Monday, November 2, 2009

George S. Moses the Black Hills Storyteller and Historian

George S. Moses was a long time Deadwood resident for the greater part of his 83 year life. He was the oldest son of immigrant parents and came to Deadwood when he was in the 4th grade. During his youth he had to work to earn enough money for food. Life was hard in those days. His parents most of the time lived apart from each other. Each day for him and them was a fight for survival. From those humble beginnings and survival George developed a keen sense of life and events around him. For over 50 years he worked as self employed tailor. He was self made man and graduated from the American Gentlemen School of Tailors in New York City as a cutter and clothing designer. Working his early Deadwood days for Sidney Jacobs, owner of the Hub Clothing Store was the biggest professional learning experience in his life. In later years, Moses had a prominent tailor shop off the lobby of the Franklin Hotel. A lot of history evolved in that hotel lobby in those days. George was there to observe and took part in the happenings. His interest in Deadwood and Black Hills history fueled his memory as a storyteller.

After the peak years of Deadwood being a thriving Black Hills business center, in the 1940s and 1950s, the infrastructure businesses began to fade and move away. The railroads abandoned Deadwood, gambling was outlawed and prostitution was closed down. Since 1876 Deadwood had survived many devastating fires, mass illnesses, frequent major floods, and many decades of fire resistant rebuilding methods on high ground. But the business heart of Deadwood nearly quit beating. In 1976, the entire city of Deadwood was designated as a national historic landmark. Then in 1986, legalized gambling paved the way for Deadwood to reinvent itself with a facade of gambling business in the remodeled historic buildings and town area. By this time, almost all Deadwood infrastructure business was gone. George Moses and wife Nathelle moved to Rapid City. In January of 2002, the Homestake Gold Mine finally shut down after more than 125 years of continuous operation.

In Rapid City, George started a new career as a history contributor for the Rapid City Journal and his column was well received. In the spirit of Camille Yuill of the Deadwood Pioneer Times (27 Lee Street), they both lived and reported history from their view point. George was a storyteller and Camille was a brilliant reporter of her contemporary times. Camille was my boss when I had my paper route down Lee Street, up Sherman Street, Charles Street and above. She would sit at her roll top desk and stare off into space when she was writing. Camille was a smoker and the cigarette would dangle on her meaty lips. She could develop the longest ash, one can imagine, before it would fall down her ample front. I liked it best when she did not notice me because she often chewed on my ass about some delivery complaint or that I owed money for my papers. In those days, the customer was always right and a telephone call always rated a 10 (I believe that these phone calls were part of how Camille kept a finger on the pulse of Deadwood). However, for me it was hard to find many people home when I tried to collect. My first delivery was to Old John Sohn, the shoe cobbler. His Lee Street cabin shop was leaning on the PT building. It never changed and it looked original old Deadwood inside and out and he never had a telephone in the shop. He was always quiet but friendly. He once told me he made boots for Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. All he would say was they were not nice people and the old days were bad times. I should have accurately recorded what little he told me, but I didn't. Looking back, his timeline is questionable but who cares . . . he was a real Deadwood pioneer and lived in its founding days. John was always prompt to pay me. I had a credit account at Fish and Hunter so I could get candy and energy to deliver papers (I think Bill Mays the grocery manager had my slips in his personal drawer, who else would give candy credit to a 12 year old?). It seemed like all the route money I could ever collect just covered my papers from Camille and the F&H candy account. Luckily, I didn't eat much candy as Swander's Bakery was across the street from F&H and my dad managed the old bakery at 97 Sherman Street. A sack of fresh hot doughnuts eaten sitting on the RR tracks behind the bakery would supply plenty of juice to go quite a ways!

Anyway, back to George Moses. Shortly before he died in 1995 in an accident while fishing alone on Rapid Creek, my wife wrote him about his recollection of her dad "Lefty". Hank "Lefty" Person was hired by Carlton Gorder to move to Deadwood in the 1930s to play semi-profession baseball and be a First National Bank teller. George wrote a very nice letter response on his old upright typewriter. He was very cordial in his memory of Lefty and what a kind man he was. Lefty was a pitcher on the 1934 Deadwood Champion Baseball Team. George noted in that year Babe Ruth traveled to Deadwood for gambling and sport... However, Babe's "sport" did include an exhibition game with the Deadwood Champs. Baseball was very serious in those days and involved a lot of local support/emotions and betting was usually fierce. In those otherwise quiet days in Deadwood, Lefty would walk to the bank from his Charles Street house next to Beshara's Super Market. He would stop downtown at Ewing's Barber Shop on the corner of Main Street and Lee Street. Each day Lefty would get a shave and a shoe shine. Hair cuts were as needed. The morning scene at Ewing's offered the news of the day and sports reports. Deadwood was a close knit business town and everyone knew each other and were friends. Before he died, Bill Ewing had a high quality image print made for my wife of the 1934 Champs showing her dad Lefty and 12 other prominent Deadwood names like Clancy, Rakestraw, Slott, Gorum, Stevens, Arnold, Goodrich, Kniss, Ewing, Theilan, Pierson, and Whalen.

Personally, I knew George well as I was a bell hop at the Franklin Hotel for a few years. George's shop was next to check-in counter so he could see everything that happened. He would stand outside his shop door and wait for Charley Klein to make his morning appearance. Charley had a Fleetwood Cadillac and always aimed at the loading area in front of the Franklin. He would leave the back end sticking into the Main Street traffic lane. Charley was a gruff exterior person and owned to the local movie chain. He had a Black Hills Amusement Company office in the hotel so nobody messed with his parking or the car. He would briskly come thru the lobby revolving door and look for George. Immediately he would shake his fist in George's direction and yell " . . . George, you S O B !!" and George would yell something back as they would meet face to face and go have coffee in hotel cafe. They would come later as nothing ever happened . . . it was just their expressive way of being close friends. It was funny to watch people's shocked faces at all the yelling. It didn't happen all the time but frequently.

In 1991 the Rapid City Journal published the George Moses book "Those Good Old Days in the Black Hills". The book is a compiled set of George's unique memories that include Deadwood's characters and history. It is out of print now but a few copies remain available for those readers interested in George Moses’ storytelling and neat recalled history. See and George was in the US Navy and is buried at the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis SD.

Note in George's image, the sign over his head is from his original tailor shop in the Franklin Hotel.
Select image for larger view

George S.Moses 1912 - 1995


Lilah Morton Pengra said...

As always, Dick, I enjoyed reading your tribute to yet another deserving person. I especially like that you weave memories, anecdotes and a big splash of local history together into one blog. Thanks for your work. Lilah

marge said...

Great story with lots of names I'd forgotten. marge

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