Under the cloak of secrecy and hidden away in garages, Cole Camp residents have been working for months cutting, counting, pleating and fluffing paper flowers in the construction of floats for the 99th annual Cole Camp Fair, which begins Thursday.
Beginning each summer, hundreds of locals gather to craft exemplary floats that have been a long-standing tradition in this predominately German town.
“Where are you going to find a little town of 1,000, where 200 ladies spend all summer making flowers for floats?” Neil Heimsoth, a well-known resident, said.
Heimsoth’s wife, Marilyn Heimsoth, is in charge of judging the floats. Locals take the judging very seriously. They don’t want photos taken and they hide their entries away so opposing teams of float-makers won’t know their top secret designs and themes.
The Heimsoths said they aren’t sure how long Cole Camp Fair float-making has been going on, but they have history books with photos from as far back as 1919.
“I think these floats with the tremendous amounts of flowers, I’m not so sure if Leonard Schnell didn’t start that,” Marilyn said.
“He was the principal of the Lutheran School,” Neil added. “He built the whole float by himself, he would not let anyone see them. I think he would let the women fluff the flowers.”
“He had some help,” Marilyn added. “But he was so particular, that if somebody helped him build the frames, and if it didn’t suit him, he would redo it.”
“He built absolutely beautiful floats,” Neil said. “The floats they build today are nothing like the ones he used to build.”
Although the floats may not compare to Schnell’s creations in the 1950s, the residents aren’t taking a backseat in the competition. Now days, Marilyn added, depending on the design, one float might contain 50,000 flowers.
Many locals begin their float in June and some wait until July, but all are busy that last week before the Fair finishing up flowers and construction.
“The churches, the women can’t wait to get started because, that’s their social hour,” Marilyn said.
She added that this year there will about five floats of this type in the fair; all have been entered for judging.
“What’s unique was in the old days when they still had country schools, every little school built a float,” Neil said.
“They used to use a lot of crepe paper,” Marilyn added. “But now, crepe paper is too expensive. They’re using tissue paper, like wrapping tissue. After the crepe paper got so expensive they went to Kleenex and toilet tissue and that is so expensive too.”
Ruth Ann Karmen, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, was busy with other women making flowers for their float July 30. She said tissue paper is first cut into four-by-7.5-inch pieces, then they are counted into stacks of four, pleated, a wire is folded over the tissue and then the “flowers” are fluffed.
“We are up to 9,000 so far,” she said.
“Last year we had 40,000,” Sharon Stelling, a veteran flower fluffer, added.
Often while the women fluff flowers, the men measure, saw and construct the base for the float. Cardboard is intricately measured in equal squares showing where the flowers are supposed to be attached.
“Those big sheets of cardboard behind the bulletin board, those will go out to the guys and they will mark it off,” Karmen said. “They will punch it, and we’ll poke the flowers in.”
Over in a garage at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Dewy Jobe and Larry Viebrock were busy punching holes into cardboard for their float entry’s flowers July 30. Inside the church Marlene Bredehoeft, Wanda Viebrock, Pat Barnes and Rhonda Schlesselman were working with small pieces of the float affixing paper flowers. By Sept. 2 the group was mostly finished with their project.
“We’ve been working on floats for probably 25 years,” Bill Viebrock said Sept. 2.
He added that it was “beyond comprehension” the total number of flowers they have made for their float.
“There’s one lady who calls my wife and asks ‘do you have flowers to fluff for me,’” he said. “I hate to think of how many she’s done over the last few years.”
The group started early in the summer, spending two nights a week working on the project, and then added a third work night at the end of August.
Over at Cole Camp School, the Senior Class was busy making their top secret float for the competition.
“We have a great class,” Thaney Brockman, a parent, said in July. “I don’t have the exact class count but we’ve had, on average, 15 students every night we’ve worked, plus parents. We have grandmothers in there working on this. They are taking paper home.”
Brockman said she worked with seven students to draw out a plan for the float.
“They are all excited,” she added about the class. “Four of them will actually get to be characters on the float.”
The students and parents began their float June 1 and were spending eight to 10 hours a week on the project. After school began, they were working from 3 to 9 p.m. each night. On Sept. 2 they still needed 30 hours to complete their float.
Brockman said by the time they finished the project there would be approximately 35,000 flowers on the float.
In July in the high school’s weight and conditioning room, finished fluffed flowers spilled from boxes and plastic bags. By Sept. 2 students, staff and parents were beginning to glue them onto the float entry.
“We came up with our idea back in May right after we got done with prom,” Rileigh Grunden, vice-president of the senior class, said Sept. 2. “Basically Thaney and I and a few other class members went through and decided how we were going to set everything up. Thaney ordered paper, and as soon as our paper got here we started counting and cutting and pleating and fluffing and making sure everything was set up.”
Other Cole Camp Fair float participants this year are the First United Methodist Church and the Lutheran School Association.
Marilyn Heimsoth said the parade floats will be judged Thursday evening by a total of eight judges — three art judges from out of town and five local workmanship judges.
“Those are local people that have worked on floats and know what we expect,” she said of the workmanship judges.
The 99th annual Cole Camp Fair will begin Thursday and run through Saturday. There will be four opportunities for the the public to see the parade and floats: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday. Weather permitting, a display of floats will take place until noon Saturday at the Auto Parts Store.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 826-1000 ext. 1481 or @flbemiss.