Okoboji Memories

Posted: Monday, July 28, 2008 at 12:00 am
By: Doug Lund
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The first time I ever set foot into the Keloland building in downtown Sioux Falls, where I would eventually spend so much of my life, was…I think…in 1961.
My cousin and I were there to audition for a locally produced program called Okoboji Varieties. I don’t remember too much about the show except it featured entertainers from around the Keloland coverage area and served to promote the Iowa Great Lakes region.
What I do remember is being escorted into the studio where we sat down on the Captain 11 bleachers and, with guitars in hand, nervously waited for our names to be called. 
It turns out that our Everly Brothers rendition of “Oh, Oh, Claudette” ..a big hit at father-son banquets and on the Farmer’s Union meeting circuit..didn’t much impress the judges and we failed to make the final cut.
Okoboji Varieties really got viewers in South Dakota from Watertown to Wall excited about making the journey (90 miles east of Sioux Falls) to see Lake Okoboji…one of just three fresh blue water lakes in the world..and, of course to visit Arnold’s Park; Disneyland of the Midwest.
My brothers and I finally talked our folks into making the trip when I was 16. It was one of the most exciting and fun filled days of my life.
I can still smell the sweet aroma of cotton candy and salt water taffy wafting from the midway as we entered the park and walked past the open windows of the roller rink. The roller rink didn’t change much over the years from this photo in the 30’sAs we pressed our noses against the screen to look inside, we could see grown ups..men and woman gliding about the huge hardwood floor together in perfect unison.  The girls in their short skirts and shoe skates adorned with pom poms; the boys in black pants and shiny shirts oozed with confidence as they did their dance on wheels to the music of a real concert organ. Quite a contrast to the demolition derby I was used to at the makeshift skating rink inside the Volga Auditorium.Click, click, click.  After hearing about it for a long time..here we were; actually aboard the famous Arnold’s Park wooden roller coaster that’s been thrilling riders since the 20’s. Click, click, click. My heart was pounding as our group of cars inched toward the point of no return. My knuckles were white from gripping the flimsy bar that was supposed to keep  us from flying to our death . Click, click, click. Who’s the idiot in the car ahead with his hands in the air. Is he nuts? The clicking stopped and we were in free fall. Down, down, down to our doom. But no..suddenly we hit bottom and instead of being crushed by our own weight, we were launched skyward again..and again. I’d never been so scared in my life and couldn’t wait to ride it again..and again. To check it out for yourself, Click here. To see an amazing collection of old photos of the Okoboji area, click here.
After dining on a Nutty Bar, we headed over to the fun house..passing by the animated laughing lady at the entrance and into the strange interior where a wooden walkway moved up and down and back and forth; where air shot up from the floor lifting girl’s dresses over their heads. There was a spinning wooden cylinder big enough to walk through..but few who tried actually made it and wound up polishing the inside with their clothes until they managed to crawl out. Everyone’s favorite fun house feature, though, was the indoor slide. After grabbing a gunny sack, you’d climb up the tall stairway…plant your butt on the burlap and launch yourself down the hilly wooden slope for three seconds of terrifying delight.
Some of Okoboji’s attractions are long gone..but after nearly 100 years, the amusement park, taffy shop, Queen excursion boat and the roller coaster are still there.
I wonder if I’d have the nerve to raise my arms if I were to ride it again.

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