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Their weddings their way: Love is in the air at Sturgis rally

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Love is in the air at the Sturgis rally. Walking through Sturgis, visitors are likely to hear cheers for newlywed couples mingling with the rumble of motorcycles.

Every year, dozens and dozens of couple choose the rally as the place to marry or renew their vows, and wedding officiants in the Black Hills are thrilled to be part of so many love stories.

‘Celebrate the wins’

The unexpected discovery of a wedding venue inside J&J Optical inspired a tourist from Holland to propose to his girlfriend on Tuesday morning.

“He wanted to propose here. He had a makeshift ring,” said wedding officiant Joan Pillen, who runs Sturgis Hitchin' Post out of J&J Optical’s office. She has dedicated space for weddings, complete with twinkling lights, at the office.

The couple was traveling with a group. A traveling companion needed contact solution, so they all stopped at J&J Optical.

“Someone said, ‘Do you marry people?’ and that is when one gentleman went to the twinkly light area and got on his knee,” Pillen said. “I told them, ‘Take your passports to the courthouse. You can be legally married in the States.’ … I would not be surprised if they came back (to get married).”

By Tuesday afternoon, Pillen had performed a dozen ceremonies since this year's rally started. She typically performs several dozen weddings throughout the motorcycle rally. Pillen prefers walk-ins to scheduling ceremonies, she said, and Sturgis Hitchin' Post has space indoors and out where couples get married.

“Interestingly, I’ve done a lot of renewals of vows – a 50-year and a 25-year. People are wanting to celebrate the wins right now and I’m finding people to be more sentimental,” Pillen said. “I’d say 20% (of ceremonies I perform) are couples who were married to each other, got divorced and are getting married to each other again. That’s a very hopeful story, I think.”

“We see a lot of first marriages, a lot of third marriages, a lot of different kinds of weddings. Couples who come to the rally are going to tend to have been married before,” she said. “Because I’m here in Sturgis … we get a lot of couples that just come in, just the two of them, that just want to get married and come back out and celebrate.”

Outdoor weddings tend to draw a crowd.

“It’s noisy and nutty and all the bikers driving by have advice for the couple that they scream,” Pillen chuckled. “It’s fun for people to say they got married in Sturgis.”

After 20 years as a wedding officiant, Pillen still loves her job.

“It brings so much joy into our office to have that year-round. It’s so fun to have a happy couple come in eloping or something simple. They want to get married and we do the best job we can. We make this fun little wedding package and really celebrate with them,” Pillen said. “I’m so happy for everyone who’s getting married or renewing vows. It’s my joy.”

‘Pretty biker weddings’

Black Hills Rally Weddings and Sturgis Rally Weddings are businesses that both cater to couples who marry during the rally at quieter, scenic locations.

Black Hills Rally Weddings is owned by wedding consultant and officiant Gale Johnsen, who’s carrying on her family’s business. Her mother was a wedding consultant in California for decades, and Johnsen’s sister is a wedding planner as well. Black Hills Rally Weddings hosts outdoor weddings on about five acres of property in Boulder Canyon between Sturgis and Deadwood.

Johnsen anticipates during this year’s rally, she’ll perform about 20 weddings. She prefers to schedule ceremonies a few days or just hours ahead of time.

Johnsen’s goal is to help couples get married without breaking their budgets.

“My mother felt bad when people couldn’t afford a beautiful wedding. She used to say, ‘Everyone should be able to afford a beautiful wedding,’ so my sister and I are keeping her tradition,” Johnsen said.

“Money’s hard to come by and this way they can have a beautiful wedding for almost nothing,” she said. “Fix your car, buy a house, pay your student loans off. Don’t pay for a big wedding.”

Keeping weddings affordable is Johnsen’s way of supporting tourism as well as aiding locals who want memorable, low-cost celebrations. She’s married couples from Australia, Taiwan, England and elsewhere around the world. Some couples return to visit Johnsen for years after their wedding.

The couples she marries typically choose to have family and close friends at their ceremonies. Johnson only hosts weddings for 30 people or fewer.

“I get some first-timers but usually they’ve been married once before and they don’t want the big white wedding,” she said. “I’ve had them up to the eighth time (getting married).”

“We have pretty biker weddings – no skulls,” Johnsen said. “If you’re going to have a wedding, you might as well have a pretty motorcycle wedding. … Some people want that crowd in Sturgis. There’s something for everybody. We’ve got our niche.”

Couples marry beneath an arch custom crafted out of parts of Harley Davidson motorcycles, Johnsen said.

“The groom rides his motorcycle right up into the arch. We understand it’s a big part of their lives so we incorporate the motorcycle into the wedding,” Johnsen said.

Couples can opt for a champagne toast and cake after their ceremony, but often they choose to go to a restaurant or other location to continue celebrating, she said.

“There’s so many good restaurants. It’s really not hard to plan a wedding in the Black Hills,” Johnsen said. “I’m doing this to have fun and maybe bless people and have a good time.”

Intimate weddings, stunning locations

Rally wedding season started early this year for Mary Maisey-Ireland, wedding officiant and owner of Sturgis Rally Weddings. By Tuesday, she’d already performed several weddings and had more scheduled.

She doesn’t perform weddings or vow renewals in Sturgis. Maisey-Ireland specializes in marrying couples during the rally at locations throughout the Black Hills, especially near the region’s lakes and waterfalls.

“I ask if they’ve been here before and if they have a favorite place. A couple is getting married on the Needles Highway this week. They’re getting married at a place where they took a picture together in 2017,” she said.

“Roughlock Falls is popular. There are couples who will go to Spearfish Falls. It’s a bit of a hike but that means it’s also more private,” Maisey-Ireland said. “We’re spoiled for choices. There’s so many beautiful places. That means there’s nobody there setting up chairs for you or an arch. … Most rally weddings are really small and those aren’t needed.”

Weddings in public places often attract joyful crowds who stop to witness the festivities.

“On the whole, I’ve never had a negative experience with doing weddings in public places like Roughlock Falls. What I’ve had are all the people who happened upon it being just delighted, and standing back to watch and cheering when they kiss. It’s the kindness of strangers,” Maisey-Ireland said. “There’s a real sense of community with bikers, and that’s also been my experience with weddings.”

“I feel like I sometimes have to pinch myself that people pay me to do this,” she laughed.

Though small, the rally weddings she officiates are carefully planned.

“A lot of people, when they hear I do rally weddings, picture it being a lark: ‘Hey, baby let’s get married.’ … I get to work with people who do their research and book a wedding with me sometimes a year or more in advance and then it’s a very deliberate choice on their part to roll their wedding into their vacation,” said Maisey-Ireland, who’s been officiating weddings for more than 20 years. “For many of them, this is where they return year after year for their anniversary.”

This year, for example, she’s performing a vow renewal for a couple who have been married 25 years and want a ceremony for just the two of them.

“What I love about a rally wedding is because they tend to be very small, people feel a tremendous amount of freedom to do it exactly the way they want to do it. The couples who work with me are couples who have planned ahead because we create their wedding ceremony together. They have put so much thought into what they want their ceremony to be,” she said.

“They wear everything from shorts and tights to full leathers to wedding gowns. It depends on the person. I always say wear what you feel comfortable and beautiful in,” Maisey-Ireland said.

Unexpected guests are sometimes a joyful part of the day. 

“Having people be surprised by their guests is more likely to happen with a rally wedding,” Maisey-Ireland said. “I’ve had people drive all night in order to get there to be there for a ceremony. In both cases, the bride was absolutely stunned. She had no idea. … I think the groom was in on it … so that fun thing happened.”

Maisey-Ireland reminds her couples to consider whether they’ll need good internet connection at their chosen location site.

“It’s not uncommon for people to do a Facebook Live and send out a link so friends and family can be present that way,” she said.

“Not only am I with people on one of their happiest days but I get to be a host of sorts in sharing all these incredible places where we live,” Maisey-Ireland said. There’s something about doing all of that that wakes me up again to this place that we live. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘People save money all year round to get to vacation here’ and I get to live here.”

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