After nearly two decades of volunteering for Riverfest, Barb Frahm still gets a little emotional watching the giant U.S. flag go up in the center of Riverside Park during the opening ceremony.
“There’s nothing better than watching that new flag go up every year,” Frahm said Friday morning. “It about brings a tear to your eye.”
The flag-raising marked the end of months of preparation and the beginning of the river festival and the community-wide Independence Day celebration that makes the time spent volunteering worthwhile.
Volunteers started putting Riverfest together at 7 a.m. Sunday, working long days to transform the city park next to the Mississippi River into the home of a variety of family entertainment that runs through Monday night’s fireworks show.
“We call it ‘fest-in-a-box,’” Frahm said. “We have all our stuff packed into semis, and we start out by emptying out the semis and distributing throughout the park where pieces and parts go.”
Members of the board of directors, including Frahm, joined the rest of volunteers pounding in stakes and putting up fences, getting the fest organized before it opens.
“(Thursday) we were in here in full-blown panic mode. Knowing that it would still come together, you’re still in panic mode,” Frahm said.
Frahm, who takes three weeks off from her job at Mayo Cinic Health System for the festival each year, got started volunteering 19 years ago.
“I was a La Crosse Jaycee and kind of got involved in the beer tent capacity, serving beer,” Frahm said.
After watching the production and the work done by the other volunteers, Frahm got hooked.
“It looked like a lot of fun, and it is a lot of fun,” she said.
The next year, she took over running the Jaycees tent, then joining the Riverfest board off and on.
“I never went away … I’ve always been here in some capacity or another,” Frahm said.
Riverfest couldn’t go on without its estimated 250 volunteers, according to 2016 board president Paul Peterson.
“Riverfest is held together by about 8,000 zip ties that all those folks took the time to put on all those fence posts,” Peterson said during the opening ceremony.
Those volunteers include electricians, fireworks technicians and even the pilot who flew the World War II plane “Sweet Revenge” over the water to close out the opening ceremony, not to mention the commodores who promote the festival in the area throughout the year.
The 2016 commodore, Dave Erickson, was excited to get the festival going to kick off the weekend.
“I was in charge of the weather. As you can see, I did well,” he joked, referencing the National Weather Service forecast of temperatures in the low 80s and sunny skies all weekend.
Mayor Tim Kabat said the festival, along with other area volunteer-run events, highlights how special the La Crosse community is.
“It does really have a great showing of just how special we really are when people step up time and time again,” Kabat said. “It’s a pretty remarkable day and the best setting anywhere for a river festival here on the mighty Mississippi.”
In addition to honoring the volunteers, Riverfest organizers asked U.S. Marine Sgt. Daniel Thomay of the Onalaska recruiting office to speak on the importance of celebrating Independence Day. Thomay called on fest-goers to “honor our forefathers by keeping in mind what this day truly means.”
The opening ceremony also included a performance by the 451st Army Band.