This is going to be a story about bacon. It’s an article which appears in the October issue of Dakota Country magazine, which is on the newsstands and in the mail this week. Hang in there with me for a little bit while I provide some background. I’ll get to the bacon part in a minute. This bacon is worth waiting for.
Background: In the middle of no-damn-place, alongside of U.S. Highway 85 in South Dakota, about halfway between the South Dakota Badlands and the North Dakota Badlands, a couple of modest-sized (by Dakota standards) buttes rise above the prairie. These are the Crow Buttes. The country rolls a bit there, but you can see them from a few miles away as you drive north, headed back to North Dakota after a trip to the Black Hills or some other destination west of the Little Missouri and Belle Fourche Rivers.
There, tucked up against the buttes on the west side of the road, is a must-stop on any Highway 85 trip: The Crow Buttes Mercantile. It’s the only cash register for about 40 miles in any direction. It used to have an old fashioned but workable gas pump, but it finally wore out and the owners say they didn’t sell enough gas to justify purchasing new pumps. So if you’re going that way, and you’re low on gas, fill up at Buffalo or Belle Fourche.
The Crow Buttes Mercantile was founded by Rick and Judy Brengle, ranchers and storekeepers from Aladdin, Wyoming, about 20 miles west of Belle Fourche. They had a pretty successful business in Wyoming, a little store where they sold dry goods and groceries to tourists wandering the back roads between the Black Hills and Devils Tower, and they thought they might be able to cash in with a store on a U.S. Highway.
So in 2000 they bought a patch of land between Belle Fourche and Buffalo, beside Highway 85, and replicated their Wyoming store in South Dakota. Nobody really lives anywhere near there, so they had to rely on travelers for customers. Those travelers came mostly in two shapes: North Dakotans and Canadians headed home after a trip to the Black Hills, and roughnecks headed for the oil fields in North Dakota. The Bakken Boom came along at just the right time for them.
The Crow Buttes Mercantile became famous for three things: bulk chocolate candy, which they sold in bushel baskets in front of the counter, so no one could check out with their purchases without leaning over them; milk shakes and malts made with an original green milk shake machine (remember those?), with real hard ice cream and a spoonful of malt if you wanted it; and bacon—lean hickory smoked bacon. Really good bacon.
I never once drove by the store during daylight hours that I didn’t stop and buy six pounds of bacon—I’d have bought more but I didn’t want to appear gluttonous—and a malted milk for Lillian.
I swore it was the best bacon anywhere. I served it to friends at an annual BLT brunch every fall, near the end of tomato season, and they agreed. I bragged it up to friends and family, and I found out I wasn’t the only one buying it. It’s hugely popular with North Dakotans returning home from the Black HiIlls. I swear, at any given time, you could find Crow Buttes bacon in half the freezers in western North Dakota.
I’ve got a sister in Spearfish, and when tomato season came, if I didn’t have a trip to the Black Hills planned, I’d enlist her to bring bacon to Medora when she and her husband came to play golf at Bully Pulpit, and she’d leave it in the freezer at the Rough Riders Hotel for me, and I’d go out there and pick it up—gave me an excuse to go to the Badlands.
In 2018, the Brengles decided to retire. They sold the store to Scott and Rebecca Sears, and moved back to the ranch at Aladdin. The Sears had been devoted fans of the store over the years, and Brenda was just recovering from a bout with cancer, and they decided to make a fresh start. They bought the store and moved west.
They’ve changed it some, adding a lunch counter, serving a darn good breakfast, and juicy burgers at lunch time. The candy company in Ohio where the Brengles bought their chocolate has gone out of business, but they kept the other two staples—bacon and milk shakes. By the way, if anyone from Bismarck is going by, I’d appreciate it if you’d pick up six pounds of bacon for me.
And when you stop you can also read the historical marker that tells how the Crow Buttes got their name. There are several versions of the story and the marker synthesizes them. Sometime either in the 1820s or 1850s, or both, a war party of Crow Indians ascended the bigger of the buttes to get a better vantage point to keep an eye on a Lakota war party that had attacked their village. The Lakotas surrounded them, and the Crows had no water, and they all died of thirst. Most historians, including one of the most reliable ones I know, my friend Dakota Goodhouse from the Standing Rock Reservation, agree on some version of that story.
But I promised this was a story about bacon. Here it is.
The bacon at the Crow Buttes Mercantile doesn’t have a label. It’s in two pound packages in plain plastic wrappers in a standup freezer on the north wall of the store. It’s good because it’s really lean and really smokey. And it’s cut really thick. About 10 slices to a pound.
Neither the Brengles nor the Sears ever talked about where they got their bacon. Those of us who bought it and raved about it just assumed they made it themselves or bought it from a local farmer or butcher shop. I know I never asked, and nobody I knew ever asked either. It was just Crow Buttes Bacon.
This summer, when Lillian and I were returning from a vacation out west, we purposely planned our return trip home on Highway 85 so we could stop and stock up for BLT season (we grow, and eat, a lot of tomatoes). We stopped on a Saturday afternoon, but were greatly disappointed to find the store was closed. Lillian had been thinking about a malt all the way from California, and I had been dreaming of BLTs. Dang.
So I got home and called my sister Sue in Spearfish and said “When you come to Medora for our family golf gathering in August, bring me six pounds of bacon please.” Sure. No problem. Except when she stopped a couple weeks later, the store was closed again. Uh-oh. Are they out of business?
I went searching online for some answers, and found on their Facebook page that Rebecca’s cancer has returned, and she’s had to close the store from time to time to go for treatments. That’s why the store was closed for a few days.
I’m sure I was not the only disappointed customer. Turns out the store and its owners have a lot of online fans. Here are a couple of reviews.
“Crow Buttes, pop 0, is the only stop on the drive from Rapid City to North Dakota. The lady running it is super friendly, making her the friendliest person we encountered on the entire drive. Recommend!”
“On a -15 degree night my semi gelled up and thankfully I was able to make it to Crow Buttes Mercantile. While I waited for my wife to come and get me….an hour and a half wait….the owners tried to help me get the semi running. No luck, but they made me a delicious burger and let me stay inside the warm building. I can’t thank them enough for all their help and hospitality. I will stop here every time I’m going that way! Got the semi going the next day and made it home once again.”
Well, I thought, maybe I should write a story about this place, and these people. And their bacon.
So I called the store, and Rebecca answered. We visited. She said she was sorry the store hadn’t been open, but that the treatments were helping and she was back at work.
I told her I was a big fan of the bacon and always stopped to buy it. She said yeah, they sell a lot of that. I asked her where they got it. You ready for this?
“We get it from Cloverdale in Mandan, North Dakota.”
Yep. Cloverdale Hickory Smoked Bacon. Probably the same bacon North Dakotans buy in their local grocery store. “When you want it smoky, our Slow-Smoked Hickory Bacon’s flavor is so rich, we crowned it the Bacon King. Smoldered over a bed of real Hickory chips, it’s a flavor majesty that will make your mouth its throne.”
Still laughing, I called the Brengles. “Hey Rebecca Sears just told me she buys her bacon from Cloverdale. Is that where you got it too?”
Crow Buttes Bacon coming off the grill
Well, I’ve bought a lot of Cloverdale bacon in my day, and I like it a lot–it’s lean, and smokey, and thick—but I never put two and two together.
Turns out Cloverdale sells its bacon for repackaging to lots of retail outlets. They make good bacon. Lots of it. Applewood Bacon. Hickory Bacon. Peppered Bacon. Extra Thick Cut Bacon. Brown Sugar Bacon. Triple Slow Smoked Bacon. Uncured bacon. You can find it all on their website, cloverdalefoods.com. Oh, and they have a retail outlet where you can buy it in bulk at their plant north of the Seven Seas in Mandan. I went there not long after I hung up the phone after talking to Rick Brengle. I bought a bunch. And so, at our house, we’ve been eating Crow Buttes Mercantile BLT’s all fall. That Crow Buttes Bacon—that’s the best.
Yeah, I can buy it in Mandan, but I’ll still stop at the Crow Buttes Mercantile every time I go by, and stock up. And Lillian can get her malt too.
How’s that for a bacon story?