Here is Excerpt #2 from the Thunderstik History Book that we have just published. We will be publishing excerpts in our blog and the history book will be available in Fall 2021. Pre-order your book by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Location and the First Buildings
Why was Chamberlain the spot chosen for this hunting lodge dream? As the vision for this lodge was “to offer the very finest pheasant hunting experience in the country,” Chamberlain was ideal. It’s in the heart of the highest pheasant population in South Dakota, referred to as the Golden Triangle.
Not only that, it’s on the magnificent Missouri River, adding not just stunning beauty, but the opportunity to hunt waterfowl and fish walleye. The Missouri is known as the best walleye fishing in the world.
Once they bought the property, they considered putting the lodge at the highest point, which would have given an almost 360- degree view of the surrounding hills and fields. But they decided it would be too high, catching the full force of storms, wind and lightning. So, they opted for its current location – and put a shooting range at the high point instead.
Construction of the new lodge began in early 1988, with the arrival of its first two buildings. An early newsletter tells the story: “In mid-July, an unusual caravan drove into Chamberlain; one carrying a one-room school house built in 1904 and the other a arge steel building weighing over 50 tons, which was originally constructed some 90 miles away to house construction workers building a new dam at Pickstown, South Dakota.”
The school house from Harrison, South Dakota, would become the new lodge (today’s dining room), while the steel building – known as The Iron Lung – would become the new guest quarters.
Some Local South Dakotans Get Involved
The connection with Chuck, Bill and Harold and certain native South Dakotans was critical.
Nova Steinhauser (then Niewenhuis) and her sister, Marcy McQuitty were from Corsica, 65 miles away. They met Chuck through a friend of Nova’s, Cheryl Vanderpol. Chuck and his partners had just purchased the property in Chamberlain, and they were looking for on-site help.
Nova recalls, “We were living on farms and kind of bored. We thought, ‘That sounds kinda fun!'” Marcy agrees: “We just wanted to get out of there!” Nova and Marcy drove the 65 miles – one way, each day – and scrubbed, painted, wallpapered and did whatever else was needed to get the buildings ready for the first guests. They remember when the stainless-steel appliances for the kitchen came from an auction in Chamberlain: “It was filthy! We used a power washer and scrubbed for days. It cleaned up good, and it’s still there.”
They worked 16-hour days and then would drive home to their farms in Corsica to sleep a little bit and spend time with their kids. Then they were back to the lodge again. It wasn’t easy! Nova recalls trying to keep up with the laundry on the farm for her family of five. Cheryl Vanderpol, an artist, added her touch to the new lodge with paintings. She painted the pheasant scene in the porcelain sink, as well as some tiles you can see on the original bar.
Thunderstik’s First Season
That first season Thunderstik was open, 85 hunters came to check out this new lodge. Some were friends of Chuck, Harold and Bill, others had seen ads in outdoor magazines.
In that first season Nova and Marcy did everything. They cooked the meals and they cleaned the guest rooms. Sometimes they even went out on the hunts to help with blocking….in heels!
Nova’s husband, Randy, was hired as a guide, so he, too, started the 130-mile daily commute during the season. Harold, Bill and Chuck were all there for opening season, which was considered a huge success. So much so that the following year they would serve triple the number of guests!
Skip Gage Gets Involved
Edwin “Skip” Gage entered the Thunderstik story early on – behind the scenes at first. Skip was president of Minneapolis-based travel management company, Carlson. Since the early ’70s, Carlson had a large incentive travel side to their business, and worked with many major corporations doing reward trips.
Skip explains, “We would take dealers and their families on a reward trip every year. Large groups of people, two and three hundred. We ended up with a client who was a very enthusiastic outdoors person. He loved to fish and hunt. He decided he didn’t want to send 400 people somewhere. He wanted to create lifestyle opportunities for these dealers, in groups of 10 or 20. “The concept could’ve worked with whitewater rafting, a fishing lodge, a hunting lodge, eco-tours in Brazil. It was a whole different approach to the incentives. We gravitated to that very quickly.
“But while we were a large travel company then, there weren’t really a lot of people who had that expertise. For a hunter or fisherman, you really need to have the confidence that if someone recommends a location to you, they know the game is there, the fish are there, and the people that take care of you for three, four or five days are really good at taking care of you.” One of the companies Carlson acquired at that time was Chuck Ross’s Fishing Travel. Fishing Travel was already the marketing partner of Thunderstik, an obvious result of Chuck heading both businesses. Because of this new tie, Skip and his family hunted at The Stik early on.