JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
John Kneifl doesn’t have near the experience cooking ribs as he does fighting fires. Whereas he’s been with the fire department in New Castle, Neb. for 33 years and currently serves as chief, he’s only been smoking ribs for the past two years, a process he says he’s been been trying to improve upon.
He’s either a quick study or downright lucky.
It’s probably a little bit of both.
After finishing last one year ago, Kneifl claimed the top prize at the 2021 Freeman Volunteer Fire Department (FVFD) Rib Cook-Off Saturday, Aug. 14, and it wasn’t even close. Kneifl’s iteration of the popular meat-on-a-bone was judged the best among the 23 departments taking part, winning by more than six points.
“And with this scoring, that’s a blowout,” said Freeman firefighter and founder of the cook-off Chad Soulek when announcing the winners. “John, you did a hell of a job.”
After hearing the fourth-, third- and second-place winners announced, Kneifl said he had no notion his name would be called.
“I figured I came in last again,” he said. “I didn’t think (my ribs) were that great. I thought they were kind of dry, myself. But we’re working at it — getting some things figured out.”
Not only did he win the competition in Freeman, Kneifl also came in second at a similar competition in Lesterville last month.
“It means quite a bit,” he said after accepting the traveling trophy from Brian Anderson, last year’s winner. “There’s a lot of competition here.”
But don’t think for a second he’s going to reveal any secrets to his newfound success because — well — “I don’t have any.”
The rib competition was a small part of what was a much larger event on Saturday that has quickly become one of Freeman’s premier summertime activities. Founded in 2014 by Soulek with strong support from the FVFD, the Firehouse Rib Cook-Off is an all afternoon/evening affair that includes something for everybody — bean bags and volleyball, activities for kids, a platform for fellowship and an opportunity for regional fire departments to support each other while also offering their best to hungry patrons who only want to enjoy a beautiful late-summer evening.
“It’s amazing we can bring this many people into a small town,” said Todd Graber, who spent 17 years as a Freeman EMT and is in his ninth year with the FVFD. “Seeing people out enjoying themselves — that’s a big reason we do this. The fundraising is obviously important to us, but it’s always fun to see everybody having a great time, hanging out, sticking around and just enjoying the day.”
The Firehouse Rib Cook-Off has been successful since Day 1 — and has benefitted from agreeable weather every year — but most agree the 2021 installment was the best one yet. Soulek himself has no doubt.
“Phenomenal,” he said around 6:30 p.m., as hundreds of men, women and children of all ages filled the Swimming Pool Park. “I don’t know what time it is, but there ain’t much food left.
“This is insane; it’s awesome,” he continued. “The support, the love, the fun. Just a great day.”
The record books will show that 600 racks of ribs — up 150 from last year — sold out by the time daylight started to fade and more than half of the departments represented knocked out 30 briskets, as well. Most of the sales were on park grounds, although a steady stream of cars was backed up from the park entrance to the North County Road not long after serving began to take advantage of drive-up sales, too. Hot dogs went to hungry kids, beverages of all sorts went to thirsty kids and kids at heart, and even the Canistota/Freeman Sticks baseball program got in on the action selling Juice Stop smoothies as a fundraiser.
There was also a 5K/10K walk/run hosted by Vermeer Freeman in the morning, a volleyball and bean bag tournament to start the action in the afternoon and a water fight that cooled off the kids later. All unfolded while the sweet sounds of good-time music was played by Mitchell Kleinsasser, who also helped emcee the event.
And around 5 p.m., everybody fell silent for the playing of the national anthem, a moment that touched Freeman Police Chief Scott Brewer to the core.
“That’s one of the best things I’ve experienced since I’ve been here,” he said. “That says a lot about the kind of people we have.”
The rib cook-off was the third major event in Freeman since the second weekend of July, when the Sticks hosted the VFW 14U State Baseball Tournament, which brought players, coaches and fans in from seven other communities over the course of three days. Then, the third South Dakota Chislic Festival on July 31 drew an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people to town, and Saturday’s fundraiser for the FVFD resulted in a crowd made up of mostly locals that was easily in the hundreds and maybe even more.
“No idea,” said Soulek. “Just say there were a lot of people.”
“People see we like to have a good time, I guess,” Soulek added after being asked what accounts for all the action in Freeman the past month. “Eat and drink and be merry; that’s what I say.”
Not only does the fundraiser elicit a good spirit and even better time, it also brings people together. Look no further than Josh Gerlach, who is from Corsica, and Chris Peters, who is from Armour and today lives with his family in Freeman. The two of them have been cooking together for several years and in 2017 won both the ribs and brisket cook-off.
“It’s the first time Corsica and Armour have successfully worked together,” joked Gerlach, who learned to know Peters because their wives used to work together in Parkston. “He likes to cook, I know Chad Soulek and started coming to Freeman to cook, so it works out real good. Chris does the brisket; I do the ribs. That’s how it works.”
“It’s a good time,” said Peters. “What can bring two rival towns together better than cooking ribs?”
Gerlach notes that it was a cook-off he hosted in Corsica in 2013 that Soulek attended that spawned the idea to bring the event here.
“He loved the format and brought it to Freeman,” he said, “and it’s been a rock star event ever since.”
The competition he won back in 2017 was one of nine he has won since he started in 2012, when he told his wife that if he ever hit 10, he would retire, “not ever thinking I would even get one or two. Maybe, if today is the day, we can quit all of this!”
But it wasn’t to be. First place this year, of course, went to Kneifl.
That means Gerlach will likely be back again in 2022, just like the FVFD Firehouse Rib Cook-Off will be.
After Saturday’s rousing affair, there’s no question about it.