AITKIN, Minn. — The year was 1991. Civic and business leaders in the city of Aitkin were tired of living in a ghost town on the day after Thanksgiving.
Everybody would visit home for the holiday and the town of 2,100-plus, located 85 miles west of Duluth along Minnesota Highway 210, would swell with friends and family.
But the next day, folks seemed to disperse. The local chamber of commerce blamed the lure of Black Friday shopping in places such as nearby Brainerd, Duluth and St. Cloud.
“We needed an idea nobody else had,” said Mayor Gary Tibbitts, who took part in the original planning meeting, at which they thought about lakes freezing over and capturing the essence of that. Organizers congealed around an idea and dubbed it: The World Famous Fish House Parade.
“There wasn’t another one around,” Tibbitts said. “There still isn’t. We thought it could stick, and it has all these years.”
The 28th Fish House Parade through downtown Aitkin will take place at 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23. This year, celebrity fisherman James Holst will be grand marshal.
On the last float, one will find Jeff Tidholm and others using air cannons to fire 1,000 ping pong balls into an expected crowd of more than a few thousand people. Red, green and yellow balls will offer day-of discounts between 15-45 percent at local stores and establishments. Bars and eateries will fill up. Shops will be crushed with people for about two hours following the parade.
“We originally hired a plane to fly low down Main Street and drop the Great Balls of Savings,” said Tidholm, owner of the local printing shop.
The Federal Aviation Administration rules wouldn’t permit the aerial discounts to continue, but Tidholm and company forged ahead. They now dress as elves and project the balls from the float trailing one belonging to Santa and Mrs. Claus.
“It’s grown into this unique thing with its own personality,” said chamber of commerce Executive Director Taylor Erickson, who is assigned with managing the parade entrants.
Most folks decorate their fish house floats the morning of the parade. Sources described a typical entry as beginning when family members emerge from their Thanksgiving Day food coma to say to one another, “Why not pull a float together?”
People get creative. Some carry over Halloween themes. Others have synchronized dance or even snowmobile routines. Some go with a traditional Lumberjack plaid theme. An inordinate number of floats seem to incorporate hot tubs outside the fish houses on flatbed trailers. Years ago, a local building company featured swimsuit and bikini-clad float goers swinging from an overhead boom and splashing into a hot tub.
“It is as creative and goofy as you want to make it,” Tibbitts said. “But every float has to have a fish house in it.”
The parade has been featured off and on in internet listicles and publications from around the United States. Years ago, a two-page spread in USA Today started the drive to greater national exposure for the quirky small-town central Minnesota event. Through the years, the parade has expanded to include a morning 5-kilometer run/walk, meet-and-greet with Santa and other attractions.
“We realize people are going to go to the big markets,” Tibbitts said. “But we needed a spark and it has worked. We get hundreds and hundreds of people who will come here and spend the day. We’ve joked through the years that we’ll let Macy’s do Thursday — and we’ll do Friday.”
If you go
What: The World Famous Fish House Parade
When: parade at 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23; events throughout the day
Where: downtown Aitkin
How much: Parade attendance free of charge