Albert Lea’s version of a harvest festival

Published 9:09 am Saturday, October 25, 2008

Extending the pre-Christmas shopping season and fighting off the effects of the Depression may have been two of the original goals for Albert Lea’s Corn Days in the 1930s and into the ‘40s. Then again, maybe the original concept was to have a continuous harvest time celebration between Halloween and Thanksgiving in 1935.

However, there weren’t any parades or extra entertainment involved with what quickly evolved into a strong promotion to extend Albert Lea’s trade area in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

Corn Days was sponsored by the retail division of the Chamber of Commerce and the Tribune. An editorial in the Oct. 31, 1935, edition, plus the printing of 4,000 extra copies of the newspaper which was filled with extra ads for the new event helped to start off Corn Days the next day.

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The editorial said, “The main object is to increase the trade territory of Albert Lea. During these special ‘Corn Days’ hundreds of ‘Golden Kernels’ will be handed over by all the merchants participating to the patrons who take advantage of the wonderful bargains offered.”

The full-page ad in the Tribune for Corn Days said in part, “Be prepared for an amazing demonstration of the utmost purchasing power of the 1935 dollar … the result of an intense co-operative effort to make this the most memorable money-saving event in years. … save the coupons you receive from Albert Lea merchants. Every 50 cent purchase or payment on account gives you an opportunity to share in the big distribution of ‘Golden Kernels.’”

Each Wednesday during November at 2:30 p.m., 150 extra Golden Kernels were distributed to shoppers at the comer of West William Street and South Broadway Avenue.

There was no real explanation regarding the purpose intended for the Golden Kernels given in the ads or news stories related to the Corn Days. They may have been used for special drawings for prizes, or for merchandise discounts from the sponsoring firms.

Among the firms participating in the Corn Days were at least 14 neighborhood grocery stores and meat markets, three local dairy firms, two music stores, and many general merchandise retailers.

The first Corn Days was scheduled to end on Nov. 27, 1935. This promotion must have been successful because it was extended two more weeks to Dec. 11.

Corn Days was revived in 1936. Again, the Tribune had a full-page ad which was almost identical to the one used a year earlier. The only changes were in the dates and with the names of several sponsoring firms. The 1936 citywide sales promotion started on Nov. 13 and ended on Dec. 9. A third Corn Days was held in 1957 and there was a hint this event would just be allowed to fade away.

Yet, the Oct. 17, 1938, issue of the Tribune called the revived event Golden Corn Days and had the comments:

“At this time of the year when the farmers are in the midst of their big job of harvesting the bumper crop of golden kernels the Albert Lea business firms and merchants celebrate the season with special values in fall and winter merchandise.

“Nearly a hundred of Albert Lea’s business places are cooperating in a hearty toast to ‘Old King Corn’ and will honor this most distinguished southern Minnesota crop by offering several weeks (on Wednesdays) of exceptional bargains and money saving events. You are invited to join with thousands of citizens in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa in celebrating the Corn Days harvest season.”

On Oct. 25, 1938, some of the advertised super specials featured in Tribune ads included card tables for 79 cents each at Sorenson Furniture Co., 111 E. Clark St., and men’s leather jackets for $3.88 each at the J.C. Penney Store at 219-21 S. Broadway Ave. Incidentally, there were 20 stores advertising on this full page devoted to Corn Days bargains.

None of these firms exist today.

The Corn Days observance continued on into 1939 as the city’s version of a fall festival and shopping extravaganza taking place from Oct. 18 to the middle of December.

A Tribune article in 1940 had this explanation for the series of special shopping events for residents of the region:

“Corn Days festivals at 2:30 p.m. on each Wednesday, which take place each fall, will begin on Oct. 30 and continue to Dec. 18 when the stores of Albert Lea will start to remain open evenings to accommodate the Christmas shoppers unable to visit the stores during the day.

“Christmas street decorations will be installed on Nov. 18 so that the city will be in readiness for the appearance of Santa Claus on Nov. 27.”

However, the fall of 1940 became better known in the memories of so many people in the Upper Midwest for just one event. This was the deadly and brutal Armistice Day Blizzard, which started on Nov. 11.

By 1941 there was an indication the Corn Days weren’t really working out as a series of annual shopping events. Thus, the final observance of what had become a local version of a harvest festival took place on the very rainy afternoon of Oct. 23 that year. People getting Golden Kernels were asked to save them for another late fall event called the Turkey and Apple Party on Dec. 15, 1941. This party was to be held in conjunction with the official opening of Albert Lea stores for Christmas shoppers.