Almost from the start, cities in the lakes area have drawn a crowd for the Fourth of July.

In 1897 it was Lake Park that saw crowds of people coming in from all directions by buggy, wagon, horseback and, of course, the Northern Pacific Railroad, twice as many visitors as the town had expected and prepared for, according to a newspaper article from the time.

By 1915, Detroit Lakes (then simply called Detroit) did herself proud with an Independence Day parade and celebration that brought in an estimated 10,000 people, according to a local newspaper article from the time.

The big turnout was something of a surprise, “on account of the deplorable condition of the roads all over this section of the state,” the article said. But several hundred people arrived that morning by train from the east and others poured in by horse-drawn wagons or autos.

“Best of all, it was a genuine Fourth of July crowd,” the newspaper said, “good-naturedly jostling and squeezing its way around, dodging autos, peering through the dust and gasoline smoke, eating ice cream and sandwiches, and partaking of that greatest of all great exhilarating drinks -- pink lemonade.”

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The mayor had ordered the “cooler” for anyone drunk and disorderly, but people largely behaved themselves, and the “much-abused and recently burned city jail stood deserted and forlorn throughout the day and night,” the newspaper reported.

The popular Hotel Minnesota had recently burned down, but other hotels took up the slack, and the weather was ideal for sleeping outside, so “all visitors were taken care of one way or another,” the newspaper said.

In 1915, men even kept their hats on for the big tug-of-war competition in downtown Detroit Lakes on July 4. (Photo courtesy of the Becker County Historical Society)
In 1915, men even kept their hats on for the big tug-of-war competition in downtown Detroit Lakes on July 4. (Photo courtesy of the Becker County Historical Society)

1935: Visitors flood in to escape the heat

In 1935, the Detroit Lakes Record reported that blistering heat brought record crowds to the lakes area for the Independence Day weekend, even though there was no parade, fireworks or special program put on by the city.

“The huge holiday crowd began pouring into the city (July 3) to give the local passenger stations the heaviest rush of business they have had since the depression (which hit in 1929),” the Record reported. The Northern Pacific had to run extra trains to keep up with demand, and others rode in on the Soo Line.

People kept themselves entertained by swimming, fishing, golfing, dancing and picnics, the newspaper said.

They missed the real fireworks, which happened five days earlier when a murder suspect was captured in Detroit Lakes after a shoot-out with local police.

The 35-year-old Texas man and an accomplice were spotted trying to rob the Detroit Grocery House, according to the July 4, 1935, Detroit Lakes Record.

Two local cops on patrol spotted them in an alley by the grocery and saw one drop something there. It was a sawed-off shotgun, and as one officer was bending over to pick it up, he was fired on from a dark loading dock.

He jumped behind his prowl car for cover and exchanged shots with a man who ultimately got away, while his partner chased down and caught the Texan -- accused of killing Hewitt school superintendent C.J. Hancock, and identified by Hancock before he died.

The dangerous 1940s

It was hard to find the front page Independence Day story in the July 5, 1945, Detroit Lakes Record, surrounded as it was by grim accident news:

  • A Fargo man was “killed instantly” when his car missed a sharp turn on a Lakeview Township road and hurtled off an embankment.
  • A 16-year-old Green Valley Township girl was killed by a rifle bullet fired by her 30-year-old cousin, who mistook her for a deer.
  • A Fargo man drowned when his party’s rowboat overturned in high waves on Cotton Lake.

Those were dangerous times, but all those things had happened a few days earlier, so the July 5 record story could celebrate that it was a nice, quiet Fourth, “with no fatal car crashes or drownings that day.”

1956: The first boat parade on Detroit Lake

Independence Day news was also scarce in the July 5, 1956, Becker County Record, but one item reported the first July Fourth boat parade on Detroit Lake. Nearly 70 boats participated in the parade, which circled Big and Little Detroit Lakes. Not all of them were able to finish the parade due to engine trouble and other problems.

“It was the first time such a parade has been held and it is expected to become an annual feature,” the newspaper reported.

1965: Never set off fireworks without insurance

There was no fireworks show in Detroit Lakes in 1965.

Tom Keenan, manager of the Detroit Lakes Chamber of Commerce, explained to the Becker County Record that year that it was due to the lack of insurance. He said not a single insurance company in the country would cover anyone shooting fireworks. “Not even Lloyds of London would touch it,” he said.

The prior year, Clem TeVogt and Harold Wanner had to dive into Little Detroit Lake to avoid being burned. They were setting off fireworks and a tube accidentally exploded, sending them diving headfirst into the lake with their clothes on. TeVogt vowed never again to set off fireworks without insurance. The chamber couldn’t get insurance, so it didn’t budget for fireworks that year.

There were five car crashes and 18 people arrested that weekend, including a 24-year-old Fargo man who pushed trays onto cars at the Sandwich Hut and shoved a bystander to the ground, then went into the Red Hen, where he put his fist through the wall before twice punching a cop who came to arrest him.

In 1972, the Detroit Lakes Tribune reported that the Chamber of Commerce would sponsor its regular fireworks show, with firefighters in charge of setting them off.

That small news item was overshadowed on the front page by a story and photo about a “single woman,” described as “obviously attractive” and identified as Ms. Marilyn Seemann, who tried to join the all-male Detroit Lakes Jaycees, was rejected, and was pursuing court action to force the issue.

1978: Police swamped with calls during 'longest weekend'

In a foreshadowing of things to come in Detroit Lakes over the next decade, the July 4 celebration in 1978 “will be remembered as the longest weekend” by law enforcement and merchants, the Detroit Lakes Tribune reported on July 6. “Local police and sheriff’s deputies are still feeling the tremors of what most people believe is the most intense and hectic holiday rush Detroit Lakes has seen in recent memory,” Tom Lund reported on the front page.

There were nearly twice as many calls for police service the first five days of July as there were the entire month of June, with most arrests involving males between the ages of 18 and 23, Lund reported.

“Out of hand,” read the front page photo caption in the July 7, 1986 Record. The photo showed Detroit Lakes police dealing with a crowd of mostly young men “in and around Lakeside Lodge” on July 4. Police were called in several times to deal with them as they “exposed various parts of their bodies, taunted passing cars, and yelled at women pedestrians,” the newspaper reported.

Law enforcement had a lot of rowdy young men to deal with during the July Fourth event in 1986. This photo is from the July 7, 1986, Becker County Record. (Tribune archives)
Law enforcement had a lot of rowdy young men to deal with during the July Fourth event in 1986. This photo is from the July 7, 1986, Becker County Record. (Tribune archives)

To get some idea of the chaos, at least 150 arrests were made that weekend, including one by a Detroit Lakes officer making an arrest for an alcohol violation who was “hit with a bottle, punched and shoved, and had beer poured on him by a crowd of people on the beach on the afternoon of July 4.”

There were big parking problems at the Port Authority bar and at Hansen’s Hideaway on Johnson Lake, where the road was completely blocked and 80-100 cars had to be towed to clear it.

1987: 'Rowdy and assaultive' crowds and jammed roadways

The next year, 1987, the newspaper reported that police “scrambled to keep up with the crowd” over the three-day Fourth of July weekend. Local law enforcement told reporter Tim Kjos that it was the largest crowd they’d ever seen in Detroit Lakes.

The sheriff’s office made 125 arrests and the police department arrested 245 more. Traffic was at a crawl all the way through town. Cars were backed up on Highway 10 and down Washington Avenue and along the beach on West Lake Drive all the way to County Road 6. Police rented an airplane to track traffic patterns to make improvements in the future.

The crowd was “more rowdy and more assaultive,” than in the past, fighting with deputies and even jailers after they were arrested, according to sheriff’s office staff.

All local cops were on duty that weekend, along with the sheriff’s auxiliary and eight cadets from the law enforcement program at Alexandria Tech College, and still there were not enough officers for the size of the crowd.

A Playboy magazine "survey" dubbing the Detroit Lakes beach one of the "hottest" in the nation brought out the crowds, as shown in this front page photo in the July 6, 1989, Detroit Lakes Tribune. (Tribune archives)
A Playboy magazine "survey" dubbing the Detroit Lakes beach one of the "hottest" in the nation brought out the crowds, as shown in this front page photo in the July 6, 1989, Detroit Lakes Tribune. (Tribune archives)

1989: Playboy magazine 'survey' brings the heat

By 1989, Playboy magazine had released an unofficial “survey” that ranked Detroit Lakes as having the “hottest” beach scene, after Daytona and Fort Lauderdale, according to a July 6, 1989, Detroit Lakes Tribune story by Paul Goers.

“SEX on the beach: One weekend a year smalltown USA becomes the meatmarket of the world,” was on the front of a popular T-shirt at the beach that year.

The Playboy survey brought young people to Detroit Lakes from all over for illicit drinking, flirting and cheering and jeering of cars and women, Goers wrote.

On the Lakeside patio overlooking West Lake Drive, crowds of young men drank and loudly judged women and the steady stream of hot rods, convertibles, sports cars and motorcycles that passed by slowly.

“Among the more popular vehicles were a hopped up, early model ‘Vette, a sharp red ‘Cuda, and about a four-story monster truck,” Goers wrote. “The losers were all the Monte Carlos with mag wheels and slicks. There were at least 10 of those,” he added.

1990s: 500 citations issued in crackdown

That year, 1989, was kind of the peak of the July 4 madness in Detroit Lakes. The next year the Fourth fell in the middle of the week, always a calming factor, and the police chief said the celebration went as smoothly as he had ever seen it.

In the early 1990s the State Patrol began cracking down on intoxicated motorists around Detroit Lakes during the July Fourth celebration, issuing more than 500 various citations the first year. New rules against overnight parking moved the crowd from the fairgrounds parking lot (traditionally used for makeshift lodging) out to campgrounds at Soo Pass Ranch.

During the Fourth of July celebration in 1992, according to a Detroit Lakes Tribune story, a Gear Daddies concert was canceled at the last minute at the Soo Pass out of concerns about the stage being at the bottom of a steep slope, an unruly crowd coming down that slope and pressing people up against the stage, too few security people, and beer bottles being thrown.

The Fourth of July fell in the middle of the week in 1990, which helped make it a more mellow celebration. But the beach was still the place to be, as shown in the front page photo from the July 5, 1990, Detroit Lakes Tribune. (Tribune archives)
The Fourth of July fell in the middle of the week in 1990, which helped make it a more mellow celebration. But the beach was still the place to be, as shown in the front page photo from the July 5, 1990, Detroit Lakes Tribune. (Tribune archives)

1998: The action moves to Otter Tail River

By 1998, much of the rowdiness was gone. Law enforcement estimated 35,000 to 40,000 people were in the Detroit Lakes area for the Fourth, according to a Becker County Record story. It was a kinder, gentler crowd, and pretty well behaved, for the most part.

The biggest issue was out on Highway 34, where Otter Tail River tubing businesses were dealing with the crush of customers by packing them in 20 to a minivan, and 75 people and tubes in a horse trailer.

Zorbaz owner Rick Jansen said the rowdy crowds peaked in 1988, when 12 extra people were needed to work security. By 1998, only four extra people were needed.

By 2006, a flowering rush infestation gave a swampy look to large sections of the city beach, and more of the daytime action was out of town. “Tubing down the Otter Tail River (with coolers of beer) is as much a July 4 tradition as fireworks in Detroit Lakes,” reported the Becker County Record.

Since then, the flowering rush has been vanquished, and the beach is popular again.

Today: More of a family celebration now

“There hasn’t been any policy changes by the city, but over the past five or 10 years, we’ve seen a lot more families coming to Detroit Lakes to spend the Fourth of July holiday,” said Mayor Matt Brenk. “Even so, all our hotels, motels, restaurants and bars are getting plenty of business, so it’s all good.”

Unfortunately, because of COVID-19 concerns, the big annual fireworks display on Little Detroit Lake is canceled this year. “It’s been a significant event in Detroit Lakes for many years, it’s tough not to have it," Brenk said. "But we have to follow the governor’s guidelines.”

2021: Get ready ...

But just wait 'til next year, Brenk added: “Next year is our 150th anniversary as a city. Our plan is to have a bigger and better fireworks show than ever next year.”