In answer to your first question, no, we did not spear fish in Spearfish. The town of some 5,700 people at the northern edge of the Black Hills was given its unusual name by early fur traders, who upon paddling down the canyon streams, saw Indians and trappers spearing fish in the clear waters. So, what would you have come up with? Atlantic City?
In answer to your second question, yes, we had a very good reason to come to Spearfish. Several of them, in fact. During our six-day stay, from July 11 to 16, my family and I engaged in a variety of summertime activities, though none, I admit, were sweat-breakers.
But, then, Spearfish is the kind of place where you can do nothing, a little of nothing or a lot of nothing. After 3,000 miles of driving a Chevy van and after a fairly serious hiking accident involving my wife, Donna, we needed a vacation from our vacation, so we chose the middle course.
We tossed horseshoes at the Spearfish campgrounds and tossed fish-food pellets to the trout in the D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery. We waded in the character-testing cold waters at the base of Rough lock Falls, the hopelessly romantic natural wonder in Spearfish Canyon, and hiked on the well-worn trails that weave in and out of the canyon's 7,000 acres.
July 30, 1989
We mingled with the crowds (25,000 in two days) at the Spearfish Festival in the Park and munched on a nutritional nightmare called "pepper belly"—a mess of heated chili beans, ground beef, cheese and sour cream ladled into a bag of Fritos corn chips. We passed up the chance to play a round at the Spearfish Canyon Country Club, but we did ride around the course in an electric cart, thus keeping that day's triple bogeys to a minimum.
And every day we shook our heads in wonder as hundreds of fussy Corvette owners—in town for the 18th annual Black Hills Corvette Classic—scrubbed their prized possessions with toothbrushes and cruised Main Street like proud parents pushing baby carriages.
"We don't lack for things to do around here," says Lisa Ann Modrick, the executive director of one of this continent's more aggressive chambers of commerce.
No, they don't. Spearfishians decided a long time ago that being close to the historic Black Hills (Mount Rushmore lies 59 miles to the south) was not enough to bring large numbers of tourists to town during the summer. By promoting the beauty of Spearfish Canyon, and by luring special events to town—like the Corvette Classic and the National Horseshoe Pitchers' Association World Tournament—Spearfish has made itself much more than a "gateway" to somewhere else. "People around here are proud of their community and they work for their community," says Arden Trandahl, who left a desk job at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., to become the curator of the hatchery. "Spearfish does things in style."
Our own style in Spearfish was somewhat cramped, however, by the hiking mishap that occurred in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana on July 10. Donna slipped on a rock and fell on another, leaving a bone-deep cut on her right leg that required 21 stitches to close. The surprise was not that she reacted with fortitude, which was typical, but rather that I somehow applied a tourniquet fashioned from a pillow case to the wound, and then drove 35 miles—without steering into a ditch—on rain-slicked roads to get medical assistance. Until that day my response to emergency medical situations had been limited to standing by and saying, "Ugh! Look at that!"
"I predicted one major disaster on this trip," said Donna afterward, "so let's hope this is it."
As she discovered, even on crutches it's not difficult to get around Spearfish's small downtown. Several local businesses—including Schuttler's Bell, Book & Candle Shoppe on Main Street—bear the logo of a fish impaled on a spear, and it became a game for my sons, Jamie and Chris, to search out examples of the design. Unfortunately, they tended to holler, "There's one!" in the middle of a crowded store. The locals, however, seemed neither particularly smitten with nor embarrassed by their town's name. One day I asked 18-year-old Peter Gradinaru, our Spearfish Canyon guide and a recent graduate of Spearfish High, "Do other schools make fun of your name?" He got a puzzled look on his face and said, "No, not that I know of." I was sorry I asked.
Peter acknowledged that typical high school things like beer parties and drag races often take place along the 20-mile-long canyon road. But there are a lot of young Spearfishians who grew up, like Peter, with an appreciation of the canyon's beauty and its successful balancing act on the ecological teeter-totter. There are plenty of hunters, fishermen, swimmers, hikers and tourists in Spearfish Canyon, but, somehow, not too many.
Fred Romkema, the mayor of Spearfish, calls the canyon "a well-kept secret," but on one morning visit we came upon the Ubben family from Lincoln, Neb., and the Peterson family from Saskatchewan, hopping along the rocks near Roughlock Falls. I asked them why they had come to Spearfish. They looked at me strangely as if to say, "Why wouldn't we come to Spearfish?" I seemed to be asking the wrong questions all week.
Wisely, I did not ask a single Corvette owner anything about his car. I'm sure he would have answered me. I've got to be honest here: When I stand in the pouring rain and watch 424 Corvettes parade down Main Street, as I did on the afternoon of July 14, about all I can think to say is, "Whew, lot of Corvettes, eh?" Chris, 9, had a much better time, but then he subscribes to Road & Track. One thing is certain: The Corvette people love Spearfish. "Hotels, cooperative merchants, a beautiful main street," says Dean Schultz, who with his wife. Deb, organizes the classic. "Heck, we live 400 miles away [in Sioux Falls] and hold our event in Spearfish. We must like something here."
Actually, no one had a better time at the parade than Jamie, who, like his father, doesn't know a Corvette from a coronet. That's because Modrick, having read in SI's FROM THE PUBLISHER (July 10) that Jamie would turn 12 years old in Spearfish, arranged as a surprise to have a birthday cake presented to him underneath the beer tent along Main Street on July 14, the big day. Mayor Romkema made the official presentation, no doubt wondering at the time why he had ever run for public office. Waking up in a strange town on his birthday had made Jamie's morning a tough one, but the cake turned the day right around, and the good feelings grew when he spotted HAPPY BIRTHDAY JAMIE flashing on the sign at the Pioneer Bank & Trust on Jackson Boulevard. We are still trying to convince him that it was the chamber of commerce, not his family, who planned the surprises.
Not everyone in Spearfish was overwhelmed by the McCallum family visit. After pulling me over for a speeding violation one morning, a Spearfish policeman responded in two ways after I somehow let it slip that I was in town to do a story:
"Oh," he said. He added, "Would you step into the patrol car, please?" I face a $50 fine. Four hundred 'vettes in town and I get hooked for speeding in a Chevy van with swiveling captain's chairs.
A less expensive way to pass the time in Spearfish is to stroll down Canyon Street after dinner. You'll pass the city park and then cross a small bridge that leads to the hatchery. Now, there is no way to make feeding fish sound exciting or to explain the appeal of the hatchery, but it's there. "I don't know, it was just nice," said Jamie. Says Trandahl: "All I know is that we're open every day of the year, dawn to dusk, and whenever there's decent weather, we see people."
Come out of the hatchery, turn right and you're at the city campgrounds, where there are 36 lighted horseshoe courts. Jamie, Chris and I all wanted to try the game, so we enlisted Gene Ficek, a local locksmith, and his wife, Yvonne, as our tutors. The Ficeks are the ones most responsible for bringing the world tournament to Spearfish.
"This'll probably be pathetic," I said as I lined up for my first throw. The horseshoe fell well beyond the stake and crashed against the fence.
"Yeah, it sure was pretty pathetic," said Gene, a no-nonsense kind of guy.
Jamie and Chris borrowed a set of horseshoes from Yvonne, who carefully removed them from a personalized wooden case. Yvonne tried to keep a beneficent smile on her face as her shoes bounced off the concrete that bordered the court, an experience that must be parallel to a pool shark watching his cue being used to hammer nails. I stopped the carnage after a few tosses.
Gene and Yvonne are the kind of people Trandahl was talking about when he mentioned community pride. Weekend pitchers both, the Ficeks got the idea a few years ago to bring the '89 world tournament to Spearfish. The chamber of commerce, the downtown merchants and the townsfolk helped them raise the $40,000 needed to make the bid, and the city built 16 additional courts—at a cost of $25,000—to make Spearfish look more attractive to tournament representatives. The town was awarded the tournament in 1987.
"Been a lot more work than I thought, though," says Gene. On most days during the preparation for the worlds, Yvonne rushed from her waitressing job at the Valley Cafe on Main Street (try the beef stew for $3.95) to mow lawns and tend to other business at the courts. Gene was resigned to a drop in his locksmith business during the tournament. But they wanted to do it, and they did it.
Pitching horseshoes isn't much of a spectator sport, and I admit that Jamie and Chris were not exactly enthralled by it, but there was something hypnotic about the nightly practice sessions. "I think it's the noises," said Donna. She means the squishy sound of shoes hitting the soft clay, and the gentle clang! when a shoe hits the stake.
We left Spearfish on July 17. It rained and thundered that morning, and the courts were filled with puddles as sad and deep as the frowns on the faces of Gene and Yvonne. But by 10, the sun was out, the tournament was under way, and Gene, who was wearing a green polyester pitching shirt with FICEK and SPEARFISH stitched on the back, was smiling. I pointed to the sunny sky, and Gene gave me the thumbs-up sign as we left. Spearfish does things in style.