In 1876, the town of Deadwood was riddled with gunslingers and gamblers: men in search of their fortune in gold. James Butler Hickok was no different. Building his reputation throughout the Wild West as “Wild Bill,” Hickok’s life was short, but explosive.
Wild Bill’s last day was a typical day at the saloon, gambling in hopes of winning a bit of gold. Bursting in through revolving doors was Jack McCall, dust flying, pistol in hand, aimed to kill. Wild Bill, his back to the door, didn’t ever see who his killer was. Wild Bill fell forward, his hand exposed. That hand became known as “Dead Man’s Hand” in poker ever since, carrying on Wild Bill’s spirit with the hand of two Aces and two Eights.
The city of Deadwood commemorates the man who, with his death, coined the term “Dead Man’s Hand” in their annual summer festival: Wild Bill Days. June 16 and 17, Deadwood will be the destination for thousands of people across the Midwest.
Over the span of two full days, Wild Bill Days will host a completely free-of-charge festival with events going on all day to cater toward the interests of a wide variety of ages.
Events such as the DockDog competition — which is the spirited pursuit to find the top retriever dog in town — is a family favorite. Each furry family member competes in a race to retrieve a prize and bring it back to their owners.
Down the street, you can find the Northern Hills Prospectors in the street giving free lessons on gold panning and sluicing for potential riches in gold.
Amanda Kille, the marketing and sponsorship director of the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce, anticipates this year will be the biggest turnout with concert headliners The Oak Ridge Boys and Sawyer Brown (The Oak Ridge Boys performing Friday, June 16, Sawyer Brown taking the stage Saturday, June 17).
Another highly anticipated event is the return of the National Championships for the Cowboy Fastdraw. For those unfamiliar with the Cowboy Fastdraw, Kille describes the event as being reminiscent of a Wild West gunfight.
“It’s a speed game, sort of like drag racing for shooters. They’re all lined up with their .45 revolvers, in front of a super-sensitive target connected to a light system that counts down. When it goes off, everybody draws and shoots. They have to hit the target for anything to count. So not only are they whipping the gun out of their holster, they have to be accurate, too. They have to hit the target for it to register the time,” said Kille. “Currently, the world record holder for men and women is less than half a second between the thing telling you it’s time to draw and them hitting the target with the wax bullet.”
The events mentioned are just a few out of dozens happening throughout the day. To check out the full schedule, visit deadwood.com.
The celebration of Wild Bill Days is a nod to the memory of Wild Bill’s Wild West, but it also celebrates Deadwood’s history and the roots of South Dakota’s culture.
“We’re a town that’s focused on history, but on the other hand, we’re a town that’s been fostering the progression of South Dakota since 1876. It was a lawless time, but it was also on the forefront of development over the years, as it was the first place in South Dakota to get electricity,” said Kille.
Bear witness to one of South Dakota’s National Historic Landmarks and discover the wild spirit of Wild Bill that still lives.
“We consistently deliver on that good time with our events. That’s why they keep growing,” noted Kille. “It’s because people keep coming back. Once we get somebody to come once, they realize how special it is, and they come back and bring friends.”
Wild Bill Days
Historic Main Street and Days of ’76 Event Complex