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To counter annual celebration of 1934 Teamsters victory, business leaders conceived the Minneapolis Aquatennial

[Unabridged version of story in June 21, 2007 issue of Minneapolis Labor Review]

By Kelly Ahern


We have a state
With 10,000 lakes
For any vacation we’ve
Got what it takes.
Watch the family when
You say, “Folks,
We’re goin’ to Minnesota”

The Minneapolis Aquatennial, which will be celebrating its 63rd year in 2003, has been touted as the “Ten Best Days of Summer.” (Uy) Last year’s schedule included over 45 events including neighborhood festivals, an air expo, water shows, big name musical acts, a tennis invitational, parades, marathons, a sailing regatta, and milk carton boat races. Starting with the first Aquatennial held in 1940, the festival has historically occurred the 3rd week in July as the ‘founding fathers consulted weather forecasters who said that was traditionally the driest, warmest week of the year.” (Minneapolis Aquatennial official website) A search online reveals that the Aquatennial is a perennial favorite in Minnesota, it is considered to be family-friendly, and for the most part affordable. The sheer size and numerous activities of the Aquatennial were meant to draw comparisons to other big city celebrations, as well as place Minneapolis on the map for its citywide festival.

Festivals, or carnivals, for the most part seem easy to define or discuss. They are joyous events, celebrations that bring people together for a set reason at a set time.  Mikhail Bakhtin, in his book Rabelais and His World describes the concept of ‘carnival festivities’ as the laughter of the people, an event inclusive of the people. 

…Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators.  Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance.  Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. (7)

On the surface, the Minneapolis Aquatennial appears to be an event that is inclusive of all those that dwell in Minneapolis (and those from other parts of the state as well).  And that the spirit of the festival is to build community relations, foster growth and awareness, and celebrate a beautiful place to live. However, for the purposes of this paper it is important to ask two questions.  When is carnival not really carnival?   And what is the value of applying a definition of carnival to an event?  In other words, can Bakhtin’s idea of carnival help put the Minneapolis Aquatennial into perspective?  To answer, we need to look back to the very beginning of the Aquatennial, as well as to the important events that took place in Minneapolis in the years before 1940. 


Employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint, coercion of employees of labor, or their agents in designation of such representatives.

1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, section 7(a) (Millikan, 264)

The 1930s marked a time of change in the United States.  The economic picture was bleak due to the continuing depression, and those that made up the working class were feeling the strain of low wages, long hours, and dismal working conditions.  The climate in Minneapolis was no different.

In 1903 a group of Minneapolis employers united by their businesses, wealth, and desire to suppress labor unions, created an association called the Citizen’s Alliance (CA).   Mary Lethert Wingerd remarks in her book Claiming the City Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul, that:

In major American cities, by the turn of the century, urban growth and the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands made community accountability increasingly difficult to enforce…. Minneapolis provides a case in point.  There, a small cohort of powerful capitalists — families of the original New England settlers — jealously guarded control of the city, which had become the preeminent milling and manufacturing center of the Northwest.  They dominated politics, finance, and business and successfully dictated the terms between business and labor.  As a result of such closely held power and social exclusivity, class and ethnic tensions made Minneapolis a divided city, where claims of a common civic community rang increasingly hollow. (4)

The CA, given their representation of and control over major industries — banking, manufacturing, transportation, and the law — was able to limit the amount of labor organizing that took place in the city.  Minneapolis business owners were offered the CA’s protection if word surfaced that their workers were talking about organizing a union. CA propaganda extolling the virtue of the ‘open-shop’ flowed through the city newspapers and magazines.  Because of their wide-reaching business network, few small or new businesses could afford to stand up to the power and control of the CA; and the language of the National Industrial Recovery Act was easily avoided and defeated by CA lawyers. 

In order for the labor movement to get a foothold in Minneapolis, a big organizing effort had to be undertaken.  In 1934, Teamsters Local 574 began the task of organizing the city’s truck drivers. The Local was dedicated to improving the working conditions of the drivers, who often started their day at 2 or 3 a.m. and worked without stopping until 6 p.m.  Carl Skogland, officer of the Local, said

We all recognized that the trucking industry was the most powerful and most difficult…we had great strength in numbers and understood the task of organizing.  We therefore picked the coal industry as the starting point.  This industry was strategic because of Minnesota’s sub-zero winters. (Revolutionary History, 11)

Major victories by the Teamsters stood out in 1934.  Their determination and solidarity enabled them to stand up to the CA and through striking loosen the CA’s stronghold on Minneapolis businesses. The encounters between the police, members of the CA, and the Teamsters were often violent and bloody, with all sides suffering many casualties and some deaths.  May 17, 1934 marked the "Battle of Deputies Run," where strikers prevented the ‘deputies’ of the CA from getting trucks, driven by scabs, out on the streets.  As Hennepin County Sheriff John P. Wall admitted, “they (the strikers) had this town tied up tight, you could not move a truck.” (Millikan, 271) The CA had greatly underestimated the organizational strategy and skills of Local 574, and the strikers drew the attention of the state and country.  Wingerd noted that “news photographers and movie men milled among the throng, ready to record the expected battle…an announcer from KSTP radio gave a play-by-play of the action from a nearby rooftop.” (Wingerd, 1)

After the strike in May, the CA went to war against Local 574.  Skogland remembers:

They placed full-page ads in all the city dailies.  A vicious red-baiting campaign was carried out by the newspapers, picturing the leaders as ‘Trotskyist Communists’ intending to make a revolution in Minneapolis instead of building the union.  It became necessary to meet all these slanders by issuing a daily paper to present the position of the union. (Revolutionary History, 13)

And while it is true that some of the leadership on the strike committee was part of the local Trotskyist movement, as one striker put it:

The Communist League has never asked that the advanced workers in the unions accept our political opinions in order that we may find a place in the work of the movement.  We have never demanded any special privilege. (Revolutionary History, 9)

On July 16, 1934 the Teamsters went out on strike again.  On July 20th 1934 police, teamsters, and CA supporters clashed in a battle known as "Bloody Friday" (on 3rd St. North and 6th Avenue North).  Minneapolis police shot down 67 strikers — over forty of them shot in the back — two of those injured, Henry Ness and John Belor, died of their wounds.    The National Guard was called in and Governor Floyd Olson employed the mediation skills of Reverend Francis J. Haas and Eugene Dunnigan.  On August 21 agreement was reached and the strike was over.  The CA and Local 574 signed the consent order of the National Labor Relations Board — the Teamsters in Minneapolis had won their right to organize and negotiate with the employer.

The response to the settlement of the strike was mixed.  Local 574 and the larger labor body claimed it as a huge victory.  For one striking Teamster it was a great success because:

The entire labor movement has been aroused.  Every union in the city has been strengthened.  The recruiting of workers into the organizations is going forward all along the line.  The forces of reaction have been dealt a powerful blow.  Tens of thousands of workers stand up today, proud to have been a part of the smashing drive.  (Revolutionary History, 9) 

The CA downplayed the results, implying that the union’s claim of victory was overstated, but also setting to work to avoid the possibility of it happening again. As William Millikan in his book A Union Against Unions puts it:

Although the EAC (Employer’s Advisory Committee) claimed to have no quarrel with its employees, it was determined to continue its ‘opposition to Communist domination of business and industry.’  With the support of every employer in the state, the CA hoped to eventually win back the ground that it had lost. (288)

Rather than accept Local 574’s right to organize and collectively bargain, the CA decided to focus its rage against the supposed looming threat of the “subversive” Communist Party and the radical leadership of Local 574.

Teamster Picnics

The slogan of the Union now is ‘On To Bass Lake for the First Annual General Drivers Picnic’. (The Northwest Organizer 7/15/36)

The years that followed the 1934 Teamster strikes were marked with union victories and various organizing efforts around the city of Minneapolis.  There were many memorials and parades in celebration and remembrance of those that had lost their lives during the strikes.  However well received those events might have been, nothing could compare to the Local 574 (544) General Drivers picnics.  Between 15,000-20,000 local members and public supporters gathered annually at Webb’s Place on Bass Lake in the early part of August for “a day of feast and frolic” (The Northwest Organizer 8/19/37). Planning and fundraising were carried out by the Picnic Committee to “see that nothing has been left undone that would add to the enjoyment of those who attend” (The Northwest Organizer 8/5/36). 

The Northwest Organizer reported that:

All over Minneapolis union men and their families are preparing for a joyous respite from the daily grind, and are girding themselves for a solid day of swimming, ice cream, dancing, hot dogs, beer, fishing, racing, boating, pop, and ball games. (8/19/37)

The festivities started around 10am with contests and games, and ended around 1am (or later) with music and dancing by Dick Atherton and his 544(574) band. A variety of activities took place that appealed to everyone from kids to adults.  The Northwest Organizer described some of the more exciting plans:

On the program are races for boys and girls…There will be hundred yard dashes for men and women; shoe scrambles; races for fat ladies and fat men; relay kissing races; balloon-blowing contests.  Men will vie with one another in the ludicrous cracker-eating and whistling game.  There will be a mighty tug-o-war between the Transfer Drivers and the Independent Truck Owners.  The afternoon will be topped off by a kitten-ball game between the Building Laborers Local 563 team and an aggregation from Milk Wagon Drivers Local 471.  (8/19/37)

 Those that attended the event were able to mill about Webb’s place and participate in whatever they felt like, as the event was free and accessible to all.  Yellow Cabs provided a free shuttle service from downtown Minneapolis to make sure that anyone that wanted to could attend.  The picnics were considered great successes, and the largest outdoor labor event in the Northwest.     

In looking at Bakhtin’s definition of carnival, the Teamster picnics appear to qualify.  The event was open and of the people.  The picnic created its own meaning as an event to look forward to, as well as a celebration and reminder of a major victory.  Everyone participated fully and equally in the festivities and there were no spectators.  The laughter of the people was universal. Bahktin’s theories surrounding the material bodily principle and grotesque realism also help support viewing the Teamster picnics as carnival:

The material bodily principle, that is, images of the human body with its food, drink, defecation, and sexual life, plays a predominant role.  Images of the body are offered, moreover, in an extremely exaggerated form. (18)

The emphasis of the picnic was on eating and drinking, music and dancing, fun and games. The entertainment ranged from fat men and ladies racing to the laughs of the crowd, people kissing in an attempt to win a contest, to men stuffing their mouths with crackers then trying to whistle.  Degrading events to be sure, however, as Bakhtin points out “laughter degrades and materializes” (20), meaning that the people were renewed by these antics.   In fact, the picnic itself was about renewal and creating a respite away from the realities of the workday, and the control of the CA.  The picnics were a celebration of a revolutionary victory and a turning point in American history.

Minneapolis Aquatennial:
The beginning

Oldtimers remember when a small delegation of businessmen in the Civic and Commerce Association took a trip to Winnipeg on the visit by the king and queen of England.  But the rains came, and the group ran for cover under the reviewing stands.  As they huddled together, the conversation turned to Minneapolis, and the bad image of the labor strife and the gangland ‘30s.  The idea of a summer festival was born and grew, not without the help, it might be noted, of Winter Carnival officials who gave hours of help and advice on festival making.  (Letofsky)

Various historical descriptions of the Aquatennial document and credit its creation much in the same ways, but with some slight variances and contradictions.  For example, John Baule, in his article “Ahhhquatennial – Fifty Fabulous Years” described the inception of the Aquatennial this way:

In 1939, a group of Minneapolis businessmen attended a celebration welcoming King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England to Winnipeg.  These businessmen were so impressed with the crowds in Canada that Tom Hastings, sales manager of the Minneapolis Brewing Company, was able to convince others that Minneapolis could and should sponsor such an event.” (26)

And what event is that?  Having the Queen and King of England come to Minneapolis?  Other searches for the founder of the Aquatennial lead to David Warren Onan.  In 1936 Onan was the president of the Minneapolis Civic and Commerce Association (now called the Chamber of Commerce).  The Onan family website mentioned “this led him and a group of men to found a summer celebration which is known as the Minneapolis Aquatennial in 1939.” (www.onanfamily.org). Being president of the CCA led him to found the Aquatennial? 

In all, the background of the Aquatennial is rather sketchy and contradictory, so it is important to look at what else was happening at that time.  The 1934 Teamster strikes and the years that followed had serious impact on the CA and other businessmen in Minneapolis.  They were determined to get back the ground they lost to the Teamsters during the strikes and regain control over the city.  Milliken notes “by May of 1936, the Teamsters’ local had organized 90 percent of the transport industry and appeared ready to continue its assault on the CA’s domination of Minneapolis industry.” (305) The CA and other business/employer associations like the Civic and Commerce Association, the Law and Order League, and the Council of Civic Clubs continued their negative propaganda in the newspapers, accusing Local 574 (544) of communist and socialist plots that would destroy or take over the city.  In an effort to wrest control of the city from the union these groups now had to start working together. 

Robley Cramer, longtime editor of the Minneapolis Labor Review, procured a document from a confidential source that outlined a proposal to form a Special Emergency Citizens Committee (SECC) (attached). The purpose of the SECC would call for all of the employer groups to work together, in order to respond directly to the threat of Local 544 and their progress in unionizing the city.  The document states:

A joint stand of this character would have tremendous force:

It would do 5 things.

  • Stimulate those already fighting this meance in Minneapolis.
  •  It would give loyal citizens a rallying point they now lack.
  •  It would announce to the radical enemy, that the forces arryed (sic) against them are now UNITED. 
  • It would tell the rest of Minnesota, that we are finally awake and ready to act.
  •  It would take from the shoulders of Citizens Alliance the burden they have been bearing alone – and give them, in this fight against these labor racketters, the allies they need so badly.

(SECC document)

The proposed SECC would take on the additional responsibility of educating Minneapolis citizens, thereby reselling the “capitalistic system of Government to the voters of Hennepin County” and would “assist all interested groups in perpetuating the original spirit of America.” (SECC document)  The conservative business leaders clearly wanted to impress upon the city that they considered Local 544 to be an un-American and radical group.  In order to reinforce their power and prestige, and take back the city, the SECC had as its third objective:

The special emergency Citizens Committee should have as its third major project some special plan to offset the bad publicity the city has received during the past three years.  An activity which would serve to take the minds of Minneapolis citizens off past troubles and focus all minds [emphasis added] throughout the state on some pleasant event occurirng in Minneapolis. (SECC document)

Given the timing and success of the Teamster strikes in 1934, the emergence of the SECC document as a response to Local 544, and the contradictory historical background; the event described can be none other than the first Minneapolis Aquatennial. 

Minneapolis Aquatennial

Martine Boiteux has shown the lengths to which the ecclesiastical powers were prepared to go in Rome in 1634 in order to ‘upstage’ the regular, popular carnival with a patrician counter-festival designed, says Boiteux to ‘repress, control and mutilate’ the carnival of the common people.  (Stallybrass and White 15)

“They are all celebrating the same thing – the place they call home,” said Lisa Dinndorf, executive director of the Minneapolis Aquatennial. (Uy)

Over 45 events marked the 2002 Minneapolis Aquatennial, with such highlights as the Life Time Fitness Triathlon, the Master of International Management presents Shakespeare in the Park, and the Minnegasco Torchlight Parade.  There was a sailing regatta on Lake Calhoun for both kids and adults.    People could compete in the Tom Thumb Milk Carton Boat Races, the Xcel Energy Sand Castle Competition, or the Ultimate Wireless Co-ed Beach Volleyball Tournament.  And everyone could enjoy the Target Fireworks Show on the Mississippi River.   

From the very beginning in 1940 with Gene Autry serving as the first Aquatennial guest, and 10 days of non-stop events (200!), the Minneapolis Aquatennial was meant to impress and focus the citizens’ minds on those that ruled Minneapolis, and aid them in taking back control of the streets.  Attendees of the event watched grand parades (both day and night) with floats provided and sponsored by local businesses.  They traveled to the upscale neighborhoods that surround the city lakes in order to watch boat races, regattas, and water shows. Businesses ran and continue to run the Aquatennial; in fact the Aquatennial itself is a business.  Today corporations sponsor nearly all of the events and even influence new ones, for example in 1971 when a local advertising agency tried to figure out a way to increase sales of milk, ad executives looked at the Aquatennial and came up with the first milk carton boat race.    

In looking at Bakhtin’s definition of carnival, the Aquatennial comes up short in comparison to the Teamster picnics.  Given the type of events, it appears to be the Aquatennial’s intent that people be impressed, perhaps even envious, instead of equally participating.  For example, how many people can really take part in a regatta?   Someone would need a boat, the means to get the boat to the lake, and have the entrance fee on hand in order to take part. A Queen of the Lakes is crowned, and the contestants are judged on poise, personality and skills — a far cry from the fat ladies race of the Teamster picnics. Universal laughter of the people is not represented in the Aquatennial.  Participants are constantly reminded that there are footlights at every turn, from the corporate sponsors to the variety of geographical locations.

Those men huddled under the reviewing stands in Winnipeg looked to create an event that had as its main purpose the ability to reaffirm and reassert the social control of the ruling classes over the working class.  They created a spectacle.  And historically they are not the first to engage in this venture.   Thomas Spencer — while researching about the Veiled Prophet parade in St. Louis, Missouri, reported in his book The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration that:

A group of prominent St. Louis businessmen modeled the organization (The Veiled Prophet) on the New Orleans Carnival society of the Mystick Krewe of Comus.  They formed the organization largely in response to a general strike by workers the summer before, when workers had both symbolically and physically gained control of the streets.  A Veiled Prophet, who was to ‘preside and be recognized as infallible,’ led the organization.  It is not publicly known how the Veiled Prophet was (or is) chosen, only that he has always been a successful local businessman. (3)

The celebration usually includes the Veiled Prophet Parade and a formal ball.  The ball became the place for rich businessmen to introduce their daughters into society, and if they were lucky - get them elected as the Veiled Prophet Queen.  Spencer notes that the “parade’s primary function from the beginning was to be a show of physical power.  Parading by on the tops of floats, the members laid claim to the streets.  Portraying themselves as royalty set above their social inferiors, the members tried to reinforce the social hierarchy.” (3)

A little closer to home, the St. Paul Winter Carnival, which started in 1917, was an effort on the part of big business to smooth over growing labor tensions in the city.  This sanctioned ‘carnival’ gave the impression that the city was one united community with bosses and workers marching side by side in a parade.  And as Wingerd points out, “lest the magnanimous role of city leaders be forgotten, the organizers reminded citizens that ‘the carnival was free…Whatever of fun and pleasure the carnival afforded to any one was offered without charge in the best spirit any American city has ever shown.” (120) However the people were not fooled by the gesture Wingerd continues, “as for the city’s working people, they had thoroughly enjoyed the carnival’s free entertainments, but that in no way changed their oppositional, if negotiated relationship with city businessmen.” (12 0).  The Winter Carnival was not a true event of the people, it had and continues to have footlights, and it is a planned spectacle, one that the Minneapolis Aquatennial was modeled after.


…A United States District Court indicted the leaders of Local 544…Count one accused the twenty-nine indicted Socialist Worker Party members of conspiracy ‘to overthrow, put down, and to destroy by force the Government of the United States.  The defendants would seek to bring about an armed revolution when the time seemed propitious.  They would accomplish their seditious plan by first taking over the trade unions in all major industries in order to paralyze the country’.  Minneapolis newspapers…plastered their front pages with dramatic photos and accounts of the nest of traitors running the union. (Millikan, 340-341)

1941 marked the end of Local 544, and as a result, the end of the celebratory Teamsters’ picnics. At first the ruling class attempted to refocus the minds of Minneapolis citizens off the successes of the strikes and picnics with the creation of mammoth competing event, the Minneapolis Aquatennial.   A year later, with the assistance of the CA, the United States government, and a conservative International Union, they managed to replace the picnics all together. 

The picnics represented a movement of the people, as they were universal and equally inclusive of all participants.  The picnics fit in with Bakhtin’s definition of carnival.  The Minneapolis Aquatennial does not work with the definition.  The Aquatennial is a manufactured event geared at reminding people of their place — all in the name of civic and community pride; it is in fact merely a spectacle. 

In Minneapolis the events of 1934 through 1941 represented the potential of the working class to change the way business, and the ruling class, carried on in the city.  However that potential was eventually squashed and replaced with big business spectacle when Local 544, in the midst of created fears around a supposed plot, was stripped of its leadership.

Comparing the Teamster picnics with the Minneapolis Aquatennial helps demonstrate that by using the definition of carnival as criteria, as provided by Bakhtin, we have a useful gauge by which to judge an event in order to get to hidden truths.  True carnival represents a turning point in the social structure.  Carnival is, in essence, potential of more to come — it represents change and the reversal of the status quo.  Spectacle is a created ruse that hopes to dazzle us away from its roots and hidden agendas by turning people into passive spectators versus active participants. 

Kelly Ahern is a clerical worker at the University of Minnesota and chief steward of AFSCME Local 3800. She wrote this paper for a class at the University of Minnesota. An abridged version of this paper appeared in the June 21, 2007 issue of the Minneapolis Labor Review.

Works Cited:

Books and Publications:

Bakhtin, Mikhail.  Rabelais and His World.  Bloomington, Indiana:  Indiana University Press, 1984.

Baule, Johan.  “Ahhhquatennial – Fifty Fabulous Years.” Hennepin County History, 48, Summer 1989: 23-27.

Millikan, William.  A Union Against Unions.  St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2001.

Spencer, Thomas.  The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995.  Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2000. 

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. “Introduction.” The Politics and Poetics of Transgression.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Wingerd, Mary Lethert.  Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul.  New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.


Letofsky, Irv.  “Way Back in 1940 They Thought Up Aquatennial.” Minneapolis Tribune 28 June 1964.

“Picnic Plans Are Being Completed Says Committee.”  The Northwest Organizer 15 June 1936.

“Bass Lake to Be Scene of Union Rally.”  The Northwest Organizer 5 August 1936.

“Twenty Thousand Expected At General Drivers Outing.”  The Northwest Organizer 19 August 1937. 

Online Sources:

“Minneapolis Aquatennial History and Trivia.”  Minneapolis Aquatennial <http://www.quaatennial.org/History.html>.

Uy, Erin.  “Minneapolis:  Aquatennial marks 63 years.”  TwinCities.com 29 July 2002.  <http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities>.

“The 1934 Minneapolis Strike.”  Revolutionary History, Vol. 2 No. 1, Spring 1989 <http:www.marxists.org/history>. 


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