Talking Tourism: Fisherman’s Picnic by Dan Helmerson

Talking Tourism Monthly Column in the Cook County News Herald.

Originally published: July 2019

Talking Tourism: Fisherman’s Picnic by Dan Helmerson

Our annual Fisherman’s Picnic is just around the corner. Can you believe that it has been going on for 90 years? That makes it the same vintage as Naniboujou Lodge and the Stickney Inn & Store (now Cross River Heritage Center) both built in 1929.  It started the summer of that year as an informal gathering of North Shore fisherman and their families and remained a relatively local event for the next two decades.  It really started to take off after the end of WWII when folks were able to buy new cars again and didn’t have to contend with gas rationing.  The Picnic as we know it today can be mainly attributed to the Grand Marais Lions Club who has shouldered the responsibility of sponsoring, organizing and presenting this event since 1952.

Over the decades things have inevitably changed, old attractions dropped and new activities added.  Many of us “young old-timers” fondly remember:

  • Carnival Rides – Octopus, Ferris Wheel, Merry-Go-Round, and of course the carny game booths – Pitch-A-Penny, Shooting Gallery, Milk Bottle Toss, Mechanical Claw.
  • Miss North Shore Pageant – This highly anticipated event encouraged local businesses to sponsor high school girls as candidates and attendants.
  • Boat Parade – Decorated boats and cabin cruisers would circle the harbor carrying the Miss North Shore queen candidates.
  • Gymkhana – Local hot-rodders got a chance to show their stuff navigating around the course of traffic cones set up in the high school parking lot.
  • Greased Pole Contest – Fellows would attempt to climb out on a timber pole striped of bark and greased up until it was gleaming.  The pole was extended out over the harbor and the object was to retrieve the flag from the end of the pole without taking a spill into the water.
  • Trout Pond – Brook Trout were stocked in the Bear Tree Park fountain for youngsters to catch.
  • Fresh Raspberry Sundaes – A tradition at Leng’s Fountain.
  • Grand Prize / New Car – On all the game shows a new car was always the ultimate prize, and so it was for years at the Picnic.  Usually a compact economy sized car, it was displayed up on cement blocks on the corner of the Standard Gas Station (now Harbor Park).

The Picnic is a time for making memories.  I’m sure everyone has their own particular recollection of one special event.  I am now old enough to have over 50 years of Picnics to reflect back upon.  As kids we eagerly anticipated that first weekend in August.  We had saved up our allowances and summer job money to blow it all in a couple of days.  If our father was a Lion’s Club member we usually helped sell raffle tickets door to door.  As I got older I was able to participate in events such as playing in the marching band that lead the parade on Sunday and help decorate floats for various clubs.  It was an exciting time when everyone “came to town” and you would see your schoolmates, relatives and friends all over the village.  After graduating from CCHS and striking out on my own, if I planned a trip back home in the summer you could be sure it would be over the Picnic weekend.  As I got older I appreciated seeing the folks I had grown up with and reconnect with classmates at Class Reunions and far flung relatives at Family Reunions.

The Fisherman’s Picnic is also a time for making new friends and welcoming the visitors to our town.  I find that most of the tourists enjoy talking with the locals and learning more about our community “from the horse’s mouth” as it were.  If you find yourself standing in a line for a fish burger, ask the person behind you “Where are you from?”  If they aren’t a tourist they could very well be someone you went to school with but didn’t recognize!

Dan Helmerson, Visit Cook County Info Center & Local Historian

Dan Helmerson, Visit Cook County Info Center & Local Historian