Celebrating history

  • Article by: LIZ ROLFSMEIER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2011 - 10:21 PM

From lumberjack competitions to canoe trips, Rivertown Days offers a flavor of the good old days of the 1800s and early 1900s.

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Lumberjack competition at Rivertown Days

In the late 1800s to the early 1900s, hundreds of logging camps dotted the woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and shipping and sawmill towns popped up along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers.

During the spring thaw, lumbermen gathered in sawmill towns to compete in events based on their daily chores -- from racing up a "spar pole" (a tree stripped of its branches and hooked up with cables and pulleys to move logs) to flinging axes at targets and chopping contests.

During the Timberworks Lumberjack Show, one of the events at the Hastings Rivertown Days Festival next weekend, lumberjack athletes will compete in these century-old sports, interspersing the action with bits of history and comedy.

While timber sports have a long history -- Omaha hosted the first logrolling championship in 1898 and has held one every year since -- Dave Weatherhead, a performer and competitor in the show, said the popularity of the timber-sport series on ESPN has sparked renewed interest in the fast-paced and sometimes daring events.

"The logging industry has always been kind of a dangerous occupation," Weatherhead said. "It's not without its risks, that's for sure."

Crowds especially love the log rolling, or birling, he said, which involves two competitors balancing, rocking and spinning logs, trying to send the opponent flying into the water. The sport originated with workers called "river pigs" who would run across the logs in the river to break up log jams.

The pole climbing, a new event at Hastings this year, also tends to be a crowd-pleaser, as athletes race up poles in 10 to 12 seconds.

"That's an exciting aspect of the show," Weatherhead said. "The speed at which the guys can get up the trees is kind of amazing."

During the three-day fest, visitors can get another glimpse of history (as well as the ecology) on canoe tours around Lake Rebecca. Everyone paddles aboard the nine-person, voyageur-style canoe -- the type trappers loaded with piles of beaver pelts during fur-trading days. The paddlers will get an up-close view of the shoreline of swamp milkweed bull rushes and wildflowers, and they can usually catch glimpses of beaver, osprey, eagles and kingfishers.

"The eagle nest is a treat for everybody," said Kevin Smith, environmental coordinator for Hastings Environmental Protectors. "You can usually see eagles when you go on these tours and see interactions between juveniles and adults."

On the tour, guides discuss the lake's ecology and history, including its namesake, a woman who had tried to purchase property near the lake at a time unacceptable for women to do so. (Town records refer to her as "a very forward young woman.") The town denied her request, but, Smith said, "the forefathers thought enough of her that they named a lake after her."

There are plenty of other happenings planned during the community festival: custom helicopter rides, a BMX bike stunt show, pig racing, duck races, an arts-and-crafts fair, sidewalk sales, a carnival, a parade and fireworks. Kids can test their casting skills in a trout pond or compete in potato sack races and an ice cream-eating contest at Schoolhouse Square.

Bands like the Minnesota country/rock band Killer Hayseeds and cover/tribute bands Transit Authority (Chicago) and Arch Allies (Styx, REO Speedwagon and Journey) will provide music, and a new event, the Hastings Sings competition, will pit area teens and adult amateur singers against each other.

Karen Spicer, of the Hastings Chamber of Commerce, said Rivertown Days generally draws more than 16,000 people.

"If you can't find something to do down here, you're in big trouble," she said. "It's pretty hoppin'."

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

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