The small burgh of Pukwana, South Dakota, got its name from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” The last stanza reads, “in the smoke that rolled around him, the pukwana of the peace pipe.”
The Ojibwa word “pukwana” translates literally as “the curling smoke of the peace pipe” or “Smoke of the Pipe of the Great Spirit.”
Frank Kimball was the man who gave Pukwana its name. Ironically he is also the namesake of the next town to the east, Kimball, South Dakota. Frank was the head honcho for the Milwaukee railroad in the 1880s and at the time they were laying the tracks as far as my home town of Chamberlain, which was located on the east bank of the Missouri River.
Today, the small town of Pukwana is famous for its lawnmower races. Basically, the contestants take a riding lawnmower, soup up the engine, re-fit the tires and speed to the end of an approximately one-sixteenth of a mile track; the track might be a little longer or shorter, but knowing Pukwana, there are probably very few rules, if any. If there are, rule number one would be drinking in public is allowed on race day (if not required). Rule number two would be to have as much fun as possible by adhering to rule number one.
Pukwana has a long history of racing. Before the lawnmowers came around, turkey racing was the big sport. It became so popular that Pukwana was too small of a town to keep the turkey races where they originated. At one time, Pukwana at 2.01 square kilometers, was known as the smallest town in the U.S. to have a first class post office. Although Pukwana has a population of only 814 people, the area is served by nine cardiologists. This leads me to believe that if you are about to have a heart attack from watching either turkeys or lawnmowers racing around a track, Pukwana, South Dakota, is the place to be.
Beginning in 1972, turkeys have raced in the town of Worthington, Minnesota, the home of King Turkey Days. Their annual event features a turkey named Paycheck who goes up against a turkey from Cuero, Texas, named Ruby Begonia. Worthington claims the reason they stole turkey races from Pukwana is that nothing goes faster than a paycheck.
Pukwana, the little town that wouldn't die, once featured an annual day of racing outhouses down Main Street. Yes, you heard me right, they actually raced outhouses. There is a lot of creativity involved in putting together an outhouse that has a movement from something other than the occupant inside. That is probably why they switched to racing lawnmowers.
Next week I will tell you how the sport of racing all began in Pukwana, South Dakota. It involves a 14 year-old boy, a legendary fast horse from the Yankton tribe of Sioux and an historic day in 1884.