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The Best Days of Summer

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

The city of Minneapolis recently celebrated its seventy-ninth Aquatennial; a celebration of the city’s lakes, streams, and river. While the week-long festival isn’t as prevalent as it was during its first few decades, it’s slowly turning back into the highlight of the summer for those who attend. When the sun is glimmering on our refreshing lakes and rivers and the sky is as blue as Paul Bunyan’s Babe, it's time to slap on some sunscreen, create your game plan for getting the best spot for the fireworks show, and enjoy the many events throughout our city’s waters.

Once the United States came out of the Great Depression and our economy was as invigorated as it has ever been, people had the extra income to splurge and celebrate a little more. Events were becoming more extravagant, like the Rose Parade and Mardi Gras, and there’s no way the business community of Minneapolis were going to miss out on the fun, and money. Lead by Winfield ‘Win’ Stevens, a group of businessmen were eager to organize a spectacular festival starting in 1940. A naming contest was held and “Aquatennial” was chosen as the winner. This led to the idea to have the festival focus on the city’s water features to attract tourism.

Aquatennial Parade in 1943

Held during the third week of July every year, the first Aquatennial was a success. People from around the Twin Cities attended all of the events, which included a Grande Day Parade that saw over 200,000 people attend, an air show that had 100,000 people in attendance, an appearance by Gene Autry, boat races on Bde Maka Ska, and the Paul Bunyan Canoe Derby that was a 450-mile canoe race on the Mississippi River from Bemidji to Minneapolis. There was no doubt that this week-long festival was here to stay. Throughout the next decades, more events were added to the schedule including the Aqua Follies show at Theodore Wirth Lake, the Queen of the Lakes contest, concerts by Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield, milk carton races on Bde Maka Ska, speedboat races on the river between Broadway and Plymouth, the Twin Cities River Rats water ski show, a fireworks show, and the Torchlight Parade, which saw over 750,000 people attend in 1962.

Aqua Follies in 1952

The Queen of the Lakes pageant was one of the most popular in the nation at its peak. The winners were also the most traveled, by trekking more miles than any other pageant winner in the U.S. except for Miss America. The 1974 Queen of the Lakes, Barbara Peterson, even went on to win Miss America. A proud moment in Aquatennial history to say the least. Organized by the Minneapolis Aquatennial Ambassador Organization, the Queen of the Lakes Contest, which has also added princesses and commodores since its inception, focuses on personality, public speaking skills, and professionalism. It continues to work with females of all ages to help them succeed in life. The 2007 winner, Jessica Gaulke, chose to protect and fight for her city, state, and country when she gave up her crown to fight in the war in Afghanistan. In 2017, the Minneapolis Aquatennial Ambassador Organization hosted the first professional development Women’s Expo at the University of St. Thomas. Nowadays instead of driving and flying to be in different parades throughout the nation, the winners receive scholarships to further their education. The AAO has done wonders for the Aquatennial and the community they serve.

2017 Aqutennial fireworks

This year’s Aquatennial had many fun events, such as canoe rides in Loring Park and the Mississippi River at Boom Island, a 5k, the Twin Cities Caribbean Festival, the Loring Park Art Festival, family fun zones in Loring Park and along West River Parkway near the Stone Arch Bridge, a blood drive, lawn games and activities throughout downtown, a block party hosted by Our Lady of Lourdes Church, and the best fireworks show I’ve ever seen. The Aquatennial is full of fun and excitement no matter which events you attend, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s celebrations during the best days of summer.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also an intern at the Hennepin History Museum and a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 7+ years.

He can be reached at

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