by HANNAH BROADBENT
Twenty-five years ago was the first Rails to Trails festival in Watertown.
Resident and event volunteer Jim Bart remembers the days in which the event was being created.
Bart said he remembers the city brought in a professional who could tell the community about how to run a festival in the community. Bart said the man told them the first thing they needed to start, was a theme.
Watertown used to be a railroad community. According to the Luce Line Railroad history organization, the track was used primarily for passenger trains from 1908-1947. It then turned into a freight line until 1956. In 1970 the Minnesota legislature acquired the abandoned tracks, creating the state’s first nature trail – the Luce Line Trail.
Knowing this, the new community celebration had to be called Rails to Trails according to Bart.
“Everyone likes going because it’s kind of like a family reunion,” Bart said.
The event has moved around from different locations like downtown to Highland Park and back again, but there are a few events that have stayed consistent in the last 25 years. Bart said to him, those would be the parade and the Golden Spike, an event he started. Originally the spike they used was from the old railroad he said.
“It’s getting tougher to find new places to hide it,” he said laughing.
Bart said the event is especially fun if the spike stays hidden all the way to Friday. The parade is also a festival favorite of his.
“It keeps getting bigger and bigger every year,” he said. “The streets are just full of kids going crazy for candy.”
The parade is also the highlight for Rails to Trails chair Heather Jarvis.
“The smiles on the kids faces as they watch it go by, that’s my favorite,” she said.
Jarvis moved to Watertown 13 years-ago. From year one, she has been a part of the festival.
“It brought a sense of community, it brings us together,” she said.
Jarvis has been the Rails to Trails chair for four years now. She said she wanted to get involved because she wanted to help the event grow even more. Jarvis said that a family focus is the whole goal for her.
Jarvis said she has noticed an evolution in the festival. She said it keeps getting bigger and there is always something different. As a parent she finds it’s important to keep the kids events an integral part of the festival. She said they want to keep the event safe and friendly for them.
“Each year the things for kids to do has grown,” she said.
Jarvis said the Fun Zone is a good example of that because every year they have different activities. For example, this year they have 9-square and Gaga Ball. They also have a gaming trailer, for those kids who love to play video games.
Just like Bart, Jarvis knows that the bands and food are what the adults look forward to.
“Food, food and more food,” she said. “If you leave hungry you missed something.”
Jarvis said that the amount of food vendors involved in Rails to Trails is a benefit of having the event downtown. She said it’s important to bring the community right to these restaurant’s store fronts. Jarvis also wants the community to be as familiar as possible with the event, and now that the festival has been downtown people are starting to get used to where different activities and booths are.
“The end goal is to have things in the same spot to form some familiarity,” she said.
Jarvis said her favorite thing about Rails to Trails is the way it brings the community together. She remembers the 2015 tornado that for her, showed what Watertown can do when it comes together. She said she specifically remembers the wrestling team downtown with their chainsaws clearing out tree debris from the streets. Though there wasn’t activities on that day they were able to have fireworks on Sunday night, thanks to the giant community effort.
Kyle Jarvis, the Watertown Chamber President said he can still picture the community gathered in the grocery store parking lot watching the fireworks together.
“It was like a national night out, it had that feel to it,” he said.
Heather Jarvis said that Rails to Trails is a way to give something back to Watertown.
“Having the festival itself is a tribute to the community,” she said.
This is Jarvis’ last year as chair, but she sees the festival evolving and she’s excited to be there to watch. For now, she is excited to get started on Friday, July 21 as the first full day of Rails to Trails.
“Friday afternoon when the food trucks come in, everyone is lined up and the bands get started, you look around and think- we did it, it’s an amazing feeling,” she said.
The weekend of Rails to Trails kicks off with a movie in the park showing of ‘Finding Dory’ on Thursday, July 20, and goes to Sunday, July 22.
Go to http://www.railstotrailswatertown.com/ for more information.