Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Smokey and Sturgis

A news item caught my eye this week – a new Smokey Bear hot-air balloon made its first appearance this week at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.

Where do I start with this one? My Dad was with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks in the 1960's and was very involved in promoting forest fire prevention. We always had Smokey the Bear knick-knacks and literature around the house. I thought it was cool to see the Smokey Bear balloon at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta last October.

Cool at least until Smokey got impaled on a 600-foot radio tower. Pilot Bill Chapel and two young passengers rescued themselves by climbing down the tower's ladder. When's the last time you had to climb down a 600-foot ladder? I literally had nightmares about that for several days afterward. The pilot of the new balloon is the same Bill Chapel. I would think that getting popped by a very tall tower would cure you of ballooning forever, but maybe that's just me.

Anyway, the news clip was a reminder that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is this week. I grew up in the Black Hills so I knew that every August there were a lot of motorcycles on the roads. The rumor was there was some sort of debauchery going on up in Sturgis. In 1978 I did my college journalism internship at the Sturgis newspaper, so the first week in August I found myself immersed in the middle of thousands of bikers. I must not have been too traumatized because after graduation I joined the paper full time.

I recall going to the home of J.C. and Pearl Hoel to do an interview about times past. As the acknowledged founder of the Rally, J.C. ("Pappy") was a legend, but I remember him as a cooperative but sort of deaf old gent. He talked about working as a young man in the family business, which was cutting and storing ice in the winter and delivering it in the summer. In 1936 when refrigeration was making ice delivery obsolete, he bought an Indian motorcycle franchise. Pappy founded the Jackpine Gypsies in 1937 and helped start the Rally in 1938. (Pappy died in 1989 at age 84; Pearl died just this year at age 99.)

What started as a little gathering of Pappy, Pearl and their Jackpine Gypsies friends took on more of an edge as it got bigger. It's all sort of a blur now, but I do recall that at least some of the rumors of debauchery turned out to be true. Up until 1982 there was still camping in the Sturgis City Park. After a near riot in the park that year, I reported on a series of public meetings as the city's citizens wrung their hands over whether it was worth it to endure the massive disruptions brought by the event. Ultimately they decided it was, and now it's (supposedly) 10 times bigger than it was back then. There were changes – camping was banned in the park and much of the partying moved, out of sight and out of mind, to private campgrounds outside of city limits.

To me, Rally week was the time every year when an extraordinary number of drunks showed up, somewhat interesting because of its scope but not something I would attend of my own volition. The high school football season that followed was much more fun for me. My favorite memory as a reporter in Sturgis was when the 1983 Sturgis football team (Brown High School) cruised to 11 straight wins before falling in the state championship game. I left town the following year and went back to graduate school to get a business degree. I don't see that it would be much fun for me in Sturgis now; the Rally has only gotten bigger and more crowded (supposedly 500,000 participants), and in a few weeks the high school football team will bring a state-record 67-game losing streak into the season opener against the defending state champs. Oof!

So I'm not a biker, but maybe those six Rallies 1978-83 had some lasting effect. I'm watching American Chopper right now. Vinnie and Rick are the real stars. They should have their own show.


  1. The streak is now at 73...just 5 losses away from being the national record holder for most consecutive high school football games lost. But that glory may all fade away tonight for the Scoopers. They are favored to win tonight.

  2. Sturgis beat Rapid City Stevens 22-20, so the streak did end. However, it was 79, not 73, and the national record remains 82 by a team in Georgia. The amazing part to me is the Rapid City Journal reported 5,000 fans packed the field to witness the game, "most of them cheering for Sturgis." I just remember 1983 when the boys had big crowds all year but not a lot of people showed up at the city auditorium to welcome them home after losing in the state championship game.


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