Small-town festivals work to keep fun alive

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 30, 2012 - 12:00 AM

Summer rituals survive in Minnesota amid economy, tight budgets.

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Ronin Eckfeldt, 2, tried on a firefighter’s hat in a ladder truck with grandmother Kathy Rothenberger at Roseville’s Rosefest.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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The last raspberry farmer left Hopkins 50 years ago. But the raspberry persists, on the city website, logo, street signs and in its claim as "America's Raspberry Capital."

That the raspberry still plays a role in Hopkins is largely because of the Hopkins Raspberry Festival. Started during the Depression by a savvy food merchant to draw city folk to the small town, the 78-year-old festival has become inextricably linked with the city.

"It's part of our identity," said Jim Genellie, assistant city manager. "The raspberry is our brand. I'm not sure all of that would exist if the Raspberry Festival hadn't continued this tradition from the 1930s till now."

Summer is high season for Minnesota's approximately 1,200 festivals. While financial problems have killed events like Stillwater's Lumberjack Days and aging volunteers and competition from other events doomed Richfield's Cattail Days, other festivals have stayed afloat in rough economic waters by relying on groups of stalwart volunteers who return year after year.

New Hope's Duk Duk Daze, named more than 30 years ago by a little boy who had trouble with his spelling, again will take over Northwood Park for three days of bingo, beer, softball, music and kiddie games.

The Raspberry Festival, which is older than the Minneapolis Aquatennial, will have nine days of events even though its $50,000 budget is less than half what it once was, mostly because of a drop in the group's charitable gambling operation.

"We've come in under budget the last two years [and] watch every dime," said Charlie Yunker, president of the non-profit festival's board.

It's hard to overstate the festival's influence in Hopkins. Yunker watched the festival parade as a kid. As a young man he was recruited to videotape the parade and later became a driver of floats that bore festival royalty in other parades. He met his wife, Aubree, when she was the Raspberry Queen. She now coordinates royalty for the festival.

"It's what we do," Yunker said.

Sense of community

While festivals come and go, overall the number hasn't changed much, said Prof. Ingrid Schneider, director of the University of Minnesota's Tourism Center. She said events that celebrate community are even more important in an increasingly online world.

"This is something tangible and hopefully authentic, and provides that opportunity for relationship building," she said. "It's an opportunity to celebrate, especially in these trying times. Or maybe it's just a sense that hey, we're still here."

In increasingly diverse New Hope, Mayor Kathi Hemken said that's exactly what Duk Duk Daze does.

"You need to get people out of their houses," she said. "At this festival ... you can see who your neighbors are, talk to each other ... and bring your small children."

Duk Duk Daze is run by the New Hope Lions Club with help from the group Women of Today. The two used to partner in the three-day celebration, but the Lions took the main role when the women's group could not muster enough volunteers for long days of work because many members had young children. Women of Today now runs as many kiddie games as it can staff, Hemken said.

For the Lions Club, Duk Duk Daze is a fundraiser that goes back into the city. Children who need eye glasses, Meals on Wheels and scout groups are among the groups that benefit. The Lions usually clear a few thousand dollars on the event, which includes bingo games, music and a softball tournament, committee member Steve Madson said.

Two years ago, the festival shut down on its biggest night when a violent storm bore down. This year, to boost attendance, Duk Duk Daze will have two nights of music and fireworks.

"It's always a struggle financially, but we've always covered its expenses," Madson said. "We just want a good community event. People can have a good time, feel safe and enjoy being close to home with family and friends."

Boy Scouts help collect garbage, and the city helps with traffic control and other logistics. But it's the 70 to 80 volunteers that keep Duk Duk Daze going during three successive 10-hour days.

"I'm 44; most of the guys are 60-plus and if I'm tired, they're probably more tired than I am," Madson said. "You hope that there's younger guys coming into the group."

Small-town feeling

The Raspberry Festival board is young, with most of its 15 members well under 50. Yunker is 35. He said the board renews itself partly by drawing on former Raspberry royalty.

There's barely a break in the board's work: once the festival ends, members take a few weeks off and then begin meeting to plan the next Raspberry Festival. "It gets in your blood," Yunker said. "You debrief, say we'll do better next year and fall into the next year."

To keep the festival vibrant, the board tries to build festival loyalty among kids and teenagers by keeping as many events as possible free.

When Hopkins surveyed residents a few years ago, people said the thing they liked most about the city was that it felt like a small town. Festivals promote that feeling, Genellie said.

The night before July 15's Grande Day Parade, residents will walk over to Mainstreet to reserve their favorite parade-watching place with lawn chairs or pieces of string. On parade Sunday, people will walk to the parade together and invite neighbors over for barbecues.

"It really gives people a feeling of identity with the community," Genellie said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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