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A book of tasting notes and festival buttons from Mound City Days and Spirit of the Lakes are part of the festival inventory at the Westonka Historical Society. (Elizabeth Hustad/Laker Pioneer)

The two-day birthday bash we now recognize as Spirit of the Lakes is presently feting Mound’s 107th, and its fire dancers, food and Uncle Chunk band have lured people in droves to Surfside Park and Beach in recent years.

But the celebration hasn’t always enjoyed the popularity it does now. There were some lean years midpoint in its history, and finding volunteers has been a perennial concern.

Spirit of the Lakes began as Mound City Days in 1987 to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of Mound Township. Though always a celebration of the city, it has never been a city-run affair, and its complete reliance on donations and volunteers has meant that its history is one of fits and starts. 

And ends: Tere was no festival for at least two years in the early 2000’s, and when it did start up again, it counted just five volunteers Kandis Hanson of the Westonka Historical Society said.

The born-again festival was held in the back parking lot of what was then Threshold Art Gallery, now the shopping center that houses WeCAN. “It was teeny! Very little, just an idea,” said Pat Maund. Maund has secured entertainment for the festival for more than a decade.

The grand parade, fireworks and Al & Alma’s boat tours have been consistent through the years, but so, too, has been what Maund called a surprising lack of volunteer interest, an observation Hanson also picked out as a constant thorn.

But with competition in James J. Hill Days and the Hopkins Raspberry Festival, which this year coincides with Spirit of the Lakes, Maund said she tries to squeeze every cent of her budget to get the best bands and performers she can, admitting sometimes to a little dickering.

The festival is now an almost $50,000 operation, said Jess Hill, current board president. That budget is funded entirely by sponsors, donors and the volunteer workforce behind the event, and every penny made is flipped back into putting on the next year’s festival, Maund said. 

Even though a volunteer shortage continues to dog its promoters, Spirit of the Lakes now has a surer footing after incorporating as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in 2007. Spirit of the Lakes, Inc. exists solely to plan the festival, and it’s a year-long process that Maund said starts over within a month or two of each year’s event.

Both Maund and Hanson highlight the national Wakesurf competition as a turning point for the festival. Hanson noted, too, that the introduction of Meet Your Maker, the craft brewing event, changed its dynamics. Exclusive craft beers for the event started in 2012 with the city’s centennial, and it was Lucid Brewing – not Excelsior Brewing – that created the first special release. 

The medallion hunt, now in its eighth year, has helped to draw in people of all ages and drum up anticipation for the event, Hanson added. Former Mayor Mark Hanus, with an aptitude for rhyme and city trivia, was the clues’ first scribe. Hill declined to name the current writer but conceded he’s someone who solved the mystery two years in a row.  “We asked him if he’d like to write the clues instead of finding the medallion for a third year,” she said.

Spirit of the Lakes has its model in larger events, Hanson said. That kind of inspiration may account for the water skiers from the Minneapolis Aquatennial and for the roller derby girls, both groups making an appearance in Mound for at least two festivals.

It’s an evolving process of try and try again. “We shouldn’t be afraid of change,” Hanson said, saying also that she and others involved in the project try to maximize community engagement every year.

“‘By the community, for the community.’ That’s the motto, and it’s really true,” Hanson said. “When we took on that motto, we were attempting to engage every organization in the community.”

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