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Minnesota’s best small-town summer festivals

Judy Garland Days, Grand Rapids, June 20–23

Judy Garland left Grand Rapids at age 4, but looked back fondly on the timber town where she made her stage debut. Had the ruby slippers possessed real magic, Garland’s wistful plea — “There’s no place like home” — would have whisked her to a white-clapboard two-story that’s become the Judy Garland Museum and host of an annual festival in her honor.

“The of Wizard of Oz” is one of the world’s most-watched films, and the town’s celebration of its 50th anniversary, in 1989, drew an estimated 30,000 people.Over the years, the festival reunited 13 of the movie’s Munchkins, featured her co-star Mickey Rooney, Garland’s son and a Guinness-World-Records-setting assembly of people dressed as “Oz” characters. There have been Judy “Jeopardy” and bingo games, tribute concerts and Toto look-alike contests.

These days, the festival mostly draws a smaller cadre of regulars — from Milwaukee, Seattle and even England — who find camaraderie in trading arcana from Garland’s films and concerts. Some dress in blue-and-white gingham and red sneakers or replicate Dorothy’s braided pigtails. They wish Garland were remembered more for her peerless voice and magnetic aura than the sensational aspects of her celebrity (her five marriages; tragic death from an overdose at 47, and status as a gay icon).

During last year’s weekend-long festival, former director John Kelsch, one of several human Garland encyclopedias on hand, led tours of the museum. Near the actual carriage that toured Dorothy and company through the Emerald City, he dropped more “Oz” factoids: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” nearly got cut and the film debuted at a financial loss. He pointed to a spot on the floor where he’d spotted the lone sequin left behind when a pair of the famous slippers was stolen from the museum in 2005.

In the museum’s basement, Kelsch pulled out shell necklaces Garland wore on a trip to the Bahamas; a gold sequined dress she donned in London; her letterhead, one of her handkerchiefs, and even the metal hardware from her temporary casket. Fans slipped on white gloves and paged through a first-edition “Oz” book that Kelsch suggested was very valuable. Then, remembering the slipper theft, quickly added, “I shouldn’t have told you that.”

What: Judy Garland fans from around the world gather to share stories about the multi-talented, misunderstood performer and ogle “Oz” memorabilia.

Details: June 20–23, Judy Garland Museum, judygarlandmuseum.com

Before You Go: Listen to the podcast “No Place Like Home” to get up to speed on the case of the stolen slippers.

RACHEL HUTTON

Midsommardagen, Scandia, June 22

To mark the solstice at the Gammelgården Museum’s annual midsummer festival, a half-a-dozen men push the Majstång (maypole) into the air. The towering pole, which is covered with greenery, welcomes summer and serves as the hub of a large, communal dance.

In 1850, Scandia was one of the first places Swedish immigrants settled in Minnesota. By 1920, the state was home to more Swedes than any other. A handful of buildings from the historic settlement make up the Gammelgården (old farm), the country’s only open-air museum devoted to Swedish immigration.

Stepping into the weathered wooden structures — the state’s oldest Lutheran church, the first parsonage, a barn and a cottage, replete with period furnishings, cooking pots, saws and plows — immerses visitors in the lives of those early immigrants.

On festival day, craftspeople sold folk-painted “Välkommen” signs and wooden clogs, wooden characters carved in the traditional flat-plane style. They spun wool into yarn next to a small pen of bleating sheep. Near a life-size Dala pony, children wove long-stemmed flowers into head wreaths. The were clothes-wringers to crank, a wooden cow with ersatz udder to milk and pails to haul with a yoke.

Most people gathered by the maypole to hear the Cloudberries, a women’s chorus from the American Swedish Institute, sing folk tunes. Then the Vasa Junior Folk Dancers performed its version of a romantic boy-meets-girl comedy. (He introduces her to snorting snus, the Scandinavian tobacco.) The concession stand sold bowls of Swedish meatballs smothered in gravy. Among the picnickers on the grass, a teenager in a white eyelet dress ate herring straight from the jar.

And then it was time for the crowd to encircle the maypole, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The dancers clasped hands and took clockwise steps. And those who knew the tune and its Swedish lyrics, sang along.

What: Celebrate summer in the Swedish tradition, with folk-art performances, hands-on activities and dancing around the maypole.

Details: June 22, Gammelgården Museum, gammelgardenmuseum.org

Before You Go: Bring your wallet. The museum’s gift shop is stocked with Nordic sweaters, specialty foods, linens, tomtes (gnomes) and more.

RACHEL HUTTON

Pie Day, Braham, Aug. 2

On the first Friday in August, the central Minnesota town of Braham is the place to be if you want to have your pie and eat it too.

You can also sing about your pie, enter it into a contest, win a pie in an auction, compete in pie-trivia contests, navigate using pie-themed street signs and maybe see a pie-themed quilt.

Braham Pie Day was started 34 years ago to celebrate a proclamation made by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich, declaring Braham as the “Homemade Pie Capital of Minnesota.”

For decades, the town’s Park Cafe was known as the place in the state to stop for pie on the drive from the cities up to your lake cabin up north. Thanks to Pie Day, the town’s pie-shaped reputation is starting to reach an international audience, according to Tish Carlson, executive director of Braham Pie Day.

The annual event in the town (pop. 1,800) draws as many as 7,000 pie-loving visitors from around the country and as far away as Germany and Japan.

Putting on Pie Day is a community effort. Scores of volunteers make the pies in commercial kitchens at the Braham Event Center. (General Mills donates about 500 pounds of Gold Medal Flour in memory of a young General Mills employee who grew up in Braham, Mark Erickson, who died of a brain tumor.)

The fire department helps transport the pies to the downtown festival site at Freedom Park, where pie is served by youth town ambassadors wearing tiaras. There’s a pie-themed singalong (led by the Pie-Alluia Chorus), a pie-baking contest and, naturally, and a pie-eating contest where competitors vie to finish chocolate pudding pies. (“We used to have blueberries, but it would get stuck up people’s noses,” Carlson said.)

Pie Day also includes other non-edible attractions —a vintage car show, craft booths, food trucks, a quilt show, a medallion hunt, cloggers, polka bands and square dancing.

The main draw, though, is eating pies — cherry, cherry dark chocolate, cherry raspberry, strawberry rhubarb, peach blueberry, caramel apple and blueberry raspberry strawberry.

The Park Cafe also sells hundreds of pies in flavors like turtle pecan, sour cream raisin and cranberry meringue.

What: A day of flaky crusts and sweet fillings.

Details: Aug. 2, Braham, pieday.com

Before you go: You can get water, coffee or lemonade, but family oriented Pie Day intentionally doesn’t have a beer tent.

RICHARD CHIN

Rendezvous Days and Pow-wow

Rendezvous Days is one of Minnesota’s largest small-town festivals, with hundreds of people converging on the tiny town (pop. 616) of Grand Portage, just south of the Canadian border.

The event attracts history buffs, who reenact the fur trade between the Ojibwe and the French Voyageurs people during the late 1700s, camping in tents throughout the festival at the Grand Portage National Monument.

Last year, the event had 257 volunteers registered as reenactors, said Anna Deschampe, public information officer at the monument.

“We don’t pay them, they come here with all their stuff, and we’ve got some great staff members that are really good with the history,” she said. “We make sure that everyone setting up the camps represent the correct time period.”

The festival is set around the era when traders made a nearly 9-mile portage around the Pigeon River between Lake Superior and Canada. Reenactors play music, compete in games and demonstrate skills of the era — including making boats made out of bison in a willow frame.

Alongside Rendezvous Days is a pow-wow organized by the Grand Portage Band, which includes dozens of vendors selling clothes and food.

“We have a different theme every year because we have so many people, that once they come here, they want to come every single year,” Deschampe said.

What: Travel back in time to learn about the fur trade between the Ojibwe and French people with songs, games and reenactments.

Details: August 9-11, Grand Portage National Monument.

Before You Go: Book a hotel or campsite in advance to experience the entire weekend.

ALEX CHHITH

Potato Days, Barnesville, Aug. 23-24

For two days in August, the town of Barnesville celebrates the humble-yet-beloved vegetable with a festival of nearly non-stop spuds-centric events.

“We try to keep it focused around the potato as much as we can,” said festival Executive Director Missie Goheen.

And they do: Volunteers hand out French fries from a flat-bed trailer in the middle of the street, little girls in potato sack tutus vie to be crowned Miss Tater Tot and the town’s storefronts sell potato-themed T-shirts (“Less haters, more taters”), potato earrings, beer koozies that looked like lefse and coffee cups that proclaim, “My spirit animal is a potato.”

Even the food trucks are all about potatoes, with potato dumplings, “mega” lefse tacos, loaded baked potatoes and mashed potatoes with meatballs.

And then there are the potato-riffic activities. In the annual “potato scramble,” kids tried to grab as many specially marked spuds as possible. There’s also a potato peeling competition, a mashed potato eating contest and a potato picking face-off. There’s a potato pancake feed, potato car races, a scavenger hunt for a golden potato and a strongman competition that involves hefting 100-pound bags of tubers and tossing them into the air. Participation prizes are often a snack-sized bag of — you guessed it — potato chips.

Sure, there’s usually a parade, a rodeo, a firehose water fight, a dog fashion show, an antique car show and that favorite small-town event — a street dance.

The festival dates back to 1938, when Barnesville boosters held the first National Spud Picking Contest and gave out free potato soup to highlight a crop that was then popular among area farms. The celebration stopped for a few decades, but started up again in the 1990s.

During last year’s festival, we spotted Ron Silbernagel, four-time winner of the annual mashed potato eating contest. His secrets to success include drinking lots of water. But he admits he has a slight advantage: “My nickname growing up was ‘Spud,'” he said.

What: A starch-filled small-town delight in honor of the lowly spud.

Details: Aug.23-24, Barnesville, potatodays.com

Before you go: You can sign up for many of the competitions on the spot. Camping in Barnesville’s Wagner Park to catch both days of the festival is a great option: wagnercampground.com

ERICA PEARSON

Agate Days, Moose Lake, July 13-14

Agate Days in Moose Lake is a celebration of Minnesota’s official gemstone. With its distinctive red and amber bands, these quartz minerals are abundant on the North Shore and a significant part of Moose Lake State Park and Agate and Geological Center. In fact, the town is home to the world’s largest agate, weighing more than 100 pounds.

The two-day event features a gem and mineral show put on by the Carleton County Gem and Mineral Club, where you can buy, sell or trade agates and other minerals and gems. (Even if you’re not in the mood to buy, the fossils, minerals, rocks and jewelry are fun to look at.) There’s also an art show, a steak fry and a brewfest.

But the main attraction of Agate Days is the Agate Stampede. Two massive dump trucks filled with gravel plus 400 pounds of agates and $400 in change are dumped along the main street of Moose Lake. A starting rifle sounds and folks descend on the piles with spray bottles (for dusting off agates), buckets and gloves to furiously dig through the debris to find the treasures. Kids and adults are all welcome for this notoriously competitive event.

What: A rocking weekend that celebrates the agates, minerals and Minnesota.

Details: July 13-14, downtown Moose Lake and Moose Lake State Park and Geological area.

Before you go: Dress down. You’re likely to get a little dirty grubbing for agates.

ABBY SLIVA

Kolacky Days, July 26-28, Montgomery, Minn.

As a kid, growing up a block from this small-town festival had its perks. Three days a year, carnival rides and pronto pups were just steps away, and the sounds of a celebration could be heard from late morning until way past bedtime.

Now in its 90th year, Kolacky Days celebrates the area’s Czech heritage as well as the fruit-filled bun it is named after. It’s a weekend when dressing in traditional Czech kroje is encouraged, generations of families gather to watch the annual parade and those in the know leave with at least a dozen kolacky from Franke’s Bakery, a Montgomery mainstay since 1914.

Most events are held at Memorial Park or along the town’s Main Street, and the weekend’s jam-packed highlights include a Friday-night pageant to crown royalty, a car show, art and heritage displays, tractor pull and community performances and music from morning through night. There’s a beer garden, maker’s market, food stands (including a pork and dumpling Czech dinner) and inflatables for kids. New this year is a Saturday night fireworks display — synchronized to polka music.

Prefer more activity? There are tournaments in softball, pickleball, volleyball, horseshoes and trap shooting; the Tour de Bun bike race (courses are 15, 35 and 50 miles); the annual 5K Bun Run road race; a fitness walk, and a kids’ race on Sunday that ends on Main Street just as the Grand Day Parade begins at noon. Competitive but not athletic? There’s also kolacky eating and prune-spitting contests. Keep up to date on activities through the Kolacky Days Facebook page.

What: A generations-old ode to fruit-filled buns and Czech heritage.

Details: July 26-28, Montgomery, montgomerymn.org

Before you go: Wagons, strollers and water bottles are recommended, as are folding chairs or blankets for prime parade watching.

NICOLE HVIDSTEN

Other Minnesota festivals

Seems like every Minnesota city, town or unincorporated village has some sort of summer celebration. Here’s our list:

Buffalo Days, Luverne, May 30-June 2, car show, baseball tournament, pie social, parade, https://www.luvernechamber.com/festivals-events

Rhubarb Festival, Lanesboro, June 1, rhubarb tasting, rhubarb run, fashion show, facebook.com/LanesboroAnnualRhubarbFestival

Judy Garland Days, Grand Rapids, June 20-23, museum tours, themed dress-up, movie screening, https://judygarlandmuseum.com/judy-garland-museum-events/

Bullhead Days, Waterville, June 7-9, fishing contest, royalty, parade, https://www.facebook.com/bhdays/

Steamboat Days, Winona, June 12-16, fishing contest, golf, cornhole tournament, parade, https://www.winonasteamboatdays.com/events/

Turtle Fest, Perham, June 12-16, turtle races, picket ball tournament, street fair, parade, fireworks, https://www.perham.com/turtlefest/

Paul Bunyan Days, Akeley, June 28-30, fish fry, fishing contest, facebook.com/profile.php?id=100064817886167

Strawberry Festival, Afton, June 22-23, strawberries, artist and business expo, entertainment, facebook.com/events/813700823116589/?active_tab=discussion

Midsommardagen, Scandia, June 22, Swedish maypole, group folk dancing, art fair and demonstrations, gammelgardenmuseum.org/event/midsommardagen/

Agate Days, Moose Lake, July 13-14, Lake Superior’s agate hotbed; gem and mineral show, agate dump, facebook.com/mooselakeagatedays2021

Sinclair Lewis Days, Sauk Center, July 17-21, parade, soap box derby, 5K and one-mile run, royalty, craft show, saukcentrechamber.com/events/details/53rd-annual-sinclair-lewis-days-15566

Bean Hole Days, Pequot Lakes, July 16-17, games, crafts, vendors, and beans made the old-fashioned way: in cast iron kettles buried to cook overnight. pequotlakes.com.

Muskie Days, Nevis, July 19-20, live music, kids’ games, beer garden, food trucks, https://www.facebook.com/NevisMuskieDays/

Corn Capital Days, Olivia, July 22-28, sweet corn feed, parade, pancake breakfast, fun run, parade https://oliviachamber.org/corn-capital-days/

Kolacky Days, Montgomery, July 26-28, prune-spitting contest, bohemian market, kolacky eating contest, https://www.montgomerymn.org/

Dragon Boat Festival, Bemidji, July 31-Aug. 3, dragon boat races, fun run, cornhole tournament, https://bemidjidragonboat.com/

Fisherman’s Picnic, Grand Marais, Aug 1-4, fish toss, minnow races, loon calling contest, street dance, fireworks, https://www.visitcookcounty.com/event/fishermans-picnic/1145/

Pie Day, Braham, Aug. 2, pie-eating contest, pie-tin art, pie auction, pieday.com

Rendezvous Days, Grand Portage, Aug. 9-11, huge pow-wow and voyageur-era skill demos, https://www.nps.gov/grpo/planyourvisit/aboutrendezvousdays.htm

Corn on the Cob Days, Plainview, Aug. 14-18, corn feed, parade. Other events TBA. ) facebook.com/p/Plainview-Lions-Clubs-Mn-Chapter-100083197245300/

Potato Days, Barnsville, Aug. 23-24, mashed potato eating contest, potato peeling, potato sculpting, Miss Tater Tot contest, https://potatodays.com/

Defeat of Jesse James Days, Northfield, Sept. 4-8, antique tractor pull, beard contest, rodeo, reenactment of the ill-fated bank robbery, https://www.djjd.org/

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