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Freeman's Schmeckfest event canceled for third year in a row

COVID-19 concerns again fuel move to hold off on musical, group meal

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Visitors check out he booths, displays and food demonstrations going on inside the Sterling Hall Gymnasium during the 60th Annual Schmeckfest in 2018 on Freeman Academy's campus.
Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic
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FREEMAN, S.D. — For the third year in a row, the annual Schmeckfest in Freeman has been canceled, with organizers saying the recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the state prompted them to again heavily modify the annual celebration of the Germans from Russia who settled the area in the 1800s.

The move came at a recent meeting of the Freeman Academy Auxiliary, the organizational body that coordinates the event.

“It’s been so frustrating, and we waited and waited until the last minute to make our announcement about what we were going to do,” said Kathy Kleinsasser, president of the Freeman Academy Auxiliary.

The decision that came down was to again cancel the planned presentation of “Matilda the Musical,” which had been planned for performances beginning in 2020. That Schmeckfest, along with the 2021 event, was canceled due to COVID-19. Organizers had again planned to move forward with the show this year, but concerns about the pandemic again forced their hand.

The musical is usually held in Pioneer Hall, one of the basketball auditoriums on the campus of Freeman Academy. The venue hosts hundreds of guests for the show, which usually boasts a cast of dozens and four performances that take place over two weekends. The decision to not hold the musical was made back in January, with organizers holding off on making an announcement about the meal itself.

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The meal, which features a variety of traditional German food dishes, is held in the basement of Pioneer Hall. Both events feature large groups of people gathering in enclosed spaces, and with the omicron variant of COVID-19 still at large in South Dakota, Kleinsasser said organizers simply did not want to contribute to further spread of the disease, both for the safety of their visitors and volunteers, but the public at large.

“That’s why we just can’t see it happening. Throwing all those people together in the basement and then without a show, it just really ruins the whole atmosphere. So we decided to stick to what we know,” Kleinsasser said.

Tickets for the event had been on sale for months, so refunds are now underway. The refunds serve as a stark reminder that this will be the third year in a row that COVID-19 has dented the event’s ability to act as Freeman Academy’s primary annual fundraiser. The loss of the funds does have an impact on the private school, which hosts students from grades K-12.

Tickets for the musical have historically run anywhere from $18 for premiere up-front seating to $8 for general admission adults. For the meal, prices range from $22 for adults to $10 for children. Both events typically draw upwards of 1,000 visitors.

It’s hard to find a suitable substitute for an event like Schmeckfest, Kleinsassser said, but she said some individuals of the festival have stepped up with donations.

“That’s why we feel so terrible — that we can’t get that kind of money coming in. Luckily, last year, we had a gentleman from Sioux City who did a matching donation, and that helped so much. Whatever we made with our (Country Kitchen) sales, he matched up to $50,000,” Kleinsasser said.

There will again be no musical, but there will be a way for Schmeckfest fans to get their fix of their classic food favorites. A walk-in Country Kitchen will offer select Schmeckfest favorites for sale along with the annual sausage sale. The dates have been set for two consecutive Saturdays on March 26 and April 2. Organizers are seeking donations of ethnic foods and baked goods. More plans on that are forthcoming, Kleinsasser said.

Mike Walter, mayor of Freeman, said losing the full-blown Schmeckfest for a third year in a row is disappointing. The event serves as one of the signature social events in the community of about 1,500 people, and it draws well over 1,000 visitors to the community each year. Those visitors spend money not only at Schmeckfest, but at businesses in town, such as gas stations and grocery stores.

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“Any time you lose a tradition it’s not what you want. It’s a tremendous plus for Freeman anytime you bring people into the community. It’s kind of like a class reunion, you see people you don’t normally get to visit with. I don’t want to say it’s sad, but it is on a lot of fronts. It is missed,” Walter said.

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For the third year in a row, both the Schmeckfest meal and musical have been canceled due to COVID-19.
Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic

When people spend money in town, the city benefits from sales tax revenue. Events like Schmeckfest and the Freeman Chislic Festival are a boon to city coffers, but as much is lost on the social unity and community promotional side, as well.

“It’s not just (city sales tax). There is the financial side, but then you’ve got the camaraderie side. Freeman as a general rule doesn’t hold a lot of all-school reunions. They have tried but it really hasn’t caught on. But some of that is because of Schmeckfest, and the Freeman Chislic Festival does some of that also,” Walter said. “A lot of people plan get togethers around Schmeckfest. You hate to lose that part.”

Kleinsasser said the choice to again modify Schmeckfest was not made lightly, but the Freeman Academy Auxiliary was comfortable in their decision. Both the visitors who attend the event and the volunteers who put it on tend to be on the older side, and Kleinsasser said the auxiliary did not want to put those who may be at risk for COVID-19 infections in any more danger.

“We’re very comfortable with our decision. Hopefully the health situation will look a bit better in a month and a half. There are other places that don’t have the same kind of precautions or concerns, but I guess we’re just a little more cautious probably than some communities,” Kleinsasser said. “If one person that has some underlying conditions catches something because of Schmeckfest, we’d feel so terrible about that happening.”

For now, the event, started in 1959 as a celebration of what was then known as the Freeman Junior College Women’s Auxiliary and had been held yearly until the COVID-19 outbreak, will press on in its modified format.

Kleinsasser said despite optimism that Schmeckfest will eventually weather the storm, challenges will undoubtedly remain. Even in years prior to COVID-19, it could be difficult to secure the hundreds of volunteers needed to make the event happen. The outbreak has made it more difficult, but she said Schmeckfest will adjust as needed and continue to serve as a signature event for both the school and the community.

“We’re not sure whether we can even get back, or if we’ll get back to the old format,” Kleinsasser said. “So we’re thinking about looking at the whole picture and maybe coming up with some new arrangements, a whole new format. As the population (ages and decreases), we might have to cut back on some things.”

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More information about the 2022 modified Schmeckfest and future events, visit www.schmeckfest.com or the Schmeckfest Facebook page for further announcements.

Related Topics: FREEMAN
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 ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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