COKATO, MN Ask Cokato’s Mary Cole why she believes she has been selected to be this year’s Corn Carnival parade grand marshal, and she insists, with a lovely grin and a loud chuckle, that she has simply no idea.
“Well, parade chair Mark Peterson called and let me know,” she said. “I’m just a simple little girl, so it was a big surprise.”
Get Cole going on her Cokato memories, however, and it quickly becomes quite clear why she might be an obvious choice for the honor.
A lifelong lake girl with a lengthy Cokato history
Cole moved to a small lakeside farm near Cokato with her parents and eight siblings in 1945. She distinctly recalls the reestablishment of the high school’s football program as soldiers came home from World War II.
Cole graduated from Cokato High School, and went on to work for Mr. Mitchell at the Green Giant plant. Mr. Mitchell was the first chairman of the Cokato Corn Carnival. Cole, as his assistant, lent a lot of her own work to the planning.
Cole shared a yellowed copy of a Green Giant newsletter from the fall of 1950, which featured her byline.
Cole wrote in the company newsletter that Cokato’s first annual Corn Carnival was August 16 and 17. Her writing reported 14 tons of corn were served to 8,000 visitors that first year.
Cole also recollected that the first Cokato Corn Carnival featured a well-known celebrity as the program’s emcee.
Older Minnesotans may remember long-term WCCO broadcaster Cedric Adams. Adams functioned as Cokato’s first emcee. He began as a radio broadcaster in the 1930s, and continued until his death in 1961.
Cole has remained active in the Cokato Corn Carnival and the Cokato community ever since the first celebration.
The Corn Carnival and community service was a family-affair
Even after she married her beloved husband, Alvin, in 1952, and the couple had four children, Cole always was a positive force helping with the Cokato Corn Carnival.
She and Alvin initially lived in a small cottage by the lake at the city’s edge. Eventually, the pair moved across the lot to land where a 160-foot ice house stood. Cole remembers moving the majority of their belongings across the yard in a bushel basket and being mortified to learn she’d lost a fork somewhere along the way.
When the seller neglected to remove the ice house as promised, the Coles simply had it taken down, and ordered the massive timbers hewn into solid 2x4s for their new construction.
Turning her focus back to the Cokato Corn Carnival, she remembered that someone in the celebration’s earlier years organized a traveling band which marched in other city celebrations, promoting the Cokato Corn Carnival, and selling buttons.
Cole wasn’t sure when the annual Cokato Corn Days button became part of the festivities. She has taken most of her extensive Cokato button collection and put it together in a display at the Cokato Library. She owns almost every annual button she’s only missing a few from the early 1950s.
As her four children, David, Anna, Elaine, and Cindy, grew up, Cole moved from working at Green Giant, to a career at Cokato’s First National Bank.
She half-heartedly retired after her fourth child was born, but just couldn’t stay away for long.
“I went back whenever they needed me,” she said. “I never did take my nameplate home,” she chuckled.
Through the years, Cole remained a dedicated servant to her community.
She has been a member of the local VFW Auxiliary since 1954, served in leadership capacities with the organization, and personally crafted quilts, pillows, laundry bags, wheelchair and walker bags, and special 18-inch heart pillows for heart surgery patients at the St. Cloud VA Hospital.
She remembers many years she and her Auxiliary friends would take a “car full” of volunteers to the VA to operate a gift shop and host bingo games for the patients there.
The Auxiliary ladies also made and wrapped many holiday gifts for veterans to give to their families.
Cole and the other Auxiliary ladies also promoted the Girls State program, the poppy program, and an educational week for students to learn about veterans’ experiences.
When her daughters were small, she also worked closely with the Girl Scout program.
For two solid decades, Cole chaired the canteen for Cokato’s three annual bloodmobile blood drives.
Cole pointed out those coming to donate blood could expect homemade cookies and treats. She recalled the bloodmobile workers also looked forward to their Cokato stops, because the town’s churches always provided them with a hearty hot meal.
What’s happening now?
These days, Cole enjoys spending time at the family cabin near Hackensack. She recently got a real charge out of listening to some young crooner and his 15-piece band that sounded similar to her favorite, Frank Sinatra.
She’s happy to have always lived lake-side, although she admitted she never learned to swim.
She is a proud grandmother of five. She has just been given a truly tremendous gift: her first great-grandchild, an eight-week old little guy whose name is Cole.
She indicated ruefully that she’s preparing for her grand marshal honor by having a garage sale. It was already planned, she said, so she’s gong for it.
Cole said she’s not sure what her official grand marshal duties include, but figures she can “ride and wave” without too much effort.
She wondered excitedly if she would finally get to ride in a convertible.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “A 1949 or a 1950 might be nice.”
Cole got serious for just a moment, long enough to admit what the grand marshal title truly means to her.
“What do you say?” she mused. “It’s an honor to be selected. I hope I made my community proud,” she said. “I know I’m proud of my community.”
Watch for Cole in the Cokato Corn Carnival’s main parade, Monday, Aug. 7 at approximately 6:20 p.m.