'Schmeckfest' Strikes its Golden Anniversary

Dockendorf, Randy. "'Schmeckfest' Strikes its Golden Anniversary." Press & Dakotan, 28 March 2008.

FREEMAN, SD - For being a half-century old, one of Freeman's annual visitors has probably never looked better.

The 50th annual "Schmeckfest," or tasting festival, runs today (Friday) and Saturday, then returns April 4-5, on the Freeman Academy campus. The Schmeckfest raises funds for Freeman Academy, a Mennonite-affiliated middle and high school for grades 5-12.

Schmeckfest features a family-style meal of traditional foods as well as historical presentations and demonstrations of traditional crafts. Another highlight is the musical performed in the Pioneer Hall auditorium.

This year, "The Sound Of Music" will be performed at 8 p.m. nightly. Because of the huge demand for tickets, a command performance has been added for April 3. Only the musical will be held that evening, with no other Schmeckfest activities.

Schmeckfest draws national attention, said Vernetta Waltner, president of the Freeman Academy Auxiliary, which sponsors the ethnic festival. Coincidentally, Waltner is the granddaughter of Celia Flyginger, who headed the Freeman Junior College Auxiliary when the first Schmeckfest was held.

"We have 5,000 to 6,000 people who come for the four nights of meals. We have about 250 volunteers a night (working the meal)," she said. "And that number (of visitors) doesn't count all the people who come for the other activities."

The influx of so many visitors has required the helping hands of the entire community and region, Waltner said. In turn, the festival has built community bonds, she said.

Schmeckfest has come a long way since that first one-evening event in 1959, she said.

"I was 5 years old at the time, and I only remember standing in line," she said. "I don't even remember the eating, just all the people."

The Auxiliary members realized they had started a new tradition, Waltner said. "It grew immediately," she said.

Now, Schmeckfest draws national attention and thousands of visitors, Waltner said. "We have busloads of people coming from Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas. We have (alumni) classes at the academy that treat it like a reunion," she said.

Schmeckfest expanded from the original one-day event to a three-day weekend. In response to the demand for more Friday and Saturday tickets, the festival has expanded again in recent years to two consecutive weekends.

The switch to two weekends has changed the character of Schmeckfest, said Tim Waltner, the Freeman Courier publisher who also directs this year's musical.

"(The change) has made the festival more accessible to most people and has given them options," he said.

There's a drawback for people who treat Schmeckfest like a homecoming, Tim Waltner said.

"The down side is for people like my daughter, who is coming home for Schmeckfest," he said. "Now, she runs a 50-50 chance of missing people who are coming for the other weekend."

This year will feature another change - the recent opening of the $2.4 million Sterling Hall. The new facility will take on some of the demonstrations that were in the Industrial Arts and the Administration buildings.

Tim Waltner predicted Sterling Hall will change Schmeckfest "significantly" in ways yet unknown.

"Nobody knows for sure how it will turn out," he said. "I think it will take a couple of years to make the best use of the facility."

But Schmeckfest has shown its ability to innovate over the years, Vernetta Waltner said. She pointed to the introduction of the musical after years of holding a variety program and even a basketball game as part of Schmeckfest.

Freeman Junior College staged Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the support of the community, Tim Waltner said. The first full-stage Schmeckfest musical was performed in 1967, and the tradition began for good in the 1970s, he said.

Freeman Academy junior Abi Epp has joined the Schmeckfest musical tradition, holding two roles in "The Sound of Music."

While area residents are familiar with the festival, Schmeckfest remains a relatively new experience for Epp. The Newton, Kan., native is completing her second year at the academy.

Epp joined other Freeman Academy students in making traditional foods for sale at Schmeckfest. They made treats like fruit pockets and poppyseed rolls. She will sell the traditional food when she works at the Schmeck Shoppe.

"I had never heard of kuchen," she said with a laugh, referring to the custard-filled pastry.

Epp's participation in the musical has strengthened her local bonds even more by bringing her in contact with people she might otherwise not meet. "It's fun and a sense of community," she said.

Tim Waltner said he has likewise developed lifelong relationships through the Schmeckfest musical. He predicted Epp will find the same experience in coming years.

"I was just a kid when I was starting out (with Schmeckfest)," he said. "I developed strong relationships with people considerably older than me. I now consider them some of my best friends.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller