Although the Mississippi River is often associated with the Deep South, its source is actually in northern Minnesota. Wikipedia explains that it then "meanders slowly southwards for 2,340 miles..."
Named after the legendary Princess We-Noh-Nah (who is said to have leaped to her death rather than marry a suitor she didn't love), the City of Winona, Minnesota sits amidst picturesque bluffs along the mighty Mississippi. Ever wonder how Winona Ryder got her name? She was born and raised in this region.
In a very real sense, Winona Steamboat Days owes its very existence to the river. Fred Benning, board-member and Chairman of Carnival, Parade and Vendors, explained: "Our festival goes back before the turn of the century. It was called other things before 1946, things such as Riverboat Days and Pancake Days. It then turned into Winona Steamboat Days in order to honor the steamboat captains who were still alive in the area."
Winona Steamboat Days pretty much ends with a bang each year. Paying homage to "the chief river of the largest drainage system in North America," the festival illuminates these fabled waters with a spectacular display of fireworks.
Another renowned event, the Grande Parade, was also eagerly anticipated. Benning stated, "Our parade is second to none, including those in the Twin Cities. We have an estimated 20,000 watching, along probably the best parade route in the country. We have a four-lane street that is straight as an arrow and loaded with shade trees." Benning continued, "Ours is the largest summer parade in the Upper Midwest, and is a top-ten parade for the Midwest. In our line-up, everything's got to have entertainment value. People are therefore entertained for over two hours, and there's a lot of ‘Visiting Royalty' involved."
Winona Radio reported that this year's Grande Parade featured the following: a host of regional High-School Marching Bands, a Commercial Units category, a Visiting Royalty competition, and a World War Two planes fly-over.
Benning also mentioned that Winona Steamboat Days is a festival, rather than a fair, focused solely upon entertainment.
This entertainment includes name acts like Hairball and the Johnny Holm Band, shows like Seussical and the HoChunk Native Dancers, learning experiences like the National Eagle Center, and competitions like the Car Show Awards and the WATA Steamboat Days Tennis Classic.
Annual preparation for all this entertainment is extensive. Benning explained, "We start promoting it back in January, after we've gone to the fair convention and picked out some entertainment. This is our first year with a big-name group that we paid quite a bit of money for, and it worked out well. For the first time, we also had a minimum cover charge."
He continued, "Our advertising budget breaks down to about a third newspapers, a third radio, and a third TV. The biggest advertising we do is for our Car Show. We spend a lot of money on that, and it almost requires a separate budget. The cars come from all over the United States, and in the auction part of the show there's about a 60 percent sell rate. They are, for the most part, about 95 percent collector cars."
As for how it all went, Benning reported, "There was a significant increase this year. Our food vendors were all up probably anywhere from 10 to 15 percent, and the carnival was up about 25 percent over the previous one."
Midway gets a Gold Star
Because Benning had felt that it was time to change carnivals this year, he researched some new possibilities before deciding that "Gold Star Amusements was the one." This turned out to be a great choice. Benning stated, "All their rides were very clean, and there were ones we've never had before. They have such a big show that we can alternate rides from year to year."
The festival's website explains that armbands were $17 during advance sales and $22 at the carnival. Benning said that "the most popular ride this year was the big gondola Ferris Wheel. People also loved the tower-drop ride in which people were strapped four abreast. A huge swing ride was another favorite."
Benning also stated, "The food went really well this year. We changed the vendor area around and made it more open. I moved one row up on the sidewalk, and increased the distance between vendor stands. Then we put in a lot of picnic tables, which drew a large lunch crowd."
He then added, "I don't get a big turnover in vendors, they want to stay. We never duplicate vendors, they're all different."
Benning is thinking of promoting the carnival to a greater extent next year because "people were in awe of it." He added, "Our festival is growing, and is probably one of the largest around right now. We're also able to partner with the Minnesota Marine Art Museum here in Winona."
According to the museum's website, its mission is to engage "visitors in meaningful visual arts experiences through education and exhibitions that explore the ongoing and historic human relationship with water."
Winona Steamboat Days also partners with nearby Elmer's Auto & Toy Museum. Benning explains that it "has the world's largest collection of pedal cars." Elmer's website states that this museum is located on Eagle Bluff, "which is the highest point along the Mississippi River."
All in all, Winona Steamboat Days hasn't strayed far from its river roots. Benning stated that it has "one of the top ten Water Ski Shows in the country, although this year the show got rained out." Benning reminisced, "We've weathered many years here. I started back in 1967 with the festival, and we've been creatively expanding ever since." As the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, "You can't step into the same river twice." Make that a double for festivals...