A Ride Through Time in Sturgis

A Ride Through Time in Sturgis

The small town of Sturgis is located in western South Dakota at the base of the Black Hills and the eastern gateway to the gold fields of Deadwood and Lead, made famous by wild west characters such as Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.  Just east of Sturgis is Ft. Meade, a cavalry post established in 1863 which currently operates as a Veterans Administration health care facility.

Colorful characters have always been a part of the Sturgis history, including Sturgis® Motorcycle Rally™ founder Clarence ‘Pappy’ Hoel.  Pappy was born and raised in Sturgis.  He also owned an Indian motorcycle dealership which he initially operated out of his garage on the main road into Sturgis.

How it all Started:  In 1936 Pappy and a group of local motorcycle enthusiasts decided to form a club which became known as the Jackpine Gypsies.  As a club function, the group held ‘field days’ where they would gather together to partake in a variety of motorcycle games, dirt track competitions and field trips.  Often, they would invite other groups from nearby communities.  Early in 1937 they decided to rehabilitate an old half-mile dirt track which was previously used for horse racing in Sturgis.  After pulling weeds and grading the track an official Field Day was held in August of 1937.  The activities included stunt riding, games and racing.  Most of the 37 participants came from Sturgis, Lead and Rapid City.

After seeing the interest and number of attendees the ‘Field Days’ brought to the area, local merchants wanted to help promote the event and became involved in both organizing and executing the events from that moment on.  The merchants and organizers included many new events but the Jackpine Gypsies remained in charge of the official Gypsie Tour which offered an open invitation to the public to go on a formal ride through the Black Hills as part of the Motorcycle Classic activities. 

1943 brought a halt to the Motorcycle Classic as gas rationing and war worries held the attention of the public.  By 1946 however, the Classic was once again back in motion.  The 1946 event which consisted of just the ‘Gypsie Tour’ and a few races was able to capture a crowd of approximately 4,000 people.

Over the years, the Jackpine Gypsies along with local merchants and promoters worked hard to enhance and expand what is now known as the Sturgis® Motorcycle Rally™.  During that time, the event has experienced ups and downs and often reflects the economic health of the motorcycle industry in general.  In 2015, motorcycle enthusiasts celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Sturgis® Motorcycle Rally™.  Although it’s impossible to predict the exact number of people who attended that year, many people who have been a part of the Rally for decades estimated that over 800,000 people made their way to Sturgis for the party.  For a town of just over 6,800 residents, it was a year to remember.

The Sturgis® Motorcycle Rally™ Today:  The effects of the Rally are felt across the entire Midwest region.  The incorporation of major sponsors has helped spread the word about Sturgis and the Rally around the world.  Visitors from many foreign countries travel to Sturgis to experience the ultimate American biker culture.  Several documentaries and cable channel specials have brought the excitement of the Rally into the homes of millions of viewers.  The internet also plays a major role in providing news and information to motorcycle enthusiasts.  The Sturgis® Motorcycle Rally™ Facebook page currently has over 300,000 followers who are actively engaged in sharing their photos, Rally experiences and support. 

Based on surveys conducted during the past several years, an average Rally attendee is male, between the ages of 50 and 59 with some college education who works in a technical field.  Amazingly, almost 45% of Rally attendees are female.  Approximately 67% of attendees own Harley-Davidson motorcycles and 48% of those attending the event rode their motorcycles to Sturgis.  70% of those attending the Rally in 2016 were repeat visitors.

The transition:  The City of Sturgis is home to approximately 6,800 residents.  The major employers are the hospital, Ft. Meade VA facility and the school system.  There are no theaters, no Wal-Mart and no shopping malls.  The City employs approximately 130 people on a permanent basis and up to 400 during the Rally period.  The Rally Department is made up of four full-time employees.  Two employees are added during the summer months and one more is added during the Rally.  In addition to the Rally Department, a handful of other temporary employees are added to work information booths, as vendor inspectors, parking lot security, ambulance personnel and photo tower attendants.  Numerous certified police officers are hired from several departments within the state to supplement the regular police force.

The popularity and success of temporary vending has grown to the point where many Property owners within the commercial districts simply divide their property into a variety of sizes and lease the spots to temporary vendors during the Sturgis Rally.  Some regular businesses close-up shop and move out for the ten-day event so their store-fronts can be leased out for vending.  Others simply develop large paved lots which are built specifically for the purpose of Rally vending.  All vendors are required to obtain a vending license prior to doing business within the City limits.  The Sturgis Finance Office is in charge of issuing these licenses and fees are charged based on the size of the lot where vending takes place.  The dates of when vendors are allowed to operate are also regulated.  A vending license is good for 12 days and the three days prior to the start of the Rally have vendors clamoring to purchase their licenses.  Vendors caught selling without their license are subject to significant fines.  The City has numerous inspectors on staff whose job is to police where and when vendors set up to sell their wares.

A large challenge for City personnel is the orchestration of street closures, vendor set up and event scheduling.  Main Street closes at 2 am on the first Friday in August and only motorcycles can drive or park on the five block Main Street.   Once closed, Main Street becomes home to photo towers, vendor displays, ATM’s and Rally related infrastructure.  At 2 am each day, the City crews take over the downtown area removing trash, making repairs and washing sidewalks and gutters.  This is also a time when contractors arrive to clean and pump the 110+ portable restrooms that are placed in strategic locations throughout the downtown area.  One night of trash collection in downtown Sturgis exceeds that of Times Square NY on New Year’s Eve.   Amazingly, the tons of trash collected during the event plays a critical role in the estimation of event attendance. 

Attendees:  No matter how well organized the Sturgis® Motorcycle Rally™ has become, it would be physically impossible to gather all those attending into the City at one time and place.  In the 1980’s several large campground venues opened their doors to the overflow from Sturgis.  In addition to RV and tent camping, these venues host headline entertainment along with full service bars, vending areas, events and everything else one would expect to find in a small town.  Thousands of miniature camping cabins are also available at most campgrounds.  If attendees prefer a more ‘down to earth’ experience, many residents offer to rent out extra rooms for sleeping and back yards for camping.

Whether it’s the beautiful rides, art exhibits, custom motorcycle building, motorcycle racing, world-class concerts, shopping or just the incredible festival atmosphere, visitors will surely experience much more than they ever imagined possible when visiting Sturgis.   We sincerely welcome everyone to come to Sturgis and experience what it’s like to be a part of the Sturgis® Motorcycle Rally™.

The annual Sturgis® Motorcycle Rally™ takes starts the first Friday in August.  More information about the Rally is available on the SturgisMotorcycleRally.com website.  For current information, about activities taking place now, visit the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Facebook page.

Article Courtesy of Christina Steele, Public Information Officer, City of Sturgis

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A Ride Through Time in Sturgis