Wednesday, April 18, 2012

“Devil Dan,” The Cowboy Whiskey Man

In 1886 a 26 year old Missouri-born ranch hand rode his horse up to a South Dakota stage coach station that held a saloon. The next day he owned the place and thereupon was launched the career of Daniel P. Roberts, also known as “Devil Dan.”

The stage stop, similar to the one shown here, was called the DeMores Station. It was named for the Marquis de Mores, a French nobleman who had established a stage line between Medora, North Dakota, and Deadwood, South Dakota. Dan Roberts was employed by the VVV Ranch on the Belle Fourche River and was heading for Deadwood for the Christmas holidays when he dropped into the saloon to warm up from the frigid Dakota weather.

A holiday dance was in progress and the saloon owner, who had been nipping at his own booze all day, was heading to bed to sleep it off. He asked Devil Dan, who did not drink, to look after the business. The well-likkered cowboy crowd got rowdy and began to break up the furniture and knock out windows. Dan let them have their way but as the men sobered up he made them pay for the damages. The next morning the owner sold the place to Roberts for $125 and departed.

Roberts repaired the damage and appears to have taken to the role as saloonkeeper. After running the DeMores establishment for a few months, he apparently sold it and leased the Cliff House, a larger stage coach station and saloon, in nearby Deadwood. A year or so later, for unknown reasons, Roberts relocated to Montana and the lively cow town of Livingston in Park County. Along the way he married Sarah Jane Grimmett. At least two of their four children were born in Livingston, including their only son, David Henry Roberts, known as Henry.

Meanwhile back in South Dakota, the area around the DeMores Station was booming. A frontier marshal and prosperous rancher named Seth Bullock donated land across his land and convinced the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad to build its tracks there. In 1890 a depot was constructed next to the stage stop and the new town of Belle Fourche was launched. Four years later as the result of some chicanery by Bullock, the place was chosen as the seat of Butte County. By 1895, Belle Fourche was shipping 2,500 carloads of cattle per month in the peak season, making it the world's largest livestock shipping point. The town, shown here in the early 1900s, grew quickly.

Roberts, no doubt aware of the activity taking place in his former patch of South Dakota, returned to Belle Fourche with his wife and children. In 1905 he opened a new drinking establishment on the main street of town that he called The Stand-Up Bar. In addition to providing whiskey by the drink, he also sold it “wholesale” in large jugs. Robert’s saloon was a major cut above the stage stops. As the centerpiece of the house he bought an ornate Chicago-made Brunswick bar and saloon outfit, similar to the one shown here, purchasing it from the owner of the Derby Saloon in Deadwood. It featured an elegant cherry wood back bar and matching front counter.

No sooner had Roberts opened the Stand Up Bar, however, than he was embarked on the trip of his life. Seth Bullock had been a Rough Rider during the Spanish-American War and had become a friend of Theodore Roosevelt. When Roosevelt was inaugurated as President in 1905 Bullock conceived the idea of having a cowboy section in the inaugural parade. He recruited 62 cowboys from around the West for the ride. Among them were five from Belle Fourche, including Dan Roberts and son Henry, the youngest rider in the group.

Shipping their horses by rail ahead of them, the cowboys, including future movie star Tom Mix, followed in their own railroad coaches, having a raucous time. In Washington, as shown here, Roberts and the others were reunited with their ponies and rode around streets of the Nation’s Capitol to exercise their mounts. For the parade, security agents allowed the riders to carry pistols in their holsters as part as their costume, but the guns were unloaded. Riding eight abreast in the parade, they were cheered lustily by the waiting crowds. As they passed the reviewing stand President Roosevelt is said to have jumped up, clapped his hands and shouted: "That's bully! That's excellent, Captain Bullock!"

Returning to Belle Fourche, Roberts took up the role of saloonkeeper in earnest. Like other Western cow towns, Belle Fourche was a wild, wide open place. The main street was known as Saloon Street because of all the “watering holes” located there. Brothels and gambling dens were also a mainstay. As one early resident put it: “The ranchers would come in town to ship and if we didn’t have any entertainment, they would take all that money to Deadwood. The cowboys wanted to gamble, to drink and dance, and they wanted girls. The merchants of Belle Fourche saw that the cowboys had what they wanted.”

Dan Roberts was among them. Apparently he cut quite a figure in Belle Fourche. Although called “Kid” during his days as a VVV ranch hand, he drew the nickname, “Devil Dan,” for reason unknown. He apparently was widely known as such and that nickname is part of his web memorial. From the whiskey jugs he left behind, Roberts appears to have bought quality ceramics from the Red Wing Potteries of Minnesota. The combination pocket mirror and bar token issued in his name shows similar good taste.

“Devil Dan” ran his Stand Up Saloon until National Prohibition in 1920. He apparently was in Belle Fourche in 1926 when the town celebrated the first reunion and 21st anniversary of the inaugural ride. Tom Mix, now a famous motion picture star, said he would come but later sent regrets. Roberts lived to see Repeal and the beginning of World War II. He died in 1942 at the age of 82 and is buried in the Roberts family plot at Pine Slope Cemetery, located on West Highway 34 near Belle Fourche.

After Repeal, the Stand Up Saloon was reopened as a Belle Fourche tourist attraction, operated by the town itself. In 1960s the building burned and only Robert’s ornate Brunswick bar was saved. The saloon was rebuilt, sold to private interests in 1967, and has had several subsequent changes of ownership. The name has been changed to Cowboy Back Bar, but the ornate Brunswick bar remains.

The Western saloon has been a staple of motion pictures. Few are Hollywood’s silver screen cowpokes who have not prowled their haunts. Dan Roberts knew the Western saloon better than any of them. He started in the liquor business from a rough cabin in the bleak South Dakota wilderness, moved to a more commodious barroom in Deadwood, and finally operated an elite drinking establishment in rowdy Belle Fourche. “Devil Dan” truly was a cowboy whiskey man.


  1. I have been reading and enjoying your informative blogs that I came upon quite by accident. However this particular entry has to be my favorite. It has everything in it that is America. Just wonderful and thank you for your careful research and golden writing style. You are much appreciated.

  2. Margaret: You are so kind with your remarks. Glad you like the blog. It is a joy to do. The piece on "Devil Dan" was particularly absorbing. He clearly deserves an extended narrative beyond what can be put into a post.

  3. Absolutely wonderful read! I am a huge fan of quirky history and this definitely fits the bill, thank you!

  4. Dear Pam: Thanks for your kind remarks about my piece on "Devil Dan" Roberts. He was fun to write up.

  5. Nice post! This is a very nice blog that I will definitively come back to more times this year! Thanks for informative post. kimber holsters

  6. Thanks for your kind comments. The "Devil Dan" piece was fun to research, particularly when I came across the information about his being in the Inaugural Parade for Teddy Roosevelt.

  7. While doing an on-line search regarding my family history, I was delighted to be directed to this post about my grandfather, Daniel Preston Roberts. Because DP died the year I was born, there are many things about his early life I did not know so this article has helped fill in some of the blanks. There are two misstatements I would like to address: My grandmother was Sarah Jane Davidson - William Grimmett was her step-father and my father was the only one of DP's four children born in Montana. Aunt Ethel and Aunt Babe were born in South Dakota and Aunt Maude was born in Idaho. As for my father he was 15 years old when my grandfather and he accompanied Seth Bullock's Cowboys to the Inaugural Parade for Teddy Roosevelt in 1905. A portrait of him commissioned by my grandfather prior to their trip to Washington, D.C. is a part of the historical collection of the Tri-State Museum in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Once again my I express my appreciation for the research undertaken for this article. S. K. (Roberts) Long

  8. Another great story about Dan Roberts is about the bar's dimes. He would bring home all the dimes from the bar to his wife. When they had acclimated enough dimes they built a house located on State Street, right next to the Methodist church.

  9. Mary: Thanks for adding this very interesting detail to the story of Dan Roberts. His life was so colorful he deserves at least a chapter in a book on the Old West.