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Native Sun News: The tribal connection to Igloo military site





The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy. All content © Native Sun News.


The mostly still-standing prisoner-of-war holding barracks at the U.S. Army’s former Black Hills Ordnance Depot near Edgemont. Constructed during World War II, the two-story barracks primarily housed Italian POWs who were utilized as inexpensive sources of labor. The depot brought Native American and non-Native American families together to work and to live in the adjacent civilian community of Igloo. PHOTO COURTESY LANDINGADAY.WORDPRESS.COM

IGLOO, SOUTH DAKOTA -- Among South Dakota’s seemingly overabundant ghost towns, only one is able to lay claim to having a not-so-distant connection to the U.S. military and also to bringing both Native American and non-Native American families together in a rarely seen esprit de corps.

Situated in the far southwestern corner of the state, among the rolling, isolated foothills of the Black Hills, the deserted town of Igloo was once a thriving community of approximately 1800 individuals.

The current population of the largely rural area surrounding Igloo is around 70.

Initially established by the Army in 1942 as the Black Hills Ordnance Depot, a secure munitions storage and maintenance facility, following the country’s entrance into World War II, Igloo became the depot’s non-military division – providing side-by-side housing for Native and non-Native families alike.

The depot’s civilian residential district earned its unique name from the characteristic shape of the munitions storage structures, which somewhat resembled the dome-shaped, snow-constructed Inuit homes – known as “igloos,” or “iglus” – of what is now primarily Alaska.

BHOD was renamed “Black Hills Army Depot” in 1962. On June 30, 1967, the federal government closed the depot, and the economic stronghold of Igloo was subsequently abandoned.

Immediately bordering Provo Township in Fall River County, approximately eight miles south of the sleepy hamlet of Edgemont, the remotely ensconced former military and residential site is literally a ghost town among ghost towns: both the unincorporated communities of Ardmore and Burdock, which are more commonly referred to as “ghost towns,” also lie within the exterior boundaries of the county. Hot Springs is the administrative center of Fall River County.

Lying 88 miles from the western border of the Pine Ridge Reservation and 89 miles southwest of Rapid City, Igloo is almost equidistant from either locale. At nearly 33 square miles, this former bustling gated outpost sprawls out over the prairie where South Dakota converges with the neighboring states of Nebraska and Wyoming, threatening to breach these well-established – yet imperceptible – borders.

“The sheer monstrosity of the area is overwhelming,” said globe trekker Mark Lawrence on his traveling website, flightster.com. “This is an urban exploration and ghost town aficionado’s dream,” he said.

“The roads leading around the base can be a bit confusing as some roads are so overgrown you can hardly tell they are there. One of my favorite parts is (the) overgrown airstrip with some decrepit hangars near some factory-looking buildings. Watch out though – while we were there, we saw some rattlesnakes so make sure to be on the lookout. That rattle sound is eerie; I’d heard it for the first time there in … Igloo,” he said.

Lawrence and two of his associates personally discovered the abandoned site almost a year ago. The almost forgotten Army establishment, which was purposely situated off the beaten path by the Army for security purposes, is only accessible via foot passage over two now-dilapidated wooden traffic bridges.

Following its closure, most of the depot and residential property was sold to the local government, which has since resold various parcels to a variety of private parties.

For 25 years, Native families from the nearby Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations, as well as from the Cheyenne River Reservation and from several tribal communities outside of South Dakota, came and went. The majority of these families, however, stayed for the duration of the military project. Such coalescence between cultures was virtually unheard of at the time, especially in South Dakota.

Former Igloo resident, Jim Anderson of Rapid City, has dedicated a historical and social networking website to the Black Hills Ordnance Depot and Igloo – igloophs.com.

“Many Indian people left their reservation homes and came to work at the Black Hills Ordnance Depot through a desire to provide a living for their families and to further the war effort despite the possibility of prejudice and discrimination which they often suffered when they went among non-Indian people,” Anderson said on his website. “By the spring of 1945, about 160 Native Americans were working as clerks, stenographers, truck drivers, bus drivers, electrical operators, janitors and ammunition handlers – many of the Indian people remained at the depot for long careers,” he said.

A 1963 graduate of the Igloo era-transformed Provo High School, Anderson organizes and schedules annual class and community reunions. The two-day event is usually held in July at American Legion Post 22 on East Saint Patrick Street in Rapid City.

Due to its proximity to the already-established community of Provo, most of Igloo’s adolescent community attended and graduated from Provo High School.

“The idea for the depot was based on labor,” Anderson told Native Sun News. “The Army recruited people from across South Dakota because they needed the labor so bad during World War II,” he said.

According to Anderson, this all-inclusive, needful recruitment tactic is the reason many Native Americans and women worked at the military site.

“South Dakota lost some 93,000 workers who had to leave the state because of the war,” said Anderson. “What the Army found out though is that Fall River County didn’t lose that many people. That’s why the depot was built in Fall River County.”

The Army also used Italian prisoners of war at the depot for their labor, and many women ordnance workers were truck drivers and did the jobs that the men who went to war usually did, Anderson said.

“The women ordnance workers were called WOWs, so we had POWs and WOWs there at Igloo,” he said with a chuckle.

Officers’ quarters were located on a slope overlooking Igloo, according to Anderson.

“We called it ‘The Hill’ and there is now a ranch family that lives in one of the old officers’ houses,” he said.

“One of Igloo’s more famous residents was Tom Brokaw. He lived there when he was in the second and third grades,” said Anderson.

Brokaw is best-known for his longstanding tenure – from 1982 to 2004 – as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News.

Access to the now-divided property tracts is restricted and, for the most part, only available by appointment.

In addition to the standard-issue federal housing units and public school system, Igloo was once home to a hospital, post office, police station, church, grocery store and entertainment facilities including a movie theater, swimming pool and youth recreation center. Most of these now-forgotten buildings are still standing in this old working-class neighborhood, beckoning the year-round trickle of visitors to Igloo with drifting, indecipherable whispers from the community’s dual-cultural past.

Following the shutdown of the Black Hills Army Depot in 1962, many of the prefabricated homes were transported to the Pine Ridge Reservation to supplement the recurring housing shortage.

The massive, three-runway Army airfield which the grounds almost secretly contain has three intersecting landing strips that are now overrun with Great Plains flora.

In the early 1990s, according to airfields-freeman.com, Nathan Barton conducted an environmental assessment of the airfield for Fall River Properties, which owned this particular tract of land at the time.

“The old Black Hills Ordnance Depot airfield was dropped from the list (closed) because the asphalt has so deteriorated that you’d be better off trying to land in the hayfield beside the runways,” said Barton. “Fall River Properties actually planned to destroy the old airfield to construct a giant landfill for disposing of sewage sludge shipped on the railroad from Minnesota and Illinois, but the state denied them a permit after a whole series of lawsuits by environmental groups,” he said.

Joe Giago and family lived and worked at Igloo. Joe had 11 children with his wife Clara Irving Giago. During one hot summer in the 1940s, Joe’s older brother Tim Giago, Sr., came to Igloo and ended up driving caterpillar tractors.

Tim recalled watching closely as the blade on his caterpillar dug into nests of rattle snakes. He said the rattle snakes rolled up in balls of snakes as his caterpillar dug into the earth. Tim was the father of Tim Giago, Jr., founder of Native Sun News. Tim Jr. recalled hunting along the ridges of Igloo with his cousins Billy Joe and Bobby Giago.

Charles Zimiga, another former Iglooite, has fond memories of the wartime community.

“I went to school there from the third grade through the twelfth grade,” Zimiga said. “My dad worked for the housing there, then in the evening, he was a barber,” he said.

Zimiga is Oglala Lakota and graduated from Provo High School in 1957. A longtime educator, he is now retired after teaching and coaching basketball at high schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation beginning in 1963.

“When I lived there, I was just ‘Charles Zimiga’,” he said. “In a way, it was like the outside world wasn’t like Igloo because I never felt any prejudice, and I thought the whole world was like that.”

“It was a place where you were just who you were.”

A lot of these people who worked there who were non-Indians came from poor backgrounds, said Zimiga. There was no class division, he said.

The Army took stringent clearance measures to ensure the safety of the community’s coexistent military and civilian personnel, according to Zimiga.

“There was a gate you had to go through to get in and a guardhouse. People that lived in Igloo had (Army) stickers on their cars and we had to sign in and out at the entrance,” he said.

“So in that way, it was like living on a military base. It was kind of a unique situation.”

All of the Native families lived in Igloo proper, with the officers’ pool being comprised entirely of non-Natives, Zimiga indicated.

“I would hate to put a racial slur on it, but that’s the way it was,” he said.

According to Zimiga, longtime South Dakota politician, the late E.Y. Berry, was an additional instrumental force in reaching out to the state’s Native American population for employment at the depot.

“(E.Y. Berry) pushed the project as something for Native Americans. And the main thing he pushed it for was the Native Americans from Pine Ridge and different reservations, so I think that was one of the criteria (the government) had that they wanted to hire a lot of Native American people,” he said, in support of Anderson’s claim.

Zimiga spoke highly of Igloo’s sense of community spirit.

“We had Christmas bazaars and all the families would be there – the Native mothers and the non-Native mothers would be helping out. The dads would be in there with the fishing ponds and bobbing for apples with the kids and all that stuff. It was really a nice place.” “I can’t say enough about how nice (Igloo) was,” Zimiga said.

“I’m retired now, and researching the history of Igloo has become my life’s work,” said Anderson.

Contact Jesse Abernathy at staffwriter@nsweekly.com