A good part of August was spent in Rapid City dealing with an air conditioner repair on the motor home – more on that later.
While in the area we saw:
Jewel Cave National Monument: This is the second longest cave in the world with 150 miles of explored passageways. It amazes us that there are still passages being discovered. Reservations are strongly recommended during this time of the year. We booked the Scenic Tour, a moderately strenuous tour involving 723 stairs (we took their word for it) covering about a half mile within the cave system. The sparkling calcite crystals found on the walls and ceiling look like jewels, thus the cave’s name.
Wind Cave National Park: Unlike most caves that feature stalactites and stalagmites, this cave’s prominent feature is box-work - thin honeycomb-shaped structures that protrude from the walls and ceilings. After more than 100 years of exploration, barometric wind studies indicate that only approximately five percent of the total cave has been discovered – amazing!
Wind Cave got its name back in 1881 when two brothers heard a loud whistling noise coming from a small hole in the ground, the cave’s only natural opening. The wind supposedly blew with such force it blew one of the brother’s hat off.
Interesting factoid: You wonder how someone managed to bring in all that concrete on the paths. Men carried the cement in half-tire tubes, tied off, draped around their necks – each half-tube holding approximately 80# of cement – just imagine how many trips these men had to make to provide enough cement for all the concrete pathways. Who thinks of the work involved as one wanders around looking at the cave’s features!
Both of these caves are in the Black Hills of South Dakota and cave explorers believe that someday, they will find a connection between the two caves - how cool is that!
Mammoth Site: This was a really neat spot to visit. A huge sinkhole with the remains of woolly mammoths, camels, wolves and giant bears, trapped over 26,000 years ago, is now an ongoing archaeological site. To protect the fossils, a 36,000 square foot building has been built over the sinkhole. A guided tour tells you about the highlights. You are then free to walk around and talk to the archaeologists. A lab in a lower level allows you to watch how the fossils are cleaned and preserved.
Mt. Rushmore Black Hills Gold: “To be considered Black Hills Gold an item must be designed in a traditional tri-gold, grape leaf motif and be manufactured in the Black Hills of South Dakota.” It is from the alloying process that it gets the pink color - a mixture of gold and copper, and the green tint from a mixture of gold and nickel. There are six Black Hills gold jewelry manufacturers in Rapid City that create the world’s inventory of this unusual looking gold.
We visited one of the jewelry stores where beautiful pieces made from Black Hills gold are crafted. We took the factory tour, watching how jewelry is made here - from casting in a wax-mold to the finished product. Located within the factory are special sinks with which the employees wash their hands. These sinks are special because they are equipped with filters to catch any residual gold dust, which is then reclaimed and recycled. Several years ago, the facility increased its floor space from 8,000 square feet to 12,000 square feet. The carpet was replaced, with the original carpet being sent to a refinery. Enough gold was extracted from this carpet to pay for the new carpet – that’s a lot of dust! By the way, yes, Lucille did get a pair of Black Hills gold earrings.
Sioux Pottery: Another factory tour in Rapid City – this of local Lakota Native Americans crafting beautiful pieces of pottery.
South Dakota Air and Space Museum: Located just outside the Ellsworth Air Force Base gate – several aircraft on display on the grounds and some indoors – lots of history here. And the best part – it’s free!
Black Hills Mining Museum: A day trip to Lead, the mile-high city where gold mining had been the #1 industry. Actual mine tours are no longer done but they have re-created the Homestake Gold Mine in their basement – the guided tour was quite interesting.
Among the many things we learned, double stake drilling is done by two men, each one pulling a six hour shift, with one hammering and the other holding the drill. When candles were used for lighting, the drill holder would slide his hand up and cover the top of the drill with his thumb. The one manning the hammer would see the reflection of the candle on the thumbnail and aim for that. The holder is supposed to pull his hand back in time – it probably wouldn’t take too many bruised thumbs to get the timing right.
When the mines were first started, stopes were built – deep shafts lined by wood limbs. When the mine was no longer operational, miners would move on to the next mine. Over time, these stopes would collapse. In the meantime, the town had been built on top of them so some of the buildings sank as much as eight feet and had to be moved, some brick by brick. Since the stopes have now been filled in with cement, the town’s buildings are staying put.
Mount Moriah Cemetery: This historic cemetery is in Deadwood and among its inhabitants are Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Because our stay in Rapid City had been delayed because of the air conditioner problem, we got to experience the annual Sturgis bike rally. There were lots of motorcycles, lots of different styles – and attendance was down about 20% this year. The annual Dakota Thunder Rally starts on base, with a limit of 200 bikers. Once on base, they proceed to where the B-One bomber is parked, have some photo ops there, then they leave en masse for a scenic drive to Sturgis. They all left together about two hours later, passing right by the campground - it actually sounded like rolling thunder.
Back to the a/c issue: Our front air conditioning unit quit running, and this is late summer in Rapid City – not a good time to be without air. While we were waiting for the fix, we used the rear a/c unit with a small fan pulling the cool air up into the living area, kept the shades drawn and awning out when possible – we stayed comfortable enough.
The motor home is still under warranty so Newmar sent us out to the Newmar dealer (Mid-States RV) in nearby Blackhawk where they diagnosed the unit as bad, ordering us a new one. We decided to upgrade to the 15,000 BTU model rather than the 13,500, something we would have done had we ordered the motor home new and from the factory. The replacement unit wasn’t going to arrive for several more days so we paid for more nights at the famcamp.
Fast forward a few days – the new a/c unit is in. The techs worked on getting it installed for hours but no luck. We were sent home until they could contact Dometic (the manufacturer), which they did the next day. We pulled up the jacks and headed back out to Blackhawk – the fix didn’t work – darn. Turns out that Dometic had upgraded the controller for their a/c units last fall but they weren’t backwards-compatible with any of the older model a/c units. There were none of the newer models to be found anywhere and it would take weeks for Dometic to build us one. Larry called Newmar and they agreed to pull one off of their production line and send it out – back to Ellsworth and signing up for a longer stay. (Having to pull up the jacks and move our home so often the past few days reinforced how much easier it is to do that with a motor home than our fifth wheel.) Success – this one worked! We took advantage of Mid-States’ complimentary RV sites and stayed overnight after the installation, heading out early the next morning for our next destination, Sioux Falls.
En route, we stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell. This unique roadside attraction is definitely worth a stop. Every year, a different theme is picked for the murals. The existing murals are stripped down and the new theme is slowly built, cob by cob, husk by husk. It was originally started in 1892 as the Corn Belt Exposition to showcase the area’s fertility. The current building is the third Corn Palace and is a multi-use facility, complete with gymnasium/arena/stage for regional events. John Phillip Sousa was hired to put on two performances but when he saw the large crowd that showed up for such a small town, he scheduled a third performance. Mitchell put in a bid to be the state capital, competing against Pierre (pronounced Peer) – they’d hoped with Sousa’s being there and having the Corn Palace, they’d get that designation but they didn’t.
Just before we got to Sioux Falls, a rock dinged the motor home windshield – ack! Not again, not after we had the windshield replaced a few months ago! We called Safelite immediately, got their earliest appointment for the following Monday and got instructions on how to keep the ding from turning into a crack until Monday. The technician showed up early Monday and soon had the ding filled in – hardly noticeable.
Sioux Falls is South Dakota’s largest city. With approximately 160,000 citizens, it was an easy enough town to find our way around. We walked the paved paths at Falls Park in town. The Big Sioux River flows through the middle of Sioux Falls, with an average of 7,400 gallons of water dropping 100 feet over the course of the falls. Several industries were located here, taking advantage of the power of the water flow. We saw the remains of the Queen Bee Mill. In 1878, Richard Pettigrew decided the city needed its own mill so that farmers could get their wheat processed locally rather than pay shipping to Minnesota or Wisconsin. Completed in 1881, the state-of-the-art mill cost nearly $500,000 and could process 1,500 bushels a day. Sadly, it closed two years later – not enough water flow and a short supply of wheat. Good intentions tho….
The Falls Overlook Café is located in what used to be the Sioux Falls Light and Power Company, which housed three 500-kilowatt hydroelectric generators, using the dam and millrace from the Queen Bee Mill. Abandoned in 1974, it was donated to the city.
The Visitor Information Center is located at Falls Park. We climbed to the top of this five-story building for a beautiful 360 degree view of the park and city.
On to Pender, Nebraska and the Blue Ox factory - Blue Ox is actually owned by Automatic Equipment, which has been in business for eighty-six years. Automatic Equipment started off making farm equipment but they are now known more by the Blue Ox name, the majority of their business now. Blue Ox makes tow bars, all shapes and sizes, but we also saw a lot of farm equipment being made. The tow bars for military vehicles are huge!
Blue Ox has complimentary RV sites for their customers. Our main reason for coming here was to inspect our tow bar and its accessories. After the tow bar was inspected, they determined that because it was over twelve years old and worn in some areas it was time for a replacement. Our free RV site ending up costing us about $350/night but we’ve got a tow bar now that will last us for years.
Taking advantage of the paved level site there, Larry decided to inspect underneath the motor home and was shocked to see that one of the brackets on the propane tank was never permanently welded. It had been tack welded but that was all, and had broken loose, with the tank drooping down on one side – a very unsafe and potentially lethal situation. He called Newmar first thing the next morning, having emailed pictures of the offending bracket. Within a few minutes, they had made an appointment for the next morning at ABC Bus Repair in Faribault, Minnesota. Larry secured the tank with strong straps and then we quickly got packed up. 300 miles later, we parked in ABC’s lot for the night. The next morning, they started on us promptly – we were back on the road by 10:30 – that is great service!
Our last destination for the month was Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Thanks to Nick Russell’s RVers Guide to Fairgrounds Camping (scroll down Nick’s web page to see info on this), we located the fairgrounds in Chippewa Falls with RV parking – Fair Hills RV Park. Wotta find – it was like a private campground – we were the only ones there for our week’s stay, other than the family-run circus that parked across the fairgrounds.
Mason Shoes got their start in Chippewa Falls but are no longer making the shoes here. A huge outlet store carrying thousands of shoes, hiking boots and other footwear is in the old factory building. We each found a pair of comfortable walking shoes and using the coupon we picked up at the Visitor Center, we got a good deal.
Leinenkugel’s Brewery was just a few minutes’ walk from the fairgrounds. We signed up for the free factory tour, getting four tickets each to sample their beer varieties. Neither one of us is a beer fan but Lucille liked the Berry Weiss – probably because it didn’t taste like beer.
This family brewery has been around for five generations and is still run by family - Jake and John Leinenkugel. The tour introduces you to the history of the company. As you walk through the brewery, you see various stages of the different varieties of beer being processed. Interesting stuff. As they state, taking the tour is like visiting a museum but you get to taste the exhibits!
One of our tour guides had been a school principal for over thirty years. One day, one of his former students ran into him as the guide was tending the beer bar. Who would have thought when he taught this student years ago that they’d meet again while he was tending a bar! Working at the brewery has its perks – each employee is allowed two cases of beer a month.
The circus pulled into the fairgrounds in the wee hours of the morning. What a surprise to get up and see them parked in a circle – they sure were quiet getting there. It was interesting to watch them set up. We attended the second performance one evening and talked to one of the employees. They typically get only about four or five hours of sleep a night when they are going to be in that location for just one night, otherwise they get to sleep a little longer. The owners provide them with two meals a day with their lodging either beds in the horse trailers or in their own RVs. Certainly a different type of full-timing lifestyle than ours.
This was a low budget operation. Besides helping to set up and break down the tents, each employee wore several hats. The emcee was also a clown, a juggler and is known as Johnny Rocket, the youngest performer ever to be shot out of a cannon. He’s a mere fifteen years old and has been performing as Johnny Rocket since he was 12. We also learned they make their money not from the admission but from the incidentals sold – the food, the rides, petting zoo, and the myriad of items sold during the performance – balloons, popcorn, candy, clown noses and more.
When you think of Wisconsin, you think of cheese curds. One day we went off in search of cheese curds, driving to nearby Cadott to the Yellowstone Cheese Company as well as Heerde’s Cheese House. We bought a package of curds at each place, freezing one of the packages. We heard they are just as good as fresh when you thaw them out – just nuke them a few seconds to get the ‘squeak’ back.
Irvine Park is a city park within walking distance of the fairgrounds. Besides having walking trails and picnic facilities, they are known for their zoo, recently renovated in 2008. Most impressive were the white tiger and the white buffalo (a first for us.) We’d hoped to see the bears cavorting but their areas were being cleaned so they were confined to inside pens not visible to the public.
The fairgrounds’ caretaker, Joe, was extremely helpful and welcoming. On the way back from the zoo, we met him and his wife Lisa at the fairgrounds. He opened up the fairgrounds office to show us pictures of fairs held there in the early 1920s. They used to get a huge turnout, thousands of participants each day, but attendance has dwindled down considerably since then. That may have been the only entertainment back then.
Coming up in September: we meet up with friends Dave and Mary to start our Lake Superior Circle Tour. Afterwards, we stop at friend Linda’s home in Bloomingdale, Michigan to visit with her and help with the family apple orchard business. October will find us in Nappanee, Indiana for warranty work done on the motor home; Huntsville, Alabama for some annual medical appointments and visits with friends there. November will find us back in Rincon, Georgia for a few days at Camp Carr before we proceed to Brunswick, Georgia to help with Habitat for Humanity for the months of November and December.