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At beginning,WE Fest was no sure success

Though there were no exact attendance numbers available Thursday, WE Fest co-founder and current legal counsel Terry McCloskey estimated that there were "about 1,000 more" people expected to attend this year's festival than last year.

Their methods of measuring crowds are a lot more sophisticated, however, than when he and Jeff Krueger started the country music showcase 25 years ago.

"We used to measure it (the crowd) by how close they came to certain poles (in the concert bowl) -- sort of like a thermometer," McCloskey said Thursday afternoon. "We were just trying to pay the bills ... our ticketing wasn't that sophisticated."

These days, of course, the WE Fest ticket office is state-of-the-art, with a staff of about 50 people and "at least 30 computers," McCloskey said. "We're already selling (tickets) for next year online."

Both in their mid-30s when they started the festival, McCloskey said he and Krueger couldn't really have envisioned that it would still be thriving two and a half decades later.

"We had hopes -- but we were in hock up to our eyeballs, so mostly we had na?ve hopes," he joked. "But it worked out, much to everybody's surprise --including our own. Some people like to say they always knew (it would be a success), but we really didn't know for sure."

And while McCloskey has now sold his shares in the partnership -- "I'm the first partner to have retired out of four" (Chyrll Sparks and Randy Levy are the others) -- he remains involved in WE Fest operations and currently serves as its chief legal counsel.

"I'm still involved (in WE Fest) year round," he said. "There are always contracts to do, insurance to buy, claims to settle and such ... it takes months to sweep up, figuratively, after this (festival is over)."

So why does he continue to stay involved, even after selling his shares?

"I've grown up with all of the people here," he said. "I've gone to their weddings, funerals, graduations ... these are lifelong friends."

And while it's been hard work, building the festival to its current level of success -- with roughly 50,000 people filling its concert bowl every night -- McCloskey said it's also created what some people might call "a show business family."

"Regardless of what a person's job here is -- sanitation, concessions, ticket takers -- we all feel like we're in show business," he continued, adding with a smile that one of the running jokes amongst the festival staff, when they're at their sweatiest, dirtiest and most exhausted, is "ain't show business glamorous?"

"Our sense of humor has kept us going," McCloskey explained. "Some of us have been teasing each other for 10, 15, 25 years. You've got to keep laughing. When it's 95 above and humid, you really have to reach for your sense of humor ... I think that's been the glue, as it were, that has kept us together as a team."

Fest beginnings

Approximately twenty-eight years ago, when Krueger was looking at starting up a music festival, he considered rock and roll as the central theme. Both living in the Twin Cities at the time, he and McCloskey were eyeing River Falls, Wis., as a possible home for the event.

So after spending months putting together some plans and bringing their proposal to the River Falls city council, Krueger and McCloskey were shot down.

"They rejected our proposal completely," McCloskey recalled.

Feeling a bit depressed, the two men returned to McCloskey's home in the Twin Cities to discuss their options.

Somehow, the conversation turned toward country music instead of rock. McCloskey's companion, Nancy Nugent (the two are still together), suggested the Soo Pass Ranch -- where they frequently rode horses with McCloskey's two young daughters -- as a possible venue.

When they first started riding horses there, "we couldn't help but notice that the site formed a natural bowl," McCloskey said.

So after some more discussion, Krueger decided it couldn't hurt to go up to Detroit Lakes and meet with the owner and discuss leasing the site for a once-a-year country music festival.

McCloskey got to work on putting together a rough draft for a lease.

"Two days later, he (Krueger) had it signed," McCloskey recalled.

And so a country music festival known as WE Fest was born.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454