FREEMAN — Josh Hofer had hoped for a modest turnout at Freeman’s first South Dakota Chislic Festival, but the event didn’t meet his expectations.
Instead, last Saturday’s festival blew away the wildest dreams of Hofer, other organizers and around 100 volunteers. They hoped for 2,000 people — and found at least 8,000 visitors pouring into their Hutchinson County town of 1,300 residents.
"Someone remarked that Hutchinson County has something like 7,000 residents," Hofer said, noting Saturday’s visitors came from 11 states.
The throng came in pursuit of chislic, the bite-sized cubes of fried meat on a stick. The 2018 Legislature passed a bill — sponsored by State Sen. Stace Nelson of Fulton, whose District 19 includes Freeman — officially designating chislic as South Dakota’s state "nosh," or snack.
In a spirit of bipartisanship, the 11 judges included not only GOP incumbent Nelson but also his Democratic challenger Ardon Wek of Freeman. Other judges ranged from politicians and the media to a grill master and state pageant queen.
Hofer told the Press & Dakotan on Monday night that the experience was overwhelming — but he and other organizers are ready for another go at it.
"Oh, we’re already planning for next year. We ARE going to do this again," he said, as if there was any doubt. "We plan to announce our 2019 date within the next 10 days. We want to expand our footprint. In order to do that, we need more infrastructure and more room."
Last Saturday’s final attendance figure may have hit 10,000, factoring in those who arrived on the grounds, saw the long lines (reportedly one to two hours) and went elsewhere to eat, Hofer said.
"We acknowledge that some of the people were disappointed (the food ran out), and we’re sorry that we couldn’t help those people," Hofer said.
"Hopefully, they understand that this was our first year, and we’re going to come back bigger and better next year. We already have more vendors asking about it, and we’re looking at a location with more space."
"When this started, we envisioned 500 people on Main Street," Hofer said. "But then we started to see the excitement. We hoped for double our original estimate, maybe even 2,000 people. So we moved it to the city park and softball field."
On the day of the festival, the number of visitors kept climbing — and climbing and climbing.
"The festival was supposed to start at 4 p.m.," he said. "By 3 p.m., we had people milling around. By 3:30 p.m., we had a crowd and people wanted us to start selling food.
"We decided to let everyone except the chislic vendors start selling food. In fairness, we waited with the official 4 p.m. start so we had chislic for the People’s Choice competition."
In just the opening moments, Hofer knew the day would turn into something special. "Our goal was 2,000 people. We already had that number by 4:30," he said.
Vendors ran out food partway through the festival and sent word for more shipments from Sioux Falls and Mitchell, he said.
A Freeman restaurant, which was a vendor at the festival, saw its food supply depleted by the event. The restaurant was forced to order more food for its regular Sunday business, Hofer said.
But even the replenishments weren’t enough for the festival to make it all the way to the end of the night, Hofer said.
"By the time we got done, all but one vendor was out of food," he said. "We had a total of just under 30 vendors, including those who sold chislic, other food, craft beer and wine, and merchandise."
Word of the festival spread far beyond Freeman, Josh Hofer said.
"We talked to people who drove four or five hours to come here," he said. "We know there were people from 11 states. I had relatives from Texas and Kansas who were here, and we heard about people from North Carolina. I think those people were more like family visiting in the Freeman area who came to the chislic festival."
Hofer said he received reports of traffic backed up on U.S. Highway 81, which runs along the east side of Freeman.
The chislic competition didn’t disappoint, as multiple tiebreakers were needed in one category. Ten entrants competed in three categories.
The Classic Sheep winner was "Thumbs Up" by Dennis Geiman of Scotland; the New Age Nosh winner was "Cowboy Chislic" by Dan Pastian of Sioux Falls; and the People’s Choice winner was "Smokin’ Nitro" by Schaun Schnathorst of Huron.
With such an overwhelming response, the festival’s format stands to be tweaked, Hofer said. However, the proceeds will remain dedicated to the Freeman Community Development Corporation (FCDC) and the Heritage Hall Museum and Archives, Hofer said.
Heritage Hall Museum administrator Marnette Hofer said community members had talked about ways to promote Freeman to visitors. Chislic, with its German-Russian roots, seemed like an ideal way to feature the community’s culture and heritage.
"It quickly became evident that people were REALLY excited about this idea!" she said. "We have totally been blown away by the positive response from people across the region and beyond."
The organizers originally focused on making the festival a reality and successful, Marnette Hofer said. Coming away with proceeds, while desired, remained a secondary goal for the initial festival, she added.
"Goodness knows the museum can always use funds, and I know FCDC would put money to good use as well," she said. "But our first priority will be to the festival."
This year’s inaugural chislic festival was reminiscent of Freeman’s first Schmeckfest, which was intended as a small ethnic tasting festival. The organizers were overwhelmed by the crowd and quickly ran out of food.
The Schmeckfest committee regrouped, and the festival still goes strong six decades later.
Josh Hofer admitted those same thoughts last weekend. "We never thought we would be looking at the kind of numbers we saw last Saturday," he said.
So what created the outpouring of support? Josh Hofer finds it legendary.
"I maintain that we found a good story with chislic and, if you can tell that story, there is great power in it," he said. "The story of chislic has mystery surrounding it. There’s an unknown quality about the story that resonates with a lot of people. It started in rural areas, but people started moving into urban areas and the story gravitated with them."
Freeman’s success shows the power of working together, Josh Hofer said.
"It’s not an easy time to be a rural town, especially one whose economy is based on agriculture," he said. "But this festival shows great promise. It takes a real community effort to pull something like this off, and Freeman is that kind of community."
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