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Many find WE Fest camping tops music

DETROIT LAKES - The big draw at WE Fest is, of course, the Nashville stars on the stage. But running a close second are the campers who go to great lengths to attract crowds themselves.

The action outside the concert bowl at Soo Pass Ranch south of Detroit Lakes, where campgrounds opened Wednesday and the three-day country-music festival begins today, even trumps the tunes for some of the 48,000 people a day that organizers expect to attend WE Fest.

"The concerts are just a bonus," said Ted Nelson, a 29-year-old from Superior, Wis. "The real fun is the camping."

Take Dallas Graebele, for example. The longtime WE Fester constructed a makeshift bar on site with some buddies more than a decade ago.

"Meeting people was the big thing," said Graebele, a maintenance worker at a convent in Valley City, N.D.

What started as a friendly carpentry project evolved into Bull's Bar, found every year in the section of the Lake Sallie campground the regulars there call Udderville. Bull's is essentially a full-service bar under a tent, complete with 20 stools, two tables, ashtrays, nuts on the counter, a milk machine dispensing homemade wine, $800 worth of canned domestic beer bought in 30-packs, official shirts and can coolers, two kinds of light beer (one Miller and one Budweiser, diplomatically) and a laptop computer running a slide show of photos from the previous night.

Graebele doesn't charge for drinks, but he does take free-will donations to cover his costs. Anything extra gets spent on the bar. If it's an especially good year he'll donate to charity, like the $500 he gave to the Freedom Riders a few years back.

Familiar faces keep coming back to Graebele's site. When a bell rang out from behind the counter Wednesday afternoon, no one needed to be told it signified it was time for a "social" cheer. It's not the only pseudo-bar operation in the campgrounds, but Bull's is the best, said Kendall Krout, a 28-year-old regular from Fargo.

"Nothing is set up as well as this one. The others have little stuff, but not the canopies and the tables," Krout said.

There are simpler ways to attract campers: forget the bar and simply hand out free booze. For the past seven years, Tom Sundby of Moorhead has been giving out liquor and calling it the Redneck Shot Club - always checking IDs, he is quick to point out.

It's not about the shots, Sundby said. It's just a tactic. "You get the people in here, find out where they're from and talk to them. That's what it's all about."

Not that alcohol is the only way to draw a crowd at WE Fest. Given the annual event is held in the dog days of August, a swimming pool always goes over well. Amanda Fox and Kelsey Wiechman, 24-year-olds from Plymouth, Minn., have been coming to WE Fest for five years with a group of hometown friends. It's always a girls-only trip, and they always bring a wading pool.

Nelson and his crew of 10 from Wisconsin are taking a similar tack this weekend, albeit on a grander scale. Despite arriving hours late after getting lost - "Somehow we were up by Bemidji somewhere," Nelson said - they found a spot by the access point for slipping into Lake Sallie for a refreshing dip. It was a stroke of luck Nelson celebrated by promptly renaming the body of water.

"Everybody's got to check in with us to swim in Lake Nelson," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535