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.