South Dakota BBQ History

Thanks to the Norway Rib Eaters, Herb Bliss, Heck Harnois, Eli Hanson and Kenny Erickson, Vermillion just may be
the barbeque capital of South Dakota with a proud history of huge community barbeque events that date back to the
1940’s. Vermillion residents and students from the University of South Dakota that have attended the local rib feeds
over the last 65 years often recount fond memories of these classic culinary feasts.  

Cookin’ with Cobs and the Legend of the Norway Rib Eaters
While the south is known for its hickory and Texas is known for its mesquite, thanks to a small group of barbeque
pioneers, South Dakota is known for it’s “corncobs”. That’s right, corncobs, a barbeque heat source not unlike
hickory or mesquite was first born out of necessity and availability.  

In the 1800’s when homesteaders first ventured on to the plains of the Dakotas, they were greeted with endless
waves of beautiful prairie grasses. While these wide-open acres offered would-be farmers and ranchers fertile soil
and rich hunting ground they yielded little in the line of trees that offered the vital protection and warmth needed to
survive the long cold winters for which the area was known.  

To solve this problem the settlers built sod houses and burned whatever was available. This often included what
were commonly known as buffalo chips. While these dehydrated morsels left behind by the prairies largest
inhabitants were plentiful and functional as a heat source, they were anything but an ideal way to cook meals and
warm small earthen homes. It was not until farmers harvested their first crops that they were able to find a more
suitable and plentiful if not more aromatic alternative, “corncobs”.  Cobs soon became the fuel of choice for the
fireplaces and “potbelly stoves” in the homes of many. Farmers would use this “cleaner burning alternative fuel
source” to cook their meals and warm their homes for many years to come.   

Corncobs: The Pioneer Charcoal
Back in 1940 a group of barbeque enthusiasts from the Norway Township west of Vermillion came up with the idea to
host a rib feed at an area know as Wery Grove the site were the Clay County rodeo grounds is now located.
However, the group was faced with a dilemma, how could they produce quality ribs with a sweet smoky barbequed
flavor without a ready supply of hickory, fruitwood or other traditional barbeque heat sources.  

Corncobs were a natural choice, but these barbeque pros knew that burning cobs produced a level of heat far too
intense to be used for the low and slow heat needed to properly barbeque ribs. This problem was remedied by pre-
burning the cobs in a small pile until they cooked down to embers. A scoop shovel was then used to place the coals
under the grates of makeshift grills.   

While the Norway Rib Eaters were not the first to cook over cobs, they were the first to turn it into an art form. Their
modest size rib feeds grew as time went on. The first rib feed served just over 50 people but in later years, they
would prepare over 1,000 lbs of ribs at a single event. In the 1970’s, Rib Eater protégés Larry Mart and Paul Bliss
cooked over a ton of ribs at a time for several events in the area.

Cooking over cobs is more than a barbeque process; it is a tradition that is representative of the heritage of the
Vermillion area and the State of South Dakota. The people of the Vermillion community and the Norway Township
are proud to claim this unique cooking process as their own.

Cooking over corncob embers is a tradition that soon spread throughout SD, NE and IA. It is also a tradition that has
been passed along from father to son (in some cases mother to daughter), representing five generations of
barbeque tradition in this region.  While it is much harder to find cobs now days due to the fact that very few farmers
shell corn as they did in the past, there are still some hardcore traditionalists that make the effort to find those
remaining cobs in an effort to perpetuate a tradition rich in South Dakota history.
Norway Ribeaters 1948
A young Heck Harnois cooks with cobs in the early
1940’s: Heck provided the BBQ sauce for the first
Norway Rib Eater events. While the recipe is still a
secret his daughter-in-law Maryln continues to
prepare the mixture for many of the rib feeds in the
area. In 2005 Heck’s BBQ Sauce was the sauce
used to win the rib championship of the first Ribs,
Rods & Rock’n Roll BBQ cook-off.
One Ton of BBQ Ribs
Pictured above is a Boneyard style BBQ
that was held in the early 70's. Over
2000lbs of ribs were cooked over cobs
and served to the thousands of hungry
participants. Larry Mart headed up a crew
of local BBQ legends to pull this one off.
What else can be said other than WOW!
That is South Dakota style BBQ
South Dakota BBQ History