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DL's first plunge into Polar Fest: A look back at the beginnings of the area's biggest winter festival

Scott Abbey of KDLM, Gary Thompson of Tri-State Diving, and Ron Zeman of Norby’s encouraged local folks to take the first-ever Polar Fest Plunge leading up to the event in February of 1996. Zeman was one of the two people credited with starting the festival 22 years ago. Tribune File Photo 1 / 3
Norwest Bank President Bob Harris leaps into the icy waters of Little Detroit Lake, one of the first people to jump in the Polar Fest Plunge in its first year, 1996. Seventy-five people took the plunge that day. Tribune File Photo 2 / 3
Amidst the gaze of curious onlookers and other golf nuts, Robert Wagner hits off the first tee during the golf tournament on Detroit Lake at the first-ever Polar Fest. Trees were hauled out and placed on the 6-hole course to make it look more realistic. Tribune File Photo 3 / 3

If it weren't for a small group of dedicated Detroit Lakers, Polar Fest wouldn't exist as we know it.

Today, Polar Fest is a popular, 12-day winter festival that takes place every February in Detroit Lakes. It includes dozens of fun events, geared to people of all ages, at various locations across town. It's now about a month out from this year's festival, and some people have already started marking their calendars with their 'can't-miss' Polar Fest events.

It wasn't always this way, though. Despite an optimistic start in 1996 and overall success in its earliest years, the winter festival—best known for its key event, the Polar Fest Plunge—was put on ice in 2002 due to waning community support. For the next three years, only the plunge survived.

Then, in 2005, "a group of crazy, winter-loving citizens came together to reinvigorate and warm up Polar Fest," according to the event's website, They did well. From that year on, the festival has been the area's paramount winter event, and it continues to snowball into something bigger and bigger every year.

But, back to its beginnings. According to the website, Polar Fest was the brainchild of two local business professionals: Erika Johnson, who owned Lakeside Tavern at the time, and Ron Zeman, then-vice-president of Norby's. They wanted to create a celebration of winter that would inspire people to get out and enjoy the snow and ice, while also creating a boost in winter tourism.

Johnson was looking for a lively event that would take place on the lake, outside her restaurant, and coincidentally Zeman had just caught wind of polar plunges, where people jump into a frozen lake to raise money for charity. From that, the idea for the Polar Fest Plunge was born.

Polar Fest quickly branched off from there, thanks to widespread interest from the community. That first year's festival, 22 years ago, included more than a dozen events and attractions in addition to the plunge, taking place over the course of two days.

Unfortunately, that initial popularity didn't hold, and for a time it seemed Polar Fest would be lost to history. But that "crazy, winter-loving" group stepped up to ensure that wouldn't happen. The dozen or so volunteers set out to revive it, slowly but steadily.

Polar Fest could "barely fill six to seven days" with its shorter list of events back then, says Beth Pridday, who has been a leading festival organizer for about the past 15 years. But thanks to continued growth within the community and the addition of new events every year, "This year, it'll be 12 days, and it's really starting to round out as a full family affair, with indoor and outdoor events geared toward different age groups."

Pridday said this year's Polar Fest will encompass a record 34 events.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their young son and daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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