50 years of Sweet Corn Days: Jaycees were key to the first event
It started in 1962 when two Elkader men, Gerry Kramer and the late Ed Olson, struck up a conversation with Don Hartung, a member of the Oelwein Jaycees. Kramer and Olson thought it would be a good idea for young men in and around Elkader to form their own Jaycee chapter to help promote the town.
“The way it works is that a chapter in one town goes into another town to charter a new group,” Kramer said. “The Oelwein Jaycees and Waverly Jaycees were more than willing to do that with us.”
The Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) is a group that centers on leadership training and civic organization. It also teaches its members business development, management skills and revolves around community service. To join, a man had to be between the ages of 21 and 35. Dues for members were $10 a year.
October 9, 1962, saw the organization of the Elkader chapter completed when 21 Elkader-area men elected Olson chapter president; Kramer, vice-president, internal; Jerry Lybert, vice-president, external; Elvin Larson, secretary; and John Wildman, treasurer.
“We did a lot of community service projects,” Kramer said. “Some of those included cleaning up river banks and area parks and cleaning up Lover’s Leap. We did anything that needed to be done. At one time we had 60-70 members and were the largest (chapter) per capita in the state.”
The chapter was formally chartered on October 27 at a banquet held at the Elkader Opera House. More than 250 people attended the event.
Raising money for community projects was one of the chapter’s main goals. “We donated money for the town ambulance,” Kramer commented. “We also were involved in getting polio vaccines to the young people in town.”
The concept for Sweet Corn Days began when Olson and Kramer visited the Waukon chapter.
“They were planning on having ‘Corn Days’,” Kramer said. “At first we thought it was kind of funny and we joked about it on the way home. The next day Ed called me and said maybe we were a little hasty in our first impressions. He thought that it might not be too bad an idea after all, and the more we talked, the more we became convinced that a similar event might be good for Elkader as well. It would be something to bring people into the town.”
Kramer and Olson’s next move was to talk to local welder Art Hoover. “Art donated his time and built us our first cookers,” Kramer said. “We held our first Sweet Corn Days in 1963. It was in the park by the Opera House. We were surprised at the number of people that showed up.”
The venue was eventually moved to the Elkader City Park, where there was more parking spaces and more room for people to relax and enjoy the corn. Campers at the park joined in to help shuck the corn before enjoying the taste of their labor.
“Things just grew after the first event,” Kramer said. “The parade started off small, but soon grew into a full-blown affair, and other events were added to make it more than a one-day event. I think it has been a great thing for the community.”
The Elkader chapter flourished until the late 1980s, when it was finally disbanded.
“We were a pretty diverse group when we started,” Kramer said. “We had business employees, businessmen, farmers – you name it. I think it disbanded because people just got too busy and more involved with other things.”
To keep Sweet Corn Days going, a group known as the Elkader Fest Committee was formed. Now called the Sweet Corn Days Committee, the group is responsible for organizing the events that fill the three-day festival. Kramer is pleased with the work they’ve done.
“Those that took over Sweet Corn Days have been doing a great job in keeping things going,” he said.
By Pat McTaggart