Chislic Festival Cooks Up Another Winner

BY RANDY DOCKENDORF | Yankton P&D

FREEMAN — On Saturday, the South Dakota Chislic Festival wasn’t your typical "meat and greet" event.

The festival’s namesake — deep-fried cubes of meat — drew around 10,000 visitors to the Prairie Arboretum on the Freeman Academy campus. Chislic has been designated as South Dakota’s "official state nosh," or snack.

Saturday’s event swelled Freeman’s population of 1,300. In the process, the Hutchinson County town became one of the 10 largest cities in South Dakota, at least for a day.

The huge success of last year’s inaugural event caught organizers off guard. They hoped for 2,000 — instead, 8,000-10,000 people poured into Freeman’s city park. The number overwhelmed the festival organizers, and vendors ran out of food and beer. Parking was at a premium, and cars were backed up on U.S. Highway 81 which runs along the east side of Freeman.

Organizers regrouped for this year, moving the festival to the spacious arboretum setting and ramping up the number of vendors to about 50, according to South Dakota Chislic Festival founder and executive director Josh Hofer.

"We had a great crowd throughout the day," he said. "Our official estimate is 8,000-10,000 visitors, which was in line with expectations."

A change in the festival’s length of time made a major difference, Hofer said.

"We were very pleased with the flow of the new 12-hour schedule. Lines moved well, and we had excellent attendance throughout the day," he said.

"It was a wonderful day, and we have been overwhelmed with the positive response for the venue and changes made from our first year."

The festival received support from Freeman and beyond, allowing this year’s event to run smoothly, Hofer said.

"Thank you so much to our volunteers, our vendors, our service providers, our sponsors, and the community, region, and state that make our event possible," he said.

Plans are already under way for next year’s gathering, Hofer said.

"While the end of July is a safe bet for a general date, we will make a more specific announcement as soon as possible," he said.

A WIDE VARIETY

Chislic may have remained the star of Saturday’s festival, but the event offered other attractions. Those offerings included craft beer; kuchen, funnel cakes and other treats; and a large tent for eating and visiting.

In addition, the festival offered spacious room for walking and stopping at booths, a kids’ zone for the younger set, a chislic presentation and a line-up of bands in a large seating area overlooking a pond and flower beds.

Approximately 50 vendors came from far and wide, reflecting the popularity of the event.

At the Black Hills Chislic booth, Lex Blair and other workers stayed busy filling orders. "We stick with lamb, which is the original chislic, and our meat is deep fried," she said.

The Rapid City company may be based hundreds of miles away on the other side of the state, but its supply originates just a few miles from Freeman.

"Our lamb comes from the Tripp area, and the chislic is provided by Kepp’s of Scotland, which are both near here," Blair said.

The company uses the traditional lamb, but it parts company on the way many customers expect their chislic to be served, she said.

"It’s not skewered or served on a stick. We serve it up in a basket," she said.

After hearing of last year’s large crowd, the Black Hills Chislic booth wanted to be ready for another large and hungry turnout, Blair said.

"We made sure we had enough meat," she said. "We brought along additional chislic in a deep freeze."

Saturday’s festival included a chislic competition, bringing out contestants in two categories. SSS Chislic won the Classic Sheep category, while the Armour Fire Department won the "New Age Nosh" category

The Armour firefighters usually put out fires, but on Saturday they were smoking when it came to their chislic entry.

Armour fireman Rod Dally pointed to the top award won by the department, which his son, Gunnar, hoisted for display. The category covers chislic made with meat other than lamb and mutton.

"We won the ‘New Age Nosh’ category for our pork chislic. The rule is that the meat has to be raised in South Dakota," Rod said. "We used pork chislic that we bought from Krull’s Market in Armour. We smoked it, using an apple cider sauce to give it a little heat."

Besides carting home the hardware for their winning effort, the Armour firefighters were enjoying a brisk day of chislic sales.

"We bought 650 pounds of meat and have made 450 pounds so far (as of late afternoon)," Rod said.

Chislic wasn’t the only offering for carnivores. Freeman Academy offered homemade German sausage.

Vernetta Waltner, the school’s development director, waited on customers. Workers prepared the meat in the back, while Rodney Waltner and Carolyn Preheim served up orders.

"This is pure pork and a special recipe," Vernetta said, not giving away the secret ingredients. "We had about 260 pounds when we started, and we’ve sold about 130 pounds (by 5 p.m.)

DRAWING A CROWD

The chislic festival drew visitors from far and wide — in one case, several states all at once.

Robin Morgan of Missouri was checking out the booths. For her, the festival provided the setting for a family reunion which has Freeman as a base.

"We have 34 of us here for the reunion," she said. "We have people here from Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Virginia, Minnesota, Georgia and Missouri."

Morgan admitted she needed to learn more at first about chislic.

"I didn’t hear much about it growing up in Missouri, but we have some cousins who live here (around Freeman) and love chislic," she said. "This (setting) is great because we love local festivals. We got here at 10 o’clock this morning. We then went downtown for a couple of hours, and now we’re back here (on the grounds)."

Morgan said she enjoyed all aspects of the chislic festival. "We really like the food — the combinations of lamb, mutton and pork. And I love it because it’s a local tradition," she added.

Holding a family gathering at the same time just made it all the better, Morgan said. "Isn’t it great they held this party for our family reunion?" she asked jokingly.

For Landon and Laure (Wehde) Friesen, the chislic festival represented a homecoming. Landon was born in Freeman and grew up in Nebraska. Laura attended the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and worked for the Press & Dakotan and the Mitchell Daily Republic, covering Freeman and other area communities.

The couple met in Sioux City, and they now live in Omaha with their one-year-old daughter, Ruby.

"We come back to Freeman for Schmeckfest and to visit my grandma, who lives in a house just across the street (from the arboretum). Now, we’re coming back for the chislic festival," Landon said.

Laura heard about last year’s overwhelming response, and she was impressed with the changes made by the festival committee.

"It’s amazing how it’s all spaced out and so well organized. I think they got a lot of feedback last year, and they used it to make improvements this year," she said. "I think, this year, they’re prepared for a big turnout. This festival really highlights what’s excellent about South Dakota.

Laura joked that chislic remains mostly a South Dakota tradition.

"When I mention it to my friends from other states, they ask, ‘Chislic? What’s that?’" she said with a laugh. "I try to explain it and tell them that the closest way to describe it may be fried steak tips."

Laura was impressed with the large crowd on hand for Saturday’s event.

"The turnout is exceptional. I think it speaks to the small town values of Freeman," she said. "People wouldn’t come to this event in mass numbers if it was terrible. This (festival) is great, and the people are really friendly. Their hospitality shows."

Landon pointed out to the large number of workers who kept the festival humming in all aspects.

"They have so many volunteers. It’s pretty amazing to see," he said. "The town perks up for things like Schmeckfest (in the spring). Now, this is a great summer activity."

Unlike many Freeman residents, Rolf Olson is a transplant rather than originally from the area. However, his wife’s family farmed near Freeman, and he has become part of the community.

He noted the major improvements in this year’s festival in terms of keeping everything flowing smoothly.

"Last year was chaos and crazy, but it was fun. I waited 45 minutes for chislic and a half-hour for a beer. At some stands, people waited 1 ½ hours. It was really crowded, but it was fun," he said. "This year, they had a lot more vendors and a lot more room. Things are much more spread out this year, and you didn’t have to wait in long lines."

While some may question the large turnout for a festival centered around meat, Olson believes he knows the answer.

"Chislic is something that people have heard about and know about," he said. "It also has its own history which makes it a little bit mysterious and curious."

He was impressed to see the large number of visitors from outside the area.

"I talked to someone from Sioux Falls who asked, ‘Why doesn’t Freeman have something every weekend? We’d come to it!’" he said. "I think this succeeds so well because they get the support from local people. What better summertime activity? You have great food and you get to meet new people. It’s beautiful, and it’s about Middle America."

Olson holds no doubt the chislic festival will have a long and successful future.

"I think this has become a tradition, and it will continue for many years to come. There’s no stopping it now," he said. "The only way it wouldn’t (continue) is if the organizers got tired of it, and even then I think someone would take it over."

Madison resident Justin Mikel and his 7-year-old daughter, Autumn, were checking out the food booths. The family had arrived just minutes earlier after a 60-mile trip but already had plans for the evening.

"We’re going to have some chislic and spend some time down here (at the grounds)," Justin said. "As far as chislic, I’m more for the beef than the lamb."

Justin also enjoys craft beer, and he planned to check out the varieties on tap at the festival.

The Mikel family didn’t attend last year’s festival, so they were looking forward to seeing what awaited them. However, Justin already was impressed by what he saw after just a few minutes.

"I think it’s great for Freeman," he said. "They have a beautiful town, and they’re doing a really good job with the festival."

For Hofer, those kinds of reviews show Freeman and the chislic festival are moving in the right direction.

"It was an amazing day! In year one, we were overwhelmed," he said. "We are so thankful to the region for its graciousness and patience, and we’ve proven here that amazing things are possible in small communities."

Tabitha Schoenwald