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From 1880s, Detroit Lakes has drawn a crowd for Independence Day

Independence Day. Once upon a time, Detroit Lakes and its mile-long city beach were a mecca of sorts that drew thousands of visitors from throughout the Upper Midwest to the community for July 4th festivities.

Though it is still a favorite spot to spend the summer holiday for many, the crowds are nowhere near what they were during the celebration's heyday in the 1980s and 90s.

On July 9, 1989, the Becker County Record ran a front page story about law enforcement's efforts to keep the holiday revelry from getting out of hand: "The city's normal police force of 12 officers expanded to close to 35 for the four-day siege of Detroit Lakes' beaches... Crowd estimates for the long Fourth seem to have settled in around the 30,000 mark," wrote Lin Smithwick.

"Flocking to the DL beach," proclaimed a headline on the front page of the July 8, 1990 edition of the Becker County Record.

"As surely as birds fly and winds blow, so come the teenagers and young adults to Detroit Lakes on July 4," wrote reporter Tim Kjos in the article beneath the headline, which was accompanied by photographs of men and women in skimpy swimsuits, frolicking on the beach.

Yet the excitement of the holiday was not shared by many Lake Avenue residents: In a July 2, 1989 edition of the Record, reporter Petr Kotz ran a front page feature detailing residents' growing discontent.

"According to some residents, Lake Avenue transforms overnight, going from a serene neighborhood to an extension of the beach, bringing with it a mass of drunken young people who fight, throw garbage on lawns, and relieve themselves with seeming indiscretion," Kotz wrote.

"Police report record arrests over Fourth of July weekend," proclaimed a headline on the front page of the July 7, 1994 edition of the Detroit Lakes Tribune. A little bit farther down the page, another headline proclaims, "St. Mary's (hospital) treats 200 over holiday weekend."

So why is the city beach in little old Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, such a popular holiday destination?

When the city beach was overhauled in the 1960s, it was hailed as an engineering wonder: The lakeshore improvement project was named "one of the seven wonders of engineering in Minnesota" for the year 1967, according to a story in the July-August 1987 edition of the now-defunct lakes area summer magazine, Emphasis.

But Detroit Lakes' popularity as a July 4th destination even predates that project.

A special May 27, 1971 centennial edition of the Record included this 1920 account of the July 4th celebration: "Several thousand people came here by train and auto to attend the two-day Woodmen Picnic and Pageant of Detroit ... Fortunately, the weather man was on his good behavior and gave us two of the most perfect 1920 days. This with roads in good condition proved an incentive that few could resist, and the result was two or three thousand autos and several times that many people."

And even as far back as 1880, a newspaper account of the celebration said: "At an early hour, people began to come to town, and at 9 o'clock, when the band marched to the grounds near the depot, where the programme of the day was to be opened, a large concourse of people assembled, and all evidently intent upon having a good time."

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