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Enthusiasm, volunteers keep Dairy Days going 25 years later

Caitlyn Stiles of Willmar, right, gets some tips from her grandfather, Chuck Stiles of Willmar, as the pair participate in the butter carving contest. Butter carving was a part of the activities during the 2008 West Central Dairy Days Family Fun "Milk" Games and "Milk" Runs in Willmar. (Tribune file photo)

Committee members planning the annual Dairy Days celebration continue to build on the enthusiasm of organizers who brought the event to Willmar 25 years ago.

"When you start something new, you hope you can make it better each year and we did and we tried,'' said dairy farmer John Erickson of rural Willmar.

Erickson was committee co-chair with Ron Erpelding of Willmar when organizers and volunteers launched Region V Dairy Days, a week-long series of activities designed to promote dairy products and the dairy industry, in June 1985.

Erpelding agrees the original organizers must have done something right because the celebration -- known since 2001 as West Central Dairy Days -- continues to roll along a quarter-century later.

"I evaluate how well we did on something if it continues after you're no longer involved,'' Erpelding said. "That tells me we laid some groundwork and that it was a worthwhile project and others filled in and continued it.''

Erickson and Erpelding credit the late Wilt Croonquist, a local businessman and member of the agriculture committee of the Willmar Chamber of Commerce, with convincing many others why Willmar and Kandiyohi County should host and expand the multi-county event promoting the dairy industry.

"He was the driver behind setting the whole thing up,'' remembers Erpelding, who at the time was director of the Willmar Area Vocational Technical Institute and was tapped by Croonquist, along with Erickson, to head the Dairy Days committee.

"He helped recruit the key people we needed. He was the promotion and the enthusiasm and the fun kind of guy to keep everyone excited and having fun doing it. That was critical. We also wanted to have fun doing this,'' said Erpelding.

"It was Wilt's decision that we ought to go after this, and convincing other people we ought to go after it. He provided the support and framework for us to put it together,'' said Erpelding. "He did all that with gusto as he always did.''

Interest in hosting Dairy Days, which had been rotated among regional counties, goes back 26 years when several local businessmen heard that the event had not been held in Willmar since 1957.

In a June 10, 1985, story, the Tribune quoted Croonquist as saying local promoters decided to make a presentation to the American Dairy Association board meeting in Benson in March 1983 "because of the fine relationship we have with the Kandiyohi County dairy farmers.''

Croonquist, along with Erickson and Kandiyohi County Extension Director Marv Olson, successfully pitched the idea of hosting Dairy Days in Willmar in 1985 and 1986 and expanding the traditional two-day event, which had been held in Appleton in 1983 and 1984, to a week-long celebration filled with fun, family-oriented events.

The Willmar event would continue the traditional coronation of a regional dairy princess who'd compete in the state-wide Princess Kay of the Milky Way contest and the popular dairy cattle show.

But the committee premiered other fun and interesting events: the Milk Run, featuring dairy farmer and well-known long-distance runner Dick Beardsley of Rush City; City-Farm Night with a tour of a dairy farm or agribusiness; a community band concert in the park, attended by dairy princesses handing out ice cream treats; KWLM's road show broadcast from an area dairy farm; a build-a-burger offer of a hamburger, cookie and milk for a dollar; and a recipe contest featuring dairy ingredients.

Bobbi Gates of Willmar, a home economics teacher who had had a food program on KWLM for 17 years, volunteered to judge the recipes.

"When I said yes and heard all the people that were going to be on the committee, I had no problem with it,'' Gates said.

"However, the first year I was overwhelmed with recipes -- 368 entries -- for the contest. I went through every one and judged them. It was a success. There hadn't been anything quite like that around. The whole committee was happy.''

Gates notes she didn't complain about the number of entries -- the most in Dairy Days history. But other committee members decided Gates needed help and recruited Joan Van Buren, a food columnist for Kandiyohi Power Cooperative, to help with judging.

Gates, who continues as a recipe judge, said she and Van Buren have become good friends.

"These two ladies love to use dairy products,'' said Brant Groen, another original volunteer continuing his Dairy Days involvement. "Joan always said 'you can't make butter cookies with margarine.'''

Groen, a Ridgewater College dairy instructor, was recruited by Erpelding and has been involved with the cattle show since the beginning. Groen said the show has good cattle numbers even though the number of dairy farms is decreasing.

But he said the show is still a good event for kids between 5 and 19 years of age. For some kids, it's the first time they've ever shown an animal "and that's what it's all about: it's about education.''

There's a lot of tradition associated with Dairy Days. Groen remembers when committee member Lane Johnson was a youngster and exhibited at the cattle show, winning the showmanship award.

"Now he brings his nieces and nephews,'' Groen said.

This year's Dairy Days celebration will be from June 7 through 12, with the cattle show on June 26.

Janet Bosch of Montevideo is committee co-chair. She grew up on a dairy farm, was a dairy princess and remains involved with dairy promotion. Bosch says the support and effort of city residents, farmers, businesses and others keeps Dairy Days going.

"When I joined, I was amazed by the well-oiled machine. Everybody knew what had to be done and they all showed up. It's been a great committee to work with,'' said Bosch.

"I think it's been a real positive event for the community, and very inspiring to see how the area county volunteers have come together to really promote dairy.''