Untrapped critters keep Gopher Count festival going
By Sarah Doty
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
VIOLA — The 135th annual Viola Gopher Count kicked off Wednesday night. If you ask Marilyn Shea, chairwoman of the Gopher Count, why it has lasted so long, she has a simple answer.
"It’s still going because we haven’t trapped all the gophers yet," she said with a laugh.
The festival is the only one of its kind in the world, Shea said, and is the second longest running event in the nation. The Kentucky Derby is No. 1.
The two-day celebration started with a family night Wednesday, including a talent show, and continued today with a parade and other activities.
Since it started in 1874, Gopher Count has always been on the third Thursday in June, and that tradition keeps people coming back year after year.
"People plan their family vacations around it," said Shea. "It’s like a big family reunion."
Viola, a community of fewer than 100 people, expects thousands of visitors for the festival, said Dale Bierbaum, a member of the Gopher County planning board and and parade chairman.
"I don’t know if there are more gophers or more people (here in Viola)," said Shea. "Probably more gophers."
Tina Nunemacher-Tews of rural Eyota has been coming to Gopher Count for years.
"I think it’s just a unique get-together," she said. "It draws a huge crowd, and it all goes back to the hometown feel. They have added many events but the feeling has always stayed the same; people are always nice and welcoming."
The festival has changed quite a bit over the years. What started out as a competition among pioneers to see who could kill the most gophers has morphed into a town celebration with pie-eating contests and a street dance.
Viola resident Sheila McNallan has been attending Gopher Count since 1987. The small community’s ability to throw such a large event makes the festival unique, she said.
"It’s always kept its enthusiasm," said McNallan. "Rain or shine, people are here, I think, so they can be part of history."
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Viola Gopher Count