A tale of dogs and rivers: How a one-time city celebration became a Rockford mainstay

The morning before the madness: A photo snapped of the festival grounds before the centennial began in 1981. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White)

It began at the Rockford House, as many stories in 1980s Rockford did. A commodore and a reverend walked into a bar, and the rest is history.

Okay, it was just lunch, and Doug White was really a Vice Commodore of Parades for the Minneapolis Aquatennial. In 1980 White was a new businessman to the Rockford community and was looking to market his drugstore as well as get a feel for the what Rockford was about. He and his wife Marsha had been very involved at their previous home, Brooklyn Center, participating and promoting the area’s

Doug White pictured in his Aquatennial Vice Commodore garb. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White)

royalty for the annual Aquatennial. Reverend Arthur Emerson, also a school board member at the time, approached White to do a similar event for Rockford, to which White was all ears.

After some discussion, the two realized that Rockford was on the cusp of its 100th official year as a city. The city was established 1881; previously, it had been designated a village. Why not hold a centennial celebration?

The two shook hands and got to work. Doug and Marsha began to recruit friends, family, and locals to help organize and provide the community with a festival they wouldn’t soon forget.

THE CENTENNIAL TEAM

“We had a lot of ideas and not a lot of money,” said White. White approached Marv Bloom, owner of Riverview Estates, for help, who agreed. Reluctance from the city eventually resulted in the two backing the event financially and taking on all potential liability issues.

Deanna Bergenbring, owner of Jerry’s Red Owl and former St. Louis Park, jumped on board to help mastermind the operation as well.

Others volunteered their time to focus on the main attractions: Dennis and Nancy Yonak and Paul Moore set up the volleyball tournament, Marsha’s father Larry Engle was charged with horseshoes, Marsha herself took over for the dance and costume contest, Sue Vergin organized the parade, Gloria Ball created event apparel and keepsakes. Plenty more volunteers found other events that needed their assistance.

The ribbon is cut by organizers and city officials to open up the 5k run to participants, who wait eagerly behind. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White)

Courts for the volleyball and horseshoe tournaments had to be dug by hand, which White recalls as a very messy event. “Now you look and if there was a side-by-side comparison of the courts we dug and the courts we have today, it’s amazing,” said White. “[Riverside] Park is a living example of how far our community has come.”

The event was to take place on a piece of city-owned land near present-day Rockford Elementary School. With White’s experience, the city’s Rockford royalty program was also fitting to be upgraded. Doug White recalled the early days of Miss Rockford with amusement.

“The first Miss Rockford Pageant we attended was done on a flatbed truck, no decoration,” said White. “They had taken an arch with some fake flowers on it for the candidates to walk through, and the emcee Ron Will had a good voice, but he was up there in blue jeans and a white tee shirt as the master of ceremonies.” The Whites were used to extensive marketing, promoting, traveling, and making appearances for the previous royalty programs they had worked with, and both agreed that “there was room for improvement.”

Tossing aside the flatbed, the crew got to work designing a float. White traces the initial design to another session at the Rockford House, done on a napkin, and later constructed with chicken wire and spare tissue paper from a friend-of-a-friend’s pompom-making company.

Come to Mommy! Doug White called the Rockford Centennial Baby Crawl a crowd favorite: parents beckoned desperately from the other side, shaking rattles and toys to get the tots moving. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White)

A carnival was a bit out of budget, and in its place was a host of small competitions: an egg toss, a balloon relay, a big wheel race, a long-distance run, and even a baby crawl.

The ragtag committee collectively held their breath, and then it was time for the big day. The Whites have photos of the flagged grounds bright and early that morning, empty and hopeful for big crowds.

Thankfully residents showed up, and in strong numbers. “It was scary, but turned out to be very successful,” said White. “The community had a wonderful time and learned a lot about Rockford that year.”

A collection of centennial gear: a plate, belt buckle, and commemorative cup. Festival organizers Doug and Marsha White look on in the background. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White) Hat memorabilia from early festivals. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White) Centennial shirts were sold and featured the logo of the event in 1981. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White) Booths set up for the first Rockford fest, the Rockford Centennial Celebration. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White) The 1982 dance in the Fire Barn. Doug swears a close friend of his met his future wife for the first time at one of these dances. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White) You may have tried to throw a ring on a Coca-Cola bottle, but have you ever tried it on a blue panda bear? A young girl prepares to try her luck at the 1982 Dog Days. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White) Wayne Flury in his official capacity as the emcee at the first annual Dog Days celebration in 1982, which took place in present-day Riverside Park (note the Lions building in the background). (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White)
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Wayne Flury in his official capacity as the emcee at the first annual Dog Days celebration in 1982, which took place in present-day Riverside Park (note the Lions building in the background). (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White)

DOG DAYS OF SUMMER

Unfortunately, a centennial celebration cannot return every year. Organizers were approached by Rockfordites curious to see what they had in store for 1982, and discussions revived.

Deanna Bergenbring agreed to co-chair with White, and the team began generating ideas for a reoccurring festival. The first full weekend of August was chosen with the idea to call it the Rockford “Dog Days.” Not only was the festival named due to its proximity to summer’s end, but in tune with the Aquatennial’s slogan “The 10 Best Days of Summer.”

Apparel was printed for the second Rockford festival, Rockford Dog Days. (Photo courtesy of Doug and Marsha White)

Much of the same events from the centennial were organized under the new moniker, and the Dog Days continued to see success from 1982 onward. This, of course, minus the year the city tried to organize it, which ended up “being a mess” according to White.

Dog Days Committee members moved forward with the goals of bringing residents together and improving the local park, hoping to turn it into a focal point of Rockford.

Carnival rides weren’t introduced to the ordeal until nearly 15 years later, when a neighboring carnival by some stroke of luck had an off weekend. Today, the midway rides anchor the festival, attracting families and other young fest-goers.

Doug and Marsha’s Aquatennial experience also continued to refine the edges of the Miss Rockford program. The floats got better, the program put in the time, and Rockford gained greater visibility in the pageant scene It didn’t happen the first year, but eventually they would get Miss Rockford Brenda Flury crowned Queen of the Lakes at the Minneapolis Aquatennial in 1992. No Rockford Ambassador has achieved that honor since, but White affirms that the program rises to the challenge every year.

The last change, of course, was the jump from Dog Days to River Days. The royalty didn’t like Dog Days because it caused issues while riding in parades. White maintained that the name wasn’t as bad as other trivial festival royalty titles (he mentions the former “Miss Carp Days” or “Miss Pork Belly”), but nonetheless retired the title and the festival committee put out a contest for a new name. The winner was George Ladd, and the winning name was River Days.

Today, Riverside Park hosts the annual celebration and the well-kept grounds are a testament to the mission of the festival committee and work by the city. The park truly has become a focal point of the community of Rockford.

Doug and Marsha still have a hand in the festival, lending their convertible to the grand marshal and announcing the entrants in the parade.

White is thankful of the help he received in those early years, and the continued commitment volunteers, businesses, local groups, and churches have given to the festival. Lastly, there is something to be said about the Rockford community as a whole, attending River Days year after year.

“When we first started this, We figured if people like it, it would grow,” White said. “And it did.”