When I started hosting groups on sightseeing tours of the Black Hills back in 1978, I just more or less fell into it, without much forethought. The opportunity presented itself, and I took it. And the business grew so rapidly that I certainly didn’t squander any time wondering where this interest came from.
When I was in college of course, there wasn’t any course of study called “hospitality” or “hotel management” or “tourism”. So I just learned it as I went along.
That first year I was married with three small children. When I was agonizing over what name to call the fledgling company, my husband declared that there was only one name I could call it: Shebby Lee Tours. I immediately protested that it was too hard to pronounce, I was weary of spelling it out, yadda yadda. And he calmly replied that this was true, but once people caught on to it, they would never forget it. He was absolutely right. Now that my middle son is poised to take over, he has restated that the name stays, because that’s the name that people recognize and relate to quality travel experiences.
Like any business it had its ups and downs. Some years were better than others. We gradually expanded into touring the entire western United States, and eventually gave up the local sightseeing altogether. 9/11 happened. We pulled in our belts. The recession of 2008 happened. We re-financed.
Then Covid happened. And I’ve now had plenty of time to contemplate just how and why I got into this business in the first place. It turns out that I wasn’t just bitten by the Travel Bug, I was born into it! And I’ve been somewhat surprised that I never made the connection before.
Those of you who have been following me for awhile are well aware that I come from a highly educated (some might say, over-educated) family. Both of my grandfathers taught at the college level, one was chancellor of a small midwestern college, one never graduated from high school, but earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering - even serving temporarily as the department head - during his 42 year career.
My parents too pursued college and graduate degrees, and there was never any question of my going to college. My cousins, aunts and uncles, all were college educated. But it turns out that all this book-learning actually had little influence on my ultimate career choice. I had to do a little sleuthing to get to the source.
As a college professor, my maternal grandfather had summers free, and he decided to make full use of that time by instituting cross-country family trips planned around his annual electrical engineering convention and including visits to far-flung family, and a number of World’s Fairs held in the U.S. throughout the thirties. There were no RVs of course during the thirties, but Grandpa bought an early travel trailer and attached it to the family Ford. (The family car was always a Ford, until he discovered Willys.) These annual excursions provided wonderful learning experiences not available to many American families in the Dirty Thirties. Mother definitely caught the travel bug during those trips and her tales of adventure coupled with vacation photos, convinced me that everyone in the family was definitely having wonderful new adventures. Everyone that is, except Grandma, who was still doing exactly the same chores she did at home (cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, washing clothes, ironing) with the additional burden of carrying the “home” on her back! Some vacation! Those annual excursions ended abruptly with WWII, the draft, and gas rationing, but the photos remain as a fond remembrance of early 20th century travel. I grew up hearing every detail of those adventures.
Over the decade they visited the Chicago World’s Fair (1933-34), Cleveland Great Lakes Exposition (1936-37), and the New York World’s Fair (1939). Mother loved them all, and I was reminded of all her stories when I had the opportunity to join a youth group heading east to the New York World’s Fair in 1965. It wasn’t lost on me that Mother and her family had been there/done that just 26 years before. Maybe that’s where the travel bug bit me! It certainly wasn’t with the only two disastrous vacations my little nuclear family (two parents, one kid) had taken, after which we enthusiastically embraced separate vacations for the remainder of my childhood and beyond!
My Grandpa was a meticulous planner (and notoriously frugal) so every detail was planned in advance, every mile calculated, and every penny recorded as it was spent. I always suspected that the travel trailer was probably bought used, but in retrospect I can’t imagine that there were very many used travel trailers available so early in the century. I’m more confident that he didn’t sell the trailer after the war called a halt to personal travel, and just let it sit at the side of the house because “you never know”.
I have now come to recognize that there is a direct line from those excursions in pursuit of knowledge and adventure to my own travel business founded over forty years later. And the history bug is also a natural (Grandpa was one of the first subscribers to the American Heritage magazine in 1949 and saved every one of them, which I voraciously devoured during my summer visits).
It is quite likely that I inherited both the travel itch and the love of history from those family trips, even though I was admittedly not an actual participant. Fast forward to 1978: My first assignment was to research and write a tour guide manual covering the history
and eccentricities of the Black Hills and environs. It has been updated and expanded many times over the years, but we still use that manual for training new guides and tour directors. And as for the study of history, I am rewarded on every single tour that I conduct by the response of passengers amazed that history is actually interesting! That was a no-brainer for me: history is nothing if not stories, and all you have to do to hook an audience is share the (true) stories behind the scenery - what I call the insights to the sights - and you’re set for the entire trip!
God willing and the creek don’t rise, we will be able to continue this tradition of providing exciting and enriching journeys beyond the current challenges and into the future!