Prairie Outpost: Hillhead, South Dakota

Prairie Outpost: Hillhead, South Dakota

This is Hillhead, in Marshall County, about 18 miles northeast of Britton, South Dakota. I’ve seen references to Hillhead, South Dakota online in which it’s listed as a ghost town, and technically it is since the remaining original buildings have been abandoned, but there are inhabited dwellings in the immediate vicinity of the old town site.

Hillhead, South Dakota

As the name suggests, this town is right on top of a hill.  Hillhead was originally named Airmont, later changed to Hilltop, then changed again to Hillhead to avoid confusion with other towns that had similar names.

Hillhead, South Dakota

The building shown above was Hillhead’s general store.

Hillhead, South Dakota

This house is just a short walk down the hill.  It’s located down in the ravine and the trees have been growing up around it.  The road leaves a person standing about shoulder-level with the top of the house and gives you the impression the old home is slowly sinking into the earth and getting consumed by foliage.

Hillhead, South Dakota

Hillhead has some interesting local folklore, including tales about thirties-era gangsters, maybe even Pretty Boy Floyd himself, spending time in town.  You can read more about it in an Argus Leader piece from Brenda Wade Schmidt first published in 2004, and reprinted here.

Hillhead, South Dakota

In the photo above, you can see the remains of three properties… the house and garage in the foreground, the dark, weathered house right in the center, and way in the back, between the power pole and the garage, you can see the roof of a collapsed house with a chimney sticking up out of it.

I would find out after I left that I missed the old schoolhouse, hidden in the foliage, just down the road, so when I returned in 2015, I made a point to get a couple shots.

What do you know about Hillhead, South Dakota? Please leave a comment below.

Photos by Troy Larson, copyright Sonic Tremor Media LLC

64 thoughts on “Prairie Outpost: Hillhead, South Dakota

  1. Have good friends just across highway 25 from there. Going down there for the fourth of July. The place they live used to be a mink farm. The Klefstad family that started the Sargent County Bank in ND had a store in Hillhead at one time.

      1. At uncle Adolfo’s funeral my mom reconnected to Joe Fisher. They corresponded several times after that. He was one of her first beaus

  2. If the writer/photographer had walked down the hill to the north, probably less than a quarter mile, he would have seen the old one room school house, it closed in the early sixties and is now surrounded by trees and brush, but still stands! Cool arcticle, but it could have been made better with little more effort.

    1. The old school house and the grocery store, that you captured, are the last of the old town before it died. I loved the 2 middle pictures of Hillhead that you posted. I went to the school there – 8 years. Lawrence Welk played at the Dance Hall once and felt insulted by a drunk local man’s comment and said he would never come back and didn’t. Your pictures are uniqiue to the current look of the town and love seeing them. I would love to have those middle 2 sent to me on facebook – same address. Do you do that ?
      Good job and thanks !.

  3. Dixie Tyler, those are photos of the Drabek house/store(?) and Bernice Oland’s home across the street to the north. The other photo is of Oscar Braatan’s old store/home which was later owned by somebody else. The old school isn’t pictured as far as I can tell. 🙂

    1. Dixie you are right that was Drabek’s store and home in the back. I went to school with Patty and my brother and I also went to school with Bernice ‘s daughter Bonnie and her brother I think he was named Bobbie. There another store on the corner across from the post office next to the tracks one of the sisters that owned was named Tilly. I know more

    2. I went her a few years ago. My mom’s an Oland and we are related to Hagerty’s that now reside in browns valley. I learned that my distant relatives were one of the founding families. The Hagerty Family has journals and documentation of this. It was super near to see this town and explore it a little. I would live to go back and visit again. Family history is super interesting!

  4. I’ve been passing through Hillhead most of my life as I grew up north of Cayuga, ND and we spent many summers at Roy Lake State Park. Directly north of Hillhead about 1/2 mile south of the ND border was the town of Marlow when my great grandparents once lived.

  5. Stella you are correct. I miss Bernice & Oscar. Both were such wonderful people I knew growing up there. My brother now owns the school house & surrounding land. His Dad attended the schoolhouse when he was a boy. My Mom still lives in Hillhead. I am hoping to plan a Centennial for Hillhead this summer. I will try to update this website when I have more info. So glad I found this website. Thanks Troy for the great pix.

  6. I just found an old picture of the class of 1918 taken inside the school, I am guessing my grandpa and siblings are in it, as it was sent as a gift to my great aunt. Anybody have any records of a Canadian family named Dixon living there? I would imagine not, but always wondered when and where they entered the states and left Canada.

    1. US Census that are more than 70 years old are usually available online. The 1920 Census shows a Bert & Rose Dixon with kids Della, Gladys, Clifford, Raymond in Kingsbury, about 100 miles south. Other than that, no Dixons in SD. Weird.

    2. Uncle Charlie Dixon, his sister and brother farmed north of Hillhead and west of Veblen Charlie was my greatuncle by marriage. My aunt Ruthann (Dixie)Dixon she had a sister Peggy. My brother and I stayed at the farm a couple of times and hauled rocks and milked cows we were young and not much help, but it was an experence. I still love my time in Hillhead our family had the blacksmith shop.

    3. Some time around 1960 (+ or -), I dated a girl who gave her home town as Hillhead, South Dakota. I believe she said that she went to high school there. Actually, she lived on a farm nearby. She said that the farm was quite poor. She would be about 80 years old now, (again, + or -). She would have been in high school in the late 50’s. Her name was Dianne Hilison (or Hilleson, or Hillison). Ever heard of anyone by that name from around there?

  7. The store was my Grandfather Drabek’s. My mother Angeline was born there. We spent many wonderful summers there growing up. A ghost town? Bet Gramps would get a kick out of that. Gramps told me about the Little Boy Floyd episode.

    1. Sue – I am curious about the Drabek name. I recently purchased an old egg crate that had “Drahek Store – Hillhead, SD” on it. Do you think there would have been a change to the family name at some point? Perhaps the old country name vs. the Americanized name? Maybe it was just a printing error. Any insights are appreciated. Thanks.

      1. The egg crate possibly had a typo, or, the bottom of the h was worn off. The Drabek’s originally immigrated from what was then Bohemia.

    2. Hi Sue! My Mom is Elaine and is a friend of your mom. My Mom was also born and raised in Hillhead. My Grandfather, Fred Anderson delivered the mail in the area.
      When I was little, my sister & I rode with him on the route.
      I remember as a kid, staying at your Mom’s house in CA. My sister shared a room with one of you girls & I shared a bed in the other girl’s room. It was the first time I had seen a canopy bed & was enthralled! Hope you all are well!
      My Mom, 1st cousin & daughter & I went back to South Dakota for a quick whirlwind weekend in 2018.
      Was Bernice Oland’s house originally the one my Mom was raised in? It looks like it could be. We stopped there in 2018 and saw the house my Mom was raised in, in person. We have pictures.
      The angle of the picture shown here is a little different and further away.
      We also went to Veblen & visited Gail.
      (I think I got the name right??)

  8. I may be back in this area again tomorrow. Does anyone know if the old school is marked No Trespassing? Does anybody know of there’s an owner I could get permission from to photograph the old school, as requested in this thread?

    1. I see I missed your visit. I was out of town, but yes my brother owns the school and property. As long as you don’t go in the building…photos are ok.

      1. I’m gonna make another try tomorrow. Hopefully I will have some photos to share soon, and I’ll make sure not to go inside the school.

        1. Thank you Troy. I am actually flying home on July 2nd for a week…if your trip gets delayed again…I could arrange to meet you there…

  9. I was visiting relatives in Webster in July 2014 and drove to Hillhead to take a look. in the 1920s the Mosey family owned a store in Hillhead. I wonder if the building pictured was the location of their store? In February 1922 my grandfather, George Mike, left the Mosey store after having spent the night there. He had a load of provisions and a family waiting at home. The family farm was about 6 miles away in Marlowe township. The Mosey’s told him not to leave because a storm was coming. He said his family was waiting and had to go. The horses made it home but my grandfather did not. he was found about a week later, 300 feet from his home, frozen to death. He was 38 years old and left my grandmother with seven young children. I’m visiting Webster next week and I think I’ll make another journey to Hillhead. I can probably check with the county for old licensing information to verify when and where the Mosey’s store was located. Another mystery to solve.

    1. Linda…my prayers to your family…that story is heart wrenching. Facebook has a You Know You Are From Hillhead If…page and it has a lot of photos, info, etc on Hillhead. My Mom still lives there. I could probably ask around and have someone post some photos here.

  10. Thanks Babsdave, I’ll check out the Facebook information. I’d be interested in any photos or information your mom or others might have. I found out there is a Marshall County museum in Britton. They said they have a lot of pictures and historical information for the county. I’m visiting the museum next Monday or Tuesday, during my visit to South Dakota. I’m on my way early Saturday morning.

  11. We use to live across the road from Drabek /Oscar. We had a bee business. I think the warehouse and storage buildings are still there. Wish someone could get pictures of that.

  12. Looking for anyone who will contact me with information about Hillhead or the people that lived there from 1951 through 1955. My name is Jim Hanson my dad had the Texaco gas station, blacksmith shop and hardware store in Hillhead during that time. I went to school in LaBelle #4 in Hillhead during that time, Joe Cusick was the teacher until his death.

      1. Our dad fished, duck hunted every pond or lake he could get onto, I don’t recall the area you mention but as a kid from the age 7 to eleven my mind was on having fun and working sorry, I will say my memories of Hillhead the Lutheran Church and all the people in that area are fond memories.

  13. I am Jim Hanson looking for some contact with anyone with information about Hillhead I lived there between 1951 to 1955. I am also on facebook, I am 73 yo now and have forgotten some of my history.

  14. Jim, I was visiting relatives in Webster S.D. last summer and I stopped at Hillhead then went to the County Seat in Britton to pick up some records I ordered from them. I stopped by the Prairie Rock Museum in Britton and dug through piles of pictures and found some of Hillhead. They are long before the 1950s but there is one that claims to show a blacksmith shop. If you want me to email the pic send a reply to this website with your email address.

    1. My great-great grandfather was a blacksmith in Hillhead. I would be very grateful if you would please send me a photo of the old blacksmith shop.

      1. My great grandfather opened a blacksmith shop in Hillhead in 1914, then sometime later moved to Lake City and opened a blacksmith shop wher he died in 1940. I was wondering if we are related my great grandfather was Jacob sletkolen Hanson.

  15. According to some geologists, about 2 miles directly east of Hillhead (intersection of 443 Ave. and 107 St.) is the “true” source of the Mississippi River, (following the Little Minnesota River to Big Stone Lake where it is called the Minnesota River. Since it starts at a continental divide, and is longer than the Mississippi from the Twin Cities to its N. source, it is a contender for the true source. Here is an article on it.

  16. I found this article because I am reading a book about my mom’s life. It says her family lived in Veblin and later in Hillhead the children are Marvin Evelyn Arlo Jerome dlores my mom Anna Maria and Joyce Olson. It also says Dena married Carl Anderson of Hillhead

  17. My grandfather, Emil Thompson, grew up in Hillhead, SD, with his mother Caroline, step-father Andrew Thompson, and many half-siblings. Does anyone know anything about the family or where they lived? I am especially interested in my great-grandmother’s Swedish roots, and if the Thompson name was changed upon immigration, as Andrew was born in Norway, but I can find little about him and our family name. We vacationed at Roy Lake as kids, and have had a cabin on Lake Traverse for over 40 years. My dad always said he had relatives from “up around there” but he hadn’t known them growing up. Pre-internet it wasn’t as simple to track folks down. I wish I had been able to know my grandfather’s siblings while they were still living and learn more about that side of my family.

  18. My great uncle Adolf Drabek owned the general store in the 60’s. My mom grew up in Kidder, S.D. and graduated from Britton. Her maiden name was Hartl….would be interested in knowing if any more Hartls or Drabeks are around the area?????

  19. The General Store in the first picture was my Grandpa’s. I used to spend several weeks every summer in Hillhead. Sometimes I slept in the store on a rollaway bed.

    Being from California I wasn’t used to the lightning storms at night that would sometimes completely light up the store.

    I have very fond memories of my time spent in Hillhead. Friday night fish fries, Fort Sisseton, Roy Lake, gopher hunting and experiencing life on the Farm.

    Excellent experiences for a city boy.

  20. I shopped at that store in Hillhead. There is also another ghost town about 8 miles from Hillhead. The town was called Storm. It was only there as a post office for farmers in the area. The post office was in my Great Great Grandfather’s home.

  21. I knew your grandparents. ..we lived on the Jim Devine property for 3 years..your grandma made wonderful rocking horses with real horsehair manes and tails. I think he was Ezra or something close..we called them grandpa and grandma Crandall. I lived there from 1958 to 1961 ..she made homemade ice cream and taught me about geese and ducks and we used to walk the creek with them to bring them home. They had twin colts a bay filly and a paint stud…the filly was hand raised as she was small. I used to play with her. Fond memories. .my name is Linda was Willison. ..Hagenson was my mother’s maiden name from Hillhead.

  22. I went her a few years ago. My mom’s an Oland and we are related to Hagerty’s that now reside in browns valley. I learned that my distant relatives were one of the founding families. The Hagerty Family has journals and documentation of this. It was super near to see this town and explore it a little. I would live to go back and visit again. Family history is super interesting!

  23. Some time around 1960 (+ or -), I dated a girl who gave her home town as Hillhead, South Dakota. I believe she said that she went to high school there. Actually, she lived on a farm nearby. She said that the farm was quite poor. She would be about 80 years old now, (again, + or -). She would have been in high school in the late 50’s. Her name was Dianne Hilison (or Hilleson, or Hillison). Ever heard of anyone by that name from around there?

    1. Hi,
      I took a quick look on Ancestry website for her. I found an entry for the 1945 S.D. State Census. They list a Dianne Hilleson, date of birth 1940, McKinley, Marshall County, Post Office, Veblen. She was age 5 at the time. I found no further information on Ancestry for this individual. I have visited Hillhead a couple of times. My dad’s family was from Marshall County.

      1. Thanks, Linda
        Yup, that would be her. She was 2 years younger than me; I was born Sep. 3, 1938. People ask me how I manage to stay so “youngish”. I tell them, “drink plenty of wine and little bit of beer.” Half of the people that I used to know are dead! More than half of my senior high class have passed away.

  24. Hillhead is where Maury and Samantha Musique came from in my musical ESCAPE CLAUSE! I’m from Britton. I recall going for a Sunday drive with my folks in the 50s. There was a large string of cars parked on the side of the hill going to the tavern a couple times. Last time we visited back home on Memorial Day in 2018, we saw several houses behind the tavern. The had power and phone lines connected. So Hillhead is in habited. And the Britton newspaper lists a business in Hillhead. In addition, Newark is named in my novel SUNRISE ACROSS AMERICA where the bad guys come to searching for an escaped TV anchorman. They pulled up next to the elevator.

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