Smaller towns like Osakis rely heavily on community celebrations.

Not only are they a fun way for local residents to get together, they also help bring people into town and give the city the opportunity to showcase its strengths.

That’s why it was so difficult for Osakis to cancel three big events because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The popular Osakis Festival – a proud summer tradition for more than a half century – will not happen this year. Neither will Moonshine Madness and Roddin’ Round the Lake Car Show.

Cory Abers, president of the Osakis Area Chamber of Commerce, said the loss of this year’s festival, which also includes a grand parade that’s among the biggest in the region with about 80 units, cuts deep.

“The festival is very important for our residents and businesses,” he said. “Our residents get to come together to enjoy a weekend of community bonding and family fun. Our residents don’t have to travel and most of the events are free. The businesses get a boost and they get to be front and center to show off what they have to offer. These businesses get very few opportunities in a year to be on display to large crowds and they want to take advantage of it as much as possible.”

Abers added that the festival is an event that not only brings the Osakis community together, but is also “a time to show off our awesome town to other local community members and tourists.”

A huge amount of time goes into planning the festival and the parade, Abers said, and they didn’t want to see that all go to waste at the last minute.

“We can’t wait until right before the date of the event to decide if we should have it or not based upon state guidelines and nature of COVID-19,” he said. “We had to use the info that we have at the current time and make decisions based upon it. Unfortunately, that decision was to ultimately cancel the event for 2020. Any event we want to put on we want to make sure it is given.”

The cancellations have caused disappointment around town but residents know organizers were in a tough spot, Abers said.

“Everyone has been very understanding of why we canceled,” he said. “They do know that much of this is out of our hands and we are making the best decisions we are able to with the information and guidelines we have at this time.”

Tourism in Osakis was off to a slow start because of the uncertainty of the pandemic and the guidelines that were in place, Abers said, but it has shown signs of recovery.

“It seems to have picked up and we are seeing people coming to Osakis to fish or go to one of our local resorts,” Abers said. “It has been tough for some of our businesses with the state standards they need to follow and we are not getting as much people from nearby communities coming to enjoy restaurants/bars.”

Abers said he believes Osakis residents have “stepped up” and given more of the local establishments their business, rather than taking that business online or to other towns.

“That is very encouraging to see,” he said.

Despite the cancellations, Osakis will get through it, Abers said.

“We are a resilient community,” he said, “and we can’t wait to come back next year and put on another great event.”

Osakis Festival history

The Osakis Festival has a proud 51-year history.

It began when a new couple, Lil and Loren Ortendahl, moved to Osakis and heard from many residents who wondered why the town didn't have an annual celebration like it did for the city's centennial anniversary back in 1957.

Lil was determined to start a yearly event but there was a problem: The Chamber of Commerce would typically sponsor such a celebration but back in 1968, women weren't allowed as members so she did the research and groundwork on her own.

After coming up with a plan, she approached the chamber and asked for a sponsorship. Wives of the Chamber members joined the effort and in its first year, 1969, the festival made $1,300, thanks mainly to donations.

The purpose of the festival was two-fold – publicity for the city and pulling people together to work for a common cause.

The festival grew from a two-day event to 10-day celebration at its peak.