120 Years, 1,000 Words… The Legacy of John C. H. Grabill


Between 1887 and 1892, photographer John C. H. Grabill submitted a total of 188 photographs to the Library of Congress to be copyrighted.

In doing so, he left for future generations of one of the most complete collections of historical photographs of the real Old West. His photographs speak messages of Natives’ sorrows, settlers’ hardships, miners’ disappointments, and the life of the people in the Black Hills of South Dakota. But his photographs also depict the pioneer spirit that won the West; that seemingly overnight turned tiny towns into thriving, bustling communities. Grabill’s photographs are so well-known that Googling “cowboy” brings up the most iconic of them all: a solemn-looking man sitting atop a mare while another horse grazes in the pasture behind him. The photo is aptly named “The Cow Boy,” and likely influenced the depiction of cowboys in dime novels, comic books, movies, and television series.

The pictures show the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, as well as the lives of cattle herders on the open plains, the homesteads, landmarks, mountain ranges, and cascading rivers that one thinks of when they think of the Old West. They also depict the towns the sprang up – some literally – due to the movement of settlers into Dakota Territory.

Case in point: Hot Springs.

In doing research for “Once Upon a Time in Hot Springs,” Skeeter Bite Productions found quickly that the Library of Congress’ Grabill collection was THE go-to source (online, anyway) for pictures of Hot Springs’ formative years.

According to what we discovered, Grabill was primarily based out of Deadwood, SD, but also had a photography studio in Hot Springs, and he documented how the city grew over the course of two years. Between 1889 and 1891, the town went from a small settlement marked by only a few sparse homesteads, with only Fred Evans’ Minnekahta Hotel standing as a premonition of what was to come, into a sizeable small town with numerous hotels and spas taking advantage of the natural warm water springs there.

Photo at top: Hot Springs, 1889. Photo above: Hot Springs, 1891. Both images are in the Public Domain.

The Grabill collection also features Hot Springs-related photos showing Fred Evan’s Minnekahta Hotel during its prime, the then-new Evans Plunge (both inside and out,) the Veteran’s Home, and Fall River Falls – all landmarks nearly instantly recognizable to both those who live in Hot Springs and those who come to visit. This connection is important for the characters in “Once Upon a Time in Hot Springs,” and for those who read the book: it grounds the story in reality. When you read of the locations the characters visit as described in the book, you know that these places were real once, long ago and some of them are still there today.

These photographs provide a window into the past; we hope that “Once Upon a Time In Hot Springs” does the same, and that you feel the same passion for this unique town that these pioneers, John Grabill – and the people depicted in most of his photos, had when you read the book.

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