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Rich history for a wet and fun festival

SINCE THE BEGINNING of the Northwest Water Carnival, activities have always centered around the water. This is a 1971 photo. 1 / 2
BECKER COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY An original water carnival event, the pet and doll parade continues to this day. This photo was from the 1940 Water Carnival.2 / 2


It was 1935.

The Great Depression had taken its toll on the Detroit Lakes area — just like it had everywhere else.

People had lost businesses, farms and many jobs.

But young, local leaders were determined to cheer everyone up a little bit.

The local Junior Chamber of Commerce, now called the Jaycees, came up with the idea of throwing a water carnival.

The group of young men raised enough money to hold the carnival that would be free and open to the public.

“It was a way to get people to come out to a community-sponsored event and just have some fun that wasn’t going to cost them any money,” said Amy Degerstrom, Becker County Historical Society director.

The three-day event included several lake and water-based activities that would allow people to let loose and enjoy life.

A water carnival admiral was named —F. C. Schroeder — to head up the event, as was the carnival’s first Miss Northwest. A pet and doll parade was assembled for area children and their special friends, as was a water fight competition, a dance at the pavilion and a big parade on Sunday. All people had to do to participate in the list of events was buy a water carnival button.

Although the water carnival was well received and was held again the following year, times became even tighter in 1937.

“They just couldn’t raise enough money to do it,” said Degerstrom, who says that was the only year the water carnival would be skipped.

By 1938 the event was back on and would only continue to gain momentum and popularity over time.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, more events were being added — events like the bed races, the demo derby and several lake races that had boaters, swimmers, tubers and skiers out on the lake.

By this time, event organizers had figured out that the water carnival could mean big business for area retailers, and the event was publicized all over the state to bring more people in.

The Jaycees built a trolley around a Studebaker that they called the Toonerville Trolley after a cartoon in the newspaper.

“And the idea was for them to travel around to other carnivals in this trolley to promote the water carnival in Detroit Lakes,” said Degerstom, who says breakdowns led to several trollies, including ones built around a surplus jeep from World War II and later a Ford pickup.

“Story has it that one died during a parade in Barnesville and the Jaycees had to push it the entire way,” said Degerstrom, who says squirting water from the trolley has always been tradition.

Dave Knutson helped build the first trolley and ended up being named admiral of the water carnival in 1964 — 50 years ago this year.

“I remember the weather was just perfect,” said Knutson, who still lives in Detroit Lakes.

“The Canadian Bagpipers band was there, the Detroit Lakes High School band was playing, and they were just terrific,” said Knutson, who still makes a point of going to a couple water carnival events, especially the parade. “It has always been an honor of mine to have been chosen to be admiral that year.”

Year after year, a new water carnival admiral was chosen, new people joined up and new ideas were introduced to the event.

“They had some interesting events in the ‘70’s, said Degerstom, who says the Car Smash was a popular one.

“That’s where people could pay like 50 cents to come in with a crow bar or bat or something and just smash a car — not sure why,” she laughed.

Events like tennis tournaments and trap shooting competitions also made their rounds through the earlier water carnival days.

Pretty soon the men’s and women’s Jaycees joined up to become one, and the big event kept evolving and growing.

With this came more flexibility in the honorary title of water carnival admiral, as both men and women could be named and sometimes both at the same time.

With each change in leadership came more ideas and pretty soon, more days.

The three-day weekend event soon went to two weekends, then to weekdays until today when the event is 10 days long.

“It started out as a way to cheer people up and get them to come out and enjoy the summer, and I think it’s the same now,” said Degerstrom, who says the Jaycees still raise money from local businesses to host the event, which now runs them $40,000-$50,000.

“It’s still not something that is designed to necessarily raise money, but if there is money left over that is above and beyond what the water carnival costs to hold, then the admiral gets to decide what charity that money goes to,” said Degerstrom.

Tradition has the Jaycees meeting after the big parade on Sunday so that the admiral can also pick next year’s admiral.

This year, co-admiral duties are shared by Tom Winter and Nick Omberg.

“The No. 1 goal is to make sure everyone has a good time at all of our events,” said Omberg. “People plan their vacations around our event and that is a responsibility we don’t take lightly. Of course we want to make a profit so we can donate back to the community, but if we take care of our first goal, everything should fall into place.”

Although the water carnival has evolved throughout its 79 years, many things have remained exactly the same. The pet and doll parade, the pageant, the trolley (which is now built around an RV and armed with water tanks), the dance, the buttons (which are now collectibles), the admiral, the parade, and most of all, the work and dedication put into the event by a group of volunteers.

“Nobody is paid to do this,” said Degerstrom, who is also a Jaycee.

The water carnival has always been a volunteer-based event and is now the oldest and longest-running in Minnesota.

And although everybody has their favorite events, Degerstrom says the biggest draw is the nostalgia.

“So many people have been connected to it for so many years, and I think that brings people back,” she said, “and that’s what I think is the coolest part about it.”