Overlooking the rolling plains of South Dakota is the ghost town of Okaton. Though the 2020 census states 31 people still inhabit the town, the vast majority must live on nearby farms, as most of the remaining buildings are crumbling, and there are no services or businesses.
Okaton’s days as a thriving railroad and farming community are long past. Established along the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, as it pushed westward towards Rapid City in the early 1900s, the town housed many railroad men and hardy homesteaders. It soon sprouted several businesses, all but one of which are gone today.
As the railroad building moved westward, many railroad workers followed, leaving the community just shortly after its founding.
Though many homesteaders hung on, raising cattle and planting fields with various grains, many also began to leave as they faced the harsh reality of the vicious winters. During the Great Depression, this was especially true when numerous residents left the farms searching for jobs in the cities.
When the railroad pulled out in the mid-1980s and the town was bypassed by I-90, it spelled certain death for what little was left of the town.
However, it was during this decade that Robert and Evelyn Westlake, who had no roots in the area, moved from Illinois to Okaton, bought some property, and tried to turn the small town into somewhat of a tourist destination, placing numerous signs on nearby I-90 advertising “Westlake’s Ghost Town!” Their “tourist destination” at that time included a well-stocked rock shop, gas pumps, and a “general store” serving drinks and sandwiches. The Westlakes also built a “ghost town façade” at the side of their store and provided a petting zoo for visitors. Their signage worked as the people began to detour off the highway to visit the small town.
Today, the Westlakes have passed on, their holdings have been sold, the signs are gone, and the “ghost town façade” is no longer open for visitors. The “general store” still stands but is closed today.
The town’s post office closed in 2013.
However, this little ghost town is well worth the exit for views of its numerous crumbling buildings and photo opportunities, not to mention a serious nostalgic flavor that seems to waft in the air and transport you back to another time.
The large, abandoned grain elevator still stands near the old railroad tracks, displaying the words Bingo Grain Co. This building was the elevator for the Okaton Grain Co.; however, at one time, a movie was filmed here, and the producers painted the name of the “Bingo Grain Co.” on its side. Though the building still bears the false name, the movie was never released.
The old general store and rock shop, complete with gas pumps and its “ghost town façade,” is just across the road. In the small town, visitors will find several old homes, a school, tumbling shacks and grain storage buildings, rusting farm equipment, and rickety fences.
Please be aware that all of the buildings in this town are privately owned, not part of any “attraction,” and current residents still utilize many for various purposes. Yes! — Even those that are crumbling. Please do not venture off the public roads onto these properties to explore their interiors, get a better picture, or get a closer look.
Okaton is south of I-90, at Exit 183 in south-central South Dakota.