By Deb Hendrickson
This year, 2021, marks the 50th Anniversary of the Vetal Volunteer Fire Department’s fundraising event, “The Smoker.” Held annually, the Smoker is instrumental in providing necessary funding for the maintenance and upkeep of the fire hall, trucks and equipment. Replacing dances and box socials, which were originally held as fundraisers, the fire department started holding Smokers in February 1971. Over the years, the Smoker continues to grow in popularity and on occasion, has been known to draw as many as 400-500 people.
This year also marks the 61st Anniversary of the inception of the Vetal Fire Hall and Volunteer Fire Department. A white Jeep Fire Truck that held 100 gallons of water became available to the community from the county with the stipulation that a shelter was built to house it. Wendell Johnson was elected first fire chief of the Fire Department in the summer of 1960, and the department consisted of 29 members. That summer Mr. Johnson and Jerry Donovan went to get the fire truck which set into motion a community-wide plan to build the first fire hall. Several area residents solicited for donations which resulted in the community being able to build a cement block 16 x 32’ one room structure to serve as the first fire hall. The building was completed in September and October of 1960.
In 1963, the white Jeep was given back to the county commissioners and a new yellow ¾ ton truck was purchased.
Through efforts put forth by the Vetal Tip Top 4-H Club in 1969 and 1970, to the north of the fire hall toilets were put in, trees were planted, and a sign was placed on the building acknowledging the “Vetal Volunteer Fire Department.”
Once again, by means of donations from the community as well as volunteers providing the labor, another room was added on to the west side of the fire hall in 1971. Along with one truck currently being housed at the fire hall, the addition allowed for two additional trucks to be housed there. Additions were also added to the north in the 80s and again in the 90s. The fire department purchased an old R.E.A. red and white 2-1/2-ton truck, which had been converted into a fire truck, in 1972.
The original building that housed the fire hall still stands alongside U.S. Highway 18 in Vetal, S.D. on land that was donated by Cecil Fanning under a 100-year lease. It is currently being used for storage.
Riverside School, built in 2000 and operated as a school for approximately 6-7 years, was donated to the fire department in 2007. This building is now home to the Vetal Volunteer Fire Department. Blu Donovan is presently the fire chief and the department currently has approximately 30 members. The department now owns five grass units and a tanker. A 1964 Chevy 4wd pickup, with low mileage, is still owned and utilized by the department.
According to Jeff Johnson, in 50 years running, the Smoker hasn’t had to be postponed due to the weather. However, last year it was decided to move the event from the third weekend in February to the third weekend in January so more local ranchers and out-of-town goose hunters could attend. He went on to say that back in the day, Smokers were only attended by men but today have become a family-friendly event.
This year’s Smoker is being held on Saturday, January 16 starting at 5:00 p.m. at the Vetal Fire Hall (former Riverside School). To-go boxes will be available to anyone who would prefer that option.
Many local businesses have generously donated to part of the menu items to make the meal a great success. The fire department’s house specialty, Rocky Mountain Oysters, are purchased frozen from a packing plant and prepared with great care. “The day before the Smoker, we skin them, slice and tenderize them. This is what people come for and we make every effort to do it right,” Johnson said.
Side dishes, salads and desserts are graciously being prepared and donated by several women residents.
Grossenburg Implement, Winner, S.D. is providing the beverages.
Activities being planned at this year’s Smoker include a number of Poker games: Craps, Blackjack, and Let It Ride. Originally, Poker games were played using silver dollars to bet with, but those being a collector’s item, have since been replaced with chips. A memory of the silver dollar era Jeff Johnson recalls was, “We used to attend England school which was one mile south of Vetal. One year in the early 70s, our bus driver stopped at the fire hall on the afternoon of the Smoker and Jerry Donovan gave all of us kids on the bus a silver dollar.”
There will also be a drawing for a Bergara B-14 Timber 6.5 Creedmoor rifle.