New London, Minn., to celebrate 150 years by remembering and enjoying its past

'Paddle on the Pond: A Theatrical Journey Through New London' Sunday on Mill Pond New London may not have the paddling reputation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but, then again, the BWCAW doesn't offer theatrical entertainment. The...

Paddle theater
Some 50 community members will participate in Sunday’s performance of a paddle theater production showing the history of the city of New London. (Submitted photo)

‘Paddle on the Pond: A Theatrical Journey Through New London’ Sunday on Mill Pond

New London may not have the paddling reputation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but, then again, the BWCAW doesn’t offer theatrical entertainment.

The city New London will celebrate its sesquicentennial during the town’s Water Days this weekend, and with it comes “Paddle on the Pond: A Theatrical Journey Through New London, MN,” which will show for free 1 p.m. Sunday on Mill Pond.
The “on Mill Pond” is literal - audience members are expected to bring their personal canoes or kayaks and steer to six locations which will each show scenes that more than 50 community members helped develop and will perform. The stories will illustrate moments of New London’s history.
The showrunner, PlaceBase Productions, has already put on large-scale community-based theater projects in St. Paul, Bloomington, Fergus Falls and Granite Falls. Its Granite Falls production earned acclaim on CNN, which, in an 860-word opinion piece written two summers ago, lauded the concept and its execution as being “delightful.”
The New London Little Theatre and the New London Arts Alliance will assist with the production.
PlaceBase co-founders and co-directors Andrew Gaylord and Ashley Hanson believe that a town must have an artistic culture to thrive.
“We had a lot of interest in exploring how theater could really revitalize communities and how theater could pull communities together around significant places and significant issues,” Gaylord said.
Theater needs an audience for its story to have any meaning, though. (Think: tree falls in woods.) PlaceBase’s Granite Falls show drew more than 200 attendees, nearly 10 percent of the town’s population. Gaylord hopes between 200 and 400 people flock the Mill Pond show, which will offer a shuttle for those unable to paddle, some rental canoes and perhaps even a pontoon.
The audience can expect a few lessons on New London’s history, but Gaylord said his goal is to show people how entertaining a small town can be.
“We both had been (on) too many boring history walks,” Gaylord said of himself and Hanson . “It’s all about storytelling. We work in the realm of storytelling more than … history. We’re telling stories that people tell us; we’re not just taking information from history books and turning it into a play.”
The play is a serial narrative featuring many small stories within one larger journey the audience will take with three young tour guides. The children begin the day hoping to find a good fishing spot before other ideas take over. Soon they encounter events from New London’s past that have defined the town.
“You really see all these different characters throughout the history of the town through the eyes of these children,” Gaylord said. “It was the story of childhood that has changed least over the last 150 years.”
Stories will range from the mythical tale of New London’s founding - which involved Louis Larson’s burning tent - to tipping over outhouses and throwing sticks of dynamite into the pool hall. Gaylord promises the audience will enjoy it.

Part of the entertainment will come from audience participation. In the 1920s and 1930s during New London’s Water Days, people decorated their canoes and had a water parade. As another act of homage, Gaylord hopes attendees will help recreate the spectacle and decorate their watercrafts. There’s even a carrot at the end of the stick: At the end of the play, audience members will vote on their favorite “boat float,” with the winner taking home $100.

“I’m hoping that people get really creative, that $100 is enough to motivate people to just go wild,” Gaylord said.


The Water Days canoe race will also occur at the culmination of the other festivities, and audience members are encouraged to paddle in it, too.

New London Mayor Bill Gossman orchestrated PlaceBase’s coming to New London. He first envisioned the production would help commemorate the town’s 150th anniversary.

Gossman met Hanson and Gaylord at a rural art summit in Morris in 2013 when the pair presented their community theater concept. Gossman was immediately intrigued and asked if they would brings their talents to New London.

After consulting with the New London Arts Alliance, Hanson and Gaylord agreed. They have spent much of the last year gathering anecdotes from places like the New London Senior Center, New London-Spicer High School and a myriad other of the town institutions. They also paged through archives at the local newspaper office and the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum in Willmar.

“They’ve done a lot of research,” Gossman said. “They probably know more about the history of New London than most people in New London do at this point.”

Through all their time spent in New London, they have developed an affection for the place and look forward to doing its 150 years justice.

“We’ve both just fallen head over heels in love with the town,” Gaylord said. “It’s so beautiful and so quaint. It’s like no other little community that I know of in Minnesota.”

Gaylord hopes the audience feels the same way about the town and PlaceBase’s ability to tell a story.


“We are attempting to make it something that other communities will recognize the value of and … will want,” Gaylord said.

   Watch the YouTube video of the Granite Falls production at . It is a six-minute synopsis of PlaceBase’s mission and how it has affected Granite Falls.




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