Keeping it family-friendly

BALATON – Like so many communities in southwest Minnesota, Balaton is a small town with a big heart when it comes to its annual summer celebration.

Though fewer than 700 people currently reside in the community, Balaton swells considerably during the Fun Fest festivities that take place during the Fourth of July each year. Balaton native Leah (Gifford) Ohme was one of the many who returned to her hometown during the 2014 celebration.

“We come back for Balaton Fun Fest every year,” Ohme said. “It’s a great celebration. The people who put it on do an amazing job. We enjoy it. We’ve been coming since the very first one. We love it.”

Ohme, who now lives in Sioux Falls, S.D., was in attendance at Lion’s Park Saturday with her husband Derek and girls, Julia and Hadley, along with her sister, Julie (Gifford) Cusher, brother-in-law, Aaron and nephews, Holden and Deacon.

“We did the lighted boat show, the band in the park and fireworks on Friday,” Ohme said. “The kids have been here for the parade, the bouncy houses and the pedal tractor pull (Saturday). And Holden, Julie’s oldest, did the tractor pull. We pretty much do it all.”

This year marked the largest number of boats for the lighted boat show, Ohme said. Her mother, Ann Gifford, helped line up participants for the event, and it was well-attended despite the rainy conditions.

“We had a boat in the lighted boat show,” Ohme said. “My mom lined it up. She suckered in nine people, so we had nine boats in it this year for the first time.”

The Balaton Fun Fest has also provided the backdrop for the Gifford family reunion, though not this year.

“We usually have the Gifford family reunion this weekend, too, with Tiffany, Stacy, Scott and Travis, because there’s so much to do,” Ohme said. “They all love it. But we didn’t do it this year because mom and dad (Craig) had a wedding. I’m sure they will be back next year, though.”

Julie Erickson, who serves as chairwoman of the Fun Fest committee, appreciates that people return to their roots and take part in the celebration.

“I see a lot of people that I don’t know, so I assume it’s relatives of Balaton people who have come back,” she said. “I think that’s great. That’s what you want.”

Erickson thought that overall, the 2014 Fun Fest was successful.

“We had a nice crowd, and the weather cooperated,” Erickson said. “I think it has been great. There’s been a steady crowd down here at the park all day. There are lots of young families with kids who have been enjoying the bouncy houses. That was new this year.”

Balaton has had inflatables before, but it has been quite a few years, Erickson said, noting that this was the first time that they’d used a new company, 3Z Inflatables, though. Other vendors have been constant for the past few years, she said.

“People always like Jessica’s Ponies and the petting zoo,” Erickson said. “We’ve had that for a number of years now. I think the parade and everything else has gone really well.”

Along with 3-on-3 basketball and coed volleyball on Saturday, there was a golf tournament at East Bay Golf Course for three days in a row.

“There’s been a golf tournament every day, and that’s been pretty well attended,” Erickson said. “There have also been two disc golf tournaments up at our disc golf course at the old football field by the softball field. The Balaton Foundation put that in and sponsors that every year. It’s great.”

Erickson noted that the annual celebration would not be possible without the organizers and donators.

“There’s a very small committee that organizes Fun Fest,” she said. “We do have people who offer to head up events, but I would love to see more people involved. We absolutely need volunteers. It’s ultimately sponsored by the Balaton Chamber, and we get generous donations from the city and from businesses and individuals. We couldn’t do it without that.”

Sponsors make it possible for a large number of people to take part in the activities, especially those that involve young children.

“We try to keep it pretty family friendly, so we try to keep the cost of a lot of things down,” Erickson said. “The pony rides are one dollar. You’d pay five dollars at other places. The face painting is also a dollar, and they’re pretty elaborate. But it’s because we have people who sponsor it. That’s why we can do it.”

The cost to jump around on the many inflatables was also kept down because of generous sponsors.

“The inflatables were $1,300, and yet we charge five dollars to bounce all day because we get people to sponsor it,” Erickson said. “This park really works out perfectly, too. You don’t realize how much space there is here until you start setting up and walking it out. It’s worked out really good to have them down here.”

If Erickson could have one wish, she’d ask the younger generation to start pitching in and getting more involved in the organizing the next few years. That way Fun Fest will have longevity.

“There are other committee members that work, and we count on some people to do events, but it’s time now to get that next generation groomed a little bit,” Erickson said. “If things are going to continue, we have to have that happen. Hopefully we can get a few more people involved, even if they help just a little bit.”

Linda and Dave Roxin, who have volunteered to help with the kiddie tractor pull for quite a few years, are passing the torch to Jody Kruger and her husband, Erickson said.

“They’ve been mentoring the Krugers, who have little kids, so that’s good,” Erickson said. “Other organizations also take this opportunity to have some fundraisers for their events. Cathy Nelson is working with trying to raise money for the animal shelter in Tracy. Sometimes we’ll have Hospice events here, too, and JO volleyball. We’ve really tried to get away from us doing all the concessions and letting other groups do it.”

With so many events taking place, there seemed to be something for everyone, from the triathlon to the antique tractor show to the parade to the fireman’s dance.

Clara Pagel and Nathan Noble were selected as the 2014 Little Miss and Mr. Balaton and rode a float during the Fun Fest parade on Saturday, while Mary Lebert, Linda Meaden, Larry Christianson, Yvonne Wee and Kari Spielman were the lucky individuals to win cow bingo.

While some toured the Balaton History Center, others chose to get a Belgian horse ride from the two-ton pair of Deuce and Diesel, owned by the Bunting family from Redwood Falls.

New to Fun Fest this year was the truck, pickup and antique tractor pull, which was extremely loud and dusty at times, as competitors took turns pulling weight along Railroad Avenue. Even though many of those in attendance had to cover their ears sometimes, they couldn’t seem to turn away from the action.

Sunday marked the first time that a car and bike show took place during Fun Fest as well. The event was held at the Colonial Manor.

“Sunday is kind of a slow-down day,” Erickson said. “There is a bean bag tournament and a church service. There’s also one new event that we haven’t had before during Fun Fest. It’s the car and bike show at the nursing home. They coordinated it with Fun Fest this year, and they’re having cars, motorcycles, root beer floats and popcorn. It’s just a fun way to end the day.”