Friday, January 9, 2009

Rediscovering Businesses

Rediscover Anoka formed two years ago when several Minnesota businesswomen gathered to drink coffee and share ideas. Now the group includes nineteen business people interested in promoting their historic town as a shopping destination. Located at the confluence of the Rum and Mississippi Rivers, Anoka retains its small town, historic appeal though it is part of the growing Twin Cities metropolitan area. The downtown businesses, all within easy walking distance of one another, include many antique and specialty stores, as well as a tearoom, a Victorian bed and breakfast, a bookstore, and a full-service department store. A river walk along the Rum River features interpretive plaques focused on the town’s rich history, and the Anoka County History Center and Library showcases other aspects of local history.

Because of its river location, Anoka has been home to many businesses throughout its 150-year history, including industries important to Minnesota’s beginnings, lumber and flour milling. When these industries faltered in the Panic of 1873, local citizens rallied to bring a shoe factory and potato starch factory to town. According to a history written by the 1943-1944 Social Science classes at Anoka High School, business people rallied after an August 16, 1884 fire burned most of downtown and began selling their wares from shanties the following day. Many of the current businesses inhabit buildings from the period immediately following this fire.

Anoka businesses came together in 1920 to solve another civic problem—Halloween vandalism. In 1919 youthful antics got out-of-hand. Citizens awoke on October 31 to find cows grazing on Main Street, a cow sleeping in the sheriff’s office, and another devouring the globe in the local high school. To deter a repeat performance, the local businesses started a Halloween festival, now in its 83rd year. Today’s celebration includes a kiddy and an evening parade. Local schoolchildren paint murals on merchants’ windows, and scarecrows on lampposts add a festive touch to downtown. According to a 2001 souvenir booklet, Anoka’s was the first communitywide Halloween celebration in the nation.

By 1938 Anoka claimed that the town was the Halloween Capitol of the World. A collection of Anoka County Union articles Mary Caine compiled gives a sense of the event’s rich history. While parades and bonfires were centerpieces of early celebrations, many other activities also occurred. Businesspeople dressed in costumes, decorated store windows, and sponsored guessing contests. Throughout the 1920s romance was an important feature, including dances at the armory and the 1928 wedding of Emma Merkins and Louis Melberg, who wed while standing on their car at a parade attended by 10,000. Even the Great Depression didn’t dampen the spirit of the event. In 1933 Old Man Depression in mannequin form fueled the post-parade bonfire at Goodrich Park and comic boxing matches added to the attractions. Only the early years of World War II, 1942 and 1943, resulted in no Halloween festivities.

Anoka’s Halloween celebrations have also marked changes in American culture. 1940s celebrations reflected post-war growth with the addition of commemorative buttons, the Anoka High School Pumpkin Bowl, and decorative Halloween jackets on light poles. The 1949 celebration took a serious turn when Governor Luther W. Youngdahl burned the restraints from the Anoka State Hospital in the bonfire after giving a speech comparing the restraining of the mentally ill to the burning of witches in Salem. The 1950s brought big names including Rex Allen, King of the Cowboys, and Tex Ritter. In 1970 a couple on The Dating Game won a trip to Anoka and flew in via helicopter for the parade.

Today the Anoka Chamber of Commerce and Rediscover Anoka have added a Christmas event to their downtown festivities. The first weekend in December Santa arrives in town via1 horse-drawn carriage. A tree lighting ceremony with Mayor Bjorn Skogquist officiating ensues at city hall. As carolers stroll the streets, Santa walks through town handing out money to lucky shoppers. Many businesses plan special events in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Both special events and its rich history make Anoka a great place to spend the day. Rather than searching for a parking spot at a bustling mall and walking through chain stores, a visitor to downtown Anoka can slip into a municipal parking lot and begin a relaxing day of shopping. Whether browsing in antique stores or looking for unique home decor is the purpose of a visit to downtown Anoka, the visitor will find friendly stores and a small-town pace make a memorable shopping experience.

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