Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Moorhead is booming! The population is going up. So are new landmarks all over town. Yet the excitement needs a focus, and local boosters come up with an annual event that draws thousands and, not incidentally, makes cash registers ring.
What shall we call it? How about Greater Moorhead Days?
Sounds a lot like today, right? But that was happening 70 years ago. Next week, when Moorheaders gather with their friends to dance on the bridge, watch a big parade and celebrate their city starting Friday, Sept. 5, they’re following in the footsteps of their grandparents. Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the time seemed right for a weeklong party that would galvanize residents and, especially, the business community – that would relaunch the dream of making the city a magnet in its own right.
Today, Greater Moorhead Days is once again something of an institution. Guided by the Parks and Recreation Department and sponsored by local organizations ranging from the Moorhead Business Association to First International Bank and Midco, it’s again a rite of early autumn.
A lot has changed in 70 years, but the Moorhead spirit remains.
“I remember the excitement back when I was a little boy growing up here,” Moorhead native Mark Voxland recalls. “I remember listening to KVOX with my parents, holding my breath as names were drawn for a long, long list of prizes. Mom and Dad even won a radio once. It was a fun deal.”
Voxland – who, as mayor, led the festival’s revival in 2004 – remembers many of the attractions that made the original incarnation a high point of midwinters from 1950 until 1968. Downtown merchants gave away nearly half a million tickets in some years, each offering the bearer a chance to win one of a long list of donated gifts, from the Voxlands’ radio to entire rooms of furniture and even cars and trucks. People turned out in droves to decode clues in the annual treasure hunts, some leading to hidden cardboard keys, others carried in the pocket of that year’s designated “mystery man.”
According to Clay County archivist Mark Peihl, who compiled a history of the event in 2004, the first came about in 1950. Moorhead’s population had grown 50% from 1945 to 1950 and another 50% in the ‘50s, with the housing boom fueled by the GI Bill. Public institutions were expanding too – new homes for Trinity Lutheran and St. Joseph’s Catholic churches, schools on the north side, an imposing, modern Clay County Courthouse, and of course the brand new landmark Frederick Martin Hotel on Center Avenue and Fourth Street. But, as he points out, retail establishments lagged far behind the city’s neighbor to the west. “Those new folks were shopping elsewhere, presumably Fargo,” the historian wrote. “In 1951, Fargo’s downtown boasted 32 men’s and women’s clothing stores to Moorhead’s five; 10 department stores to Moorhead’s three; and 10 jewelers to Moorhead’s two.”
Four businessmen sipping coffee at the FM Hotel hatched a “bold plan for a late winter, week-long promotion involving nearly all Moorhead retailers,” he continued. The four – Norman House, Jacob Kieffer, Ben Horvick and E.J. McKellar – talked often-reluctant merchants into supporting their plan. That first year, the February event featured a free pancake feed, a standing-room-only cooking school for ladies run by University of Minnesota home economists, a style show, a flower show, a special farmers’ day, a sportsmen’s show, an essay contest for kids, and drawings for more than $10,000 in what sponsors called “gifts” (not “prizes”) including a new 1951 Ford automobile.
It all drew an estimated 20,000 participants who spent more than $650,000. Merchants gave away 450,000 tickets to the drawings. And it united the business community behind a single cause, perhaps a first for the always-rambunctious businessmen.
In his story for the Clay County Historical Society newsletter, Peihl traces the event’s evolution – visits by big-name politicos like presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, Minnesota governors Orville Freeman and Luther Youngdahl, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. The annual treasure hunts awarded 500 real silver dollars (worth about $8,000 in 2004, Peihl noted); years of more difficult clues drew throngs of increasingly frantic searchers downtown. Big-name entertainment was sometimes featured – people like comedienne Phyllis Diller.
By 1968, though, the excitement had drifted away.
“But it never completely died,” Voxland muses. “Bits and pieces remained. Park director Riaz Aziz put together something called Hullabaloo for a while. We still had a parade every year.”
And then Greater Moorhead Days came roaring back during Voxland’s term in office. They were times rather like the days when the community event was born 50 years before – rapid population growth and new schools underway, yet locals were continuing to look west for their commercial needs. Voxland and then-city manager Mike Redlinger launched a campaign to revive it, now in early September, when the education-oriented city wakes up to a new school year.
“I give Mike all the credit. Mike and our student interns. They were the ones who made sure we had crowds. College groups stepped up. I give lots of credit to the Moorhead Business Association for stepping up to see if we could make it work, along with the parks department.”
And it did. The renewed focus was on recreation and the arts instead of retail business. Crowds lined Eighth Street for the signature parade, and then only grew when it was moved to 20th Street, where it’ll step out at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6. Two years ago, the MBA introduced its Bridge Bash, a free outdoor music gathering for returning college students. It moves to the Main Avenue bridge Thursday, Sept. 5, where guests will enjoy live music, food trucks and vendors.
Other events have also become traditions: the Wings and Wheels Fly-In and Car Show at Moorhead Airport Saturday, Sept. 7 and the Midco Kids Fest at Bluestem Center for the Arts Tuesday, Sept. 10.
New this year, the kids event will be followed by the Moorhead Identity Party. It marks the unveiling of the city’s new rebranding program and features the debut of a video featuring testimonials to their city by prominent Moorhead natives. The Veterans of Foreign Wars conducts a 9/11 commemoration ceremony at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the old American Legion building (formerly Usher’s House). A magic show, games and food are planned during the Trails at Stonemill Park Carnival on Thursday, Sept. 12. On the last day, Sept. 14, the Red River Run 5K or 15K race starts out from the Moorhead Center Mall at 9 a.m.
“The audience is different in the 21st century than it was in the 20th,” Voxland reflects. “but we’ve still got a lot to celebrate. Greater Moorhead Days is a chance, once a year, to bring us all together.”
Greater Moorhead Days
Nancy Edmonds Hanson