OLIVET -- A small church in a tiny South Dakota town continued its tradition Wednesday of serving up pancakes and sausage to the public in exchange for free-will donations at the 65th annual Groundhog Day at the United Methodist Church in Olivet.
The event, which has drawn hundreds of people a year to the church in the Hutchinson County seat, is sponsored by the church and organized by the men of the congregation as a fundraiser for the church each year around the date of Feb. 2 — Groundhog Day.
It has become a tradition that quadruples the population of Olivet — 74 at the 2010 census — one day a year and draws people in from communities near and far, said Vic Bush, a longtime volunteer and one of the organizers of the event.
“I’m 73, and I have been involved with about 50 years of it,” Bush said after taking a break from mixing pancake batter in the church kitchen. “When it started, it was a fundraiser to raise money for the kitchen in the church. One idea was to hold a pancake and sausage day around Groundhog Day, and the rest of them couldn’t come up with a better idea, so they decided to try it. We’ve been going at it ever since.”
About a dozen fellow volunteers created a buzz of activity around Bush Wednesday, with several manning two gas griddles filled with sizzling pancakes and patty sausages, another group passing plates of both through the serving window and another group forming raw sausage in a nearby room into patties for frying.
It’s a system the volunteers have developed over the decades of holding the event.
“I have seen some of the old pictures when they started the event at the old church (building). They were using electric frying pans, and they kept flipping the circuit breakers,” Bush said.
The fundraiser brought in money that helped the church improve its kitchen facilities. When the church moved into a new building years ago, the kitchen was designed to better accommodate the event. The gas grills, a much more efficient method of cooking, replaced the old frying pans and saved wear and tear on the stressed circuit breakers. An exhaust system was added to keep the cooking smoke to a minimum. Cardboard is laid down on the floor for the event every year to keep the floors clean and to prevent them from becoming slippery due to the frying oil.
Bush estimates the event draws around 300 people per year, although the group does not take an official head count. Waves of people come in throughout the day, with the lunch and dinner rushes being the busiest times. And people come from all over. Bush said people come from Menno, Olivet, Scotland, Freeman and even from as far away as Yankton.
For some in the area, the event is a lunch or dinner tradition.
“We just had a group in from Mettler Implement and Fertilizer (in Menno). They always come in about 11:30 a.m. and beat the rush so they’re out of the way and back to work. And the Hutchinson County Courthouse (employees) will be coming, and we have a lot of people who come at noon and come again for supper,” Bush said.
The money raised from the event continues to go toward keeping the kitchen up to date, as well as a number of other church projects.
“We always use it to help the kids go to church camp, we always pay their way, and anything we need to replace in the kitchen comes from this,” Bush said. “And then we use a lot of it for mission work. There always seems to be a need there.”
Bush said the group plans to continue the event as long as they can continue to get volunteers to take the time to put it on. The event is an all-day affair, starting at 11 a.m. and continuing until 7 p.m. There is also work to be done before and cleanup afterward, Bush said.
But for the most part, volunteers answer the call.
“We usually have anywhere from 12 to 16 volunteers,” Bush said. “It’s easier (finding volunteers) now than it was. A lot of the guys used to milk cows, and they had to be gone in the evening, and that’s our real rush time. Now there are quite a few of us that are retired, so we have no excuse.”
Throughout the day, those volunteers work over a hot griddle, mix dozens of bags of pancake mix and press sausage for the hungry masses that walk through the door. But even as they concentrate on the task at hand, they take time to greet and interact with hungry friends and neighbors as they make their way inside.
And they don’t let anyone leave hungry, Bush said.
“We just keep making them until 7 p.m., but if there are still people here, we’ll keep making them as long as we have stuff left,” Bush said.