The annual announcement of the Top 100 Events in North America by the American Bus Association (ABA) is eagerly awaited each fall by the group travel industry. The selection process is rigorous and takes a humongous committee a full year to weigh the merits of the nominations, wrangle over their favorites and winnow the list down. That’s one committee I’m glad I’m not on.
The 2015 finalists were announced recently and I want to take this opportunity to crow a little bit about the top choice, which just happens to be in my back yard: the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. We have hosted a Black Hills destination tour during the roundup for many years now, and have grown very fond of the quirkiness of this program. For one thing, it is a one-of-a-kind experience, harkening back to our Old West heritage. Buffalo are pre-historic survivors, and don’t much like being herded, so in this one instance, the buffalo are in charge. There are no grandstands, the people are enclosed in fences at a safe distance, and we more or less follow their schedule! It is a buffalo pasture, after all. But the setting can’t be beat: the beautiful Black Hills in all their fall splendor. There are smaller crowds (except for the day itself, of course), we take the time to really explore the national parks, and the natural wonders of the region.
The Roundup has been included in the Top 100 list for several years, but this fall’s announcement that it was rated the NUMBER ONE event in the United States, sent us over the moon! Bragging rights are one thing, but when your peers endorse an event that you have known and promoted for years, it really is something special.
A buffalo roundup is not exactly an everyday occurrence, even out here in the West. Thanks to the railroads, the US Army, and Buffalo Bill Cody himself, there aren’t that many buffalo to round up anymore. It’s certainly not the biggest annual event in South Dakota, or even in Western South Dakota. That would be the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which isn’t a group event at all, but a 24/7 party attended by hundreds of thousands of fiercely independent individuals.
This roundup didn’t start out as a spectator event, but rather has grown from an Old West tradition required for the proper management of the herd. When the first 36 bison (yes, that’s their actual scientific name) were introduced, or rather re-introduced to Custer State Park in 1924, the only thought was to keep the herd safe from predators (mostly human) and see if we couldn’t increase the herd. At that time bison were on the endangered species list and still far too close to extinction for comfort.
Photo by Custer State Park
In fact, the herd thrived under the protection of the park, and steadily grew until before we knew it we had over 2,000 head and the park was beginning to suffer the consequences. Most of the land in the park is wooded, and not suitable for raising livestock. So the decision was made to cull the herd, annually if need be, to keep the number more manageable. The first roundup – and many more thereafter – was held quietly at the end of the summer season, and seen only by park personnel and the participating wranglers. Gradually, word spread locally and a few families would show up to sit on the fences and take in this ranching tradition with a unique twist: the herd was made up of pre-historic mammals!
It really hasn’t been until the past twenty or so years that crowds have shown up in any numbers, thanks to state and local tourism promotions, and the ABA Top 100 Events List. You can find out what actually takes place on our website. We have video links posted along with requests for registration packets for the Black Hills tour, which of course, includes the roundup.
Just in case I haven’t made it clear what a great honor being chosen number one by ABA is, let me list just a few of the far more well-known and better established events that we beat out!
In the West:
● Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
● Cheyenne Frontier Days
● Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
● Pasadena Tournament of Roses
● Portland Rose Festival.
● Kentucky Derby
● Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
● the National Cherry Blossom Festival
● Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Not too shabby! With all this competition, the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup came out on top, and we couldn’t be prouder.
This month’s Trail Talk is sponsored by:
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.