On what would normally have been the opening night of WE Fest 2020, a trio of fans stood outside the gates of the 37-year-old country music festival's home, south of Detroit Lakes, and raised a toast in its honor.

"WE Fest may have paused, but we didn't," explained Detroit Lakes native Julie Herman, who has attended every WE Fest since the iconic local event first opened at the Soo Pass Ranch in 1983.

"We wanted to keep the tradition alive," explained Michelle Kraemer Paulson (aka "Bucket"), a longtime friend of Herman's, who has also attended the festival since its inception.

"We've been coming here together for the past 11 years," Herman explained; three years ago, they were joined by another friend, Lisa Flynn, who accompanied them on the evening of Thursday, Aug. 6, as well.

"I've been to WE Fest four times," Flynn said. "My first one was in 1990."

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After moving away from her hometown, however, she didn't return until 2016 — though she had been to two more festivals since then. Though she doesn't have as many WE Fest memories as either Herman or Paulson, Flynn did recall at last year's opening night that her first festival in 1990 was plagued by bad weather — a rarity for WE Fest weekend over the years, according to Herman.

Flynn mourned the fact that this past Thursday would have been "a perfect night" for another WE Fest opener, with sunny skies, 70-degree temperatures and relatively low humidity. However, the festival's new owners, Live Nation, announced one year ago this week that the event would be taking a hiatus in 2020. The three days of country music would typically have attendance figures in the neighborhood of 150,000 fans.

"I hope it comes back!" Paulson exclaimed.

"I do, too," Herman agreed, though she noted that the pandemic-induced uncertainty regarding when (or if!) live concerts would once again be safe for thousands of music fans to enjoy together made the festival's return more of a question mark than ever before.

COVID-19 also put a kibosh on the trio's plans for to get together with their larger WE Fest family for a reunion this weekend, Paulson noted.

"It really is just like a family reunion," said Lynn Anderson, who has lived across the highway from WE Fest since the very first one was held. "The same people come here every year."

She added that she has hosted campers on her property every year until this one. "We were allowed to have 25 campers," Anderson said.

Herman, Flynn and Paulson brought their WE Fest chairs along to visit with Anderson outside her home Thursday night, and swapped stories of their adventures, both together and separately.

Perennial WE Festers (from left) Julie Herman, Lynn Anderson, Michelle Kraemer Paulson and Lisa Flynn gathered outside Anderson's home — located directly across the highway from WE Fest's East Gate — on Thursday night, Aug. 6, on what would traditionally have been the country music festival's opening night. (Submitted photo)
Perennial WE Festers (from left) Julie Herman, Lynn Anderson, Michelle Kraemer Paulson and Lisa Flynn gathered outside Anderson's home — located directly across the highway from WE Fest's East Gate — on Thursday night, Aug. 6, on what would traditionally have been the country music festival's opening night. (Submitted photo)

In addition to toasting the festival itself, Flynn, Herman and Paulson also raised a glass in memory of Anderson's daughter, Jean Anderson-Landin, who was a part of their WE Fest family until she passed away last November.

Anderson recalled how she hosted a bungee jumping station on her property during the 1990-91 WE Fest weekends; in fact, she tried it out herself, despite being afraid of heights.

Herman recalled how much her parents enjoyed chauffeuring her and her friends to and from the WE Fest site during its early years.

"They called my dad the grandpa of WE Fest," she said, adding that, while they didn't attend the festival themselves, both her parents enjoyed people watching from outside the gates. "My mom liked to see everything that was going on."

More local fans weigh in on 'The Year Without WE Fest'

Several other Detroit Lakes residents have been WE Fest regulars through the years: Jim Brogren, who grew up in the community, said that he's been to "all of them except one."

In WE Fest's early years, Brogren said, he would work as a beer vendor in the concert bowl throughout the afternoon, then come back and enjoy the festival at night. In subsequent years, he became an avid festival-goer, and WE Fest weekend became an annual tradition that he would share with friends from across the country.

Avid WE Fester Jim Brogren (third from left) with fellow fans and longtime friends Cristal Burkle, Leigh Fisher and Kathy Pfister. Burkle and Fisher come to WE Fest each year from their home in Iowa, while Pfister hails from Phoenix, Ariz. (Submitted photo)
Avid WE Fester Jim Brogren (third from left) with fellow fans and longtime friends Cristal Burkle, Leigh Fisher and Kathy Pfister. Burkle and Fisher come to WE Fest each year from their home in Iowa, while Pfister hails from Phoenix, Ariz. (Submitted photo)

"It's driving me nuts," he said Thursday, referring to WE Fest being on hiatus this year. "I’m going through all the pictures (from previous years) every day, and I’ve been sharing them on Facebook, and I’m just sad about it."

Brogren did admit, however, that the coronavirus pandemic would likely have caused the festival to be canceled for 2020 even if the hiatus hadn't already been announced a year ago.

"It's good timing," he said, adding that he hopes Live Nation will be able to regroup and come back "with a bang" next year. "I think they will."

Detroit Lakes retirees Andy and Sandy Lia have also been coming to WE Fest every year since 1983. In the early years, Andy would gain free admission and VIP seating with his press pass, as a longtime broadcaster with KDLM Radio.

Over the years, he interviewed a variety of country stars for the local radio station — though Sandy recalls one year when it was she, not her husband, who scored an interview with the legendary Merle Haggard.

"I waited in line and pretended I was with the press — I had his (Andy's) pass," she recalled with a laugh.

Andy, meanwhile, recalled how KDLM would broadcast live from the Soo Pass Ranch on the morning of WE Fest's opening day.

"On the first day of WE Fest, I’d be there with my morning show at about 5 in the morning," he said. "It was fun to watch all the people walking around that had been up all night long. Some of them weren't in the best shape."

Sandy said that while fans might have gotten a little rowdy at times, WE Fest has been a good thing for the Detroit Lakes community overall.

"I’m sure most people can understand it wouldn’t have been a good year to have WE Fest," she said, "but I hope it does come back. It's a great thing for the community . . . it does a lot for Detroit Lakes economically."