Past admiral remembers building Jaycee trolley

As the Northwest Water Carnival holds its 75th year of festivities, Detroit Lakes is commemorating the history of the area's premier summer celebration.

As the Northwest Water Carnival holds its 75th year of festivities, Detroit Lakes is commemorating the history of the area's premier summer celebration.

Part of that time-honored tradition is found in the trolley, which has represented the Jaycees and their July jubilee for over 50 years.

Dave Knutson, 1964 Water Carnival Admiral, was part of the group that constructed the trolley in the '50s.

"There was -- years and years ago -- in the newspaper a funny comic called the Toonerville Trolley," Knutson said. "That trolley went around all over and picked up people," he added, noting that the "funny little conductor" was always toting an abundance of passengers.

The comic, also known as Toonerville Folks, had a lengthy run from 1908-1955 with an impressive readership. Its popularity was evidenced by the production of several silent films and 55 comedy shorts based on the strip.


"In those days, when the funny papers came out people would ask, 'What happened in Toonerville today?'" Knutson said, calling the comic indicative of their sense of humor.

At the time, the Jaycees were looking for a signature feature to represent the Water Carnival. One member suggested they make a trolley based on Toonerville's, an idea that received a round of laughter in response.

However, as time passed and they still needed a plan, the trolley began to seem like a plausible option -- and a good one, at that.

A group of Jaycees, of which there were approximately 100 at the time, decided to bring their comic vision into physicality.

"Dale Hagen was pretty much the engineer of it all," Knutson said, adding that the entire construct was created by the capable hands of the Jaycees.

Using old sheet metal and the engine from "an old wreck of an army jeep," the group congregated at King and Grable, near where Grover Lindberg is currently located.

"Night after night we'd all go and get the thing done," Knutson said. "In those days necessity was the mother of invention. We did a lot without a lot of money."

With a designed directly based on the Toonerville Trolley, the Jaycees' version was a vision in vivid yellow and quickly became a signature facet of the Water Carnival.


"We'd take it from town to town and parade to parade," Knutson said, adding that the only limit to how far it traveled was the untrustworthy old engine.

Since its early years, the trolley has undergone plenty of renovation, including the switch to a 1954 Ford half-ton pickup engine, a new roof attached by a M State class and, most noticeably, a bright red paint job completed between '75 and '84.

"It's a different color now, but it should be yellow," Knutson said. "The older Jaycees like me will tell you that."

Despite the toll the years have taken on the trolley -- even deviating from its Toonerville roots -- it remains a vital piece of the Water Carnival, both beginning and ending each Parade of the Northwest.

"(The trolley) always was in the parade, always had people hanging all over it - just like the people in the cartoon," Knutson said.

"But not dressed like them," he added with a chuckle.

Just as the Water Carnival has become -- more than simply a summer staple -- a symbol for Detroit Lakes itself, the trolley has become the Water Carnival's emblem, a mobile landmark designating DL as the home of an annual celebration with a history unlike any other.

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