Rosenblum: Generations of Rices transform Hill City parade into family affair

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2012 - 10:29 AM

Tiny Hill City's July 4th parade takes up just four blocks. This year, the Rice family has it covered.

As of Monday, 94 members of the Rice clan, with connections to Hill City harking back to the 1920s, were planning to march together to celebrate history, family and the best of small-town life, thanks largely to patriarch Ken Rice, 92.

Rice and wife Charlotte, married for 64 years, served as grand marshals at the 100th Hill City parade in 2008. Charlotte died last year. A few months ago, Rice decided, "We've got to do something to show our appreciation to Hill City."

They're going to do that in a big way. Relatives from California, Arizona and Wisconsin will march with Minnesota family, including Rice's seven children, 13 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren, siblings, nephews and nieces. The group includes a 1-year-old and 2-year-old twins.

"He has been looking forward to this," said Ken's daughter-in-law Mary Rice of Brainerd. "This is pretty special for him."

All will don T-shirts reading "The Rice Family loves (heart) Hill City." Each will carry a little American flag. Rice's nephew, Don Rice, of Minneapolis, will provide sound and music.

Hill City, located in Aitkin County about 160 miles north of the Twin Cities, has long been special to Rice. He was born in nearby Crosby, where his father, Harvey, worked in the Milford Mine. On Feb. 5, 1924, Harvey took the day off from work, his lunch pail ready on the counter for the next shift.

But a flash flood caused the mine to cave in, killing 41 miners. It is still considered the worst mining disaster in Minnesota. "We never forgot that," Rice said. "It was a miracle for our dad to escape that."

In 1926, the growing family and their dog, Sport, drove their Gardner automobile to Hill City and set down roots. The family grew to 10: six boys and four girls.

Struggling during the Depression, Rice's father made a little cash by sponsoring dances, bringing in big bands from the Twin Cities. "Everybody loved to go to Hill City to dance," Rice said.

Rice helped out, too, by serving at age 19 in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public relief program, sending home $25 of every $30 he earned.

His mother died in 1941, after suffering three strokes. He and all five of his brothers served their country during World War II. All returned home safely. After the war, Rice moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, then took a job with Ford Motor Co.

But his own growing family returned annually to Hill City on July 4th, for the beloved parade, egg toss, pie-eating contest, turtle races, hot dogs and a generous slice of nostalgia.

Rice's daughter, Becky Renner, 58, recalls eagerly awaiting her favorite childhood activity, the sawdust pile. "A big truck would arrive to great anticipation," she said. It dumped a huge pile of sawdust, into which were hidden pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Children could barely contain themselves before they heard the magical words, "OK, go get it!"

The day ended with a street dance and fireworks.

Today, the town of 600 residents swells to as many as 5,000, many returning home, others eager to experience the sweet simplicity of the day.

At 9 a.m. July 4, 55 Rice relatives will board a bus at the Brainerd home of Mary Rice and her husband, David. (The couple are housing 28 of the relatives.) The bus is timed to get to Hill City just before noon for the parade line-up. Ken Rice will lead them, of course, holding a banner.

Parade organizer David Lang recalls a few parades in years past with 40 or 50 family members, but never 90 and counting. He anticipates giddiness and, frankly, a healthy dose of chaos.

"There's no place to park," said Lang, who was born in Hill City. "You just bear with it, smile and go on."

The parade includes baton twirlers, the singing of the national anthem by a talented local youth and a color guard.

But it will be hard to miss this year's main attraction.

"Quite a deal for the Rice Family," said Rice, noting that, after the parade, his clan will move to nearby Quadna Mountain Park for a picnic and games.

"It should be great, if the heat doesn't knock us down."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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