Perhaps the most recognizable van in Mitchell is the "Mystery Machine." But to its owners, the van has a special meaning that has been shared now for more than 20 years.
Painted exactly like the van from the famous cartoon "Scooby Doo," the vehicle invokes feelings of nostalgia for Scooby Doo fans, while Gary and Sandy Butterfield continue to drive the windowless van to remember their late son.
"It was his dream to make the 'Mystery Machine' van, and it's how we remember him," Sandy said.
The brightly colored turquoise and lime-green van was the idea of their youngest son, Chad, who was killed in a car crash a few miles east of Mitchell on September 27, 1997, at the age of 18. It was about one month before the crash that Chad completed his creation of the Mystery Machine, and was a highlight in Dakota Wesleyan University's Blue and White Days parade in October.
While it would be fair to assume Chad's dream of creating the Mystery Machine was based on his love for the '70s cartoon show, it was a Scooby Doo toy set inside a fast food meal that sparked Chad's desire to bring the Mystery Machine to life, Gary said.
"When he was 16, he got a Scooby Doo toy at Burger King when he was eating lunch with his friends, and that's where the idea all came about," Sandy said with a laugh.
As an avid car enthusiast, Gary helping his son create his dream vehicle was a labor love, but the purchase of the white 1988 Chevy Astro van was spontaneous, to say the least.
"Gary wasn't real happy when I bought this van, because I bought it at a body shop out in Rapid City, and it needed a lot of work to be done to it," said Sandy, bringing a smirk to Gary's face, as he crossed his arms and shook his head.
Brian, Gary and Sandy's oldest son, was living in Rapid City when Chad went to visit his brother, which is when Chad spotted the perfect van to begin his quest of making his dream come to life. With the exception of the driver side and passenger door, Gary said a windowless van was Chad's main focus for finding the right one.
"When we were driving around Rapid City one day, Chad saw this van at a body shop that had no windows on the sides and back, and he shouted, "Oh, that's it!'," Gary said. "And vans with no windows like that are kind of on the rare side."
A few months later, Sandy was visiting Brian alone in Rapid City, when she bought the $1,200 Chevy Astro van, unbeknownst to Gary. After Sandy bought the van, a friend of Gary's oldest son Brian was tasked with the mission of driving the van back to Mitchell.
But just 10 miles outside of Rapid City, the motor blew up, Sandy said.
"Brian had to then go get a tow truck to haul the van back to Rapid City, which was $100," Sandy said, as she broke out in laughter sitting next to Gary.
While the mission to bring home the van was in jeopardy, a friend of Sandy's offered his trailer to haul the van back to Mitchell, where it finally arrived, even though it was in rough shape.
Given Gary's lifelong love for classic cars, he found a friend who built a new motor for the van. And little by little, the Mystery Machine was becoming a reality. Backed with a new motor, Chad began to strip the interior and found a rugged couch next to the trash at a local furniture store and installed it in the back of the van with the help of some friends.
"It was a midnight furniture salvage for sure," Gary said, following it up with a big laugh.
After Chad installed the couch and completed the interior, then came the top tier Earthquake 6.5-inch subwoofer sound system. The paint job provided the finishing touches for the van, and to this day, Gary tends to the now-30-year old van closely, parking it in his garage.
Of course, the paint makes the whole vehicle pop. While Chad was away during the summer of 1997 completing his basic training, Gary took the van to a local paint and body shop and fulfilled his son's dream van, complete with Mystery Machine logo emblazoned on the sides.
"When Chad told his friends at basic training that he made a Mystery Machine van, they didn't believe him, so I brought photos to prove it when we picked him up," Sandy said.
Upon Chad returning home from basic training, the moment finally arrived for the then 18-year-old to cruise around town in his dream van.
It wasn't long before people around Mitchell took notice to the Scooby Doo van cruising through town. Recently, the local girls youth dance club called Ahh Dance asked the couple if they could drive the Mystery Machine for their float in the DWU Blue and White Days parade.
"Taking it through the parade connects us with Chad so much, and it brings tears to our eyes," an emotional Sandy said.
While Chad's iconic Mystery Machine captured the attention of many locals, it found its way into the former Car Audio and Electronics national magazine, which highlighted unique car sound systems.
During a Kernel football game on the night Chad died, he had parked the van behind the goal post, where he and his friends watched the game and showed off the sound system, which Gary said was heard from a mile away.
"You could hear the bass all the way from the bleachers, and I heard a lady nearby ask, 'Whose kid is that?' And I replied, 'It's my son,'" Sandy said. "That was the last night I saw him, and a friend of his stopped over to give me a Scooby Doo stuffed animal."