Aitkin fish house parade casting for visitors

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2011 - 6:33 PM

Small town merchants can't afford to have everyone leave town for big city shops on Black Friday. Here's how one Minnesota town solved that problem.

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The fish house parade in Aitkin, Minn., is more than two decades old.

Photo: Susan Hogan, Star Tribune

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AITKIN -- For 364 days of the year, this northern Minnesota town is known as the "Home of the Gobblers" -- a tribute to its once-thriving turkey industry.

But on Black Friday, Aitkin is best known for its fish house parade.

Mayor Gary Tibbitts says the quirky parade is designed to draw people to this Mississippi River town of 2,000, about 120 miles north of the Twin Cities, on what's traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year.

"We had to do something to keep the shoppers in town to help our local merchants," he said. "Since Macy's had its Thanksgiving parade on Thursday, we grabbed Friday."

That plan has worked for more than two decades -- not only keeping locals in town, but drawing Minnesotans from all over the state who love a good time.

All day Friday, vendors sold cotton candy, kettle corn and all things fattening. At Butler's, the site of the opera house that Judy Garland sang in as a child, crafters sold everything from honey and ice fishing rods to jewelry and cleaning products.

Donna Appel, 84, swore her hand-baked fruit cake was not only the best around, but a steal for $5. "It has whole dates, whole walnuts, whole Brazilian nuts and pecans," she said. When asked about people who diss fruit cake, she frowned.

"Those people haven't tasted my fruit cake," she said.

"Wizard of Oz" themes were popular among this year's floats, but other standouts included a house made to look like a riverboat and another made into a disco hall.

By the 1 p.m. parade start, a crowd six deep lined both sides of the downtown route. It kicked off with everyone reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

When the parade ended an hour later, people were told of special deals at downtown stores. That was meant to keep them from heading off to the big stores in Brainerd.

Some went shopping; others huddled in the Beanery coffee shop There, Elliott Malm, a Lutheran pastor from nearby McGrath, said he wasn't tempted to take his wife and two young daughters anywhere else.

"Everywhere else, Black Friday is all about consumerism," he said. "But here it's about community. Thanksgiving is about family, and the fish house parade captures that perfectly."

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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