What does a small town do with its outsized reputation? It capitalizes on it with sports and tourism. Some years, it’s easier than others.
In 2021, Wabasha, Minnesota’s Grumpy Old Men Festival, regularly held in February, had to be (wait for it) put on ice – although some events were presented virtually. Many popular events had to be postponed until better conditions prevailed.
This year, the tide has turned and grumpiness has returned to Wabasha on Saturday, February 26. The town of 2,700 is bracing to welcome visitors for a full schedule of events, including its marquee event of ice fishing.
As background, Wabasha (a.k.a. Grumpy Old Men central) was the setting for the 1993 movie of the same name (and its 1995 sequel), and the town has long hosted its annual Grumpy Old Men Festival, produced by the Wabasha-Kellogg Chamber and CVB. (And if you haven’t seen the movies, this is a great time to do so).
A short synopsis: In the first film, John Gustafson and Max Goldman, next-door neighbors in Wabasha, have a five-decade-long feud that grows legs when an attractive woman (played by Ann-Margaret) moves in. Chaos follows. In the sequel, Grumpier Old Men, another beautiful woman (played by Sophia Loren), moves in with plans to convert the bait shop to an Italian restaurant. Chaos follows. (Seriously. Light-hearted comedy. Is this not what you need right now?)
The resulting attention the two movies (largely filmed in Wabasha) received drove up tourism and resulted in the idea of the festival.
Lori Glomski, the executive director of the Wabasha-Kellogg Chamber and CVB, is just plain happy the event has returned following the pandemic.
“We’re so glad to be able to host this again. It’s very exciting.”
A lot will be going on in Wabasha, which lies about 70 miles southeast of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and it all starts on Saturday, February 26. A full schedule is here but some of the highlights include the following:
Grumpy Old Men Ice Fishing Contest This is the main event because who can forget the scene where John and Max hook the dreaded Catfish Hunter (who has been plaguing ice fishermen, apparently for decades), but then decide to let him go? Glomski says there’s no catfish in the area where the ice fishing tournament will be held – but devoted ice anglers show up every year to hook walleye, perch and sunfish.
Grumpy Old Plunge: Plunging into the frozen Mississippi River (or mostly frozen; organizers actually cut a hole in the ice to facilitate this) is a tradition in Wabasha and raises money for Great River Homes, Inc. and the Rotary Club of Wabasha. Another note: Glomski says her food stand and Grumpy Old Bar will be open during the event. (Editorial comment: Is it even possible to get into a frozen body of water without a bar nearby?)
Best-Dressed Contest (buffalo plaid, in other words) at Hoppy Girl Brewing
Anderson House Tours (this was the supposed location of Ann-Margaret’s character, Ariel Truax, in the first movie)
Ragetti’s Spaghetti: As previously mentioned, in the second film, Sophia Loren’s controversial goal was opening Ragetti’s Restaurant ("Bait Shop!" “Ristorante!”) in the town’s old bait shop, left vacant following the death of the owner.
And that’s not all. Glomski says the town plans cribbage, bingo, Texas Hold’em, author readings, live music, bonfires, s’more makings – and a lot that can be tied into the movie.
The ice fishing festival brings at least 500 people each year, she notes, and the plunge brings out about 300.
Glomski is happy to see the return of the festival and says locals are embracing it with unbridled enthusiasm.
“We’re really going back going in full force. Everyone wanted it and everyone is excited.”