Pandemic puts the brakes on small town festivals

Organizers hopeful 2021 will see return to large group events

The grandstands at the Turner County Fair grounds in Parker sit empty recently. Like many small town events and festivals in 2020, organizers chose to cancel the annual fair this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

People have been coming to the Turner County Fair in Parker for 140 years.

But not this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted many traditional spring and summer events that would otherwise host thousands of visitors in small communities in South Dakota. With health officials urging steps such as social distancing and avoiding large groups to help reduce the spread of the deadly disease, organizers at several events chose to err on the side of caution and either cancel or push back their events to a later date.

For the Turner County Fair, the oldest county fair in South Dakota, the decision to not hold the event in 2020 came in late June, just as the severity of the outbreak was becoming more clear to the public.

“We had a lot of concerns,” said Lavonne Meyer, manager for the Turner County Fair.


Later, the company with whom the fair contracts to provide its carnival rides contacted them to let them know they wouldn’t be able to provide services this year. Meyer said the board became concerned that holding the fair without some of its familiar staples could put some visitors off.

“We didn’t want people to come to the fair when it wasn’t the one they’re used to seeing and then go home disappointed,” Meyer said.

Meyer said that the last time the fair was cancelled was due to World War II, although she said she did hear a rumor that it may have been canceled more recently than that due to another public health crisis: polio. The virus was a scourge in the early part of the 20th century before a vaccine was developed in 1955.

“Somebody brought up that it might have been cancelled because of polio, but I can’t confirm that as the gospel truth. But it was interesting that it could have been a disease that stopped it,” Meyer said.

Meyer estimated that between 60,000 to 80,000 attend the fair yearly. There will undoubtedly be some disappointment to those who look forward to the event, but she felt there will also be others who are relieved, including some of the dozens of volunteers who keep the fair going.

“This was going to be our (140th) celebration year, and we wanted to do something special, but this isn’t really what we had planned. I guess next year will be the 140th,” Meyer said.

Momentum momentarily halted

Across the county line to the west, the community of Freeman has seen two of its most popular events cancelled due to the pandemic.

The South Dakota Chislic Festival, which was originally scheduled for Saturday, July 24, would have entered its third year after organizers set out to hold a celebration of the local delicacy.


The festival was so successful in its inaugural year that thousands of hungry visitors descended on the small community, overwhelming the organizers with greater-than-expected numbers and stressing the public park and ball field locations where it was held. They were better prepared for the second year after moving the event to the south side of town.

And then COVID-19 arrived.

“We really deliberated early this summer. It was a pretty tough decision for all of us,” Josh Hofer, founder of the festival and a current member of the organizing board, said of the decision to cancel the 2020 incarnation of the event.

Hofer said a number of logistics fed into the decision, including the difficulty of securing sponsorship for an event that some were unsure would happen due to the pandemic. And then there was keeping staff and visitors safe, which could be a challenging task, he said.

“We were watching pretty closely what they were saying at the CDC and how the virus was acting. It’s so difficult to anticipate how it interacts with the population,” Hofer said.

The South Dakota Chislic Festival has drawn between 7,500 to 10,000 people each of the first two years.

The festival has already secured dates for the 2021 event, and Hofer said organizers will use the off year to evaluate and make adjustments to the procedures.

“We’re looking forward to next year,” Hofer said.


A sign at the intersection of Highway 81 and Highway 44 north of Freeman promotes the community and two of its annual events - the South Dakota Chislic Festival and Schmeckfest. Both events were canceled for the first time this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

A first time for everything

If the South Dakota Chislic Festival is the new kid on the block for festivals in Freeman, then Schmeckfest is the experienced veteran.

Started in 1959 as a fundraiser for Freeman Academy, the local private high school, it celebrates the heritage of the Germans from Russia who settled around the Freeman area in the 19th century. It has become known for its group-style German meal and its yearly musical presentations that draw thousands from around the country for two weekends every spring.

But organizers did not wish to risk the health and safety of those in attendance by holding it this year.

“It was an unbelievably difficult decision, but when it comes to health and safety, especially with an older demographic of guests, there was no choice,” said Meranda Van Ningen, a spokesperson for the event.

Originally scheduled for the last two weekends in March in 2020, leaders did not have much time to make the call. Preparations had begun in earnest, with rehearsals already in full swing for the musical “Matilda the Musical.”

The festival was cancelled March 13, around the same time Freeman Academy closed its doors to in-person classes and moved to an online format.


They were able to re-secure the rights to perform “Matilda” again in 2021, paving the way for a return for the cast and crew who had already put so much time into the project. And a drive-through concept for distributing the traditional food available at the festival kept the community spirit of Schmeckfest alive despite there being no official event to enjoy.

Van Ningen said they will continue to evaluate conditions and the state of the pandemic as the 2021 Schmeckfest approaches next spring. Hopefully, there will be developments in the next eight months that signal a return to group celebrations like the Turner County Fair, the Freeman Chislic Festival and Schmeckfest.

“We’re following state recommendations and the CDC. And as numbers throughout the state evolve, we will evolve,” Van Ningen said. “We hope by that time something will give us the green light. We’re very hopeful, but we don’t want to have it happen a second year.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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