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Volunteers keep Dakota City running during the fair

Take a stroll through Dakota City Heritage Village during the Dakota County Fair in August, and you'll see plenty of people dressed somewhat ... oddly. They'll be the women in the long, heavy clothing, the men sporting suspenders and top hats.

All volunteers, it's those folks -- dressed in period-appropriate costumes -- who help bring Dakota City to life every year.

Finding enough volunteers can be daunting task, according to Dakota City Heritage Village board of directors vice president Mary Hendricks. A volunteer of 16 years herself, Hendricks is working with Dakota City president Pearl Shirley to fill in all the blanks before the 2011 Dakota County Fair.

Mary sat down with us this week to talk about Dakota City volunteers and why they're so special.

How many volunteers do you need for the fair?

We have approximately, I would say, 932 spots to fill. We have probably 300 people that are volunteers, 200 or 300 people who are ... steady volunteers. Active volunteers. There are some times when we cannot have a building open during certain shifts because we do not have enough people to staff those buildings. And you hate to see that because the buildings are important and people miss out seeing those buildings, but there's not enough people to staff them so we cannot have them open.

What kind of experience do volunteers need out here?

They have to like history. The people who come here enjoy the buildings. They enjoy the history. They have a passion for the village. One person said it's her religion out here. She loves her building. She works hard to maintain it. We do have an orientation for the people who come here for school tours. We have somewhat of an orientation for the people who come for the fair and the other events, but we also give them full brochures to look at so they can talk about the buildings. I encourage (volunteers) to greet people as they come in warmly. Welcome them to the city, welcome them to the building. They're also encouraged to look through the book, learn about the building, learn about the artifacts in there and then answer questions to the best of their ability. People might start out with school tours and shadowing, also -- that's what we like to do during the fair.

So if someone is in a building, do they need to act the part?

They can if they want. It's not necessary, but they can role play -- not one of my favorite things to do, role play -- but they can greet people and invite them to look around the building, and then say, "I will answer your questions to the best of my ability." Some people like to do it and some people will do the role playing. Sometimes it also scares people if they think they have to have set lines, so they can just go out there and interact with the people ... you can just banter back and forth, too.

What if someone is interested but doesn't have period appropriate clothing?

We have clothes. We have many costumes. Men and women's costumes. Dark skirts and white blouses are the outfit of the day. We also have dresses back there, small to large, women's clothing, kid's clothing.... We have hats and we have shoes. We have men's clothing, also. In the wintertime we have big fur coats to set the mood. They're also invited to wear their own clothes. If they want to make their own clothes, they can make their own clothes. If they have a long black skirt at home, they can wear that with an old fashioned-looking white blouse. We're always looking for clothes to come in, also.

How do you fill in the blanks?

They maybe take a couple shifts. That's always nice if they'll take a couple shifts, either in a row or if they'll come back a couple of days.... We also encourage businesses to come in, have their workers take a shift or two. We encourage businesses and groups to come out and help, especially in the drug store where you can do the group activity. Some buildings you do not have to dress up in period clothing, such as the gift shop or drug store. But they're always welcome to wear their logos. Politicians also.

What's the most rewarding thing for you about volunteering at Dakota City?

Interacting with the people who come to the village. You want them to have fun, you want to make it fun for them. You want to laugh and portray that Dakota City is a fun place to come to. That's my biggest thing. They learn. It's educational, but still, I want them to see the fun people are having as a volunteer. People love to come here, volunteer and have fun.

If there is someone out there who is interested in volunteering, are they still able to sign up before this year's fair?

Oh yes. They can call 651-460-8050. We have 21 buildings, office help, lemonade stand -- that's a biggie. They can call in, we can fit them right in. No experience necessary. Once they get out there, they want to come back. We've had people who have volunteered for years. There's no pay, but they do get onto the grounds free for their shift.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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