The first settlers came to the Cokato area in 1858, settling just south of Sucker Creek. At the time, all of southwestern Wright County was called Middleville Township. Cokato and Stockholm Townships were established in July 1868. The first Yankee settlers arrived, hailing from states such as Maine, New York, and New Hampshire. Slowly, a small settlement known for a time as Moores Prairie developed. When the railroad arrived in 1869, the growing community became known as Cokato. The railroad not only brought goods and accessibility to the community, but it also aided in the development of business and industry. With this new mode of transportation, a large number of immigrant families arrived. They originated primarily from Sweden and Finland, but a few also came from Norway, Germany, and Poland. To this day, Cokato is still comprised of a large number of Scandinavian and Finnish descendants.
A post office was established in the home of Josiah Mooers near Sucker Creek in 1857. When the railroad arrived in 1869, the office was moved to the station. Later, a more spacious office was built on Millard Avenue, one block from the station. Mail arrived by train and was carted to the post office. Rural delivery began in October 1900, when Peter Danielson became the first rural carrier in the county. By 1915, there were five rural routes. During the 30s and 40s, before snowplowing, converted cars sporting skis and metal tracks (“snowmobile cars”) kept the mail moving. The Cokato Post Office moved to its present location in 1960.
The First Division of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company (later Great Northern) built a line west from Howard Lake to Willmar in 1869. A station was built at the 59-mile mark. Samuel Jenks, a pioneer settler of the area was named first stationmaster.
After the building of the rail station in 1869, settlers began arriving. Businesses sprung up virtually overnight to serve the stream of people, including hotels, general stores, saloons, blacksmith shops, and a post office. The Village of Cokato was officially founded by a vote of the young settlement’s residents on March 9, 1878.
The first school building was built in Cokato either 1871 or 1872. This one-room structure was soon outgrown. A new two-story brick structure was built on the site of the present Cokato Elementary in 1884. The first graduating class was in 1904, with 3 people. In 1969, Cokato and Dassel voted to consolidate. A new high school was built between the two towns, opening in 1972. Each town’s old high school is now an elementary school. In 2003, total student population for Dassel-Cokato was about 2247.
Cokato’s first paper was the Cokato Republican, in 1878. It lasted less than two months. In 1884 a group of businessmen provided money for the Wright County Republican. Five years later, a new owner changed the name to the Cokato Observer. In 1892, after a short break, the Cokato Commoner began printing. The Commoner lasted until March 1896, when new owners changed its name to the Cokato Enterprise. In late 1986, the Dassel Dispatch and Cokato Enterprise merged to form the Enterprise-Dispatch.
As more settlers arrived, they drastically altered the land from wooded forest to family farm fields. By the early 1900;s, Cokato’s agriculture evolved from small farms to industry—adapting to meet the needs of its new corn canning factory and creamery. Today, Cokato’s focus is no longer on the creamery or canning, shifting instead to seed corn and large agribusiness.
The Cokato Canning Company was started in 1904. It was the second canning factory in Minnesota. It was sold in 1924 to Minnesota Valley Canning Company (later Green Giant). Another factory, Northland Canning, was established in 1924, giving Cokato the unusual distinction of having two canning plants. Green Giant closed the Cokato plant in 1978. Northland was bought by Faribault Foods in 1969 and continues to operate year-round.
Early in each October, from 1903 to 1915, the Cokato Street Fair attracted crowds from miles around. Carnival rides like the merry-go-round, entertainment, including jugglers and knife throwers, displays of locally grown vegetables, and exhibits of sewing, cooking, and canning were all featured. The town band entertained in the street. Politicians, like Governor Adolph Eberhart and U. S. Senator Moses E. Clapp spoke to the crowds.
The annual Cokato Corn Carnival began in August 1950. It has run every second Tuesday and Wednesday of August since. Through 1988 the grand prize was a new car from a local dealer. Fresh corn-on-the cob, provided by local canneries, has been a favorite. Children and adults enjoy the midway. Since 1987, the Cokato Queen has been crowned at the carnival. The carnival has become the favorite time of year for class reunions also.
The name Cokato is a Dakota language word. Roughly translated from co-ka-ta, it means “in the middle of” or “in the midst of.” This area was once the geographic center of a region called The Big Woods, which stretched from the Mississippi River to about Willmar. So we can safely say that the name “Cokato” meant that we were in the middle of the Big Woods.
Sources: City of Cokato Cokato Museum
The earliest recorded reference to the carnival came in the meeting minutes of the Cokato Association of Public Affairs (a forerunner of the chamber of commerce), dated 4 April 1950. As recorded by Secretary Irv Setterberg, it read as follows:
A motion was made by R. M. Peterson, by L. E. Bergstrom that Chairman Peterson appoint a committee to plan for some sort of town festival this summer or fall. The motion carried.
This was not the first attempt to host a festival of some sort in Cokato. Earlier in the decade (1940-42), the Cokato Ice Carnival made a brief run. A street fair was held for a brief period during the mid-1930s. And early in the century (1903 – 1915) the annual fall street fair hosted music by the Cokato Band, speeches by politicians, rides, entertainment, and food and craft showings.
At the May 1950 association meeting, Charles Mitchell, superintendent of the Green Giant plant and recent arrival to Cokato, chairman of the “Cokato Day” committee reported that an outline of the program for the festival was in the works, and that Cedric Adams, the popular WCCO radio personality had agreed to appear. The minutes of the June 1950 association meeting contained one curious notation in relation to the festival. The operative name for the pending bash was “Cokato Day Festival.” But in those June minutes, Secretary Setterberg crossed out “Day Festival” and replaced it with “Corn Carnival.”.
So what happened at that first carnival? How about a National Sweet Corn Eating Championship (the winner received a trophy and $15), a greased pig chasing contest, miniature auto racing at Gebo Motor Sales, a baseball game between Cokato and Howard Lake, the Truth or Consequences Show hosted by Cedric Adams, a talent show whose winning entry featured a young Cokato lad who would later gain fame as the foremost electrician in the area, and a performance by the Shell’s Hobo Band of New Ulm. The carnival was slated for Wednesday and Thursday, August 16 & 17. A terrible rain storm washed out much of the first day’s activities, but the sun shone brightly for the second day, ending the festival on a positive note.
Perhaps one of the more amusing aspects to marketing the carnival came from the travels of the Cokato Corn Carnival Band. Established in 1951, the primary purpose of the band was to promote the carnival in neighboring communities, including Hutchinson, Kimball, Annandale, Silver Lake, Howard Lake, Dassel, Buffalo, and Litchfield.
A caravan of a dozen or so cars, including a traveling stage for the band, would proceed from Cokato on Friday and Saturday nights-those were after all, the prime shopping nights-to those communities and set up right in their downtown. The order of business was simple, play a couple tunes to get people’s attention, the people would work the crowd to sell buttons. The band would also break off into small groups and go into businesses and ply their items also.
Buttons have been sold since 1950. In 1954 and 1955, the same button style, the bend-around-the-lapel type, was used. Don’t spend a lot of time looking for the 1956 button, for there was not one. Story goes that it was not ordered in time, souvenir cans of corn were given out instead. If the 1963 button says it was the 13th carnival and the 1964 button says 15th annual, what happened to the 14th? Somebody miscounted, for the 1963 festival was the 14th.
Like any town festival, appearances by selected luminaries-okay, politicians-are a regular occurrence. And the corn carnival has seen its share. Some of these visiting elected officials include Orville Freeman, Harold LeVander, Sandy Keith, C. Elmer Anderson, Elmer L. Andersen, Rudy Perpich, and Hubert Humphrey.
Cedric Adams appearance in 1950 was not the only time media types had appeared. In 1985, NBC News came to tape Sherwin Linton, who was singing about the farm crisis that was gripping rural America. KSTP-TV anchors Angela Astore and Ruth Spencer broadcast the evening news from the carnival in 1986. And Cokato native Tom Steward and fellow WCCO-TV reporter Colleen Needles (who happened to be married to Steward) emceed the 1987 queen contest.
Speaking of the queen contest, the queen coronation is a relatively new addition to the festivities. The 1987 contest was actually the first time a queen was crowned at the carnival. Previous to ’87, the Cokato American Legion ran the show, holding the installation in early January.
How can I leave out the bed races-a fad popular to many community festivals from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Cokato witnessed the reign of the Bread and Beer Express-Jay Webb, Ron Olson, Gary Fleming, Roger Jansen, Mike Jorgenson, and others-who brought home the victory trophy three out of four years, from 1979 to 1982.
Parades, so much a part of small-town culture, are still a part of the corn carnival. The initial Kiddie Parade came in 1953, with the theme “75th Anniversary of Cokato.” The modern Kiddie Parade has been a feature only since 1978, when the centennial of Cokato in that year saw a full-fledged parade as part of the festivities.
Support of the community for the carnival has always been crucial to its success. Numerous volunteers have donated countless hours over the years to ensure that each carnival is a successful one. From arranging the main stage entertainment, to coordinating the midway and rides, to making sure that the buttons are distributed for sale, there are so many who deserve our thanks and praise.
Source: Cokato Corn Carnival
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