DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — On what would normally have been the opening night of WE Fest 2020, a trio of fans stood outside the gates of the 37-year-old country music festival's home, south of Detroit Lakes, Minn., and raised a toast in its honor.
"WE Fest may have paused, but we didn't," explained Detroit Lakes native Julie Herman, who has attended every WE Fest since the iconic event first opened at the Soo Pass Ranch in 1983.
"We wanted to keep the tradition alive," explained Michelle Kraemer Paulson (aka "Bucket"), a longtime friend of Herman's, who has also attended the festival since its inception.
"We've been coming here together for the past 11 years," Herman explained; three years ago, they were joined by another friend, Lisa Flynn, who accompanied them on the evening of Thursday, Aug. 6, as well.
Flynn mourned that Thursday would have been "a perfect night" for another WE Fest opener, with sunny skies, 70-degree temperatures and relatively low humidity. However, the festival's new owners, Live Nation, announced one year ago this week that the event would be taking a hiatus in 2020.
The three days of country music would typically have attendance figures in the neighborhood of 150,000 fans.
COVID-19 also put a kibosh on the trio's plans to get together with their larger WE Fest family for a reunion this weekend, Paulson noted.
"It really is just like a family reunion," said Lynn Anderson, who has lived across Highway 59 from WE Fest since the very first event. "The same people come here every year."
Herman, Flynn and Paulson brought their WE Fest chairs along to visit with Anderson outside her home Thursday night, and swapped stories of their adventures, both together and separately.
In addition to toasting the festival itself, Flynn, Herman and Paulson also raised a glass in memory of Anderson's daughter, Jean Anderson-Landin, who was a part of their WE Fest family until she died in November.
Herman recalled how much her parents enjoyed chauffeuring her and her friends to and from the WE Fest site during its early years.
"They called my dad the grandpa of WE Fest," she said, adding that, while they didn't attend the festival themselves, both her parents enjoyed people watching from outside the gates. "My mom liked to see everything that was going on."
Jim Brogren, who grew up in Detroit Lakes, said that he's been to "all of them except one."
In WE Fest's early years, Brogren said, he would work as a beer vendor in the concert bowl throughout the afternoon, then come back and enjoy the festival at night. In subsequent years, he became an avid festival-goer, and WE Fest weekend became an annual tradition that he would share with friends from across the country.
"It's driving me nuts," he said Thursday, referring to WE Fest being on hiatus this year. "I’m going through all the pictures (from previous years) every day, and I’ve been sharing them on Facebook, and I’m just sad about it."
Brogren did admit, however, that the coronavirus pandemic would likely have caused the festival to be canceled for 2020 even if the hiatus hadn't already been announced a year ago.
"It's good timing," he said, adding that he hopes Live Nation will be able to regroup and come back "with a bang" next year. "I think they will."
Detroit Lakes retirees Andy and Sandy Lia have also been coming to WE Fest every year since 1983. In the early years, Andy would gain free admission and VIP seating with his press pass, as a longtime broadcaster with KDLM Radio.
Andy recalled how KDLM would broadcast live from the Soo Pass Ranch on the morning of WE Fest's opening day.
"On the first day of WE Fest, I’d be there with my morning show at about 5 in the morning," he said. "It was fun to watch all the people walking around that had been up all night long. Some of them weren't in the best shape."
Sandy said that while fans might have gotten a little rowdy at times, WE Fest has been a good thing for the Detroit Lakes community overall.
"I’m sure most people can understand it wouldn’t have been a good year to have WE Fest," she said, "but I hope it does come back. It's a great thing for the community ... it does a lot for Detroit Lakes economically."