shovels and trees that are ready to be planted
January 6, 2020

Behind the scenes: Planning a Centennial Celebration for Whitewater State Park

From Friends of Whitewater State Park

The Centennial of a park is a BIG deal! It is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So, the naturalists at Whitewater State Park, which was established in 1919, put together a plan to host a special event each month of 2019 to celebrate the first 100 years of the park. Each event highlighted the history or a unique feature of the park. Whereas some events were modest, for example a winter solstice celebration that recreated a winter golf course in the park, others were BIG, such as hosting a concert by the Grammy Award-wining Okee Dokee brothers in July and commissioning and staging a play about the history of the park and the Whitewater valley each Sunday in August.

Members of a local Boy Scout troop help the Friends Group plant trees in the new campground.

Other events celebrated the history of the park by recreating the CCC camp as a ghost walk, hosting a Boy Scout Camporee and service project, and a big picnic and sing-along. Other events celebrated the unique resources of the park and included a winter evening Owl Prowl, a Trout Fishing Extravaganza, Art Exhibits and Activities, field trips to experience the unique geologic features of the driftless area, and activities focused on the archeologic features and early history of the area.

Park staff planned all of the events. However, the state has no money to pay for these special activities and we, the Friends of Whitewater State Park, took on the challenge of raising the necessary funds. Funding would come from donations from individuals and organizations as well as from small grants.

When we first heard details of the plans for the year and the expected cost, we were both excited and overwhelmed. This project required raising about $35,000 and would be far larger than anything the current Friends group had ever done. But we accepted the challenge and got started early in 2018, almost a year before the first event. Each of us on the Friends’ board had certain skills and interests. Some members had experience writing grants while others were comfortable talking with potential donors and advertisers. The variety of expertise was important and kept the effort moving forward.

Members of the Friends of Whitewater board were nearly all MN Master Naturalist Volunteers, a program “dedicated to conservation education and service within their communities.” In the 1980’s an earlier Friends of Whitewater group helped push for construction of the Whitewater State Park Visitor Center. After this project, the group suspended for several years until 2013 when it was revived in part as a MN Master Naturalist Volunteer’s capstone project. This new Friends of Whitewater started work on the centennial celebration with little experience in raising funds.

As we began to search for financial support, we found that local communities felt a real connection to the park and were very supportive. In particular, organizations in Winona, St. Charles, and Plainview were key to getting us off to a good start. We also applied for and received grants from several foundations and businesses from the greater area that have an interest in supporting community activities.

birthday cake for whitewaterPublicity for the centennial events was another challenge and we advertised through printed fliers, announcements at park activities, posters, and local media. In spring, we worked with a local newspaper to print a 12-page special insert that described all centennial events and summarized the history of Whitewater State Park. This took effort, from writing, selecting photos, and getting advertisers to deciding where it would be distributed. The insert was included in three local papers and reached 70,000 readers. The cost was mostly covered by advertising.

The planning and organizing, fund raising, publicizing, recruiting volunteers to run events, paying bills, and other requirements of supporting a year’s worth of centennial events was a lot of work. But our effort paid off by bringing hundreds of people to the park, some who had never been there. Through various activities, visitors experienced the history of the park and the Whitewater Valley from before the first European settlers to the modern park and environment. They learned about the native animals and the unique geologic features of the area. These outdoor experiences induce feelings toward nature that inspire attitudes and values. Valuing nature creates behaviors that will support and respect the natural world. We consider our work on the Centennial Celebration as an investment in the future of our natural world.

If your Friends group accepts a similar challenge, here are some thoughts on organizing and fundraising.

  • Work closely with park staff; they have a pretty good idea of what will work best and the costs.
  • Try to connect with MN Master Naturalist Volunteers; they are enthusiastic and can be a great help.
  • Start planning, fundraising, and publicity early.
  • Look for funding in your community. Many businesses and foundations give back to their communities through grants and have a formal application process.
  • When applying for grants, address how your activities meet the needs of the
  • Look for organizations and individuals with personal connections to the park.
  • Plan on some disappointments. Don’t be discouraged if your first grant application is not funded.
  • Keep the Parks and Trails Council up to date on your activities. As our fiscal agent, they were quite helpful.

Your celebration or event for your site could be as large or small as you would like and completing such a project can help empower and prepare your group for even bigger things. The challenges of organizing and fundraising may seem daunting at first, but through persistence and determination you can, as we did, provide a valuable once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Content by: Joel Dunnette and Jay McLaren, Friends of Whitewater State Park

Photos: Courtesy of Friends of Whitewater State Park

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Kids ice fishing
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