure didn’t anticipate this. We figured it’d be a couple of back-room poker games, like in the old days.”

The old days weren’t so long ago in Deadwood. In the early ’80s there were five saloons, one of which offered illegal back-room gambling, as well as the whorehouses, which kept Deadwood recession-proof. But drugs were also involved, and the DEA arrived to shut down the brothels.

Before gambling arrived, Deadwood averaged about one murder a year. That’s still the case. Last year’s homicide happened at the Windflower gaming hall in September after Air Force Sgt. Daniel Cobb, 33, had a bad night at the poker table. He approached Windflower owner Stephen Sperlin after hours and, wielding a 20-gauge shotgun, requested his $1,137 back. Request denied. “I don’t know how [the gun] went off,” Cobb said later, when he pleaded guilty to murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

Though some Deadwood residents have been startled by the extent of the boom, few are shocked that it happened. “People like to gamble.” shrugs Joe Massa, coowner of the Prairie Edge and Buffalo Skull gaming halls and the Eagle Bar, where Broken Nose drilled Wild Bill. “We’re isolated out here, and, except for Nevada and Atlantic City, we’re the only show in the country. We offer an alternative to the glitzy crap in Las Vegas. This is a laid-back and less tense environment.”

He’s right. Deadwood has no feathery show girls, no dancing bears, no Wayne Newton, no limos, no fur coats, no lounge lizards in shiny suits and no pinkie rings. In fact, there are no shows at all.

“We get most of our people from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming and eastern Colorado,” says Bill Walsh, whose Franklin Hotel now has a gaming hall. “Gambling’s gonna be here a long time, because it’s always been here and people are comfortable with it.”

“You could always find gambling in Deadwood,” says Milton “Pop” Collins, 92, who ran the Grab It and Growl Restaurant (now Lilly’s Smoke-Free Gambling Hall) on Main Street for 35 years until he sold it in 1966. “It was mostly cards a few years ago. They’d keep the roulette wheels upstairs and pay off the police. I liked it better when it was illegal and we did it anyway.” About the only real change Pop sees is that people aren’t so friendly anymore—too many strangers prowling the street. “This was the only town in the Black Hills where women could walk the streets and not be bothered,” he claims. “Now I think they get bothered sometimes.”

But even now, organized crime, hustling and cheating are minor concerns because of the $5 poker and blackjack limit. And Stan Triplett, director of enforcement for the South Dakota Gaming Commission, is a force to be reckoned with in Deadwood. Triplett, a former deputy sheriff, has four agents and two auditors who have uncovered three cases of poker cheating, a serious crime in these parts. Just ask Gerald Derby, 21, who got caught palming cards in the Buffalo Saloon last fall. “He pleaded guilty to a felony and was given three years in prison,” says Triplett. “We won’t tolerate it.”

And Agnes Ayres? With a NOT FOR SALE note taped to the door to ward off real estate hustlers who keep pestering her to sell out, she now runs the only store on Main Street that hasn’t got a piece of the action. It’s not so much that Agnes is opposed to gambling; she just wishes it hadn’t taken over Main Street.

Besides, through all the good times and bad, upstanding members of the Ayres family have sold pipe in Deadwood, and Agnes is not about to stop now. She is 73 years old, has outlived two husbands and walks with a cane. “Oh, Jesus help me,” she says, “money isn’t everything. What am I gonna do, sit in a rocker and count it? Not me, buster,” she vows, “I’m staying.”

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