Alma Center Strawberry Festival - History and Mystery
By Lori Johnson
ALMA CENTER - Since its beginning in 1944, the annual Strawberry Festival, sponsored by the Alma Center Lion’s Club has been a big deal to the folks in Jackson County and beyond--and for good reason.
It is a place where you could get the best strawberry shortcake, wonder who will become the year’s Strawberry Queen and enjoy the parades - one day the Kiddie Parade, the regular parade after. (it was a tradition that it ALWAYS rained on the Fest parade) It was an event that people planned their weekend around, whether holding , it be participating in baseball and volleyball tournaments, enjoying the rides, nights on the midway, eating great food like the VFW/Legion’s chicken dinner, or dancing to live music. It was a time for family members who had moved away to come back home.
There were a lot of love stories that happened because of the Strawberry Festival. JoAnn Simonson Laufenberg shared, “Strawberry Festival will always be near and dear to my heart. In 1981-82 I had just participated in my last parade as Hixton Fire Queen (the only parade that got rained on). We went to change our soggy clothes at Jay and Anne’s and that is when I met my future husband Pete!’
Back then Strawberry fest was held downtown on Main Street, with the tractor pull, .rides and beer garden/dance in the back street by the fire hall, then everything was moved to the ball park.
The Fest that year proved to be the start a Laufenberg family tradition in the love department! Years later, son Bradley got married during Strawberry Fest weekend, and daughter Betsy remembers, not only meeting her future husband Alan there while playing on the same volleyball team and started dating shortly there after, but they decided to end their bachelor and bachelorette party at the Fest where it first began.
JoAnn Laufenberg’s memories also included an interesting question brought up as the proud owner of a beautiful commemorative plate that was made available for the Fest’s 40th anniversary.
A picture of strawberries, blossoms and green leaves adorned the plate and the writing was in gold. The questions - who created these beautiful plates? Was it done by one individual or a combined effort? Were there more plates made for other anniversaries? How many plates were made?
Checking with Mary Woods at the Jackson County History room, asking folks who might be in the know, getting the names of others who might have information, even putting the word out on WWIS’s Buy line, brought answers to some of these questions.
The plates, as stated before, were made available at the 40th celebration of the Strawberry Festival in 1984. Each was numbered on the back along with the year 1984 in the same gold as is on the front of the plate. One plate was numbered #191, making us wonder how many plates in all were created. Wouldn’t it be fun at this point in time to find out the names of all of the people who have the plate as a treasured keepsake?
At one point, a picture of one of the plates showed a “J Dahl” written by the strawberry decal. That led to discovering that the maker of the plates was Jann Dahl, who owned a ceramics shop in Black River Falls. The Strawberry Festival held special memories, for Jann as well, as she and her husband Elroy had a band that had played at several of the festivals. As designer of the plate, only the sample plate had her name on it while the rest carried the decal and gold writing only. Although she wasn’t sure of the exact number of plates she made, her kiln could fit 20- 25 plates at a time. Ceramics is a process which requires several stages, taking over seven hours to complete, making any project a labor of love.
The year 2020 is one for the history books being that the fest grounds were silent this year--the Strawberry Festival among the many victims of COVID-19. But that didn’t stop memories of previous years from still growing strong and the hopes for the Festival‘s return even stronger.