Huron Arena notes 70 years as regional centerpiece

Curt Nettinga/Plainsman Huron Arena, circa 2022, 70 years after the dedication ceremony that opened what was then the biggest arena in the state of South Dakota.

It took place in the evening of March 27, 1952, a Thursday.

That was the night when one of the grandest of the Fair City’s grand dames was dedicated, in a ceremony involving three ministers, the high school band, three chorus groups, one soloist and a long list of speakers.

She came about with great fanfare and over the years, has shown she deserved every bit of that attention.

That was the night that the Huron Arena, a community project that has more than stood the test of time was officially brought into being. It remains today as one of the most prominent structures in Huron and is still, without any argument, the best venue in the state of South Dakota to watch a basketball game, as it marks its 70th birthday this weekend.

In its lifetime, Huron Arena has seen state high school champions crowned in volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics and both girls’ and boys’ basketball within its walls. It has hosted S.D. All-State Chorus and Orchestra, countless Huron school concerts and band performances and almost every Huron High School graduation since it was opened as well as dozens of HHS proms.

And that’s just the ‘school stuff.’ The tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Where it all began
Construction on Huron Arena began in 1950, continued through 1951 and wrapped up in early 1952. It was built by and is owned by the Huron School District. Contracts that were approved for its construction totaled $754,997.50, for “everything, with the exception of a public address system,” according to a story in the June 30, 1950 Plainsman. Ironically, the bid came in just $2.50 below the $755,000 that the school board had on hand for the project. It was expected that the sound system would be paid for by interest on the school district’s U.S. Treasury certificates, the story added.

Huron Arena was designed by Harold Spitznagel, an architect from Sioux Falls. Spitznagel came to the project with some serious credentials, having designed – after Frank Lloyd Wright passed on the project - the Custer State Park Game Lodge, as well as Sioux Falls’ City Hall. He would later design the first Mount Rushmore National Memorial Visitor’s Center – the one through which Cary Grant is chased in “North by Northwest” - and numerous churches in the Sioux Falls area.

Its original design called for a building that was 214.5-feet east to west and 164-feet north to south, with a height of 65 feet in the center, the height of a five-story building and was a landmark construction in Huron. The use of six very large rigid steel girders allowed for the exceptional span from to north to south.

The Spitznagel description called for two 50x24 “smoking concourses” on each side of the floor, which would double as concession areas and housed the east and west exits, with a kitchen, and “dressing rooms for stars, actors and actresses” and more. Two more “smoking concourses” were designed on the upper level, as were additional concession stands upstairs on both the east and west sides of the Arena.

Interesting as well is that the description shows that provisions were made in the plan for the future construction of an underground passage, from the Arena to the Huron High School building, which at that time was directly across Illinois Avenue to the west. The passageway was intended to enable the arena to be used for both music and physical education programs, although there is no indication that the underground passageway was ever built.

Growing pains
The original construction footprint remains intact, but Huron Arena has seen its share of improvements and updates.

According to the Huron High School Activities office, which is housed in the northeast corner of the original building the seating capacity is right at 5,500 people, with 3,995 permanent folding wooden seats in the balcony and around 1,500 on lower level bleachers when all are utilized.

Spitznagel’s original proposal called for just over 6,000 spectators for basketball – using seats and bleachers – and nearly 7,000 for boxing and wrestling, where spectators could also be seated in chairs on the floor. The original plan noted that approximately 40 automobiles and trucks could fit as well, for shows.

When it was built, the large press box that overlooks the north end of the court was included and has seen a veritable “who’s who” of broadcasters and writers covering Huron High School and Huron College games, as well as local high school and state tournaments, including S.D. Hall of Famer Norm Hilson of WNAX, as well as local broadcasters like Milt Herrick, Bud Holle, Tim Aamodt, Matt Watson and today’s “Voice of the Huron Tigers,” Jeff Duffy.

The front of the press box is covered today with a large banner noting Huron High School Eastern South Dakota titles won.

The floor of the Arena was originally tile over cement when built. That original tile remains on areas around the playing surface, after a wood floor playing surface was installed in 1989, during the summer and fall. The work on the new floor made it necessary for that year’s Huron High School girls’ basketball team to play many of its games at the Huron High School Gym, as girls’ basketball was still a Fall sport at that time. The Huron Tiger girls’ hoops team – led by Amy Burnett and coached by Tim Buddenhagen - went on to win the State “AA” championship that season, after playing its first nine games of the season on the road.

In 2005, a renovation project and addition began, to make the Arena more user friendly for volleyball and basketball tournaments. This renovation project included the following:
• New bleachers.
• Three new scoreboards. One overhead at center court, one smaller one on the north end and a 45’ scoreboard on the south end. Banners for each of Huron High School’s state championships hangs on the south end of the arena
• Four new locker rooms with 6-8 showers, 4-6 toilets/urinals, and 30 lockers in each. Adding the additional locker rooms were integral for Huron Arena to continue hosting state tournaments.
• One male and female coaches’ room along with a coaches’ bathroom.
• One new trainer’s room.
• One new officials’ room that has two separate locker rooms.
• A custodial storage area that also houses a cage area for VB, GBB, and BBB.

At about that same time, the City of Huron connected the Crossroads Hotel to the Huron Arena by building the Huron Event Center. Teams participating in state basketball or volleyball tournaments can stay at The Crossroads, meaning it’s just a short walk down the hallway to get to the games or back to their room.

Through a program that got its start with Daktronics and its scoreboard business, the Huron School District began a sponsorship agreement with area businesses – at varying levels of participation - to advertise inside and outside the arena, which helped pay for the renovation and now is a continuing revenue source for the school district.

More recently, vacant rooms around the upper concourse on the east and west sides were renovated into office spaces that now house the district’s administration offices, including Curriculum, English as a Second Language (ESL), the Superintendent’s office and the school district’s Business office.

Most recently, the Huron School District installed handrails for each of the walkways in the balcony.

It’s probably happened at Huron Arena
As one may expect, over its lifetime Huron Arena has hosted a wide variety – to say the least – of different events. The earliest confirmed happening in the venue was a performance of the “sparkling ice show extravaganza, Holiday On Ice,” which took place at the end of July in 1952. A story in the July 13 Plainsman documented that 10 miles of iron pipe were laid on top of sawdust and sand that was put in place to protect the new floor. A brine made with calcium chloride was cooled to 15 degrees and circulated through the piping by two huge compressors. Water was added until two inches of ice were achieved for the show, at a cost estimated between $4,000 and $5,000.

“Holiday on Ice” had 125 skaters who gave a total of five two-and-a-half hour performances for a reserved ticket only crowd in Huron.

Not a bad way really, to christen what was then the largest venue in the state.

Professional basketball came in October of 1952 as well, when the Syracuse Nationals, led by the “Human Projectile” Billy Gabor, played a preseason game against the defending NBA champions, the Minneapolis Lakers and their star, George Mikan in a pre-season game. It was the first basketball game ever played at Huron Arena. The Lakers won the game, 64-57, and former Huron College standout Gene Smith, a rookie for the Lakers that season, started and scored five points in the contest.

The first high school state tournament happened two-and-a-half years later, when the Arena hosted the 1955 Class “B” State Tournament for the first time. The eight-team field featured first-round games between Wolsey and Brandon followed by Menno and White River. The evening session saw defending champion Hayti taking on Selby, followed by Gann Valley and Waubay.

Wolsey blasted Brandon 68-51, White River held off Menno 63-58, Hayti came from behind to down Selby 79-67 and Waubay defeated Gann Valley 69-59. In the semifinals, White River’s “twin towers” Marvin (6-4) and Jim (6-5) Chamberlain overpowered Wolsey and the Garney Henley-led Hayti Redbirds blew out Waubay. In the championship game, the Arena had a doozy for its first state tournament, as White River defeated Hayti, 56-55, for its first state championship.

Wolsey defeated Waubay in the third-place contest.

The tournament was back in 1957, as Cresbard won the state title, 62-57 over Corona.

After the Arena opened, Huron College began to hold its home basketball games there as well. For many years, the Huron Holiday Tournament was held, featuring the home Huron Tribe and three other teams, as the tournament was held over two nights. A “Miss Holiday” was chosen as well, sponsored by the Huron Plainsman, with candidates coming from high schools in the Plainsman’s coverage area. Henley, who achieved stardom on the Huron College football field and in the Canadian Football League, returned to Huron as a coach of Guelph University during one year of the Holiday Tournament.

The field for the Holiday Tournament regularly featured either Dakota Wesleyan
University or Northern State, both of which were huge rivals of Huron College in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Today, a community group organizes the Huron Holiday Classic, a two-day affair with several girls’ basketball games on the first day and an equal number of boys’ games on the second day.

Over the years there have been numerous concerts as well as state and national conventions of every type. Amateur and professional boxing matches, pro wrestling and for many years, the S.D. State Fair Rodeo performances were held at Huron Arena, as tons of dirt were hauled in to cover the floor. The James Valley Shrine Clubs brings the circus to town each year and there have been iterations of trade shows, outdoor shows, pool tournaments, dart tournaments and the list goes on and on.

In an article published in the Plainsman approximately 10 years after it was dedicated, Huron Arena was booked for a total of 100 of the 270 days of the 1962-63 school year. Included in the collection of things taking place was an appearance by the Fred Waring Chorus, S.D. All-State Chorus, two more days of Holiday on Ice and a performance by the Grand Ole Opry.
As she turns 70, Huron Arena remains the crown jewel of the Fair City. While other venues have been opened that offer alternatives for events that always took place at the Arena, there are still a great many things that take place within her four walls.

All Huron High School boys’ and girls’ varsity home basketball games are played there, as well as all home volleyball games and numerous lower level games. The final round of the 281 Conference boys’ and girls’ tournament is routinely held on the Arena hardwood, and come playoff time, Huron Arena has been and continues to be a popular place to host regional and now, SoDak 16 volleyball and basketball games. The 2019 Class “B” State girls’ basketball tournament and the 2020 Class “B” State volleyball tournaments crowned champions under its rafters.  

—Arena Memories—

Jim Sheridan
I attended St. Theresa School and we lived on Colorado Avenue, so I walked past Huron Arena — or where they were building it — to get home, when I was 10 or 12 years old.

I remember they were putting up the steel, attaching the rafters to the sides, probably 40 feet in the air. A guy on the ground was heating up rivets in a forge, getting them just red hot. He put them in some kind of container and then he would toss that red hot rivet straight up to where the guys up top were working. A guy up there would catch in some sort of funnel type device, rattle it around until it was in place and then they would put it through the holes in the steel and they riveted it together.

I was just fascinated to see something that big and how they went about doing that work. I could have watched for hours.

—Arena Memories—

Jeff Duffy
There are so many memories; where to start? Well, first, I have the best seat in the house, although I only go back a little over 30 years, so there is a lot of history before that.

The Huron Tiger boys’ run to the 2004 championship and how the east balcony crowd grew each game in January and February.

Without a doubt, the 1991 Boys “B” championship, when Northwestern beat Crow Creek. The Arena was over capacity and I had people in the press box, standing behind me watching the game. Cary Radiewitz, the Huron College football coach at that time had done color for some games and he brought a group up to the press box.

The other game that really stands out was a district championship boys’ game between Alpena/Wessington Springs in 1998 or 99. The Arena was nearly fully, the game goes into overtime and referee Dave Tate is injured at the end of regulation. Greg Blue came out of the stands to officiate the overtime, and had to wear Tate’s uniform which was a bit big on him.

—Arena Memories—

Sharon Jones
I want to share a few things about the Huron Arena.

I sang in the All State Chorus there and it was an amazing experience. Also the Holiday On Ice Shows were there for a few years and I really enjoyed that.  Lawrence Welk and his orchestra were there for an appearance and I remember talking to them and asking how to get an audition with them. What a dreamer I was. They wanted a tape and of course I knew no one at that time that would be able to help me with that. I found out later that Ellis Ross would have helped me. Perhaps I didn’t want it badly enough. I helped sell Lawrence Welk memorabilia then also.

When Bob and I were dating, he took me to see the Harlem Globetrotters and that was a blast...can’t you just see Meadowlark doing his thing? I think there was a Billy Graham event there also at one time.

Let’s not forget the State “A” basketball tourney held in 1958 when the Tigers took the state title not losing one game. What excitement that was.

The wood floor kind of took care of all that stuff and I think that this community is missing out on some entertainment that we could have here. However, since the school district took over the ownership of the building and the arena is managed by the athletic director I think those days are gone.

—Arena Memories—

Mark Smith
I still remember the day and date. It was Tuesday, December 14, 1954. The American Legion promoted boxing at the Huron Arena and the featured bout that night was Glen Flanagan vs. Billy Pincus. Flanagan won by TKO in the fifth. He was a pretty famous Minnesota fighter.
I was 7-years-old and my dad took me to the fights. We sat in the north balcony and it was very exciting. I remember the Arena was still nearly brand new, but that didn’t mean as much. I was with my dad and that mattered the most.

—Arena Memories—

In her book “ Iconic Sports Venues: Persuasion in Public Spaces.“ Huron High School graduate Danielle Johannesen describes Huron Arena as a ‘domestic space,’ making the strong case that venues in small towns, such as Huron Arena, are similar to a family’s home “in terms of behaviors, rituals, objects and functions that characterize both types of spaces…”

Johannesen also goes on to document what she terms as a significant event in the history of Huron Arena, the 1991 Class “B” boys’ state tournament final round, capped by the championship game between Northwestern High School and Crow Creek High School, won by Northwestern, 71-55.

“Longtime Huron Public Schools Activities director Mark Wendelgass was in charge of managing the tournament, alongside the South Dakota High School Activities Association. Many hours prior to the start of the championship game…large groups of fans began arriving by bus. Wendelgass recalls the tremendous crowds and the challenges that came with trying to accommodate those crowds,” Johannesen writes.

Wendelgass - As we concluded the afternoon session and locked the doors to clean for the evening’s 3rd place game and championship game we noticed many busses arriving from Crow Creek. We were worried about handing the crowd, as all seats were reserved and a team’s students were the only one allowed in the bleachers.

When we opened the doors, the Crow Creek fans were waiting in line first to purchase tickets and proceeded to sit in the seats that were reserved. I had to call the Huron Police to help me get them out of the reserved seats. The Arena was packed by the start of the 3rd place game (won by Stickney) and when the championship game was set to begin we could not get everyone in the Arena. By the end of the first quarter we finally found a place for everyone and thank goodness the Fire Marshall didn’t come to check on us.

Johannesen also wrote “Terry Nebelsick (who later became the Huron School’s high school principal and then superintendent) officiated the game and identifies it as a defining moment in the history of Huron Arena. Nebelsick’s recollections are similar to those of Wendelgass in that the sheer demands on the facility’s seating capacity contributed to an unforgettable atmosphere. Fans occupied every open space in the facility, surrounding the court and crowding into the corners where players and officials emerge from locker rooms. Nebelsick explains.”

Nebelsick - The fans were standing 10 deep in the corners, so we – the officials – had to make a path for the teams and the referees to get on the floor. The crowd was so close to the floor that we – the officials - could not get completely out-of-bounds to stay out of the way of the players.

“This event served as a turning point of sorts in the history of the Arena. Because of the massive crowd, the South Dakota High School Activities Association decided that the tournament had outgrown the seating capacity (Wendelgass) and the 1991 Boys’ Class “B” State Basketball Tournament was the last boys’ state tournament ever hosted at Huron Arena,” Johannesen wrote.

—Arena Memories—

Shelly Buddenhagen
My memories are kind of from different perspectives. As a student at HHS I watched the great boys’ basketball teams of 1980 and ’81 (Huron won the Class “A” State boys title in 1981) as well as the Huron Tribe basketball team, particularly the year they finished third at the NAIA Tournament.

I also played basketball on the old tile floor! It was a great day when they replaced it with wood.

As a fan, watching the 2004 boys’ basketball team grow to state champions and as a volleyball coach, the 2010 match against Aberdeen Central that won us the ESD title really stands out.

—Arena Memories—

Tim Buddenhagen
Huron Arena has been a special place to me and my family for the last 35 years. Watching our children Jordan, TyAnn and Tenley compete in the best venue in South Dakota, to all of the great games and watching a number of Huron’s great players lay it on the line night in and night out.

One of my fondest memories is how the community rallied to get the wood floor put in the Arena. It was absolutely amazing how the community came together to that that accomplished.

Through the years, I am grateful to have had the absolute best seat in the house.

—Arena Memories—

Mark Wendelgass
I came to Huron in 1973, as a teacher and coach. In 1990 I became Athletic Director, for the school district, which made the position Activities Director in 1992 and in 2000 I was named Arena Manager, after Glenn Ulvestad retired.

Activities Director oversaw athletic events as I did as Athletic Director, and also added the other activities — band, chorus, etc. Arena Manager took on events outside the school district things. There were so many things; state tournaments, conventions, meetings and the list goes on.

I was here for the big change in the early 2000s, when the city connected the Crossroads and the Arena with the Event Center. The school board decided to go through with the upgrade that added the locker rooms and upgraded the scoreboards throughout.

I remember that because after the huge crowd at the 1991 Class “B” boys’ championship, making those changes got us back on the list for hosting state tournaments.

I remember that when we took out the old wooden bleachers, inside one of the metal pipe handrails, one of the custodians found a program from the first basketball game played there, an NBA game between Syracuse and the Minneapolis Lakers. Minneapolis had a Huron College kid, on that team.

My first job included coaching junior high wrestling and we used a room in the Arena for practice. One time, professional wrestling, you know the All-Star Pro Wrestling — George “Scrapiron” Gadasky was one of them — was setting up for matches at the Arena and some of the pro wrestlers came back and rough-housed with the kids a bit.

I also remember when some of the Sioux Falls schools would come to play the Tigers. I always greeted the teams and showed them to the locker rooms. You could tell that they were not expecting to see this amazing place, when they were used to playing in their high school gymnasiums. They were always impressed.

—Arena Memories—

Paul Nettinga
There are many memories I have of Huron Arena.

My dad took the entire family to see the Ice Show in 1952, I think it was one of the first events they had there. We were way up in the northwest corner in the “nose-bleed” seats, but it really didn’t matter; it was great to be there.

Dad also took my brother Sam and I to the Minneapolis Lakers/Syracuse Nationals game that year, I think the Lakers won but what I do remember is that the place was packed.

Of course the 1955 Boys State “B” was impressive to me since my big brother was center on the Wolsey team that finished 3rd.

But my favorite memory was on February 17, 1961, when I had come back from California when dad got sick. I had stayed in contact with my girlfriend, Diane Eggleston, from high school and that night we went to the Harlem Globetrotters game at the Arena. The halftime entertainment was Cab Calloway.

After the game I proposed and she accepted. That is my best Arena memory.

A great deal of thanks and gratitude is extended to everyone who shared their memories of Huron Arena.

Also, to Jennifer Littlefield at the Huron Public Library and Darla Halbkat in the Huron School District’s Activities office for sharing their research skills and resources and to Rod and Beckie Freeman, who got the ball rolling with copies of the original architect’s plan documents.