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Desperation and renewal: How Huron embraced new Americans and thrived

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Desperation and renewal: How Huron embraced new Americans and thrived

Sep 15, 2023 | 3:10 pm ET
By John Hult
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Desperation and renewal: How Huron embraced new Americans and thrived
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The "World's Largest Pheasant" greets visitors to Huron. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

That Huron came to be a major hub of Karen culture in the Midwest was at least partially a side effect of desperation.

What began as desperation for workers morphed into desperation for a school system struggling to manage its migrant population and the community’s response to it. 

Today, about a decade after the dust settled on its unique plan to manage those issues, the city of 14,000 has seen its Karen population thrive. City leaders say that’s been a boon for the community at large.

Refugees from the Karen ethnic group, originally from Myanmar (formerly Burma), began moving to Huron in 2006, initially to work at a turkey plant in Beadle County. Unlike some migrant populations, many in the Karen community have embraced the city as a permanent home.

In addition to their work for area factories, the new Americans have opened three churches of their own and bolstered the membership of another. Some in the younger generation have begun working in a professional capacity for the school district, the city’s health care system and in real estate. Other Karen residents have launched businesses or embraced higher education.

It’s a present the city’s recent past couldn’t have predicted.

Economic losses

The path from a typical South Dakota city to the state’s most diverse began with a run of bad luck, took shape through happenstance, and solidified with bold moves pitched by the Huron School District and backed by voters.

A woman leaves an Asian market in Huron. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
A woman leaves an Asian market in Huron. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The Karen people in Huron

This is part of a two-story report.

Part 1: Bridge generation: Children of southeast Asian refugees carve out niche in Huron.

The city found itself in a downward spiral at the end of the 20th century. Three major employers closed or relocated operations in less than five years: the Dakota Pork plant and a university were shuttered, and NorthWestern Energy moved its headquarters out of town.

Huron – home of the South Dakota State Fair and once a candidate for state capital – was losing population quickly. Many parents of high schoolers opted to stick around until their kids graduated, but kindergarten class sizes had fallen off a cliff.

Developments that would change the city’s fate took shape shortly after the one-two-three punch of economic loss. Forty-four colonies of Hutterites – members of a communal branch of the Anabaptist faith – banded together in 2002 to invest in the turkey processing facility that would become Dakota Provisions. The first turkey was slaughtered in December 2005. Wisconsin-based Jack Link’s beef jerky had opened a plant in Alpena, about 20 miles south of Huron, a few years earlier. 

Hispanic workers had come to town in the waning days of Dakota Pork. Some stayed, but many left when the plant closed. Jack Link’s began to draw workers back in the early 2000s. But it was Dakota Provisions that would lay the groundwork for the city’s diversity-driven comeback from the economic brink. 

Recruiting Karen

Mark “Smoky” Heuston returned to his hometown from Wisconsin to recruit the workforce it would take to get the turkey plant up and running.

Heuston hopped over to the Twin Cities to recruit workers from the Hmong ethnic group, though the first Hmong he’d hired hadn’t thrived in Huron. Most came to the Twin Cities from other urban areas, and Huron’s pace of life didn’t fit. Even so, he had a job to do and took to interviewing potential recruits at a cultural center in Minneapolis.

At some point, he took a break and wandered by a room with about 40 people in it.

NorthWestern Energy in Huron. The company headquarters was formerly located in the city. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
NorthWestern Energy in Huron. The company headquarters was formerly located in the city. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

He’d later learn it was an English class for Karen refugees. When he asked his guide about it, he was told the people in the room were new arrivals and couldn’t speak English.

Heuston didn’t care about that. He cared about the chance to make his pitch to 40 people at once.

“I told them that if they came to work for me, they didn’t have to speak English,” Heuston recalled.

Heuston chartered a tour bus in 2005. 

It was a fateful trip. The first Karen arrived in Huron the following year. Unlike the Hmong, most Karen hadn’t lived in heavily populated areas. Those first recruits were Christian, and had moved to the home of the world’s largest pheasant (a statue near a motel) with an affinity for hunting and fishing not dissimilar to that of Huron’s white population.

To Heuston, this meant at least two things: first, that Huron could offer the Karen a peaceful home to call their own, and second, that he needn’t worry about the city disappointing the recruits for its lack of urban amenities.

Seventeen years later, Heuston is convinced that the Karen and the Fair City have proven a good fit.

“You ask someone from Guatemala where they’re from, and they’ll tell you ‘Guatemala,’” Heuston said. “You ask a Karen where they’re from, and they’ll tell you ‘America.’”

Keeping kids together

None of that is to say that the demographic shift in Huron came without challenges.

Karen refugees and their children faced discrimination and misunderstanding early on.

But by 2016, Huron High School had chosen a homecoming king of Karen heritage. It wouldn’t be the last time. The school royalty now regularly includes students of multiple ethnicities.

Though much credit for that level of integration and acceptance goes to the outgoing personalities of the elected royalty, there’s an element of social engineering involved, as well. 

Kids in Huron’s most recent graduating classes have known one another since grade school, as all students in the district stay in the same building from kindergarten onward.

That setup was born of necessity, much like Heuston’s recruitment road trips. As the children of new Americans began to fill classrooms, white families open-enrolled to a handful of elementary schools and schools in nearby towns like Iroquois. 

Some kindergarten classes had nine or 10 kids. Others had as many as 35.

“It wasn’t fair to the 35, and it wasn’t fair to the nine,” said Terry Nebelsick, who was superintendent for the Huron School District until 2021.

Nebelsick was the most recognizable public face of a campaign to address the issue. It involved a bond issue, buses, and a realignment of classes that would upend decades of tradition. 

Instead of seven elementary schools for children in grades 1-5, Huron would consolidate young students into three buildings: one for kindergarteners and first-graders, another for grades two and three, and a third for grades four and five.

The plan came with expanded bus routes and a promise that no student would walk farther to get to school or a bus than they had before the vote. The efficiencies of a three-building system would cover the cost of the bussing, but the plan still had a $22 million price tag.

The bond issue needed a two-thirds majority when it hit the ballot in 2013. It passed with 72%. 

Success came through outreach to parents, schools and business leaders, Nebelsick said, but also because the community recognized that the status quo was unsustainable.

“We just had no choice,” he said. 

Four years later, the district became a majority-minority district. At the start of the 2022 school year, white students outnumbered Hispanic students by less than 300, with Asian students representing the third-largest ethnicity in the district.

Growth continues

On the sporting side, Huron has become a powerhouse competitor in volleyball, tennis and soccer – sports favored by its minority students.

The walls of the Huron Arena, where Steinhoff’s office is located, are covered with photos of Huron High School teams, many of which have earned accolades in recent years.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is that last year, the boys’ tennis team won the Sportsmanship Award for the third year in a row,” said Kraig Steinhoff, the current superintendent of the Huron School District. “That’s not something that happens regularly, where schools get a Sportsmanship Award over and over again.”

A flyer on a vehicle announcing job openings, as seen in the parking lot of the Huron Soccer Complex. The complex was hosting a soccer tournament for the Karen ethnic group. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
A flyer on a vehicle announcing job openings, as seen in the parking lot of the Huron Soccer Complex. The complex was hosting a soccer tournament for the Karen ethnic group. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

In some ways, Steinhoff said, the award is reflective of an attitude he’s noticed in migrants and their children since taking the job two years ago.

“The families that come over here are very appreciative of what they have, with a home and a car, being safe, and having a job,” he said. “They’re attending churches, doing things together as families and loving life. They don’t have any entitlement in them at all. It makes me feel as though that’s what my family was like when they first came over. Now I’m several generations away, and I feel entitled.”

It’s a view shared by Nebelsick, who’s lived next door to a Karen family for more than a decade. The retired former superintendent, who still drives one of the district’s 24 bus routes on occasion, said keeping the kids together from grade school served several purposes beyond the immediate ones that bubbled up in the early 2010s. It helped to melt away cultural barriers in classrooms, tennis courts and fields, but educators in Huron see longer-term impacts.

“Our kids are better equipped to live in a diverse world than kids just about anywhere in the state,” Nebelsick said. “There are patches of Sioux Falls that are the same, but our families value that. Our kids were able to come back and reinforce that. We were able to adapt and prosper much more quickly because we didn’t see the obstacles of color.”