ON YOUR MARK, GET SET …
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
Like the flowers of spring, once it started to bloom, there really was no slowing it down.
What was originally designed as a one-night, one-time event on March 13, 1959 quickly became something else, and it wasn’t long before Schmeckfest was rolling. A two-day celebration of the community’s Germans-from-Russia heritage followed that first festival, and by 1973, on the occasion of its 15th anniversary, organizers decided to make it a Thursday-Friday-Saturday event.
By then, take-home food sales and demonstrations, and scheduled programming that included a full-scale stage production had become the norm, and with every passing year thereafter, something was added or adjusted to improve the overall experience for the several thousand guests who filled the campus of Freeman Junior College and Academy.
And in 2005, well after the 1987 closing of Freeman Junior College, with the demand for tickets particularly high on Friday and Saturday, organizers made the bold decision to turn Schmeckfest into a two weekend, Friday-Saturday ordeal.
Throughout that crescendo — throughout the notable changes and additions that were made over the years — at its core, Schmeckfest has always been about the food. After all, the German name that identified the event from that very first year means “festival of tasting.”
And even today — especially today — on the backside of a pandemic that brought the traditional festival to a sudden halt three years ago, that remains the case.
“One of the good things that came out of the last couple of years — not being able to do things the same way as we did the previous 60 — is it gave us a chance to listen to people and find out what things they really appreciated about Schmeckfest,” said Nathan Epp, who as part of a new Schmeckfest steering committee will have an active role in the festival when it returns for its 62nd year this Friday and Saturday, March 24 and 25. “And one of the clear messages we heard from listening to people is, man they love the food. Food is a big deal. As long as we’re selling food, people are going to come.”
Ticket sales have proven the point. All 1,000 tickets for Saturday’s meal have been sold since early this month and, as of Tuesday, only a handful remained for Friday. With last-minute orders expected to come in this week, organizers are calling Friday a sellout, as well.
With the exception of the noodle and green bean soups, which will be served to guests immediately after they have been seated at their place in the Pioneer Hall dining hall, this year’s meal will once again be served buffet-style and feature all the foods that have been available at previous festivals — from sauerkraut and stewed beef to sausage and fried potatoes and everything in between.
Serving guests using a buffet is a change that came five years ago that broke from the family-style format used from 1965 through 2017 (the first six years of Schmeckfest feature a buffet) and came as a result of a shrinking workforce.
Still, even with the change from family-style to buffet, a large number of volunteers are required for the boots-on-the-ground effort it takes to serve the meal, which will take place from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Debra Schmeichel, who is overseeing the food for the meal and working alongside Carolyn Preheim, says 154 workers are required to execute the meal over the two nights. That includes cooks in the kitchen, waiters and waitresses, table setters and table clearers.
And, yes, she says, “it was difficult finding people.”
Schmeichel notes that, with many tied up elsewhere — whether it’s working the extensive programming that will take place in Heritage Hall Museum & Archives or those who are involved with this year’s production of “State Fair” — much of her workforce is “gray,” including two 83-year-olds who will be back in action.
“It continues to be a challenge,” Schmeichel says of finding the help required to entertain so many guests — one of the reasons a task force put in place last year to study the festival decided to move from the two-weekend format to a trimmed down Friday-Saturday event.
And since four full years have passed since the last time Schmeckfest was held, she admits there’s some trepidation.
“It’s almost like starting over,” Schmeichel says. “It’s coming back, yes, but until we get through Friday it will be a little scary.
“We know what has to be done,” she continues, “but you factor in age, where the memory isn’t always as sharp and the body doesn’t move as fast, and that we haven’t done this for four years, it almost feels like a whole new ballgame.
While Schmeichel and others working the meal know they will serve 1,000 people a night, “we just don’t have a gauge who will be back after these four years,” she says. “What kind of crowd we’re going to have? Fifty percent over 50? Under 50? 100 kids? 150 kids. It’s a guessing game.”
Schmeichel said early this week she will likely increase her food totals on Friday to ensure that all offerings will be available, knowing that adjustments can be made on Saturday; almost all food quantities can be increased for the final day if necessary.
And if something doesn’t go quite according to plan, “I think people will be patient and understanding.
Don’t’ worry, Schmeichel says, “there will be food.”
Anybody who knows the story knows that was not the case in 1959, when workers who had planned to serve as many a people were overwhelmed by more than 1,000.
For more on that infamous “disaster,” see the story on page 10A.
FOOD BEYOND THE MEAL
Even aside of the meal, food will be prominently featured during both days of the festival. Much of that will take place inside the Sterling Hall auditorium, where the Schmeckfest Country Kitchen will be open from 1 to 7 p.m. and loaded with a variety of baked goods ranging from kuchen to noodles to breads and jams and jellies.
Sterling Hall will also be once again used for the Freeman Academy student-run Schmeck Shoppe, which this year will also include the coffee shop previously located in Frontier Hall.
One major change this year is that the active and ongoing food demonstrations on the Sterling Hall floor, like poppyseed rolls and cheese pockets, have been eliminated entirely; those popular items will still be available for purchase in the Country Kitchen.
Still, those eager to see how some of the traditional foods are made can do so through the “spotlight demonstrations” being held on the hour from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday. See details on page 6A.
Two foods will also be for sale in the Freeman Academy maintenance building just north of Sterling Hall. New Year’s Cookies will be sold from 1 to 6 p.m. and Schmeckfest sausage from 1 to 7 p.m.
Just outside the Sterling Hall auditorium, an informational booth that will include First-Aid and Schmeckfest souvenirs will be available, and two programs are being planned inside the instrumental room — a Freeman Academy Musical Showcase at 2 p.m. followed by a performance from the school’s oral interpretation students beginning at 3 p.m.
The other major hub of activity on the Freeman Academy campus during Schmeckfest will be at Heritage Hall Museum & Archives, which features a vast collection of items that have both direct and indirect ties to the Freeman community and the Germans-from-Russia heritage on which it was established.
The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. both days of Schmecfekst.
In addition to its expanded collections, museum officials have worked hard to put together extensive programming that touches on this community’s history in a major way:
Five live demonstrations will be ongoing from 1 to 6 p.m.;
Twelve, 10-minute “Heritage Pickers” programs will take place from 2 to 6 p.m.;
Five other 45-to-60-minute programs will be held inside the historic Bethel Church from 1 to 5:30 p.m.;
And 10 local experts will be available throughout the museum complex to discuss with guests their areas of expertise.
For the complete schedule, use the QR code that accompanies this story, visit the museum’s website at freemansd.com or reference last week’s edition of the Courier.
Schedules will also be available at the museum.
For more from Heritage Hall Museum and Archives, see the press release on page 3A.
The other major component to Schmeckfest will be the presentation of “State Fair,” a Rogers and Hammerstein musical that will be staged in the Pioneer Hall auditorium beginning at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The musical will also be presented Thursday, March 23. A limited number of tickets remained available through schmeckfest.com as of early this week. General admission tickets will also be available in the ticket office in the Pioneer Hall lobby beginning at 5:30 p.m. each day.
Epp says, like the meal, the musical is something that has been greatly missed the past three years.
“Those were two things that people were really hoping we could get back to — the normal meal and having musicals again,” he said.
And here we are, “ready or not.”
While the work that goes into Schmeckfest is always significant — and largely a labor of love for those involved — the 62nd iteration this week is unique in that it comes on the heels of a pandemic that greatly altered the way festival and school officials approached the festival.
Because of Covid-19, the full-scale event was canceled from 2020 to 2022 and replaced with alternatives. Drive-thru sales and take-home meals were part of that alternative approach, as was a special Schmeckfest Country Kitchen that opened to the public — and drew shoulder-to-shoulder crowds — over two days last year.
In each case, the response was overwhelming and — to Epp’s earlier point — affirming.
“It’s a tribute to the community as a whole,” he said. “This community knows how to bake and cook, and people recognize that we do things the way things used to be done, and people miss that. That’s been a clear message.”
But bringing Schmeckfest back didn’t happen overnight. On the contrary, it included a significant and concerted effort on the part of the task force last year to talk, study, discuss and figure out what the festival should look like going forward. That led to the dissolution of the Freeman Academy Auxiliary, Schmeckfest’s governing organizing since its inception; the development of a steering committee with specialized members; and the establishment of a paid position — a Schmckfest coordinator to oversee the whole thing.
Vernetta Waltner is serving in that capacity in the interim until the position can be filled permanently.
Epp said in the wake of Covid-19 there was never a serious conversation about whether to pull the plug on Schmeckfest, “but there were questions about how long we could continue to do things the same way we had been without being willing to make some changes.”
“I think we were all eager to have guests on campus and to give them this experience again,” says Waltner. “It has all been very positive and obvious that people want things to continue. We just have to be open to doing it in a way that is a little different, and it will be a little different. But overall people won’t see a huge change.”
“I think people are excited to try this again,” said Dr. Brad Andersen, who is in his first year as Freeman Academy Head of School and who, in his first five years on staff there, saw more Schmeckfests canceled than held. “I think people are very interested — and excited — to see what happens.”
Andersen said because he was hired as head of school after the task force had been formed, his role was more of an observer willing to make himself available as needed, and that the mood of those involved in the discussions was generally positive.
“Particularly the musical,” he says. “That has a lot of positive energy and people are really looking forward to that, but as we’ve met to discuss the other parts of Schmeckfest, that has developed its own energy, as well.”
As somebody who works on campus every day, Andersen has observed that energy firsthand, especially in recent days. Schmeckfest is, after all, a fundraiser for Freeman Academy and those at the school are actively engaged in helping prepare.
“We have students and staff laying carpet squares and setting up elsewhere, some classes are doing some of their own activities related to Schmeckfest,” he said. “We have teams set up, we have schedules created, we have staff leaders and we have students who are capable of doing some of the other basic functions involved. We’re going off of what we have done in previous years in terms of staff and student involvement and charging forward. After this is done, we can look back and evaluate.”
In the meantime, Andersen is ready.
“It’s one thing to do all the planning and logistics on top of your daily workload,” he says. “It’s another thing when you get there and you’re with the people and it’s festive and your having a good time even doing the work. That’s when you start to feel like this is what it’s all about, that this is why we do what we do. I’m anticipating that very much so, and so are the others. We’re looking forward to being in the thick of it and enjoying everybody coming in.”
“That’s always been one of the most exciting things — just to see 1,000 people, 1,500 people on campus,” says Epp. “It’s a tribute to Freeman Academy and the whole Freeman community to be able to put on an event that people want to keep coming back to.”
Finally, people are getting that chance.
The final countdown to the 62nd Schmeckfest is on.