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Lead's Historic Properties | Dakota Life

Nestled in the Black Hills is the historic mining town of Lead. It’s a town where history thrives thanks to the efforts of volunteers, homeowners and city employees who see value in preserving Lead’s historic properties.

Its past brought Tom Johnson and Gail Parfrey to Lead.

“Lead has this interesting history, this mining town history that really goes back to the heart and soul of what the mining industry was all about. It was that edge of history that brought us to Lead,” Tom Johnson said.

And together with their contractor, David Gackle, this couple from Buffalo, South Dakota joined a growing number of Lead residents working to preserve this mining town’s history by restoring its historic properties.

In their case the Cotton House.

“This house is pretty iconic as far as the history of Lead. James Cotton went on to own much of the businesses on Main Street. He was an important figure in the history of Lead. His presence in this town whether people understand it or not has made Lead what it has been and what it is now,” Johnson said.

Like most of Lead’s historical figures, James Cotton started out working for the Homestake Mining Company. Then the emigrant from Cornwall, England, left the mine to open a whiskey distillery.

The elegant Georgian Victorian brick home he built on the corner of Julius and Paul was a testament to his success.

But time was not kind to the Cotton House.

“When we first looked at this house, it was for sale, we looked it over and just decided it was too much of a money pit and said, “no,’” Johnson said.

So, what does a money pit look like? A brick shell - missing floors and bare stud walls. The 120-year-old Cotton House was in such a state of disrepair that the owner deeded it to the City of Lead. And Tom and Gail eventually bought the home at public auction for $30,000.

Then, they painstakingly restored the property to its original grandeur. Fortunately, the original doors, and some ornately carved decorative woodwork did remain. For the rest of the home, they had to find craftsmen to recreate replicas of the historic moldings.They invested more than $100,000 in custom windows alone.

Today, the Cotton House is grand once again. And its neighbor, the Stewart House, has also been restored.

Preserving Lead’s historic properties is a positive trend explained City of Lead Building Inspector Dennis Schumacher.

“When I first started at Lead, I had 30 houses on my list that needed to go away and be condemned. Now, I have none because people are coming in buying these houses and fixing them up,” Schumacher said.

The Homestake Mine that built Lead is also the reason many of its historic properties have disappeared.

Dennis Schumacher.

“In the early 1900s subsidence of the mine, underground tunnels and open stopes were caving in. They had to move a lot of the town, a lot of the buildings disappeared then. And in 1982 when open cut expanded we lost a city park and quite a few buildings and residents then too,”

When the open-cut mine expanded, 130 historic properties were lost, explained Phyllis Fleming. The tour guide and former member of the Lead Historic Preservation Commission said preserving Lead’s historic properties is truly a citizen-led effort.

“Residents have to decide that. The residents have to come forward and say, “we want to save this. We want to make this work.” That’s the only way the Opera house has gotten to the point it is, because I remember going in there with Jacque Fuller and Lea Mathis, when we were on historic preservation, and it was a burnt-out shell. A former mayor at that time wanted to tear it down and make it either a parking lot or low-income apartments. And we just looked at each other and said, “Wow, no, this needs to be saved,” Fleming said.

Sherri Meidinger is the Chair of the Lead Historic Preservation Commission. This volunteer board of citizens provide education, resources, and encouragement to historic property owners who want to preserve Lead’s important history. Homeowners like Tom Johnson and Gail Parfrey who restored the Cotton House.

“We are just thrilled to pieces that people have taken a home that could have been demolished or bulldozed and they took it under their wings and it’s their pride and joy,” Meidinger said.

When the City of Lead auctioned the Cotton House in 2017, the proceeds of the sale went to Lead Historic Preservation Commission to aid in preservation efforts.

Lura Roti grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota but today she calls Sioux Falls home. She has worked as a freelance journalist for more than two decades. Lura loves working with the SDPB team to share the stories of South Dakota’s citizens and communities. And she loves sharing her knowledge with the next generation. Lura teaches a writing course for the University of Sioux Falls.
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