The village of Frederic isn’t big enough to have its own full-time mayor--most towns in the string along the highway don’t--but it is big enough to have a queen and king. For more than fifty years, rising high school senior girls have competed in the town’s annual pageant, one of the marquee events of its annual festival, Family Days. For the last two years, another pageant, one for dads only, has sprung up to complement it.
Festivals are a staple of small town life. Nederland, Colorado celebrates something called Frozen Dead Guys Days, with events centering on the cryogenically frozen remains of a dead man. Mackinac Island, Michigan sets aside ten days every june to celebrate lilacs. Rosendale, New York’s festival revolves around pickles. To a romantic, kooky festivals are a way for small towns to assert their selfdom, to a pragmatist, they’re a way for towns to advertise.
Some, like the Florida Seafood Festival in Apalachicola, attract tens of thousands of visitors to their respective town every year, others pass by quietly, a good weekend to go home if that’s where you grew up and you’d like to run into people you haven’t seen in awhile. Frederic, Wisconsin’s Family Days is on the more modest side.
I grew up in Frederic, Wisconsin, a quiet place, a place that has never had a population of over 1,300, that I can remember at least. It’s up in the north woods, maybe an hour and a half’s drive from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The village of Frederic sprang up around a nascent lumber industry and was incorporated in the early years of the 20th century. It was named after the son of the man who developed the land, William Starr. Frederic Starr would go on to run track at Cornell. It’s not clear he ever visited the town his father named after him. But unless you have business there, unless you grew up there, it’s not likely you’d find yourself there. It’s not on the way to much.
Like a lot of tiny towns between the coasts, Frederic has felt like it was resisting dying since I was a little girl. I was born in the hospital on the top of the hill overlooking the golf course, in the building next to the future site of the town’s nursing home, where as a teenager I would work as a nursing assistant, bathing and dressing people who grew up there, back when all the kids went to one-room schoolhouses. The hospital has since closed and turned into a residential mental health treatment center for teenage girls.
When my dad and his brothers attended school in Frederic, they graduated with classes of 60, 70, or 80 kids. I graduated with 44. Now, there are under 40. Amish and Mennonite families, attracted by the peace and quiet and low land costs, are snapping up parcels of land adjacent to the fields where I used to play. The town is degentrifying.
The first Miss Frederic pageant was held in 1964. Over the years, interest in the display fluctuated; parading teenage girls across the stage in a bathing suit became unfashionable to certain cultural persuasions, but Frederic kept that in so that the girls could go on to compete in the Miss Wisconsin pageant if they won (it’s since been replaced with a community service portion). Over the years, as with many aspects of small town life, the sizes of the high school classes, and the number of girls who compete has steadily ebbed. There were fifteen girls, there were eight girls, there were three. This year, there were two.
Terri Stoner has been involved in the pageant, off and on, since she competed as a teenager in 1980. Part cheerleader, part best friend, part mentor, part coach. Terri stays in touch with many of the girls after the competition is over. She works for months, without pay, to put together a show that involves a handful of nervous teenagers, many of whom have never performed in front of that many people. She enlists members of the community to provide “special entertainment” (one of my younger brother’s friends used to sing every year, and Terri’s youngest son used to perform as part of a string quartet.) She pulls the entire event off on a shoestring budget.
Speaking with her is almost enough to motivate anybody to sign up for a queen pageant. She can name, from memory, dozens of girls and their talents. A girl who twirled fire batons. Another young woman whose talent was ice skating, another demonstrated sewing. One girl sang “Glory” from Rent, one of the only talents to be performed in front of a closed curtain. When Frederic had a state championship gymnastics team, girls would perform balance beam, bar, and floor routines. One girl performed on a trampoline. Another year, a contestant wore a long red gown and did sign language along with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” “That was stunning,” says Terri.
“Everybody has talents. You just teach people how to present them.”
Because the pageant is a family event, Terri is careful with language and subject matter. “Usually if it’s one of the girls performing vocally, it’s pretty easy if you’re doing the vocals to take out a swear word if it’s, you know, ‘damn’ or something,” she says. “One girl who was doing a dance number and we cut a whole verse because it had sexual innuendo. She said, ‘Well it’s not real bad.’ I said, you know what? we don’t need that.”
Terri also recalls how she was uncomfortable once with a dance number to the Nelly song “Shake your Tailfeather.” “If you’re gonna do that song, just don’t shake your fanny in the direction of the audience,” she says.
Even as Frederic’s population has greyed, the lumber industry has long gone dormant, as houses along Highway 35 fell into disrepair, the pageant has held on as an institution. Growing up, it was one of the most fun events of the year; we’d pile into the car and drive to town, everybody would be there, rooting for their favorite contestant (usually the favorite would be a relative, a former babysitter, maybe a neighbor) and having the sort of clean language wholesome good time that the adult I have become can only have with extreme concentration. After the pageant, my parents would send us to my grandparents and attend the “street dance,” where main street was blocked off so adults could drink and smoke Camels out in the open while a cover band played “Summer of ‘69.”
For the girls in the pageant, the event has always served as a de facto debutante ball. Frederic is not a wealthy town. There aren’t any clothing stores, there’s no Wal Mart. The nursing home where I worked in high school paid nursing assistants like me $10 an hour, more than what a person could make at almost any other part time job in the area. A small group of adults like Terri Stoner--teachers, community leaders, coaches--encouraged kids to look beyond Frederic, and many of them did.
A few people who went to Frederic High School at the same time I did settled back in Frederic. One of them is Michael Route, a year older than me, who now owns an ironworking studio downtown and is the Chamber of Commerce President. Three years ago, he decided to help plan Family Days. “I decided to help out and lo and behold I get wrangled into doing everything.”
“That’s how it works in a small town,” he adds, laughing.
Two years ago, he and the committee thought it’d be fun to try something new. In addition to the beauty pageant, a serious affair for entrants, why not a dad pageant, the opposite of serious?
The first year, the committee had teachers hand out entry forms calling for nominations from elementary schoolers. But because of the limitations--dads vying for the title of Mr. Frederic had to have a child in school--they weren’t getting enough.
“You know, guys around here are not quick to jump onstage,” Michael adds. Generally speaking, Frederic men are not flamboyant or dramatic people. So this year, they opened up registration to all dads.
The pageant takes place on the Friday night of Family Days, the night before the Queen pageant, on an outdoor stage that sits right at the edge of the lake. A sloping hill down to the stairs provides the audience a place to spread out blankets, vendors to meander through and sell balloons or light up headbands. The dads are introduced by their families, and then the families sit down in the audience.
“Then, we embarrass them,” says Michael.
The dads perform a series of Minute to Win It-style challenges as the audience hoots and laughs. Then, there’s a dance competition. The judges, in crowns and sashes, are the queen pageant winners from the year before. Sometimes, they’ll have the crowd cheer to indicate their favorite, but ultimately, the queens get the final say. After the pageant, members of the volunteer fire department set off fireworks across the lake.
Michael says he doesn’t want the Mr. Frederic pageant to take away from Miss Frederic. They’re two very different events, on two nights. One serves as teenage girls’ coming out; the other pokes fun at men who are settled down. The contestants from both pageants even help each other out.
The winner of the dad pageant receives a crown and title of Mr. Frederic and some gift certificates from local businesses. He’s given use of a convertible to decorate for the parade on Sunday, which he can choose to decorate or not decorate. He doesn’t ride on the same float with the queen.
Even though Miss Frederic only had two girls sign up this year, Terri Stoner doesn’t think the pageant is going anywhere. “The essence of it is really rooted in family celebration in our community and building strong people within our community,” she says. “Whether they stay in our community or go or whether they go or come back; it doesn’t matter. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”
“Next year, we’re looking at numbers up near five or six again.”
By then, as every year, Family Days will fall on a weekend when Frederic’s cold, wet springs have reluctantly yielded to its lush, buggy summer. The park at the edge of town will fill with kids out of school, maybe a little less than the year before. They will play little league in the diamond facing away from the water. The teenagers will sneak around to the other side of the lake, where nothing has been built up, and secretly smoke pot on the dock. They will gather around the stage down by the curve in the lakeshore to watch local fathers embarrass themselves, they will pack a school gym to watch teenage girls step onstage one by one, to face them, to announce themselves.