The first South Dakota Chislic Festival in Freeman last year saw upwards of 10,000 people descend on the small southeast South Dakota town, overwhelming the organizers of the vent, the food vendors brought in to provide chislic and other foods and the community in general.
Lines were long and slow. Parking was crowded. And the venue, a baseball and softball complex and part of a city park, was too small for the people from throughout the region who flocked to the town. After it was all over, the festival board regrouped. Organizers re-evaluated the demand for chislic, the event location and the number of volunteers needed to pull off such a festival.
The fruits of that 11 months of labor paid off Saturday, as a new-look South Dakota Chislic Festival debuted at the Prairie Arboretum on the campus of Freeman Academy, an idyllic 40-acre refuge populated by prairie grass and trees on the south side of town.
As of late in the afternoon during the festival, founder Josh Hofer said year two of the event was progressing much smoother, and the crowds turned up like organizers had hoped. Hofer estimated that people from at least 20 states were at the festival Saturday.
“We had a great crowd for two-thirds of the day, and I’m pretty sure we won’t struggle in the evening,” he said. “Our estimate is that we’ll cover 10,000 people. After that, we’ll have to see how the evening goes.”
The new venue allowed vendors and visitors to spread out and enjoy the variety of activities held during the day. Bean bag tournaments were held as live music drifted through the air and people could be found lounging on the grass in the shade between stops at various chislic booths and craft vendors.
The arboretum made a huge difference in the comfort level for all involved, Hofer said.
“It’s been really fantastic. One of the nice things of the festival has been the opportunity to reveal the Prairie Arboretum to the world,” Hofer said.
While the heart of the festival was located at the arboretum, the other parts of the community were involved in one aspect or another. Shuttles carried flatbeds of visitors between the arboretum and downtown, where local stores were open for business and a children’s play area was set up. Heritage Hall Museum was open to the public, and a three-on-three basketball tournament was scheduled to be played.
It all helped provide a better experience for everyone involved, especially the visitors, many of whom left hungry when the first festival last year failed to meet the demand.
“People were patient with us and generally gracious. We were over-extended last year, no doubt. We just didn’t expect those kinds of crowds,” Hofer said. “But we took the criticism and hopefully feel we took steps to improve things.”
The efforts of the community to step up and help where needed also made a big difference in making the festival a success this year. After a relatively short planning time prior to the event last year, Hofer said the festival board and community have been working on this year’s festival for most of the last year.
“The trick is to start this process 11 months early. With our eight-person board, it’s been a heavy lift, no doubt about it. But we can’t pull off these events without the community and the region, and now people know we’re capable of pulling this off and accomplishing big things,” Hofer said.
Chislic is a regional dish of meat on a stick, traditionally mutton or lamb and deep-fried. Over the years, the definition has expanded to include other meats such as pork, goat, beef and venison, and many varieties were on hand Saturday.
SSS Chislic took home the prize for best classic chislic, which is defined as mutton or lamb. The Armour Volunteer Fire Department won first prize with their pork chislic entry in the New Age Nosh category, which is open to other varieties of chislic.
The New Age Nosh competition encourages experimentation, Hofer said, as long as the choice of meat makes sense.
“It’s basically any other meat. The loosely-held rule is that it has to make sense for South Dakota, so we don’t allow alligator or things like that,” Hofer said.
Hofer said as the 2019 festival winds down, organizers will take feedback and start looking at how to apply those suggestions to the next South Dakota Chislic Festival. The large crowds in attendance both years indicate that there is an appetite for both chislic and a festival to celebrate it in South Dakota.
A new state tradition has likely begun, he said.
“It’s Dakotan. I don’t know if there’s a bourbon festival in Kentucky or a ribs festival in Kansas City, though I’m sure there are, but this is something we can claim. It’s a great experience, and I think there’s more growth opportunity yet.”
Like this year, he hopes next year will be even better.
“As we grow, our goal is to be the region’s premiere food festival, and we’ll continue to bring the good news of South Dakota to the country,” he said.