Law-enforcement officers for the Black Hills National Forest continue to investigate a case of vandalism to a historic ranch on U.S. Forest Service property near Custer.
But even as that investigation continues, Forest Service personnel and volunteers for the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust are making plans to repair the damage and continue to make upgrades to the Meeker Ranch.
The trust is offering a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who kicked in door and broke antique windows in the ranch house. They are also keeping up the work they hope will preserve the Meeker Ranch for generations to come.
Trust President Skip Tillisch of Hill City says the ranch is an essential piece of southern Black Hills history. Each time he hikes in the mile round trip from a gate just a few miles east of Custer, he stops admires the ranch, with its rough-wood buildings situated above a meadow at the edge of the forest with granite mountains looming beyond.
But on the day he hiked in with friends and found the vandalism earlier this summer, he was heartsick at the sight.
"It really about broke my heart," Tillisch said. "We've got so many hours, so many people that have contributed to this, to see it damaged and take a giant step backwards from where we were before was very disappointing."
The damaged ranch house was constructed in the late 1880s by cattle rancher Frank Meeker. The vandals did thousands of dollars in damage to a structure that U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Michael Engelhart calls a vital and unusual piece of history.
"It's important to the Forest Service because in the southern Black Hills there aren't too many standing historic structures like this, especially the compound like these where you get an example of every single type of structure that would be needed to run an operation like this," Engelhart says.
The ranch survived changes in private ownership and, along with surrounding meadows and forest land, was purchased by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which then sold it to the Black Hills National Forest. But Forest Service officials were initially inclined to demolish the buildings, because they were falling apart and raised safety issues on public land.
That's when Tillisch and noted Black Hills artist Jon Crane stepped in. They convinced the Forest Service to become their partner in preserving the ranch, an agreement that gets stronger with time. Officials on the forest are now fully committed to preserving the ranch, Crane said.
"When I first learned about it, the forest supervisor at the time had planned to burn it down that winter," Crane said. "And at that time there wasn't much push for historic preservation. And they look at it as amore of a liability. And when I heard about that, I thought 'You know, this is such a great place, it really needs to be around for the next few generations to see it."
Crane loves the Meeker Ranch on an intensely personal level, and it shows in his brush strokes.
"Well, I guess I must really like this place, because over the years I've painted it seven times," he says. "And there's still more painting in the works."
You don't have to be an artist to love the place, however. Anyone walking in from the gate can appreciate its value, Crane says.
"As you come into this valley, you see the ranch across the valley and,I often talk about it as walking back 100 years in time," Crane said. "It's just this beautiful ranch, a number of buildings here, some of them been around since the 1880s, and it's just like it was a hundred years ago."
The ranch is an easy one-mile, round-trip walk in from the gate. It's never busy at the ranch, but Engelhart says it has visitors daily, by people from near and far.
"The historic Meeker ranch is is just one of the favorite places for local residents as well as people coming in from all over the country," Engelhart said. "It's close to Custer. It lends itself to a nice walk through the forest, undisturbed by traffic, really gets you away from the highways, but yet it's only about a four or five minutes drive from Custer."
This year that accessibility came with a price that bewilders Tillisch.
"I don't understand vandalism. I mean, if you need something and you steal something, maybe there's a reason for that, if you need food, but just destroy something that is historical and has value, has meaning, is hard for me to comprehend," Tillisch said.
Now the ranch house must be protected from the weather until permanent repairs can be made. Tillisch and others expect to be out there covering thing sometime in September, in preparation for the winter to come.
"We don't have the time or the money to actually fix the windows at this time but we're going to cover all the windows and the doors with Lexan so hopefully we'll be able to protect the structure from weather damage," Tillisch said.
The trust has already helped with new roofing to prevent leaks and preserve key ranch buildings. And it has raised $25,000 for essential foundation work next year aimed at extending the life of the structure. Vandals won't stop such projects.
"We're not quitting, no matter what happens," Tillisch said.