Although Clarence "Pappy" Hoel is often credited for the founding of the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club and the Black Hills Motor Classic, it's fair to say that without the reputation and support of his wife, Pearl, the Sturgis Rally would probably never have happened. In the formative years of the event, 1936-1941, Pearl’s reputation in Sturgis and Meade County helped sell his idea to influential leaders in the community. As a county official and an outstanding citizen of great stature in the community, Pearl lent credibility to the event. She was active in her church, served as an officer in her lodge, and was regularly involved in the bridge club and other community societies. Area power brokers, and especially their wives, were Pearl’s friends. If Pearl thought a motorcycle rally was a good thing, how could anyone disagree?
Pearl Hoel was born in Cresline, Ohio on November 10, 1905. Her family moved to Rapid City when she was 5 years old. After she finished high school, the county superintendent of schools encouraged her to take a state exam that would allow her to teach in a rural school. Pearl passed the exam and assumed a job teaching eight children in grades 1-6. Since this was a rural school, she was responsible for the custodial work and earned extra money cutting the children’s hair. She also styled their mothers’ hair.
While she was a teacher, she accompanied a friend, who was dating a friend of Pappy’s, to a community dance in Sturgis. The rest, as they say, is history. Clarence and Pearl were married on May 19, 1928 and their marriage of 61 years ended in 1989 when Clarence Hoel passed away.
The Hoels owned an ice business in Sturgis. By 1936, refrigeration was coming into common usage, especially at Ft. Meade, one of Hoel’s major customers. While searching around for a replacement income source, Clarence, who loved motorcycles, hit upon the idea of a motorcycle dealership as a supplement to the fading ice business.
Pearl supported him in this effort and was instrumental in helping him establish the Indian dealership and his customer-based motorcycle club, the Jackpine Gypsies. Since Clarence was the oldest of the 13 charter members, the younger men took to calling him "Pappy."
Typical of the times, no women, including Pearl, could belong to the Gypsies, which was strictly a men-only group. The members did not, however, feel one bit guilty about calling on their wives and girlfriends whenever they needed help with food, mailings, typing programs, distributing posters and so forth. When any of these tasks emerged, they would always call upon "Pearl and the girls."
Except for the time in 1935-36 when her son, Jack, was a baby, Pearl always worked outside the home. Besides keeping the books for the two businesses, during the Great Depression she went to work for the WPA, distributing food to needy ranch families in rural Meade County. When she completed her work for the WPA, Pearl was hired as deputy to the Meade County Clerk of Courts and was later appointed to this position when her boss decided to retire. After serving for several years as Clerk of Courts and providing additional assistance to the County Superintendent of Schools, Pearl decided to run for the office of Register of Deeds. After several years in this position, Pearl was elected County Auditor.
Generally known today as the Sturgis Rally, the Black Hills Motor Classic actually began in 1937 when the Jackpine Gypsies invited the Rapid City Pioneers Motorcycle Club to Sturgis for a field day. The Gypsies rode the Indian motorcycles that Hoel sold and the Rapid City group, affectionately known as the RPMs, were almost all Harley-Davidson riders.
Sturgis businessmen were quite impressed with the number of people the event brought to town, and over the winter they met with Hoel and the Gypsies to secure an AMA sanction for a similar meet, with dirt track races held at the old half-mile horse track at the county fairgrounds, in 1938. Behind the scenes was Hoel’s chipper, gracious and dedicated wife. For it was Pearl, more than anyone else, who probably deserves credit for the early success of this event.
Pearl once said that while she worked in the courthouse she knew everyone in Meade County by name. Pearl’s stature in the community was a major asset that lent credibility in convincing Sturgis power brokers and their wives that a rally was a good idea.
During the early rallies, Clarence and Pearl would pitch a circus tent in their back yard to provide a place for visiting riders to meet, visit and sleep. Pearl always provided coffee and homemade donuts at this site in the evenings, after the riders had returned from the Gypsy Tour.
With the help of one or two Gypsy wives, Pearl would also provide a mid-day picnic for the annual Gypsy Tour at a central location in the Black Hills. When asked how she planned for this event, she stated that she and the other ladies would go downtown on the prior evening and count the bikes. They would then estimate that about two thirds of the riders would participate. The women would then go to the grocery store to purchase the food. This picnic almost always offered baked beans, potato salad, wieners, coffee or iced tea. There was always watermelon for dessert. They generally finished cooking the baked beans and fixing potato salad at midnight. In the morning, the women would pack the food into a pick-up truck and head for the State Game Lodge, Mount Rushmore or Sylvan Lake Lodge. There, they would set up a picnic lunch for the riders.
After lunch, the truck would follow the motorcycles home to Sturgis, picking up any machines that had broken down along the way. Pearl had to hurry home to prepare for the evening’s coffee and donut session!
Pearl had to stop providing the picnic lunch in the 1950s when the number of riders became too large to be manageable. However, during the 2004 Rally, at 98 years of age, she still hosted a Thursday breakfast at her Baldwin Street home in honor of the Retreads Club. She also assisted in the preparation of the White Plate Flat Trackers Association annual breakfast at the Gypsies Clubhouse the following Friday morning.
During his 65 years of marriage to Pearl, Clarence Hoel received many prestigious honors, including the Dud Perkins Award, the highest honor given by the AMA. After Clarence died in 1989, Pearl carried on in his absence, continuing to serve as the all around hostess, greeter and the grande dame of the rally. She was the one constant in the evolutionary process of a changing rally. She was there every year, loving the people, and working her heart out.
Until her death, Pearl lived alone in her red house on Baldwin Street. Every morning, her son, Jack, would check in after picking up her mail.
"Last year, she asked me to get her a bigger snow shovel," he said one time. At age 96, Pearl was still shoveling her own sidewalk!
She always welcomed old friends to her home during the rally. In 2003, at age 97, a week prior to rally opening, she was heard to say: "I’m going to have 24 people here this year! Last year it was down. Only 18 showed up!"
For more years than anyone can remember, friends from all over the United States would begin arriving at Pearl’s doorstep on the Thursday and Friday prior to the official Monday opening. There were two spare bedrooms in her house and about eight to ten people would roll their sleeping bags out on the beds or on the floor. Another group would camp in the garage and two couples with motor homes would park behind the house. The overflow slept in tents on the front lawn.
But that's not the total story. Another dozen or so would always stay next door at the house of Pearl’s friend and neighbor.
Until her death in 2005, Pearl served as the official greeter at dozens of rally functions, and at age 98 rode the half mile lap on the back of a buddy seat on a 1947 Indian Chief prior to the feature race at the half-mile track.
Pearl Hoel has been featured on the Travel Channel, appeared in several commercial videotapes about Sturgis and has been written up many times in the national and international press. In 2004, Pearl was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame.
Pearl Hoel passed away on February 27, 2005. She would have celebrated her 100th birthday on November 10 of that year. All who knew her sorely miss her.