A meeting that could determine the future of Frontier Days will be held Tuesday.
Charles Clayton, who has chaired the event for the past four years, is hopeful that someone - or ideally some group - will step forward and take over the 35-year-old festival.
Clayton, who is returning to school to get his master's degree, has dedicated countless hours to keeping alive a tradition started by the Fort Dodge Dragoons, who created, planned and staged the event from its inception until 2005. Dragoon leaders stunned the community in February of that year by announcing the group would end its participation in the celebration.
At that time, David Haggard, the interim city manager, led a series of meetings trying to find a way to keep the festival going. During one of those meetings, Clayton - who had been a member of the Frontier Days Steering Committee for about three years - volunteered to lead the organization.
Clayton knew that taking over Frontier Days would be big, but he had no idea how big. I was one of the people who sat with him on the committee and, the first year, we decided to simply do what had been done the year before. It was four months before the celebration, and we didn't have time to innovate.
It was a tremendous learning curve for us all.
One of the first obstacles was the lack of 501(c)3 status. The Dragoons had charitable status through the Fort Museum bingo games it operated. Those games provided the majority of funding for the event.
That brought us to our second obstacle. We had no major funding source. Every year has been a struggle as committee members have had to solicit donations from businesses and individuals to keep Frontier Days going.
Our least popular change was increasing the cost of the admission buttons. A number of people objected to the price increase. Yes, the buttons were $1 under the Dragoons. But their bingo game money provided thousands of dollars of funding a year. We didn't have that. We incrementally increased the button price to $5 - and listened patiently while people protested that they couldn't afford to pay that. The fact of the matter is, we couldn't afford to put on Frontier Days without raising the button price.
Even with more revenue from the buttons, we had to find new ways every year to trim costs - whether it was less-expensive entertainment, doing more of the work ourselves or, finally, cutting the celebration from three to two days.
Still, we managed to bring in family-suitable entertainment, a wide array of food and craft vendors and, thanks to Mike and Cindy Mulroney's efforts, the ever-popular parade.
Clayton is optimistic that Frontier Days will go on. He said he's talked with members of a local civic organization who have expressed interest in taking over. And, he said, a Fort Dodge businessman wants to help with corporate fundraising.
Clayton, who oversees two nonprofit groups and has a young family, is ready to step down.
Frontier Days may only be one weekend in June, but it is a year-long effort - finding performers, booking bands, lining up volunteers to work the beer tent and the gates, booking the portable restrooms, orchestrating trash pick-up and a zillion other tasks.
Tuesday's meeting will be at 7 p.m. at the Fort Dodge Area Chamber of Commerce offices. If you want to help ensure that Fort Dodge has a summer festival, show up. Clayton said if anyone wants to visit with him before Tuesday, they can call him at 955-2969 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barbara Wallace Hughes is the managing editor of The Messenger.