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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Gone with the wind

Ely festival called off after fierce storm rips through town

Keith Vandervort
Posted 7/28/21

ELY – “The real crusher was that Friday was so much fun,” said Adam Zins as he and his wife, Tanja, tried to untangle a wire shelving unit early Saturday morning from under a …

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Gone with the wind

Ely festival called off after fierce storm rips through town


ELY – “The real crusher was that Friday was so much fun,” said Adam Zins as he and his wife, Tanja, tried to untangle a wire shelving unit early Saturday morning from under a mangled tent. All around them, in the middle of Whiteside Park, was what remained of the Blueberry/Art Festival. “It looked like a war zone.”
A line of thunderstorms with damaging 70-mph winds driving torrential rains hit Ely at about 6:30 p.m. Friday night, just as the first leg of the three-day Blueberry/Art Festival was wrapping up.
The short but severe storm destroyed scores of arts vendors’ displays and tents, and uprooted big trees in the park, prompting Ely Chamber of Commerce officials late Friday to cancel the remainder of the 2021 festival.
“Ely was hit with high winds and severe weather,” Chamber officials said in a social media post, “There were a number of vendor booths that were destroyed or severely damaged. We have to cancel the rest of the festival.”
Somehow, no serious injuries were reported.
The Zinses, from Appleton, Wis. (an eight-hour drive away), was in Ely for just the third time to sell their fine arts paintings and soaps and body-care products at the city’s premier summer festival.
For this city’s 40th annual festival, a picture-perfect opening day was enjoyed by hundreds of vendors and thousands of visitors all day Friday.
“Everybody we talked to was enjoying the day. This is what’s left,” Zins said as he surveyed the landscape. “So many people put their heart and soul into their work and some travel so far to get here. It is so sad.”
With the official cancellation of 2021 Blueberry/Art Festival in Whiteside Park, the couple were mostly alone in the park at 6 a.m. Saturday as they packed up the belongings they could salvage. They decided to stay for the rest of the weekend at the cabin they rented near Babbitt. “We hope to be back again next year,” Tanja Zins said. “Ely is such a friendly place.”
In addition to the tent and tree damage in the park, there were trees laying on top of houses and strewn across roads all over town. Minnesota Power reported more than 2,000 people without electricity while Lake Country Power had at least 3,800 customers report outages on Saturday.
By 8 p.m. Friday, the sounds of emergency vehicle sirens and chainsaws could be heard all over Ely as residents started to clean up the storm damage before darkness quickly fell.
Ely Police warned residents to stay off the streets. “Due to the severe thunderstorm and damage caused around the Ely area, we are asking the public to use caution as there are power lines and trees down,” said Ely Police Chief Chad Houde. “Please avoid these areas. The city of Ely Public Works and Fire departments are out responding to lines and trees down. Please avoid the Whiteside Park area as Blueberry Art vendors attempt to clean up their booths.”
The Ely and Morse/Fall Lake fire departments were inundated with calls of trees on houses and power lines, going from call to call. Live wires caused some small fires and Highway 88 was closed due to a power line on the road.
By sunrise on Saturday, most of the vendor tents in the park were gone. A cluster of unscathed tents still stood in the northeast part of the park. Large dumpsters provided by G-Men Environmental Services were placed around the park. Most were already filled with mangled tent frames. G-Men owner Jeremiah Day was seen emptying the contents of dumpsters into the back of one of his garbage trucks.
“I’m afraid it’s going to be a very busy day,” Day said to a passerby documenting the carnage with a camera.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eva Sebesta implored people to stay out of the park again Saturday morning.
“We needed to minimize foot traffic through the park as vehicles moved in and out. We also asked that vehicles avoid the park area. Keeping traffic to a minimum aided with clean up and clearing the park,” she said.
She thanked the Ely community for their support following the storm.
“We also wish to express our deepest thanks to (Ely Police) Chief Houde and all the Ely PD, along with the city of Ely workers. Thank you to the G-Men for the additional roll-offs delivered last night, too,” she said.
On Monday, Sebesta said as many as two-thirds of the 200-plus vendor booths were moderately or completely destroyed within minutes of the storm hitting the city.
“We looked at the situation, and there were concerns with the condition of the trees still standing. We couldn’t risk the public’s safety,” she said. “It was a very difficult decision to make but we had no other choice.”
The chamber’s board of directors was set to meet this week to discuss the financial ramifications for the organization as well as the vendors because of the shortened festival. “We have a no-refund policy, but this is way beyond anyone’s control,” Sebesta said. “Just like with COVID, we provided refunds. We will be looking at what amount we will be able to provide. This was no one’s fault.”
While the Ely Chamber carries event liability insurance for the festivals they organize, that type of policy does not cover any losses they or vendors incur because of weather events.
Community responds
An underground community festival, of sorts, by the storm survivors and the Ely community sprang up around town Saturday morning. The city of Ely waved all transient merchant and food truck licenses for the weekend.
Zup’s Market in Ely opened their secondary parking lot across the street from their store to vendors displaced from the park. The Ely Kiwanis moved their operation to Sheridan Street to sell their remaining homemade blueberry pies.
Many food trucks displaced by the storm set up along Sheridan Street, mostly between 5th and 11th Avenues. The vacant lot at the corner of Sheridan and 8th Avenue was packed with food trucks by Saturday noon.
Mike Olson and Kathy Levine had their tent set up near the northwest corner of Whiteside Park and had a whimsical collection of bowling pin sculptures and “found metal” yard art.
“We collected as many as 400 old bowling pins since 2018,” Flock said early Friday as the Blueberry/Art Festival opened. “This is just our second year in Ely,” the Duluth artist said.
Eight hours later, his tent was blown over, scattering the bowling pin art all over the park. He applauded the quick reaction from the Ely community following the storm in a Facebook post Sunday morning.
“My tent, although weighted and staked down, was blown over in the storm,” he said. “When we arrived back at the park on Friday evening, the number of people offering help, offering water, clearing downed trees was amazing. With assistance, we righted our tent. On Saturday, as we packed up, we were offered several places to set up. I was concerned about the stability of my tent due to bent structural parts, so we declined. We appreciate the care and concern you showed for all of the vendors.”
Another vendor, Larry Ricker, a photographer from Rochester, described the immediate action of the community after the storm. “I want to express my heartfelt thanks to all who stopped by my booth to offer assistance,” he said. “I had some friends helping me out so I didn’t need it, but I was overwhelmed by the number of people who offered a helping hand.”
He said he experienced a similar situation several years ago in Red Wing.
“I don’t recall any of the community members there stopping by to help out. This definitely underscores why I’m in the process of moving to this wonderful community.”
His photography is available at “The Cabin” in downtown Ely.
Michelle and David Toutloff, of Tower, brought their “Rustic Metalz” creations to the Ely festival for the first time last weekend.
“Our tents were completely destroyed as well as a few products,” she said in a social media post. “Thankfully we were not present and nobody was injured. It was truly amazing watching the whole town come together in support. Even with the incredible support the rest of the show was canceled due to the devastation. Although we must admit the show being canceled was more devastating than the damage in the long run, for us. Thank you to everyone in Ely who came and supported the vendors, financially and physically. The local support was honestly incredible to witness. Chain saws (were) running mere minutes after the storm. People came from every direction to see who needed help, and even strangers (were seen) picking up whole booths due to some vendors not being informed of the destruction of the storm. That being said, we will be back again next year.”
Sebesta admitted that the Chamber will likely lose a substantial amount of money this year because of the storm.
“We want to make sure our vendors are taken care of,” she said.
In light of that, the Chamber was planning to launch a virtual Blueberry/Art Festival online by the middle of this week.
“We had a huge outpouring from the community and supporters asking how they can help our vendors,” Sebesta said. “We are asking vendors to tell us about their losses, and that way their supporters can reach out directly to help in any way they can.”
The virtual festival will run through the end of August. For more information, go to the Blueberry/Art Festival page at
“And stay tuned for our Harvest Moon Festival in September,” Sebesta added.


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