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VIOLA TOWNSHIP, MINN. - Growing up, Brenda Hammel was good at trapping gophers to have a little extra pocket change for the annual Gopher Count.

Viola Township, like many small communities across Minnesota, pays a bounty for pairs of gopher feet. She could get a quarter for every pair, though today's bounty is closer to $3 for every pocket gopher caught. Hammel and her husband Kevin turned in 60 pairs of gopher feet this year.

As she got older, the gophers weren't as important to her as the sense of community as hundreds of distant relatives descend on the small township barely 10 miles east of Rochester on the third Thursday of each June.

"You see people from all over, everybody comes," she said. "They take the day off a year ahead of time."

Residents say the Viola Gopher Count, started in 1874, is the oldest celebration in the state and one of the longest-running celebrations in the U.S.

On its 150th anniversary this year, the township drew friends, family and acquaintances from across the U.S. and Canada to mark the history behind a treasured local event.

"Drive 20 miles one way or the other and nobody's ever heard of it," said Bob Bell, a genealogist from the San Fernando Valley in California whose mother grew up in the Viola area and whose grandparents were among the first Gopher Count royalty.

Bell said it was amazing how the event is so locally revered "and yet people don't know about it."

A fleet of tractors pass by parade-goers at the Gopher Count festival in Viola on Thursday.
A fleet of tractors pass by parade-goers at the Gopher Count festival in Viola on Thursday.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii

The festival itself started as a way for farmers to get rid of pests. Locals gathered at Wendell Vine's estate the first year to pick teams — whichever team collected fewer gophers that year would pay for a big meal for the winners.

The competition turned into a baseball game shortly after with similar stakes. It grew from there as Viola did, situated along the railroad tracks that caused a population bump for a few decades before its gradual decline. Catching gophers became less important as farms upgraded, shifting the Gopher Count's focus.

There's the annual parade complete with gopher signs dotting the route around a few blocks, the bingo, the foot races and the royalty ceremony (eligible only to candidates in their 60s). There's the nail-hammering competition open only to women, the treasure hunt and live music.

People likely won't see gopher feet lying around, but they will hear who earned bragging rights for the top gopher catch — Clint Mulholland crushed the competition with 255 gophers, earning almost $600.

The descendants of the township's founding families remain, welcoming even "newcomers" like Phillip Nicklay. Nicklay's parents moved to the area in 1959; he was born in 1960.

"Most people have family trees, Viola has grapevines," he told a crowd gathered outside of Viola's town hall Wednesday. "Everybody seems to be connected one way or another, whether you moved here in later years or were one of the originals."

Nicklay spent months compiling hundreds of photos, newspaper clippings, diary entries and more historic artifacts into a new exhibition the township plans to make permanent inside the town hall. The exhibit covers everything from the township's founding in 1855 to the time the local anti-horse thief society "abducted" a so-called thief for fun in 1949, which ended with someone getting shot in the leg. The victim was taken to the hospital in Elgin, where he "recovered nicely."

It's the kind of place where families can add their own stories and perspectives to the town's happenings, Nicklay said.

It's also where new information comes to light. Gary Heyn, a descendent of Vine's, spent Wednesday morning showing people how the famous tornado that ripped through Rochester in 1883 — spurring the creation of the Mayo Clinic — also tore through barns and pastures in Viola.

"Everybody's focus is in Rochester, but nobody talked about the farmers that got hit," Heyn said. "There's so many stories that people forget."

The Gopher Count shows little sign of slowing down as locals and faraway relatives continue investing in the local festival — and striking fear into the hearts of gophers throughout the region.

"At times I can't believe it keeps going," Hammel said. "But it hasn't died off. And we have some big families here that won't let it die off."