By Ana Alexander
HOWARD LAKE, MN In the early 1930s, Howard Lake was famous for its strawberries.
The Howard Lake Herald would note which farmer sent out the first shipment of strawberries each year, and the Independent Berry Growers Association had just formed in town. Once school was closed for summer vacation, it was berry-picking time students would look to make a dollar a day if they were a good picker.
The strawberry industry flourished, as strawberries were easily shipped by train and could stay fresh through the journey. The berries were also sold to local grocers, and it wouldn’t be uncommon to see a strawberry stand lining the side of Highway 12. At the height of the strawberry industry, Howard Lake boasted about 200 strawberry growers and shipped out thousands of crates of strawberries each season.
By the time the 1930s were coming to a close, Howard Lake became known as the “Strawberry Capital of Minnesota,” and to some, the “Strawberry Capital of the World,” according to the Howard Lake Herald.
Former superintendent of Howard Lake schools, Fred Brandes, came up with the idea to start the town’s first-ever Strawberry Festival in 1941. People were receptive to the idea, and Brandes became the chairman of the Strawberry Festival committee.
In the early years, the festival was sponsored by the Howard Lake Commercial Club, and the American Legion and Auxiliary.
“The Festival is first not a money-making scheme. It is a cooperative venture of all the people of Howard Lake to show to the rest of the world that we are a friendly city inviting our neighbors and friends to a festival of fun, recreation, and entertainment,” the Howard Lake Herald wrote in 1941. “We want people to know that we are proud of the folks who raise berries and help make Howard Lake a productive community and one worth living in.”
Each year, the festival offered something different, but one aspect remained throughout all five festivals: the Strawberry Queen.
Girls ages 16 to 25 who were unmarried were eligible to become the town’s Strawberry Queen. The public was in charge of voting, and the group of girls with the highest total number of votes were placed in the finals. From that group, a judge would select the queen. The four girls with the most votes would then become the queen’s attendants.
Howard Lake residents could vote at any local store. For the first two years, votes could be purchased; 10 cents was good for two votes, 25 cents for five votes, 50 cents for 10 votes, $1 for 20 votes, and $5 for 100. The Howard Lake Herald printed the standings each week, so residents knew they should get out and vote if their girl was low in the standings.
The Strawberry Queen competition was primarily a beauty competition.
“It is the expressed desire of the general committee to keep this race one of a contest of beauty rather than popularity,” wrote the Howard Lake Herald.
A significant part of the plans for the first-ever Strawberry Festival included a two-mile parade, with 19 floats and six bands. About 30 crates of strawberries had been packaged up, and cardboard containers filled with berries were tossed out to the public during the parade.
Other than the parade, most of the festivities took place at “tourist park,” now known as Memorial Park.
Free strawberries were available to all attendees at the park. Randi Merriman from WCCO was the master of ceremonies during the event, which included entertainment from The Plehal Brothers, who played harmonica; and the Bob-O-Links musical group. The festival also included a bathing suit contest, open to ladies who resided in or outside of Howard Lake.
Minneapolis writer Merle Potter selected the Strawberry Queen June 14, noting the chosen lady’s “complexion, poise, posture, personality and carriage,” according to the Howard Lake Herald.
The queen’s selection ceremony took place in the city hall, with a crowd of about 1,000 people. Louella Sutherland was chosen as the year’s queen, and her attendants were Vivian Larrabee, Esther Gerber, Lois Adams, and Elaine Schaust.
The festival led Howard Lake businesses to significant economic success, as well. One café reported the sale of 82 chicken dinners on Sunday, another sold 50 pounds of hamburger, and a third “disposed of every eatable thing they had in the place, and closed the doors for the balance of the day,” according to the Howard Lake Herald.
The two meat markets in town sold over 500 pounds of hamburger to local eateries and the festival concession stands.
An estimate of attendance placed 3,000 at the festival on Saturday evening, 9,000 on Sunday afternoon, and 10,000 on Sunday evening.
“The first Strawberry Festival to be given in Howard Lake has come to a successful close, and has now become one of the town’s traditions,” declared the Howard Lake Herald.
The same year sugar began to be rationed, Howard Lake residents found another way to sweeten things up.
The second-annual Strawberry Festival took place Saturday, June 20 and Sunday, June 21, and was even more successful than the first.
The Commercial Club sponsored the festival again, and Fred Brandes, who had been elected mayor of Howard Lake, returned as chairman.
On Saturday, the program included performances from various bands and musical artists, as well as the crowning of the queen. Tod Williams of WTCN radio made the queen selection, choosing Elaine Nelson as the Strawberry Queen. Nelson’s attendants included Dorothy Mitchell, Verna Lutter, Dorothy Adams, and Elaine Seltz.
The selection took place in the high school auditorium in 1942, as the city hall had been packed full the previous year. Portions of the festival took place on what is now the Wright County Fairgrounds. The coronation was at Memorial Park, where bugles heralded the ceremonies and soldiers escorted the attendants and the queen. 1941 Strawberry Queen Louella Sutherland was present to relinquish her cape and crown.
Sunday afternoon included massive parade festivities, where strawberries were once again tossed to the public.
Several local bands were called to perform at the park, including Norwood’s famous 55-piece band. This year also included a beard and mustache growing contest, as an effort to advertise for the festival.
Howard Lake also grew its reputation as a “good neighbor,” as the 1942 festival included sending invitations to all former residents.
“An added feature to this year’s festival will be a very cordial invitation to all former residents of Howard Lake and vicinity to make an extra special effort to come to the Strawberry Capital on Sunday, June 21 and renew acquaintances of yesteryears,” wrote the Howard Lake Herald.
Merchants were called to place flags in front of their businesses, and to create window displays for the festival.
“As host city to thousands of visitors, we must do all we can to show our hospitality and that we are a great big little city,” wrote the Howard Lake Herald in 1942.
World War II was on everyone’s mind, and signs of it showed through the festival.
The Howard Lake Herald noted on June 18, 1942, that “celebrations this year will probably be limited, due to present conditions, but will make this an opportunity no one should miss, and by attending this year’s Strawberry Festival you will witness one of the finest entertainments possible.”
While guests were required to wear one Strawberry Festival button per family for admittance, it was advertised that all people in uniform would be admitted for free.
Despite the war, the festival drew a massive crowd, with a conservative estimate of 17,000 people
“Howard Lake’s second-annual Strawberry Festival has now passed into history with its attendance record being among the highest ever to attend a local celebration,” the Howard Lake Herald wrote in June of 1942.
The Herald also noted that the parade was successful, despite the difficulties to organize it, due to the war: “Because of the elaborate and original display used in the parade last year, the public was expecting much, and was not disappointed in finding the second-annual Strawberry Festival parade of the same high caliber as the first one, in spite of the handicap the parade committee had to contend with, due to present conditions.”
Brandes gave up the position as chairman that year, saying he felt the festival should be “in new hands.” This did not turn out to occur, as the Strawberry Festival was put on hiatus, due to the war, and the second-annual festival was the last for several years.
The war affected strawberry growers, as many of the men went off to war. In 1943, it was announced that there would be no Strawberry Festival for the year. However, it was not forgotten by the residents.
“Last year at this time, there were 20 men growing beards, mustaches, and long sideburns to help advertise the Strawberry Festival. This year, the festival is ‘out’ because of obvious reasons, and checking the vine-growing photo taken last year, we find that of the 20 men in it, six are no longer living here, two of the group being in the armed forces, and four in defense work,” wrote the Howard Lake Herald in June of 1943.
The Strawberry Festival made a return, however, in the summer of 1949.
The festival included a similar entertainment program and Strawberry Queen coronation on Sunday evening in Memorial Park.
The coronation promised to be another grand event, with the cost of the Strawberry Queen candidates’ gowns totaling $5,000. The coronation also had an extra twist in 1949 unlike previous years, where the Strawberry Queen was announced before the festival, this year, the lady’s name was kept a secret.
Charlotte Meline of Estelle Compton Model Institute in Minneapolis was the judge she placed the queen’s name in a sealed envelope to be kept secret until coronation.
This year, the attendants were chosen in a different manner than the first two years. Candidates were responsible for selling buttons, and the four girls with the highest number of sold buttons would be the queen’s attendants.
Louella Sutherland and Elaine Nelson were present at the festival, as was Miss America BeBe Shopp, who crowned Donna Reinmuth as the Strawberry Queen. Dorothy Prickett, Marjorie Shepperd, Virginia Birkholz, and Mavis Lahr were selected as the attendants.
The Minneapolis Monday Star printed a correction article about Howard Lake in 1949, after it omitted the town’s festival in its listing of Minnesota Strawberry Week activities. The paper stated: “Howard Lake, ‘Strawberry Capital’ of the state, if not the world, started strawberry festivals years ago.” A multitude of people had called in to complain, as the paper failed to recognize Howard Lake as the first town to have a Strawberry Festival.
The 1949 festival saw the lowest attendance of all five years, with only 4,000 showing up. While it paled in comparison to previous years, it was still a significant number for the town, which at that time had a population of 847 residents.
The Strawberry Festival continued its traditional festivities in 1950, and saw success, despite a weekend of cold, rainy weather.
“The midway was in full swing and the local stands were in operation. As usual, strawberry shortcake and coffee were featured at one of the stands,” the Howard Lake Herald wrote.
The Howard Lake Orphans faced off against Cokato, winning 10-8. Baton twirlers, clowns, and magicians joined the entertainment portion of the festival, and Rocco Shows brought out a variety of rides.
“This company has the newest modern midway with six neon light towers, which are 55 feet high, and a ten-mile search light. They will bring nine rides here, consisting of a Roll Plane, a Spitfire, Tilt-A-Whirl, Ely Ferris Wheel, Gunner Fly-O-Plane and a Merry-Go-round,” wrote the Howard Lake Herald in 1950.
Rosalind Sahye, a casting director from Minneapolis, was the judge for the Strawberry Queen, and selected Joan Oberg. Former queen Donna Reinmuth was present to crown Oberg.
This year, the festival was sponsored by the Howard Lake Chamber of Commerce, and the American Legion and Auxiliary. The sponsors of the festival decided to add a special feature to end the festival with a bang a display of fireworks, shot off the shore of the lake.
The 1951 Strawberry Festival added the fireworks show to its list of traditions.
The fireworks display was highly anticipated. Underneath a headline proclaiming, “Festival to hold largest fireworks display in history,” the Howard Lake Herald wrote, “this program promises to be a rapid-fire, attention-holding spectacle . . . the huge rockets and brilliant flares of drenching, floating stars over our natural setting of water, combined with the flaming ground-pieces against the background of blue water, will be well worth many miles of travel to view.”
In addition to the coronation, the public was able to attend the selection of the Strawberry Queen. The selection was set up as a program, but the queen’s name was still kept a secret until the coronation ceremony.
Former queen Joan Oberg was present to crown Shirley Stock as the 1951, and final, Strawberry Queen.
Fittingly, Strawberry Festival creator Fred Brandes, who had moved to St. Paul, returned to Howard Lake with his family for the festival, and spoke at the coronation ceremony.
The Strawberry Festival was also featured in the Minneapolis Tribune cartoon, “Smorgy,” written by Kurt Carlson. 1950 Strawberry Queen Joan Oberg, as well as Howard Lake businessmen and landmarks appeared in the comic strips.
The final year of the Strawberry Festival saw an attendance of 10,000 people. The town was so busy that the Howard Lake Herald noted that “at one time Sunday afternoon, there was not a strawberry in town for sale.”
After 1951, the Strawberry Festival was again put on a hiatus this time, permanently. With the Korean War, residents were unable to host the festival, and once the war was over, the town was no longer quite the same Strawberry Town it had once been.
“The growers were dwindling, so Howard Lake couldn’t in all honesty call itself the Strawberry Capital of Minnesota anymore,” The Howard Lake Herald wrote in 1994.
Similar local celebrations were revived in the form of Dairy Days, which gave way to today’s Good Neighbor Days.
While the town has moved away from its days as a Strawberry Town, there are still quite a few residents who haven’t forgotten the celebration and large crowds the Strawberry Festival brought to Howard Lake. In past years, a subtle homage has been given to the Strawberry Festival with slices of strawberry shortcake for Good Neighbor Days attendees.