Submitted by Mike Worcester, former Cokato Museum Director
No matter where one may travel, community festivals are a part of the fabric of small-town culture. Whether they are single day gatherings or week-long revelries, the community festival can bring out the best in a town. For Cokato, the corn carnival was, and is, no different. So how-or better yet-why, did it all begin?
The earliest recorded reference to the carnival came in the meeting minutes of the Cokato Association of Public Affairs (a forerunner of the chamber of commerce), dated 4 April 1950. As recorded by Secretary Irv Setterberg, it read as follows: A motion was made by R. M. Peterson, by L. E. Bergstrom that Chairman Peterson appoint a committee to plan for some sort of town festival this summer or fall. The motion carried.
This was not the first attempt to host a festival of some sort in Cokato. Earlier in the decade (1940-42), the Cokato Ice Carnival made a brief run. A street fair was held for a brief period during the mid-1930s. And early in the century (1903 – 1915) the annual fall street fair hosted music by the Cokato Band, speeches by politicians, rides, entertainment, and food and craft showings.
At the May 1950 association meeting, Charles Mitchell, superintendent of the Green Giant plant and recent arrival to Cokato, chairman of the “Cokato Day” committee reported that an outline of the program for the festival was in the works, and that Cedric Adams, the popular WCCO radio personality had agreed to appear. The minutes of the June 1950 association meeting contained one curious notation in relation to the festival. The operative name for the pending bash was “Cokato Day Festival.” But in those June minutes, Secretary Setterberg crossed out “Day Festival” and replaced it with “Corn Carnival.”.
So what happened at that first carnival? How about a National Sweet Corn Eating Championship (the winner received a trophy and $15), a greased pig chasing contest, miniature auto racing at Gebo Motor Sales, a baseball game between Cokato and Howard Lake, the Truth or Consequences Show hosted by Cedric Adams, a talent show whose winning entry featured a young Cokato lad who would later gain fame as the foremost electrician in the area, and a performance by the Shell’s Hobo Band of New Ulm. The carnival was slated for Wednesday and Thursday, August 16 & 17. A terrible rain storm washed out much of the first day’s activities, but the sun shone brightly for the second day, ending the festival on a positive note.
Perhaps one of the more amusing aspects to marketing the carnival came from the travels of the Cokato Corn Carnival Band. Established in 1951, the primary purpose of the band was to promote the carnival in neighboring communities, including Hutchinson, Kimball, Annandale, Silver Lake, Howard Lake, Dassel, Buffalo, and Litchfield.
A caravan of a dozen or so cars, including a traveling stage for the band, would proceed from Cokato on Friday and Saturday nights-those were after all, the prime shopping nights-to those communities and set up right in their downtown. The order of business was simple, play a couple tunes to get people’s attention, the people would work the crowd to sell buttons. The band would also break off into small groups and go into businesses and ply their items also.
Buttons have been sold since 1950. In 1954 and 1955, the same button style, the bend-around-the-lapel type, was used. Don’t spend a lot of time looking for the 1956 button, for there was not one. Story goes that it was not ordered in time, souvenir cans of corn were given out instead. If the 1963 button says it was the 13th carnival and the 1964 button says 15th annual, what happened to the 14th? Somebody miscounted, for the 1963 festival was the 14th.
Like any town festival, appearances by selected luminaries-okay, politicians-are a regular occurrence. And the corn carnival has seen its share. Some of these visiting elected officials include Orville Freeman, Harold LeVander, Sandy Keith, C. Elmer Anderson, Elmer L. Andersen, Rudy Perpich, and Hubert Humphrey.
Cedric Adams appearance in 1950 was not the only time media types had appeared. In 1985, NBC News came to tape Sherwin Linton, who was singing about the farm crisis that was gripping rural America. KSTP-TV anchors Angela Astore and Ruth Spencer broadcast the evening news from the carnival in 1986. And Cokato native Tom Steward and fellow WCCO-TV reporter Colleen Needles (who happened to be married to Steward) emceed the 1987 queen contest.
Speaking of the queen contest, the queen coronation is a relatively new addition to the festivities. The 1987 contest was actually the first time a queen was crowned at the carnival. Previous to ’87, the Cokato American Legion ran the show, holding the installation in early January.
How can I leave out the bed races-a fad popular to many community festivals from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Cokato witnessed the reign of the Bread and Beer Express-Jay Webb, Ron Olson, Gary Fleming, Roger Jansen, Mike Jorgenson, and others-who brought home the victory trophy three out of four years, from 1979 to 1982.
Parades, so much a part of small-town culture, are still a part of the corn carnival. The initial Kiddie Parade came in 1953, with the theme “75th Anniversary of Cokato.” The modern Kiddie Parade has been a feature only since 1978, when the centennial of Cokato in that year saw a full-fledged parade as part of the festivities.
Support of the community for the carnival has always been crucial to its success. Numerous volunteers have donated countless hours over the years to ensure that each carnival is a successful one. From arranging the main stage entertainment, to coordinating the midway and rides, to making sure that the buttons are distributed for sale, there are so many who deserve our thanks and praise.