Weekend rib event was biggest in state’s history

As many as 10,000 people are estimated to have visited Vermillion Friday and Saturday to take part in the community's biggest-to-date Ribs, Rods & Rock 'n Roll celebration.

"We had about 28 teams last year, and we had 43 this year, counting Larry Mart who conducted demonstrations on how to barbecue using corn cobs," said Jody Harnois, executive director and event coordinator of the celebration. "Our vendors did very well, and everybody sold out of ribs."

On top of all of that, he said, it appeared that everyone, from the public who came downtown to sample ribs, look at classic cars and listen to music, to the contestants – some who traveled a great distance to get to Vermillion – all had a good time.

"The teams were all very, very pleased," Harnois said, "and we had some great help from the Lions Club. And the grant that we got from the South Dakota Department of Tourism was huge. We probably doubled our numbers, if not a little better."

As part of the Governor's million-dollar challenge, the South Dakota Office of Tourism has granted Ribs & Rods a matching grant for advertising for the 2009 event. Coordinator Jody Harnois said receiving the matching grant from the South Dakota Office of Tourism and having them as a partner shows they have support from the state of South Dakota to make this year's event a great one.

In order to expand the annual event, the Ribs and Rods committee picked up three University of South Dakota interns to assist with this years event. The interns include Jamie Bulian, event coordinator, from Yankton; Wayne Curry, director of marketing and public relations, from Tampa, FL; and Tiffany Hrdlicka, director of advertising, from Wagner.

Adding to the success of this year's event, Harnois added, was the strong support shown by local advertisers to do everything from help promote the event to supply ribs and manpower to make the celebration run without a hitch.

Ribs, Rods & Rock' n Roll is a Kansas City BBQ Society (KCBS) sanctioned event held annually in downtown Vermillion. Rids & Robs is the largest competitive barbeque event in the history of South Dakota. The primary purpose of Ribs, Rods & Rock' n Roll is to expand and to promote a successful state event, to celebrate Vermillion's rich barbeque history, and to welcome University of South Dakota students back to Vermillion.

Harnois said this year's event proved to be a boon to local businesses. Motel rooms were filled. Bars in downtown Vermillion were packed with visitors during the celebration's two nights.

"That's what it's all about – bringing some people to town," he said. "We just had some great competitiors, too. We had five of the top 25-ranked teams in the nation.  And it's very competitive. Anyone who finished in the top 10 in a barbecue event earned it.

"Our local teams did very well," Harnois added. "The Charcoal Loungers took first place in People's Choice again. And we had a new guy who was cooking with corn cobs – he finished in the top 20. If you can accomplish that with the group of competitors we had, you're doing something right."

The Flying-Pig/Varsity BBQ team finished seventh in the brisket competition.

"That's a tough one," Harnois said. "Brisket is the toughest division out there. All of the teams from Vermillion were represented very well.

Above all, he said, last weekend proved to be a fitting end-of-summer celebration in Vermillion.

"It's so representative of our heritage," Harnois said. "There are other sanctioned events in South Dakota, but there are none that have the history that we have here in Vermillion."

Back in 1940 a group of barbeque enthusiasts from the Norway Township west of Vermillion came up with the idea to host a rib feed at an area know as Wery Grove, where the Clay County Rodeo Grounds are now located.

Corncobs were a natural choice as fuel, but burning cobs produced a level of heat far too intense to be used for the low and slow heat needed to properly barbeque ribs. This problem was remedied by pre-burning the cobs in a small pile until they cooked down to embers. A scoop shovel was then used to place the coals under the grates of makeshift grills.

While the Norway Rib Eaters were not the first to cook over cobs, they were the first to turn it into an art form. Their modest size rib feeds grew as time went on. The first rib feed served just over 50 people but in later years, they would prepare over 1,000 pounds of ribs at a single event.

In the 1970s, Rib Eater protégés Larry Mart and Paul Bliss cooked over a ton of ribs at a time for several events in the area.

"Vermillion is the barbecue capital of South Dakota; there's no doubt about it," Harnois said. "It really showed here this last weekend. The people of this community support these types of events. Everybody came out to support it.

"It was officially the largest competitive barbecue event in the history of South Dakota," he said. "This year, the next closest in size was in Huron, and they had 25 teams. The attendance was great, and Mayor Dan Christopherson went around and talked to each of the team's during the event. We really appreciated that."

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