Once the first South Dakota School for the Blind, Buffalo Ridge Resort, in Gary, South Dakota, was a collection of nine buildings on 37 acres. For more than 60 years it served as the state’s educational facility for blind children, with an emphasis on individual developement, rather than a group developement. In 1895, after Gary lost their status as the county seat, citizens offered the Deuel County Courthouse Building to the state of South Dakota, to be used as a school for the blind. Because the original building was unsuitable for a school, the citizens of Gary raised to money to build a two-story brick structure (1899-1900). The school opened in 1900, making it the 42nd School for the Blind in the nation.
The average enrollment at the school was 55 to 60 students per year. From the beginning, the course of instruction offered at the school followed closely with what was taught in public schools across the state. In addition to the regular curriculum, braille, gym, industrial work, piano-tuning, broom-making, chair-caning, upholstery, and domestic science, were also taught.
The school was self-supporting with its own dairy and beef cattle, hogs, chickens, and gardens. The garden produce was stored in the root cellar, which remains today as the wine cellar for the Rock Room Bar and Grill. The beautiful neoclassical and classical-revival designed complex included classrooms, administration offices, dormitories, a barn, a boiler building, a playground, a unique water fountain in an old flower garden, a gymnasium, and an auditorium with a stage.
The students were a big part of the community of Gary. People would often give them rides to church, uptown to shop, and to other places in the area. In addition, students were often invited into homes to join in Sunday dinners. Folks would travel from far and wide to enjoy musical concerts and operettas performed by the students. The school’s outstanding music department influenced the public school music program, which resulted in numerous awards for both schools. The upper level of the Barn was where the first sanctioned high school wrestling match took place in South Dakota. In addition to wrestling, students took part in boxing and basketball, as well as rolleskating, in the auditorium.
In 1957-1958, major concerns of the need for additional facilities, the lack of travel experiences for students, the lack of proximity to a college, and rumors of a possible relocation of the school, began to surface. In 1961, the school was moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota. The main buildings were then used as an assisted living home, until the early 1980s, after which the buildings sat vacant for almost three decades. Although vandals, weather, and vermin had taken a toll on the structures, none of the buildings had been altered, and most were considered structurally sound and in good condition.
In 2008, South Dakota native, and businessman/entrepreneur, Joe Kolbach, purchased the property at an estate sale. On a cold, snowy evening on December 12, 2008, Kolbach gathered, in what is now the Sundance Ballroom, with people of Gary and the surrounding communities, to discuss their desires and goals for the property. Ideas were considered, visions were developed, and a completion goal of Gary’s annual 4th of July celebration in 2009 was set. Two stages of the project were planned. Restoration began in December of 2008, with the two dormitory buildings, originallly built in 1910 and 1924, and the reestablishment of Lake Elsie. The Boiler and Administration buildings were to be renovated at a later date. Buffalo Ridge Resort came to fruition when the Herrick Hotel, Woodbury Hall, and the Talking Waters Campground opened opened on July 3, 2009, just in time for the annual Gary Independence Day celebration. In July of 2010, the Rock Room Bar and Grill was established on the bottom floor of the Administration Building.
The Herrick Hotel, named after the first hotel in Gary, South Dakota, was once the boys dormitory. Today it houses 19 beautiful hotel rooms. The lobby was where students were taught how to make brooms, weave rugs, and tune pianos. Down the hall on the north end was where the woodworking shop was located. Alcoves found along the walls, throughout the first and second floors, are where either doors or water fountains once stood. Upstairs, in room 216, was an apartment where one of the teachers once lived.
The fieldstone pillars, termed “The Judges”, light up our beautiful campus yet today. Students knew passing beyond The Judges required notification and/or accompaniment of a chaperone.
Built in 1935, the underground tunnels were put in place after all three buildings were well established. Students used the tunnels to go to between classes, dormitories, library, auditorium, and the cafeteria during inclement and cold weather. The root cellar, used to store garden produce, is now part of the tunnel and is used as the wine cellar for the Rock Room Bar and Grill.
This building is now used as the hotel laundry room, retaining the purpose it served for the school. The ground level also has a coin-operated laundry area, which is accessible to the general public. Today, the lower level of this building has a fitness center, racquetball court, and locker room. Separated by the tall chimney, the west half of the structure is original while the east half is new construction. The old building housed a large water pump and boiler system along with three wells and the laundromat.
Buffalo Ridge Resort is located adjacent to beautiful Lake Elsie. Once a fun-filled desination for many sun-seekers, in 1962, Lake Elsie was filled in by the city, after a tragic accident. It wasn’t until 2009 that the lake and its dam were restored. The creek that feeds Lake Elsie is the only creek in Eastern South Dakota that is capable of sustaining trout. The creek is spring-fed and runs year-round. Every year, Lake Elsie is stocked with both rainbow and brown trout by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks.
The lower level of Woodbury Hall was an auditorium, with a stage located at the north end. The stage was removed during restoration. The upper level served as the dormitory for the girls. What is now a event service kitchen was once the Band Room for the students, while the current mens restroom once served as the Choir Room, and today’s womens restroom was the Instrument Storage Room. Woodbury Hall has all of the original woodwork with the exception of the ballroom floor and windows. The ground level, now the Sundance Ballroom, is used for banquets, receptions, business meetings, and conferences. The top floor has been used for a variety a purposes over the years, from executive business suites to private living quarters.
The original Deuel County Court House, stood where the center section of the Administration Building currently stands. The Barn is built out of the lumber that once made up the Court House building. The south section of the “Admin” was built in 1899 and classes started in 1900. The north section was built in 1901. The 1st floor, what is now the Rock Room Bar & Grill, was the braille library, teachers lounge, cafeteria, and kitchen. The 2nd floor, now offices and meeting space, was classrooms, and the 3rd floor was the staff sleeping quarters. A 4th floor was later opened and now, along with the 3rd floor, houses The Retreat Family Suite.
The fountain and the pond, both located east of the Administration Building, are original to the school and have been completely restored. The park across the street from the hotel, restored by locals Don Grabow and Dennis Fairchild, was originally part of the school, and provided playground equipment and an area where students could spend time outdoors. City Park is currently property of the City of Gary. A unique pair of eagles and a raccoon were carved into one of the trees by Kevin Deboer. An old metal rollerskate is imbedded into the trunk of one of the massive oak trees on campus. A sand volleyball court and a 9-hole disc golf course were added in the summer of 2015. These fun options together with more recently added, Giant Outdoor Chess, Cornhole, and live music on the Rock Room Patio during the summer, brings a wide variety of recreational opportunities to our facility.
Keeping with the original purpose of learning, lounging, dining and food, The Rock Room Bar & Grill was established in July 2010. With it’s unique motorcyle theme, special commissionsed decor items, and fun atmosphere, the Rock Room is a destination people travel great distances to enjoy. Cusine includes a wide variety of local favorites, as well as international dishes. The Rock Room boasts a full lunch and dinner menu, in addition to weekly and nightly specials. Live Music, provided by local and area artists, can be found on the patio during the summer months. The Rock Room welcomes groups of all sizes and can seat approximately 153. Hours vary throughout the year. Phone number 605-272-7777.