The W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds in Sioux Falls hosted the 16th Annual Siouxland Renaissance Festival on the weekend of June 10 – 11th. “Play in the Past” is their motto. For two days, reenactors create an atmosphere where one can immerse themselves in history. The period chosen for this year’s fair was 1575, the 17th year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in England.
I’ve attended this festival nearly every year since it began. I’m a big history buff and I always learn something new about daily life in centuries past. Every year I go back brings familiar faces, but there is always something new to see as well.
When preparing to go to this event, one needs to remember that most of the Festival takes place outside. Early June in South Dakota can be chilly, hot, rainy…you just never know, and the weather can change quickly. So bring sunscreen, a hat, something to drink (beverages of all kinds can be purchased at the Festival) and check the weather forecast before you go. This year, the weather forecast predicted temperatures in the low 90’s. Thankfully, there was enough of a breeze and intermittent cloud cover (at least, early in the day) that made conditions bearable on Saturday.
The first thing you notice when you arrive is that the entire staff is in costume and “in character.” Reenactors take on the persona of either a specific individual from the past, or a generic tradesman/craftsman/laborer. Near the entrance performers to greet festival goers as they arrive, including musicians, jugglers, and people on stilts.
I arrived early on Saturday, shortly after the gates opened. My morning focus was making time for the joust, but I made a point to arrive early enough to look around the Fairgrounds and get a lay of the land. Separate areas were set up for performance stages and vendors as well as activities and games for children. As I arrived, there was a group demonstrating Renaissance dances, a juggler performing on stage, and a children’s joust area (with foam lances of course!).
Replica Viking tents were set up at the far end by Olskipan, a group that studies Viking history and is based out of Des Moines. I had a conversation with Dawn Wood, the Jarl (leader) of the group. She explained how the Vikings would sail their ships to new lands, and tear down the ships to make tents and housing in order to create a village, and then reassemble the ship when they decided to move on. The Vikings have a vivid and colorful history, some of it misunderstood as the common reputation of the Vikings is that of conquerors, but Olskipan reminded attendees that they were also traders and craftsmen as well.
After perusing some of the outdoor exhibits, it was time to move over to the other end of the Fairgrounds to the Expo building where the first joust of the day was being held. This year's performance was presented by the New Riders of the Golden Age. The host, known as the marshall, introduced the two knights who were to joust. The marshal encouraged those in the grandstands to cheer for knights on their respective corners of the arena. The armored knights rode in front of their cheering section and encouraged their supporters to root them on. The marshall detailed the point scoring system to determine the victor.
The knights started off by battling on horseback with swords. After trading several blows with the blunted blades, one of the knights knocked his opponent out of the saddle. The knights then retreated to their respective ends of the arena to arm themselves with lances. An extra protective shield was attached to their suits of armor, for the hits in this arena are very real. The knights turned their steeds to face each other, and spurred their mounts forward with lances leveled. The lances cracked against the armor as they passed each other in the middle of the arena, but it took several passes for a solid hit occurred, cracking the lance in the process. It may seem odd, since the weapon is broken, but a cracked lance means you got a successful attack on your opponent.
Eventually one of the knights was dismounted after a successful strike. The final round of combat featured the two knights grabbing melee weapons and duking it out on foot. The action, of course, is scripted and the knights and marshall play up to the crowd. After the conclusion of the joust, the knights and marshall mingled in the crowd and the horses moved to the edge of the arena so spectators, and especially children, can pet the steeds. The knights took their helmets with them as a depository of goodwill donations given by the audience.
Needless to say, after the joust the knights are exhausted and dripping sweat. During the joust, one of the knights had an assistant, known as a squire, pour ice down the inside of the suit of armor to help keep him cool. I’ve had the good fortune to meet a number of these traveling performers over the years and talk to them at length. It takes a long time to train their horses, the armor is indeed heavy and hot (it takes an hour to put it on) and it takes months of training before one is ready to perform before a crowd.
After the joust, I went back outside to the main vendor area. Near the edge of the area, they had a trebuchet set up. A trebuchet is a type of medieval seige weapon. The working model on display was built by a local Boy Scout troup and donated to the festival. Spectators gathered to watch it lob water balloons and bottles far into an open field.
I was then able to catch the performance of a lady I have seen in previous years. Melissa Arleth hosts Cirque de Sewer, a stage show featuring trained domestic rats. The rats move through a series of ladders, ramps, and obstacles in a set on stage. During the show, she performs several acrobat and tight rope techniques as well. She told me that since rats don’t live that long (generally 2 – 3 years) she has to take time (9 months or so) to train young ones to eventually take over for the ones currently performing. Melissa is a trained dancer and acrobat, and has a degree in theater.
Next I attended the Queen’s Tea For Children. This event features the royal court interacting with children, singing songs, playing games, and learning to play instruments. One of the Festival’s performers handed out various percussion instruments for the children to play, and he demonstrated the proper way to play each instrument. It was an excellent way for children to both have fun and learn some history in the process.
I had a conversation with one of the ladies in the queen’s retinue. Devon Strosahl is a schoolteacher from Omaha who portrayed Lady Elizabeth Throckmorton at this year's festival. She researched the history of this real life historical character and was intrigued by her story.
After the conclusion of the tea, I had a chance to talk to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, portrayed by Kerry Vondrak from Lincoln, Nebraska. She has been portraying the Queen of the festival for 12 years now. Her husband, Corey Vondrak, portrays Sir Robert Dudley. He and George Bolter, who portrays Sir Edward Clinton, talked about the research they do.
One musical performer I spoke with was Kathy Johnson, who was playing the hammer dulcimer near the entrance. The hammer dulcimer has an interesting history, which Kathy explained. The modern version of the instrument is of Middle Eastern origin brought back by the Crusaders, but they didn’t bring back anyone who knew how to upkeep the instrument and tune it. It fell out of favor in Europe for many years, but remained popular in places like India. Kathy was kind enough to play a song for me, which I recorded.
On the stage in the Expo building at that time was a performer I had seen quite a few times over the years: Zilch The Tory Steller, real name Terry Foy. Terry’s act is to tell familiar stories and fairy tales in an unusual style: Spoonerism. It is named after a Victorian-era minister, Rev. William Archibald Spooner. He would mix up letters and words, leading to hilarious statements. It was known in ancient times (dating back to the Greeks) as “the art of switching.” Archie Campbell and Andy Griffith have been known to use this form of comedy. His stories do include double entendre and the occasional triple entendre which fly over the heads of the children in the audience and smack the parents right in the forehead. He does trade barbs with audience members and improvises on the spot. He has been performing at the Siouxland Renaissance Festival for every year save the very first one. Terry’s two daughters are also performing at the Renaissance Festival as the Foy Sisters.
I then headed over to one of the tents where the Dregs just finished performing. They are another act I have seen before, a music-comedy group based out of Minnesota. They perform original songs and traditional Irish/Celtic songs. They have performed at the Siouxland Renaissance Festival for over a decade.
A stroll through the vendors area will find a huge variety of handmade items for sale. Nearby are various food vendors, so the smell of hearty foods and sweets waft through the air. A wide variety of beverages, including beer, were available for purchase. Even though this is supposed to be like a medieval fair, most vendors take credit cards, and there are ATMs at the Fairgrounds.
One activity for children throughout the Festival was collecting beads from the performers. Upon entry, children were offered a string to collect the beads on. They were encouraged to visit the different performers and reenactors, asking for a bead (each was a different color). Some asked the children to perform a task, like singing or dancing, to earn the bead. This is a great idea to get kids, and their parents, to go see as much of the festival as possible.
I’m always amazed at the variety of costumes. The medieval times covers a wide range of cultures, including Vikings, pirates, knights, minstrels, nobility, peasants, and craftsman of all kinds.
The staff here has always been friendly and there is something for all ages at the Siouxland Renaissance Festival. I think it is important to have this glimpse into the past, if anything else, to make one appreciate all the progress humanity has made over the centuries.