Home | Old West | W.E. Adams Biography
History, Legends & Lore

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0-9
| Print |

W.E. Adams Biography

W.E. Adams was born to parents James Windsor and Sarah Ann (Prettyman) Adams in Michigan on May 13, 1854. The family later moved to Fairbault, Minnesota. According to information recently researched by Mary Kopco at Deadwood’s Adams Museum, William was enrolled in grammar school at the age of 7 (1861) in Minnesota, and by age 17 (1871) he was living in an Illinois boarding house and working for a local grocer. He apparently had little formal education beyond grade school. His mother died in Minneapolis in March of 1877, and 23 year-old Adams found himself heading west.

In late 1877, Adams arrived at the busy railroad and steamboat terminal of Bismarck, Dakota Territory where he purchased a team of mules and a covered wagon to transport hardware along the newly established Bismarck - Deadwood Trail to the booming mining camps in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. Young Adams had found the best way to make money in the Hills was not to mine the earth; it was to “mine the miners.”

He and his older brother James established the Adams Brothers Banner Grocery on Deadwood’s Main Street in 1877, but it burned to the ground along with most of the business district in September of 1879. Undaunted, the brothers rebuilt.

Adams built a home in the Forest Hill section of the city after the great fire. About this time, 26 year-old William also began courting, and soon proposed to a young lady who lived a mile away in Fountain City – 20 year-old Alice Mae Burnham. On December 22, 1880, W. E. and Alice were married at her parents’ home. Daughter Sarah Lucile was born on November 24, 1884, and Helen May was born on May 13, 1892. James remained his partner in the grocery business until 1889, when he decided to move on to California.

William had established himself as a respected member of the Deadwood community, serving six terms as mayor. He was on the board of directors of several banks, the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce and other civic organizations. In 1894, Adams moved his business to Sherman Street, eventually building the Adams Block (built by contractor Mullen & Munn). The handsome four-story structure was constructed of brick and native stone, and had a modern elevator operated by waterpower. By 1901, Adams had discontinued his retail business to concentrate on wholesale, supplying goods to the entire Black Hills region, northwestern South Dakota, Montana, northwestern Nebraska, and Wyoming.

Adams success meant that his two daughters had special opportunities, including finishing school. Lucile married Frank Stratton, a personable young bank teller in Deadwood, in 1909. They moved to Detroit where Frank pursued had a career in the automobile business. Shortly after moving to Detroit, however, Lucile contracted typhoid fever and died on July 25, 1912. The family brought Lucile back to Deadwood where she was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Like her sister, Helen attended finishing school in California. In 1915, she married Irving Benton and settled in California.

When Harris and Anna Franklin had built their home in 1892, the house symbolized a wealthy and socially prominent new age for the city. The local press described it as "the grandest house west of the Mississippi." W.E. and Alice purchased what is known today as the Historic Adams House for $8500 in 1920 from Franklin’s son. Here the Adams entertained local society in the elegant Queen Anne-style mansion for the remainder of their life together.

Take a Virtual Tour of the historic Adams House

Tragedy struck the family again in June of 1925 when Alice traveled to California for the birth of Helen’s first child. Diagnosed with cancer, Alice had been ill for some time, but on June 6, she suddenly died at Helen’s home. Helen, distraught, went into labor and died the following day. The baby died soon afterward, and was buried in her mother’s arms. Within a period of 48 hours, W.E. had lost the remainder of his family. Adams laid them to rest at Mountain View Cemetery in Pasadena, California, where he had a mausoleum built. Lucile’s casket was moved from Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood to the family plot in California.

Adams returned to Deadwood where he wrote the following passage in his wife Alice's bible:

I, W.E. Adams, who married Alice May Burnham, December 22, 1880, had hoped we would both live to celebrate our 50th anniversary, and now, after 45 years of married life, find myself deprived of my loving wife and both of my dear daughters. I feel like one forsaken and do not see ahead of me in this world much, if any, happiness. I do hope I shall have the physical and moral strength to follow the teachings of my dear mother, who passed from this earth in 1877 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and when I join my wife and daughters in the great unknown, I hope none may say with truth I did not keep the faith, for their memory is very dear to me.

He was destined to see light in his life again when serendipitous seating on a passenger train brought William and Mary Mastrovich Vicich together in 1926.

The youngest child of Ana and Eli Nozica Mastrovich, Mary was born on January 22, 1898, in “Slav Alley, “ Lead, SD’s Yugoslavian neighborhood. Her father, Homestake miner, was murdered when she was 16. Afterwards, her mother sent Mary to live in Pasadena, California. Mary wed California grocer Anthony Vicich, but was soon widowed when he died in the influenza epidemic of 1917.

A mistake in seating arrangements during a trip to visit her mother in Lead in the summer of 1926 found Mary across from Adams on the last leg of the trip from Denver to Deadwood. Adams courted Mary for the better part of a year, and they were married on June 30, 1927, at the Los Angeles Church of the Immaculate Conception.

Together, W.E. and Mary traveled extensively, founded charities and fostered beneficial projects, established several parks, and gifted the specially constructed Adams Memorial Museum to the City of Deadwood. Dedicated October 4, 1930, the Museum was a tribute to Adams’ first wife, his two daughters, and the preservation of the legacy of the pioneers in the Black Hills area. It is operated today by Adams Museum and House, Inc., a non-profit educational organization.

The May – December relationship between W.E. and Mary was considered scandalous by certain individuals, but their loving relationship continued for seven years. Adams suffered a stroke and died in June of 1934.

A Young Mary AdamsMary Adams honored the memory of W.E until she died in 1993 at the age of 95. She kept the Adams House and its contents together for over 50 years, enabling it to become the beautifully restored structure that it is today. The house opened to the public as a museum on July 1, 2000. She established the Adams-Mastrovich Family Foundation that continues the Adams’ memory and tradition of philanthropy through projects in Deadwood, Lead and Southern California. Organizations such as the Adams Museum and House, the Deadwood Hospital, and the Lead Opera House are grateful beneficiaries of her generosity and vision.


Those Good Old Days in the Black Hills - George Moses Anne Rogers, Assistant Curator - Adams Museum and House, Deadwood, SD The Black Hills After Custer - Bob Lee The Lady of the House, 2002 - Deadwood Magazine Black Hills Pioneer - Deadwood, SD The Adams House Revealed: The Restoration of an Historic Home - Mary Kopco, 2006
Located in: Old West