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Column: Jay Day was an extravaganza while it lasted

WORTHINGTON -- Do they still do snakes dances? I haven't seen one for a while, but I must admit I am rarely outside on Halloween night. Halloween was the night when snake dances were most common. Halloween and Turkey Day. I think I did read of one snake dance from recent years in a Daily Globe blog. That brought a smile.

On the evening of Halloween, nearly every kid in town was out on the streets and on the sidewalks. Hundreds of them. It seemed someone would yell, "Snake dance!" and everyone would begin coming together, holding hands left and right. There came to be a hundred kids in some of the snake dance chains.

The leader or leaders would begin wending up an alley, around an old garage, between two parked cars, between two trees. It was fun being up front but dull compared with a position halfway down the line, or at the end of the line. There was a crack-the-whip effect that would set the rear dancers running sideways and clinging with all their might to the hands before them and after them.

I was recalling this lately -- I was reviewing accounts of Wendell Willkie's visit to Worthington. 1940. That was one of the years Worthington Junior College (Minnesota West) was still attempting an annual Jay Day celebration. Four-year-old WJC could scarcely do a homecoming gala because it had almost no alumni. It was thought a free-standing Jay Day would not attract a crowd. So it came to be -- Jay Day was tacked onto Turkey Day. A good time was had by all.

The focus was on the county fairgrounds, where Worthington High School has come to be. WJC's Bluejays were scheduled to play Rochester JC on the field in front of the grandstand on Friday evening. Before this -- Thursday evening -- a giant bonfire was scheduled at the fairgrounds. There was a small mountain of wood crates, cardboard boxes, tree limbs, leaves. The great blaze burned high while cheerleaders led the Jaycee crowd in songs and hoopla.

As the fire began to ebb and as firemen stood by, the snake dance began. Fairgrounds to the courthouse. WJC students and anyone else who wanted to join the procession clasped hands and began to wend and wind along avenues and alleys to courthouse square. If the bonfire seemed exciting, the snake dance was more exciting.

At the courthouse, while everyone came together once again, there was music by a makeshift WJC combo. As a treat to the students and the city, Gay Hower opened the State Theater to all comers, no admission. The first night of Jay Day closed with a free movie flickering on the big screen.

Festivities on Friday, the second day, began with a noon banquet for Bluejay lettermen and cheer leaders in the Hotel Thompson's Empire Room. At 4 p.m. there was another blaze -- a wiener roast at the shelter house in Chautauqua Park. The crowd included Jaycee students and guests -- high school seniors from all the region. Everyone in town was urged to gather round the fire and join in community singing. "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight..." Then the crowd shifted to the fairgrounds once again for the football contest with Rochester.

Oh -- and there was still more. Following the football game, WJC hosted a dance at Memorial Auditorium.. There was a band -- Don Patinson's musicians -- and a coronation. The Queen of Jay Day was crowned to preside over the dancers, some of whom were accomplished jitterbuggers.

Worthington residents came and went for all of the events. The town was proud of its new college, and people reveled in the experience of creating college traditions.

Saturday was Turkey Day and the town's focus came to be on the flock of bronze-breasted turkeys leading the big parade and the procession of bright floats, visiting high school bands, clowns and queens and farm machines.

There was one more Jay Day event. WJC student Barbara Heig was led to Gov. Harold Stassen, the featured Turkey Day speaker. Barbara held a Jay Day button, the button with Number 1 that had been set aside, and she pinned it on the lapel of Stassen's suit. The governor smiled.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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