The summertime tradition in the tiny Ashland hamlet of Sanborn for decades was to gather at the old Sanborn school in mid July and celebrate being a close-knit community.
That tradition will be renewed at Sanborn Pioneer Day July 13 at the Sanborn Community Center, 10 miles south of Ashland on Highway E.
The event is a rebirth of an old-time festival that featured softball games, small mountains of food and kids’ games that brought in farm families for miles around. Visitors would stop to indulge in a real slice of northern Wisconsin hospitality. Reunions were planned around the event.
“When we were kids, it was the high point of the summer,” recalled Sanborn Community Club president Bob Holley
“It was quite an event; they would have three days of things going on,” said Jody Anderson, club secretary. “It all revolved around the softball tournament — that took three days to complete.”
Plenty of other events were packed into the festival. Bed races ran from the school to downtown bars. There was a greased pole climb with a $20 bill for the winner. Coins hidden in a big pile of sawdust attracted crowds of kids. There were horse-drawn hayrides and tractor rides, and hilarious games of mud volleyball.
Gradually, though, things changed. In more recent years fewer and fewer small farms populated the area, which meant fewer farm families, and attendance began to drop off. The softball tournament also lost teams.
“People just didn’t go in for softball as much as they used to,” said Jody’s husband Jerry Anderson.
Anderson said he could recall kids sneaking away from their haying chores so they could take part in the tournament in the old days.
And as the numbers of people declined, so did the event. Pioneer Days became Pioneer Day, and eventually, low turnout and the difficulty in raising the kind of community help such an event requires killed it entirely.
“It was kind of sad. How could you not have a Pioneer Day?” Jody Anderson asked.
Another blow to the possibility of renewing the celebration was the need to demolish the old tired schoolhouse.
“We looked at trying to fix it up, but the cost was just astronomical,” said Community Club board member Brian Tody.
The demolition left a hole where a community heart had once been. The gathering place where all sorts of community events were held was gone.
Eventually a new community center was built and fitted out with all the necessities such as dining tables, kitchen facilities and the like.
And with this renewal came another rebirth — the renewal of the Sanborn Pioneer Day.
“Without it, the only reason to get together any more is for weddings and funerals,” Tody said.
About five years ago the first attempt at restoring the Sanborn tradition began.
The second year, the Northern Aged Iron antique tractor club joined in, and since then, the event has grown as vendors have joined and more activities for kids have been added. This year those events include an inflatable bouncy house, an obstacle course and the return of one of the more popular of the old events — the sawdust money pit.
The organizers have also learned some things along the way. They replaced the softball tournaments with mud runs, timed contests in which drivers navigated through pits of mud.
“They were fun and popular, but it was just such a mess afterwards,” said Jerry Anderson. “It took two weeks to get things cleaned up.”
So they substituted tractor-pulling competitions, which needed only a hard, level, flat dirt track.
“It’s just as much fun, and it’s a lot less mess,” he said.
All this may be seem a bit like old-fashioned Americana, organizers are just fine with that.
“I think one of the best things is listening to the stories flying around when you get people together,” said Jody Anderson. “There may have been a lot of changes over the years, but I think they have been changes for the good.”