BY CRAIG WENZEL
Holiday festivities that draw families and friends together are the things that make the season bright. Some of them have endured in Jerauld County for decades: Santa Saturday, Christmas Eve church services, shopping, Christmas concerts and colorful garlands stretched across Main Street in Wessington Springs.
Alas, some of the traditions have not withstood the test of time.
Back in the day, as some of us refer to our younger lives, there was a phenomenon that occurred weekly in small towns across South Dakota that is no longer. I don’t know when the traditional small town Saturday night experience began, but my own memories take me back to the 1950s.
Farm people would get the chores done early, put on some of their best clothes, and head to town on Saturday night to replenish groceries, catch up on the local news and relax. Town folks made sure that Saturday night was open so they could join friends and families in the Main Street ritual.
Farm wives brought cream and eggs to town, converted their produce into cash at one of the creameries and hurried to the grocery stores. I always wanted to do a story on the old Saturday night ritual, but after many searches through old newspapers and museum scrapbooks, I eventually gave up my search for a photograph that would have complimented such an editorial piece.
One time a year or two ago, I asked longtime Main Street businessman Jerry Higgins about the Saturday night event. After all, he and his brother Ray, and their wives, Betty and Audrey, ran Ray and Jerry’s grocery store across from the Dewmar theater. “Did you ever take a picture on Saturday night?” I asked. “Oh, no,” he replied with no hesitation, “We were too busy to take pictures.” But he did have vivid memories of the line of people waiting to get into the theater.
The Higgins couple had already been in business in Wessington Springs for a long time before Duke, Karen, Penny and I started publishing the True Dakotan in 1975. Main Street business ownership was dominated by the World War II generation and they were doing a tremendous job of promoting Wessington Springs and their businesses.
The Wenzels were newcomers to Main Street and had to pay some initial dues before many people eventually realized that we were invested in Main Street and here to stay.
During the next 30 or so years, the Baby Boom generation took ownership of businesses and accepted responsibility for the future of the community.
We did okay. We built a grade school, fixed roads, rebounded from five huge business district fires, cleaned up after a couple of tornadoes and worked hard to keep our homes filled and our businesses competitive.
But one thing we couldn’t do, was keep “Main Street Saturday Night” alive.
Sure, we saved the annual Fourth of July fireworks on the calendar, the Christmas garlands still glow across the street during the holiday season, our schools are still strong and Jerauld County remains an ideal place to live and raise a family.
Last Tuesday night Penny and I, and our festively-dressed puppy Chloe, drove downtown for the first annual community Christmas Tree Lighting. We turned on to Main Street at about 6 p.m. and there, spread before us, was a perfect “Main Street Saturday Night” setting.
Smiles and holiday greetings were abundant as a 25-voice community choir sang Christmas music from the natural amphitheater that is the Sweet Grass front porch. Springs Food Market co-owner Ryan Jensen was waiting until the exact moment to light the tree before an anxious crowd spontaneously began a 10 number countdown. Ryan obliged by plugging in the lights at the exact right moment to the cheers of rosy-cheeked revelers. Dear God, if artist Norman Rockwell was still living, he would paint a re-creation of the event for the cover of Saturday Evening Post.
It was that good, folks. Happy tears filled the corner of my eye as I soaked up the music, lights and community spirit at that moment.
I know I’ll probably leave out some names of people responsible for this event, but Springs Food Market co-owner Ryan Jensen and his sister, Lisa Younie, Laura Baker at Baker’s Design, Jason Zacher at the Humm-Dinger, Kristi Hine at the True Dakotan, Heather Larson at Sweet Grass, Mayor Kathy Voorhees and Linda Willman at City Hall, Carla and Jon Niemeyer at Springs Inn, Ranae Hogberg at Rae’s Family Clothing, volunteers at the Consignment Store, Jensen True Value’s Lisa Younie and Ryan Jensen, Meraki Boutique, Salon and Spa's Haley Hohn, Scott Vaske at Starlight Bowling all played important roles in the event. Credit should also go to all of their employees who worked extra hours that day while dispensing impeccable service with a smile.
This group of Wessington Springs area businesspeople were not old enough to remember the old Saturday night ritual in their town. Frankly, most of them were not born at that time. Yet they recreated, with perfection, a long-gone, but not-forgotten festivity that enriched the lives of young and old in another era. Well done.
A couple of days after the Christmas tree lighting in Springs, a hunting friend of mine asked how our small town is doing. Carlos is a Mexican born American who supports his family with a successful construction business in the Atlanta, Ga., area. He actually offered to bring up his crew to finish the lower level of our new home following the tornado.
“What’s new with you, Mr. Craig,” he asked in an adorable Mexican accent.
“Everything is fine,” I assured him. “As a matter of fact we are invited to the home of friends for supper tonight.”
“You know, I’d love to live in your small town, where you are invited to the homes of friends for meals and things are safe,” he continued.
“I know, Carlos, you would love living in Wessington Springs. We have very little crime, it is safe for children, people care for each other, there are no traffic or social problems. Its nearly perfect. And just last night we attended a beautiful community Christmas tree lighting, complete with a choir singing carols.”
“You know, Craig, all of the things you just told me are things that are missing in my life” Carlos said.
This is already one of my favorite Christmas seasons. I wish Norman Rockwell was sitting at his easel on the corner of Main Street and Wallace Avenue. I’d be one of his first customers to buy a print.
Craig Wenzel is former co-editor/publisher of the True Dakotan