Detroit Lakes, Minnesota: population 7,000 and change. Small enough for residents to know everybody’s business, big enough to support a community event like the annual Water Carnival.
Look up “good clean fun” in the dictionary and you’ll be directed to this url. The community recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the event in the usual way: turtle races, boat parade, firehose water fight, “polka in the pavilion”, kids’ ship building contest, and 63 other events.
The money shot of the two-week festival is the Parade of the Northwest, involving every Shriner in a 200-mile radius, every emergency and service vehicle in the city (including the Kentucky Fried Chicken delivery van), assorted entrants (like the bed race champion), and local elected officials and festival organizers waving from towed pontoons. The parade route is a sea of Norwegians (and one token brunette; diversity in Detroit Lakes means electing a beauty queen that isn’t blonde.)
After watching the kids in the boat building contest go down with their cardboard ships (the victor is the last one afloat), I sat on a rock ledge next to the beer garden eating cheese curds and watched a disorganized family dump water on a pile of sand in preparation for the sand castle contest. I felt sublimely happy and put my finger on why I love small towns. I wouldn’t be caught dead living in one full time but here’s the thing: If that event were held in a city like Portland it would be sponsored by Doernbecher Children’s Hospital or Cascade Aids Project or some other nonprofit needing money— Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That. Companies like U.S. Bank would pledge the bodies and people in their marketing departments would do the recruiting and the whole thing would be used as one big motherf’ing team building exercise. In a town like DL, old couples, kids and their families, community groups, and local businesses just show up and have no-strings-attached summer fun.