April 29, 2021
Written By: Andy Greenman
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again. This is the motto business owner Herman Jones has followed for over 50 years. He is determined to give visitors and locals an unforgettable experience in the Black Hills.
The Rapid City native began his career selling tours to Mount Rushmore for Gray Line bus company. Herman excelled at finding new accounts to fill these tours. His connection to the sculpture runs deep, as he knew many of the men that work on Mount Rushmore. After four years of working for Gray Line, Jones was fired for making too much in commission. In 1974, he started a bus company “with a van and a dream.”
For two decades he started, bought, abandoned and sold tour bus companies. He and his wife Wanda kept busy as they raised six children. The businesses saw success when America set travel records. They struggled when gas prices rose and families stayed home. All the while, Herman Jones continued to give his customers the best possible experience.
South Dakota became etched in Hollywood fame following the 1990 release of Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves.” The three-hour classic depicts an Army Lieutenant who travels the frontier and encounters a group of Lakota during the 19th century. The Lieutenant stays at Ft. Hays Army post, which was built in Caputa on Herman’s cousin's ranch.
“Dances With Wolves” surprisingly became the movie of the year and won 7 Academy Awards. While Ft. Hays still stood in Caputa, tourists flocked to the ranch to see the filming location.
In 1993, Jones bought the set and moved it to its current location on Highway 16. He built a chuckwagon dinner theater to add to the turn of the century town square.
“People come West to see the West, and we show them everything but what they came for” said Herman. “The beauty of what we’re trying to do is save a little piece of that Western flair and show people what they came to see.”
And save a little piece is exactly what they’ve done. Alongside the Ft. Hays Headquarters sits a blacksmith shop, post office, rope shop, a gold panning area and more.
Herman figured he only had a few years to cash in on the movie set. He thought after five years, no one would remember the movie.
It was only open three years before trouble came knocking. In 1996, Ft. Hays was being foreclosed and going up for sale by auction. The Black Hills Old West experience was about to disappear from the Jones family, until an old college friend came to the rescue. Herman’s friend was now an attorney who served on the Small Business Administration (SBA) Board. He helped him secure a SBA fixed interest loan. This helped the business budget for the future rather than on the ever changing floating interest loan.
Ft. Hays was saved but needed to increase revenue. Cars would drive by and take pictures, but visitors were not stopping in the gift shop or ice cream stand.
Wanda went to the drawing board and created a package deal for visitors to check all their bucket list items with one price. The package included a breakfast, a lectured tour, all-day admission to Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore, and the supper and western music show. It worked. The amount of tours quadrupled within two years.
Herman has added to the Old West town setting over the years but realizes it doesn’t attract everyone.
“We deal with two demographics of people: newlyweds and nearly deads,” Herman jokes. “We don’t deal with a lot of families.“
He brainstormed plans to grow diversity and get more people to his attraction.
His first idea was to build a hotel beside the Fort. Shortly after that vision, many hotels started popping up in the area.
He scratched that plan then was set to install a ropes course on the land. He traveled to Florida to get ideas and did everything but sign the contract when he realized he would need 5 or more adults working the course at all times.
“We have trouble finding people to flip pancakes,” Jones added. So what next?
Herman found a new inspiration on a visit to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He saw a coaster car that goes along a mountainside to a cave.
From this idea, Herman envisioned a gondola ride that would travel down the valley behind the Chuckwagon Theater. During the ride, people would use an electronic gun to shoot at bison, tying it back to the frontier theme and Dances with Wolves.
While discussing his plan to build a buffalo hunt roller coaster, the salesman wasn’t optimistic of his vision.
The salesman was eager to have his company build the coaster, but had his doubts. The plans were to have a swinging gondola where the riders flew side-to-side.
“You couldn’t shoot anything on that,” the salesman told Herman.
“Well, you’ve never hunted coyotes out of an airplane,” Jones struck back.
Next thing you know, Herman found himself in a small town in Germany where the ride was being manufactured. They ordered the coaster in 2018, manufactured it in 2019, and delivered and installed the ride in 2020.
As the COVID-19 pandemic slowed business at Ft. Hays in 2020, the parking lot was full of steel.
“You couldn’t have picked a better delivery time for us.”
The interactive shooting gallery is fully operational heading into the promising 2021 tourist season. Twenty buffalo and a wild turkey are placed below the coaster. This highly competitive ride with over 40 targets is giving locals and tourists another reason to visit Ft. Hays.
“We’ve had customers that have stayed around and rode for 3 or 4 hours at a time and have gotten incredibly good, Herman boasts. “There’s a lot of people gunning for that high score.”
With over 33,000 cars traveling alongside the buffalo hunt every day, Jones is already seeing his traffic rise.
“If they don’t move Mt. Rushmore and the traffic keeps going... it’ll work. It’s just a matter of time.”
TURNING THE CORNER
Ft. Hays is the only daily tour bus company that visits Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse. They own 11 Greyhounds and are projecting a busy year this summer.
Last April, they had given out $40,000 in refunds and not a dime in prepaid reservations. This year, they are excited where they sit and are nearly double the reservations from April of 2019.
Herman believes they are starting to turn the corner and is enjoying the early success of the new coaster.