Taylor and I are four miles south of Lesterville, South Dakota where in 1933 a farmer gets hailed out and three generations later still has a business that is flourishing for all of Yankton County.
“His corn needed to be sprayed, so I think that’s how he got, you know what, why don’t I spray other people’s corn to subsidize my spraying and that’s how it got started. And maybe he likes to drink a little beer. You know what, maybe I’ll sell a little beer so my beer isn’t so expensive and food too. If I cook food for other people, you know what, it’s a little bit cheaper because I got the fryer on anyway. Grandpa had it figured out, how to make a little money, save a little money. Then he just passed it down generations and that’s why we’re still here,” said Joe Syrovatka.
That’s Joe Syrovatka, talking about his Grandpa Joe and what drove him and his Grandma Lillian to start Joe’s Substation, located south of Lesterville, South Dakota. It all began in 1934. Joe’s mom, Marlene explains. “They got hailed out in 1933 and Joe said, “We have got to do something. I can’t farm. I’m broke.” But he went down to the river with the help of some friends and decided I’m going to build a little gas station; I’m going to serve food,” said Marlene Syrovatka. “They went to the river, started bringing wood here. He had his own sawmill. He built this with his own hands,” said Marlene Syrovatka.
So, Joe, why this particular plot of land and why this name? “When Grandpa built this years ago, there was an electrical substation right across the road, and he figured, you know what, it’d be a good way to get power. You always have power, and it kind of works. So, the name, Joe’s Substation, kind of got off the electrical place because it was here. Everybody’s, “oh, by the substation.” Yah, that you know, that’s where it started,” said Joe Syrovatka.
From 1934 and over the next 19 years, Joe and Lillian Syrovatka started the first generation of this family business with the support of three daughters and one son. It started as a service station and evolved quickly over the years. “Besides the bar, we run a fish market. And we did spraying in the summertime. Everything was kind of seasonal. You know the bar was year-round, but in the winter months, it would be like November through Lent, they would do the fish,” said Joe Syrovatka. “And then in the summertime, people needed their crops sprayed so Dad and Grandpa built sprayers, and they’d go out and spray in the summer time to get some more income. And then, you just all revolved around the bar,” said Joe Syrovatka.
A fish market? What? Marlene, how did that get started? “This guy comes in and he said, ‘Joe, I got 100 pounds of fish. I will sell it to you cheap.’ So, Joe bought them, cleaned the fish, and people were eating fish. People said, “You got to get more,” said Marlene Syrovatka.
Grandpa Joe, along with the next generation of Syrovotka’s, including Ervin and Marlene, got a whole bunch more. The fish market in the heart of Yankton County was very successful. Dean Vaith was a hired hand there from the 8th grade until he graduated from high school in 1990.
“I was about eighth grade. Joe’s Dad, Ervin, wanted to know if I could come out and help skin fish. So, I started cleaning fish and he used to pay me 13 cents a pound. And the first day I skinned fish or shucked bullheads, he looked at my bucket and he says, “I’m gonna have to pay you by the hour because you ain’t very fast,” said Dean Vaith.
Boxes and boxes of live fish were delivered and the bullheads would be shucked and the carp had to be butchered, not only for the locals, but for towns all across the area, including Nebraska. Dean remembers it like yesterday. “After football practice or whatever, I’d come down here and Joe would have two to three boxes waiting for me to shuck and there was about 125 pounds in a box,” said Dean Vaith. That equates to about 400 bullheads per box. “So how many bullheads, do you think you skinned from that 8th grade?” asked Miked Huether. “A bunch and a half,” answered Dean Vaith.
By now, all of you know what is coming next.
“Give KELOLAND a quick lesson on how to… how to clean a bullhead,” prompted Mike Huether. “Well, these are the skinning pliers. You used to have your apron on. You grab the bullhead behind the fins. You made one slice, you peeled it over the side. You flipped it over. You peeled it one more time. You pop the head off, and you’re done. Because, I… I could do about nine a minute, and I was pretty slow compared to some guys,” explained Dean Vaith.
Back then, Joe’s Substation was always the place to be on a Friday and Saturday night. “The fresh bullheads. Oh my!” said Joe Syrovatka. “They’d come from dances all over. Hey, we need them homemade fries and bullheads. It was just like a delicacy. And they’d cook them till two in the morning. That was like their breakfast. There wasn’t no eggs and sausage, it was bullheads and french fries.” “On a Saturday night, six on a paper plate for maybe at that time, a dollar-fifty, French fries 50 cents to 75 cents,” said Marlene Syrovatka.
They came for the food, but also for the dancing. “Your mom and dad and your uncle, you had an uncle by the name of Roger,” said Marlene Syrovatka.
“Yes, Marlene,” said Mike Huether. “They all came here from Tripp on a Saturday night. At that time, we didn’t have live music. We had the jukebox going,” said Marlene Syrovatka. “Jukebox music,” said Mike Huether. “Jukebox music. We had one in here and we had on in front,” said Marlene Syrovatka. “Oh my gosh!,” said Mike Huether. “We’d have two going at the same time and somebody wanted to hear something in front,” said Marlene Syrovatka.
With Joe and Teri at the helm since 1990, the third generation of the Syrovatka family operating Joe’s Substation, this family focused business remains the place to be. “It’s all about family and family oriented, family run. And even people come here with little kids. Sometimes you think it’s a day care, because little kids just run and scream and other people say like, “It’s kind a loud in here.” Well, you aint going to do that in Yankton or Sioux Falls let their kids just run but they do it here,” said Joe Syrovatka.
So many memories to celebrate. And more to come. “We’d have fun back there, when like the jukebox would be going. Yeah, if there was the right crowd around, everybody would be hootin’ and hollerin’. We’d be having a good time. It’s fun back there. I mean, it’s just a, it’s a fun little place to visit. Everybody should do it,” said Dean Vaith.
“You know, life’s little paradise is sometimes the small towns that people overlook. I mean, it’s easy to move away and get in the big city and get caught up. But you got to go back to where your roots are. That’s kind a, you know, that’s probably why we’re here. And maybe that’s why mom and dad stayed, and maybe that’s why our grandkids might take it over because they’re going to realize how important family is,” said Joe Syrovatka.
Taylor and I had a great lunch at Joe’s Substation. Taylor had fish and French fries and I loved the daily special including pork chops and homemade sauerkraut. They have a daily home cooked special Tuesday through Friday that only costs $6. Add $2 more for a delicious desert. On Friday and Saturday nights, the steak tips, chicken and of course, the fish, are big sellers.