This year’s burn attended by 2,000, more view it online

The 10th annual Burning Beetle, held Saturday, Jan. 21, was one for the record books. And while it had many participants and has undergone some new additions, there’s one thing that remained the same: the spirit of community.
“I could really feel the community support and excitement at this year’s event,” said Carrie Moore, one of the Burning Beetle organizers. “Whether I was at the variety show, in the march or up on Pageant Hill, there was so much joy and laughter from locals and visitors alike.”
Organizers for the Burning Beetle say this year’s event was the best yet — and estimate nearly 2,000 people were a part of the burning on Pageant Hill. There was also a huge online presence, watching the event on live stream.
“In every way, this year’s event was bigger than ever,” Moore added. “We had a record number of variety show participants and attendees. We had the most people ever in the march, some with torches and some just walking. And we undoubtedly had the most ever on the hill, looking at our biggest beetle ever.”
Moore said she and other organizers talked with attendees from 10 other states, with North Carolina, Texas and Maryland the farthest represented.
“A lot of people said they had family living in Custer or the surrounding area and told them about the event. It was a ‘must-see’ thing for them,” Moore added.
Eleven years ago, the Burning Beetle was created to help the Custer community and the Black Hills come to grips with a beetle pandemic. At the height of the beetle infestation, the Black Hills was losing a million trees a year.
“When the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic hit our forest, the initial response from the community was one of disbelief, anger and depression,” said Hank Fridell, organizer of the event. “We were losing our sacred forest and people were upset. The Black Hills were changing.”
The community of Custer — residents, forestry experts, legislators and everyone in between — came together to do what they could to protect forests and properties. And from there, the group decided to celebrate “who we are and where we live.”
It wasn’t until the second year of the event that the Burning Beetle came to life. And from that, there’s been no turning back.
The event has evolved over the years, but the format has been the same for the last few: a variety show featuring a bevy of local talent from across the Hills, a torch march to Pageant Hill — complete with a drum corps and puppets from the Butterfly Puppet Theatre — and the burning of the beetle, followed by a pub crawl.
This year, 207 torches were made by Fridell and committee member Meg Schwartz. In order to carry a torch, people had to purchase a ticket. Some tickets went to sponsors, while the rest were split: half sold a few weeks earlier and half before the variety show. According to Moore, the remaining tickets, sweatshirts and other memorabilia were sold out in twenty minutes.
This year’s event also had a new addition with a Friday pre-crawl to three locations in town: the Custer Wolf, South Dakota Outdoor Shop and the Gold Pan Saloon. And of course, one other change — quite a large one, in fact — the beetle itself.
Constructed by Karl Svensson of Svensson Construction, this year’s beetle was vertical instead of horizontal — standing 24 feet in the air, atop a pyre made of Christmas trees. Volunteers with the beetle constructed its stand and pyre on Friday, while the beetle was transported and secured on-site Saturday. Pyrotechnics were also placed into the beetle on Saturday, while fireworks were set off by the Custer Volunteer Fire Department shortly after the initial lighting of the beetle.
“I loved the way the fire and pyrotechnics spread throughout and around the beetle,” Fridell said, adding that the crowd really responded well to the new design. “And the fireworks were spectacular!”
The evening ended with a pub crawl downtown Custer at the Custer Wolf, Old Pine Social, Gold Pan Saloon, Calamity Jane’s and Custer Beacon. The venues also featured live music, and some with tap takeovers from regional breweries.
“Every place I went that night was absolutely packed. It was awesome!” Moore said.
Moore said the Burning Beetle committee is so grateful for all of the support of the event — from the volunteers who donate their time to make it happen, to the people attending and spreading the word across social media and to the generous donors.
“We had so many wonderful businesses and individuals who donated their time and money for the event,” she said. “Not to mention, all of the entities who donate in kind and in more ways than we realize, such as the fire department, sheriff’s office, search and rescue, and the City of Custer. The event really isn’t possible without these wonderful donors.”
Proceeds from the event go to the Custer Area Arts Council (which the Burning Beetle falls under), which brings art opportunities to the community.
The event also isn’t possible without the volunteers who put it on. Planning for the Burning Beetle begins in September, with new ideas being pitched, materials secured and roles divvied up. The Burning Beetle committee is looking for volunteers to help plan next year’s event.
“I enjoy volunteering because it keeps me connected to the community,” Schwartz said. “I especially like being on the Burning Beetle committee because I get to build torches and hang out with some of the most creative and energetic people in town!”
“Seeing thousands of people enjoying and celebrating an event you were a part of. There’s really nothing like it,” Moore added.
Next year’s Burning Beetle will be held Jan. 20, 2024. If you are interested in volunteering, contact Moore at (269) 861-1106 or Fridell at (605) 440-1405.

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