Started in 1940 by a group of businessmen looking to promote their city nationally, the Minneapolis Aquatennial has been drawing crowds every July since for parades, pageantry, and crowd events, highlighting Minneapolis’s status as the “City of Lakes.”
The idea for the Aquatennial was born in 1939 out of a desire to promote Minneapolis as a vacation and business destination through an annual festival rivalling Mardi Gras, the Rose Parade, and, closer to home, St Paul’s Winter Carnival. After witnessing a large parade in Winnipeg for Great Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, a group of Minneapolis businessmen including W. N. “Win” Stephens and Tom Hastings concluded that a similar spectacle would improve Minneapolis’ reputation nationally. With the help of veteran volunteers from the Winter Carnival, they organized a ten-day festival with almost 200 events in less than a year.
The name “Aquatennial” was chosen by contest to highlight the abundance of lakes, rivers, and parks around Minneapolis. Sail and motor boat races were to take place on Lake Calhoun (Bde Maka Ska), and a 450-mile canoe derby down the Mississippi River from Bemidji would arrive on the first day of the festival. A massive airshow and an interdenominational sermon at Powderhorn Park the next day would both draw more than 100,000. The parades, however, were the main attraction. With support from business sponsors, promotional Aquatennial pin sales, and thousands of volunteers, the inaugural Grande Day parade featured eighty-six elaborate floats, 15,000 marchers, and fifty bands, drawing a crowd of more than 200,000. Even more attended the nighttime Torchlight Parade later in the week. Attendance would grow even higher in coming years: 750,000 would watch 1962’s Torchlight Parade.
Along with the parades, the Queen of the Lakes contest has been an Aquatennial mainstay since 1940, drawing contestants from local pageants across the state. A panel of judges choose the next year’s queen and princesses based on personality, public speaking skills, and professionalism. After winners of the pageant are crowned, they serve as ambassadors for Minneapolis in parades nationwide, travelling more miles than the winner of any pageant in the country except Miss America. The contest has undergone significant changes since its origin; while queens do not have the same high-flying international trips and free cars they enjoyed into the sixties, they receive educational scholarships. In the mid-1960s, newspapers stopped listing the queens’ ages, weights, measurements, and home addresses.
Over the next half-century, several programs were added to bring in younger audiences. 1967’s festival featured a live show called “The Happening” featuring Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, and the Electric Prunes. In an event promoted by the American Dairy Association, contestants raced boats homemade from milk cartons across Lake Calhoun. The eccentric event was an Aquatennial staple from 1971 until 2015, and was revived by a separate nonprofit in 2017. In the late eighties, an event called Aqua Jam drew hundreds of skateboarders competing for prizes and sponsorships to the festival.
Going into the new millennium, the Minneapolis Aquatennial Association neared bankruptcy as corporate sponsors, individual contributors, and contest fees could not keep up with programming costs. In 2002, the organization was absorbed by the Minneapolis Downtown Council (DTC), a business association which already included many of the companies which sponsored the festival for years. Simultaneously, the Aquatennial Ambassador Organization(AAO) was created to run the Queen of the Lakes program and maintain connections with festivals across the state and nationally. While the length and scope of the festival has been reduced in recent years to reflect busier summer schedules and a greater focus on Downtown Minneapolis, the Aquatennial continues to promote the “City of Lakes” with free shows, parades, contests, pageantry, and fireworks.
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