60 Years of Schmeckfest
March 7th, 2018 By Cindy Mason
Freeman’s Schmeckfest has been going strong for 60 years. This event celebrates the ethnic heritage of the three Mennonite groups who founded the Freeman community: Low Germans, Swiss and Hutters. While a big German meal is the centerpiece of Schmeckfest, it is not the only thing that draws thousands of people to the event. There are heritage craft and ethnic food demonstrations, as well as concerts, historical lectures, art exhibits and an annual community theatrical production. However, the event had a bit of a rocky start.
The Freeman Jr. College Women’s Auxiliary decided to celebrate their 10th Anniversary in 1959 by serving a special meal. Organizers decided on the name Schmeckfest, meaning “a festival of tasting”, after much deliberation. The plan was to offer a sample of dishes popular among all the three of the ethnic groups. They would charge adults one dollar and 50 cents for children. Some wondered if many would even come and pay for foods they make at home. They decided to plan to serve around 200 but well over 1000 hungry guests showed up. They soon ran out of many of the ethnic foods so several workers kept busy frantically making Fleisch Küchele (hamburger in dough pockets), the one item that could be made rather quickly. Other workers hurried downtown to buy more supplies and they also raided the school’s pantries. They ended up servings whatever food could be found to the hungry crowd. One “prominent businessman” got only a hotdog and canned peaches…he was not very pleased!
While some saw the first Schmeckfest to be a catastrophe, it was overwhelmingly popular and the decision to continue the event annually was an easy one. The very next year, in 1960, they expanded it to two days and sold tickets in advance. The event has continued to grow over the last 60 years to encompass 2 consecutive weekends where they serve 1000 guests on each of four evenings. The dates this year for Schmeckfest’s 60th Anniversary are March 16-17 and 23-24.
Some of the same homemade ethnic foods are still served today as at the first Schmeckfest, while others have been added or subtracted. The foods now served include Grüne Schauble Suppe (green bean soup), Nudel Suppe (noodle soup), Pluma Moos (dried fruit sauce), Zwiebach (twin buns), Bratwurst (pork sausage), Sauerkraut, Gebratene Kartofflen (fried potatoes), Dampfleisch (stewed beef), Kasemit Knope (cheese buttons), Mach Kuchen (poppyseed rolls), Kuchen and more! Kuchen, South Dakota's state desert, is also available in the country store.
In 1963 local artisans began demonstrating many traditional foods, arts and handicrafts practiced and passed down through generations by their ancestors. Demonstrations now include spinning, basket weaving, rope making, sausage stuffing, and traditional foods such as poppy seed rolls, cheese pockets, peppernuts, new years cookies and more. In 1969 the first “Country Kitchen” was introduced where festival goers can purchase ethnic food items begin made in demonstration booths as well as other baked goods (including kuchen), jams, etc. There is no charge to come and watch the demonstrations or musical and historical presentations throughout the afternoon.
In 1959, the Auxiliary had planned a time of relaxation following the meal to listen to music “records’, some in the German language, and a talent show. The talent show featured spoken and musical numbers representative of the three ethnic groups. Over the years a variety of entertainment has followed the Schmeckfest meal, from talent shows to locally-written plays, to music concerts, to volleyball and basketball games.
The 1967 Schmeckfest, however, began a new tradition with the presentation of a musical production, Victor Herbert’s operetta, The Red Mill. Freeman has long been know to celebrate its musical heritage and the musicals have become a way to showcase the talent that is nurtured here. In 1972 the musical accompaniment grew from a single piano to a full orchestra for Fiddler on the Roof. Since 1967, thirty-one different musicals have been presented, some multiple times. The 2018 production is Godspell and will be presented 5 nights - March 16-17 and 22-24.
The Heritage Hall Museum, open throughout Schmeckfest, showcases many pioneer artifacts and several historic buildings. It’s a great place to explore the history of the community and the region. This year the newly released feature-length film, "Three Groups, One Story: The Journey That Built a South Dakota Community", will have daily showings at the historic Bethel Mennonite Church on the Heritage Hall Museum grounds. The movie will be free with museum admission.
Throughout the last 60 years, Schmeckfest has shared the celebration of their heritage with thousands of visitors, many who return year after year because it’s about so much more than Tasting!
To order advance tickets for the meal or the musical, visit shop.schmeckfest.com
Thanks to the FA Auxiliary and to the Freeman Courier for the information and photos.