The Economic Geography of Regional Festivals
Gerlach, Jerry, Focus
Beer Drinking and Small Town Mississippi River Festivals
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, ethnic and city festivals became very popular in the U.S. The original goal of these festivals was either to stress the uniqueness of an area's ethnic makeup or of its economic traditions. Local pride was the prime stated emphasis of the festival. Examples include the Maifest, October-fest, Czech Days, Honey Days, William Tell Fest, Contraband Days, and so on. The aim was to promote an area by introducing visitors to the local customs, food and dance.
The festival's potential as a moneymaker for the area was recognized very quickly. Profits from festivals could be used to finance a variety of civic, humanitarian, or other causes. Almost all groups share a common desire to celebrate at these festivals, and they primarily use beer as the intoxicant of choice. In some areas of the country, the moneymaking at many festivals shifted, over time, to emphasize alcohol, primarily beer. Beer could be sold at inflated prices by civic groups and the money could be used to defray the cost of money-losing activities at the event. The beer came to be sold in beer gardens - a tent, or fenced-in pavilion.
In the early stages of these festivals, beer was sold in nearby taverns as well. Control of beer sales was loose; the festivals could not control the crowds they attracted and were forced to move the beer sales to areas that could be more easily policed. Even so, control became a problem. This should have led communities to make the obvious decision and drop alcohol sales from such events. Greed, however, has overruled common sense in most cases. Beer sales continue and so do the resultant behavioral problems.
The purpose of this article is to examine behavior at small town festivals on both sides of the Mississippi River border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. By selecting this area, we can compare differences in legal approaches to alcohol control. In Wisconsin, there has been a long history of lessened alcohol beverage control, associated with the largely German origin of the population. Wisconsin had a law allowing 18-year-olds to drink beer long before they were able to do so in Minnesota and other states. Wisconsin has much lower taxes on beer and alcohol than does Minnesota; it is less of a sin to imbibe in Wisconsin than across the state border. In Wisconsin, reduced-alcohol (3.2%) beer is not sold. So-called real beer and alcohol can be sold to off-premises customers on Sundays, in Wisconsin.
Minnesota's population is influenced by its Scandinavian origins. Scandinavian society has never placed the emphasis on drink found among Germans, and this remains true today in the countries of origin as well as among their Americanized relatives in the U.S.A.'s upper midwest. Based on these cultural differences, I hypothesized that community festivals would be more closely regulated for their alcohol consumption on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi, and that Wisconsin festival beer-drinking would be not only less regulated but also have more of the problems that come from large numbers of non-residents coming to celebrate. After all, according to tourism experts Mathieson and Wall, "hedonistic behavior is commonplace when people leave home" - people go away from home in order to behave in a less-inhibited fashion. The festivals studied include those from both sides of the Mississippi, with an emphasis on those near the writer's home in Winona, Minnesota.
The operation of the festivals
On both sides of the river, the festivals are operated by community service groups such as the Lions, Jaycees, or Chambers of Commerce. Ethnicity of the state culture has had little effect on the group sponsorship. Food is often a focal point of the festivals. In Arcadia, Wisconsin, the festival is held in honor of the local broiler chicken industry. Open tents sell locally-produced chicken delicacies, in hopes that people will come to town for the festival and afterwards buy Arcadia brands as a result.
Other examples of food as a means of celebrating include the Holman, Wisconsin Corn Fest and the Trempeleau, Wisconsin Catfish Days. Com and catfish are regional, not local, specialties. Corn is produced widely in the area, and Holman makes festival money off it once a year with its broiled sweetcorn sales. In Trempeleau, right on the Mississippi, sport fishing is the industry being promoted. The Catfish Days festival, in fact, cannot use river-caught catfish as this species is not considered safe by the state Department of Natural Resources, and cannot be caught in the quantities needed to feed several thousand people. In 1991 the Catfish Days gala was so successful that by the early part of the final day they ran out of catfish. This, of course, did not stop the celebration, or even slow it down. The real purpose of the event, after all, was drinking.
Another activity found at these festivals is the carnival, which, with its rides and booths, offers much the same as at county fairs. The same rides showed up at all festivals, and were mostly for the young. Few older folks ride on the merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, or octopuses. The rides give a legitimacy to the event as a family activity: almost all of the festivals stress the "family-oriented" nature of their celebration. This is hypocritical, because for the event to be successful, a great deal of beer has to be sold. Beer and the family are not a positive mix and can cause problems.
To draw large numbers to the event, parades are usually held, hewing to the theme of the festival. These parades are interesting, made up of several components that are the same on both sides of the Mississippi River. Each includes marching bands from area schools; a veterans or military section; and a series of floats advertising festivals in nearby areas. Also ubiquitous is the old car section. People with collectible cars, especially convertibles, get the opportunity to show them off to the area folks. The convertibles are also used as conveyances for honorees including the parade organizers, local politicians, and beauty queens. Auto shows are held in conjunction with festivals in Winona, Minnesota and Holman, Wisconsin. This is by no means a universal feature of small-town events, but the author attended two festivals in Nebraska, one in Crete and one in Deshler, where auto shows were included. It would seem that the collector car mania and auto shows will grow in their festival roles.
Flea markets and craft sales are also commonly found at these events, and help draw more people. Some of these people bring merchandise tied to the theme of the event; however, most are simply interested in making money. The wood-burned name plaque is almost always to be found.
"Last call - for alcohol"
The parades are almost the same in both Minnesota and Wisconsin except for one small difference - the Wisconsin parade beer seller. In both states, of course, the parade route is lined with vendors selling banners, trinkets and soft drinks. In Wisconsin the salespeople go one step further, selling beer from small vehicles. They want to keep the parade viewer happy. The beer is sold by the sponsoring groups and, being sold for consumption on public property, is a clear violation of state law. In Minnesota, the parade-route beer sales are absent. Parade viewers in both states also bring their own beer with them, keeping it discreetly hidden in large coolers. For many in Wisconsin, however, this was not found to be satisfactory, so entire kegs are brought to the curb to enhance viewing pleasure.
The big event at these festivals is the drinking. The Octoberfest in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is the most obvious example of an event geared to drink, but the same is true for the others. The beer tent, or sometimes garden, is a fenced-in area (usually), most often with a roofed-over portion. Beer sales are by ticket rather than cash. Beer tickets are purchased at an authorized booth or stand. The beers are each sold for a dollar and up. This provides the gala affair with a profit of fourteen to twenty dollars per case of bottles. In some cases a lapel button, costing from one to three dollars, is required for entry into the tent. All of the people working in the beer tent are donating their labor.
In most towns, the beer tent is situated near the other festival events - away from the town's business district where the bars are located. This is especially true in Minnesota where much more effort is made at controlling alcohol sale and consumption. But of course in some small towns the only area suitable for the tents is downtown, and in these places the beer tent is next to the bars.
The major observed difference between Wisconsin and Minnesota festivals was in the role of the police. At the Minnesota affairs, police officers were located at each beer tent entrance. There they checked identification cards and also made sure that other necessary entrance requirements were met, that is, the possession of a button or ticket. At most Wisconsin festivals there were no police carefully guarding the beer tents. Minors consuming beer is not viewed as serious an offense in Wisconsin as it is in Minnesota. A major exception to this rule are the events held in La Crosse, home to the University of Wisconsin La Crosse campus. La Crosse advertises widely and heavily, bringing in many more wild youths from surrounding and distant communities, and hence must exercise greater control than do other Wisconsin festivals.
Non-health foods and polka bands
An activity associated with the beer tent is eating. Many people like to eat while they drink, so food sales are in or near the beer tent. Generally, the food is salty and greasy. These events are not condoned or promoted by state health agencies! Between food and drink, these festivals go after the heart, liver, and kidneys.
When there are several hundred to a thousand or more people drinking beer, they need to be entertained. All of the festivals present music of one sort or another. The larger events in La Crosse and Winona (home of Winona State University) provide youth-oriented rock groups. The younger people drink more and like this music and thus are catered to. Also, rock groups play later in the evenings, when the old fogeys have gone home to recuperate. The young also tend to be less careful with their money than do the old, and profit is the goal. In the smaller towns the emphasis on young adult activities is less prominent and there one can hear polka and country bands. The smaller towns are truer to the goal and theme of the festivals than are the larger communities.
The port-a-potty landscape
Beer drinkers must always relieve themselves, for in the words of a famous lush, "man doesn't buy beer, he only rents it." This task is accomplished with the availability of numerous port-a-potties. All of the events with beer drinking are lined with these portable devices, or have placed them near permanent toilet facilities in public premises such as the city park. The permanent facilities are easily overtaxed during these events and are often locked, replaced by the portables for the duration. People who live near the beer tents complain that, following the festival, their yards have an odor resembling urine. Providing facilities does not ensure they will be used.
The final stage for all of these festivals is community cleanup and planning for the following year.
What are the differences between Minnesota and Wisconsin?
Festivals are found in virtually all of the small towns of Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are associated with parades, carnivals, beer tents, food and numerous other activities. From a distance, the festivals appear to be the same on both sides of the Mississippi River: the goal is to celebrate the uniqueness of a certain locale. The event is also used to generate funds for community activities, most of which are very positive in their contribution to the area's health and well-being.
On both sides of the river, there are problems resulting from the festivals. Most are associated with excessive alcohol consumption. These can be as minor as public drunkenness but become more severe when they are associated with brawling or fighting. Also, drinkers may relieve themselves in inappropriate places. The most serious problem, however, comes when the festival-goers leave the area, No study has yet been made to see if there is an increase in DWI (driving while intoxicated) arrests, or accidents, following a festival.
The major difference between Wisconsin and Minnesota is the manner in which the two states treat beer sales and consumption. The residents in Wisconsin accept and promote this activity more than do Minnesotans, probably the result of a cultural heritage in Wisconsin that has been historically associated with drink. In both states, festivals stress beer sales to make a profit in order to do good. This is also known as using the end to justify the means.
References and Further Readings
Getz, Donald. 1991. Festivals, Special Events, and Tourism. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Mathieson, Alister and Geoffrey Wall. 1982. Tourism: Economic, Physical and Social Impacts. New York: Longman.
Udall, Lee and Joe Wilson. n.d. Presenting Folk Culture: A Handbook on Folk Festival Organization and Management. Washington, DC: National Council for the Traditional Arts.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Economic Geography of Regional Festivals. Contributors: Gerlach, Jerry - Author. Magazine title: Focus. Volume: 44. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 1994. Page number: 30+. © 1999 American Geographical Society. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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