For better or worse in Sturgis Original

STURGIS, S.D. (KELO) — Each year around this time, people in Meade County are talking about the weddings.

“We do keep track because people like to talk about it,” the county’s register of deeds Lana Anderson said of marriage licenses issued during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

The register of deeds office has been tracking the number of marriage licenses issued during the rally since at least 2007. The most that have been issued since then is 122 in 2015 for the 75th anniversary of the rally, Anderson said.

“It’s simple to get married in South Dakota. All you need is $40 and proof of identity,” said Joan Pillen, who has been the officiant of many marriages at Sturgis.

The state does not require a birth certificate or documents from any prior marriage or similar. The proof of identity is most often a driver’s license. The applicants can get a license in any county and get married anywhere in the state. There is no waiting period and the licenses are good for 90 days.

In Meade County, the $40 needs to be in cash.

“Usually when they come to get married at Sturgis, they are very excited. They come here,” Anderson said.

The county office can’t perform the wedding ceremony. Once the applicants get a license, they need to find an officiant.

Married at the optical office

“When a couple walks into the (J and J Optical) office we have to ask them, ‘Did you break your glasses or are you here to get married?'” Pillen said.

Pillen said an optical office may seem like a strange wedding venue, but it’s not. Pillen has a site called the Hitchin’ Post that is geared toward weddings. She will also conduct a wedding at sites outside of the office.

Joan Pillen’s wedding area is called the Sturgis Hitchin’ Post. Photo courtesy of Joan Pillen.

The office is a practical site because it’s open each weekday, Pillen said.

Couples can get their license at the courthouse and then come to the office for a wedding.

A Sturgis wedding is not a joke

Pillen said she has a ceremony that is “exactly 11 minutes long but it’s extremely reverent.”

She won’t do a ceremony using crude language or one that pokes fun at the wedding vows.

The Rev. Steve Bils is the executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Oregon and northern California. He has been at the rally for 21 years in mission service.

Conducting weddings isn’t his primary work but if a couple asks, he may perform the ceremony.

“As a pastor, I do prefer to do counseling with couples before a wedding ceremony,” Bils said.

But traditional wedding counseling isn’t practical for Sturgis. Instead, Bils will have a brief conversation with the couple to better understand why they are getting married.

He also makes sure the couple isn’t drunk or high and that they’ve thought it through.

The Sturgis Hitchin’ Post as it looked in 2020. Photo courtesy of the site’s website.

The marriages “bring so much joy and love into the office,” Pillen said.

Pillen has been conducting marriages since 2006. Many times the couple has a “very touching story.”

“They may have lost a spouse and say, ‘They never thought I’d get married again,'” Pillen said. “This is not some couple who met in a bar and just decided to get married.”

Anderson said some couples have been together for years and when they decide to get married, they choose Sturgis.

“Sturgis is a popular place for people to get married,” Bils said.

The tradition of the rally makes it popular but so does the natural beauty of the area.

Elements of wedding

A South Dakota wedding needs to have one of two requirements.

A civil wedding can be conducted by a judge or ship’s captain, Pillen said.

Weddings can also be performed by a religious officiant, she said.

A wedding license used in an Aug. 11 ceremony conducted by Joan Pillen. Photo courtesy of Joan Pillen.

Pillen received her religious affiliation online through the Universal Life Church.

She needs to include a religious element in her ceremonies. “It’s not like sign here and sign there like you are buying a car,” Pillen said.

Witnesses are required.

The optical office staff can be the witnesses if the couple does not have its own witnesses, she said.

How old are the couples?

Legally, each person must be 18 to get married. But most couples are well beyond 18, Anderson said.

“If I had to guess, I’d say middle to later in life,” Anderson said of the age of couples.

The marriages tend to reflect the average age of rally attendees, Anderson said.

According to South Dakota Tourism, the average age was 54 in 2019.

For many, “it’s definitely not their first marriage,” Anderson said.

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