Lucretia Marchbanks was one of the most interesting - and most beloved - people in Deadwood’s pioneer days.
Marchbanks was born a slave on March 25, 1832, in Putman County, Tennessee, the oldest of 11 children. She was the bondswoman of Martin Marchbanks, whose father had settled near Turkey Creek east of Algood, Tennessee. Her father, of mixed racial heritage, was a half-brother of Martin Marchbanks. Lucretia was a member of a frugal, respected family.
Prior to the enactment of the 13th Amendment, before the firing of the guns at Fort Sumter had announced the opening of the U. S. Civil War, her liberty-loving father had purchased his freedom with $700 which he had saved over the years.
Lucretia Marchbanks, who acquired her father’s frugal industrious habits, grew to womanhood on the master’s estate where she was fully trained in housekeeping and the culinary arts.
Her master, Martin Marchbanks, gave Lucretia to his youngest daughter whom she accompanied to the Western frontier, reputed a land of gold, fortune and romance. They traveled and lived for a period time in California, and later, a free woman, she returned to her old home in Tennessee.
Once again, Lucretia set out again for the untamed west where she remained for the rest of her life. Like many others, she was lured into the Black Hills by reports of gold. Lucretia joined the “Black Hills Gold Rush,” arriving in historic Deadwood Gulch, a bustling mining camp, on June 1 1876, where she secured a job, working as the kitchen manager in the Grand Central Hotel. Soon, the hotel, which really wasn’t that grand, was better known for the great food served by Lucretia in the frontier hotel’s restaurant.
“Aunt Lou,” as she was known, labored hard to make her way in a sometimes-unforgiving boomtown of the West. Except for “Aunt Sally” Campbell, who came with the George Armstrong Custer Black Hills Expedition in 1874, most believe that Lucretia Marchbanks was the first black woman to live in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory.
After she left the kitchen, Lucretia worked for four successive mine superintendents for the small sum of $40 per month. That was a small price, a real bargain for anyone who could afford to employ a woman with her ability and training.
Two years later she was offered a better position as a cook for the Golden Gate Mine in nearby Lead. Her work ethic, loyalty to duty and fine character were evident to all who knew her. She then left Deadwood to become the manager of the Rustic Hotel at the DeSmet Mine. Gossip of her culinary skills spread like a wildfire and she was soon hired away again as a cook and housekeeper for a boarding house owned by Harry Gregg in Sawpit Gulch, also in Lead. They catered to the DeSmet Mine workers.
One historical account tells that when she was late getting back from a meeting, she was still able to fix an evening meal for the miners in 25 minutes, plus lunch buckets for all on the night shift.
Contrary to what was seen on the HBO series “Deadwood,” Lucretia Marchbanks was never an employee of George Hearst, the owner of the world famous Homestake Mine. Her final employer was Harry Gregg, with whom she worked until 1883 when she resigned and opened her own establishment, the Rustic Hotel at the mouth of Sawpit Gulch located just down the road from Deadwood.
She was considered to be the finest cook in the Black Hills at that time. She has been regaled for her excellent plum puddings, among other culinary delights. A Mr. William A. Reamer, who boarded with her, asked her for the recipe and she replied, “Oh, just a handful of this and a handful of that.” Lucretia was more commonly known throughout Deadwood and the Black Hills as “Aunt Lou.”
She was also lovingly known to some people of the area as “Mahogany Lou” Marchbanks.
Lucretia Marchbanks was very well thought of by all who knew her.
For example: The New York Stock Exchange in discussing a Black Hills Mining News article asked “Who is Aunt Lou?”
The Black Hills Daily Times answered in an article entitled “We’ll Tell You Who She Is” - Aunt Lou is an old and respected colored lady who has had charge of the superintendent’s establishment of the DeSmet mine as housekeeper, cook and the
‘superintendent of all superintendents’ who have ever been employed at the mine. Her accomplishments as culinary artist are beyond all praise. She rules the house where she presides with autocratic power by Divine right brooking no cavil or presumptuous
interference. The mine superintendent may be a big man in the mines or the mill but the moment he sets foot within her realm he is but a meek and ordinary mortal.
“She is a skillful nurse as well as a fine cook and housekeeper, her services to the victims of mountain fever never received an even part of the praise to which they are entitled.”
There was a festival in the City Hall of Golden Gate in 1880 for the purpose of the raising of funds for the Congregational church, a prize of a diamond ring was raffled off and then given to the most popular woman in the Black Hills. Her competitors for this high honor were a sizable number of popular white women. Many men and women, citizens of all walks of life voted with their money for their favorite woman: “Aunt Lou.” She easily won and was awarded the coveted prize.
She was however, was more than just a kind friendly woman with great cooking skills; she was also a tough and demanding kitchen manager and stood no intimidation from her rowdy patrons.
It is said that on one day she proved that when a Mexican man came into the restaurant boasting that he had killed an Indian and acting as though he’d like to do the same again … kill someone else. While nervous customers looked on, “Aunt Lou” confronted him while brandishing a large knife and in no time, the stranger was quick to take his leave.
Lucretia finally decided that she had cooked long enough. She retired from the Rustic Hotel business in 1885 and sold the hotel to a Mrs. A.M. Porter.
“Aunt Lou” purchased a ranch at Rockyford, Wyo., (between Sundance and Beulah) from A. C. Settle. She moved to the ranch that same year and was very active in raising cattle and horses. She with the help of a hired hand named George Baggely, who worked for Lucretia for 20 years and managed the ranch.
Various historical records show that she conducted her ranch in the very businesslike manner everyone would have expected.
She died in 1911 and is buried in the little cemetery in Beulah. Her grave marker can still be located. It is the second to the left as one enters the cemetery gate.