Looking back: Cottage Grove Holiday Train event gathered steam over time
Canadian Pacific’s Holiday Train concert is expected to draw upward of 30,000 people to Cottage Grove on Saturday — the only city in the country to host the anniversary concert — but there was a time when it wasn’t even a destination on the festive train’s route.
Sandy Shiely remembers that. So does Phil Wagner. Mary Slusser too.
They are among founding members of the Holiday Train Committee and recall the effort to convince Canadian Pacific to make a stop in south Washington County. In the 11 years since, they have watched the annual event grow exponentially, both in the number of people who show up to greet the decorated freight train and in the amount of money that is donated to the Friends in Need Food Shelf in conjunction with the train’s visit.
They saw the potential years ago.
For part of his 37-year Canadian Pacific career, Wagner rode the train and worked security at the stops from Chicago to northwestern North Dakota.
“At the other locations, I saw how the people were excited about the train and everything,” Wagner said, “and I saw how much good it does for the area community with the food shelf.”
Slusser and her husband, George, who was an engineer for Canadian Pacific, watched the train roll into downtown St. Paul in 2002.
“I still remember seeing the train and it came around the bend and I just remember it being a magical moment as it crept into St. Paul,” Slusser said. She looked around at the event and thought something similar should take place in Cottage Grove.
Shiely, the former mayor, couldn’t figure out why it rolled right through her town.
“I was here in Cottage Grove and saw it come through and realized that it was a beautiful lighted train — and it wasn’t stopping here,” Shiely said.
Unbeknownst to one another, Slusser and Wagner simultaneously worked separate channels to help land a Holiday Train stop in Cottage Grove. Slusser contacted the rail company, and explained that the food shelves that benefit from Holiday Train stops in Hastings and St. Paul don’t address south Washington County’s needs.
Meanwhile, Wagner said, railroad officials “got sick of me talking to them about it,” and they told him the train would stop if he could rearrange the rail schedule to accommodate the extra visit. He did.
In August 2003, Canadian Pacific confirmed to Slusser it would make its first Cottage Grove stop that December.
“After they said yes to me, I hung up the phone and said, ‘Now what do I do?’” Slusser said. “I really wasn’t expecting them to say yes.”
She went to a Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce event and asked people if they liked trains. She recruited the rail fans to join the new Holiday Train Committee. It was a small group of 8 to 10 people that first year.
A Canadian Pacific official told Slusser early on what the community needed to do to make the event a success. It included fundraising, involving businesses, working with the schools and getting help from the cities.
“We’ve kind of followed that footprint ever since,” she said.
Emily White got recruited to work on the Holiday Train Committee ahead of the 2004 visit. She’s been on the committee ever since. She said even though it takes place in Cottage Grove, it benefits the whole area.
“I see what the food shelf has done for members in my community, for children in our community, and I just think it’s so important,” said White, a Newport resident. “And I don’t mind cold weather. I don’t mind the winter. I think it’s just something that the community has really embraced.”
The first Cottage Grove stop, in 2003, raised $13,000 for Friends in Need in St. Paul Park. Last year the event raised over $116,000 for the food shelf.
The Holiday Train Committee includes city, business, community, public safety and other representatives. In addition to Slusser, Shiely, White and Wagner, this year’s members are: Colleen Stelmach of the Chamber; Rhonda Mann of Anchor Bank; Pete Koerner and Rick Redenius of the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department; Lori Edwards of Edwards Plumbing; Jean Brown of the Bulletin and RiverTown Multimedia; Molly Pietruszewski of the city of Cottage Grove; Elaine Manovich of Cub Foods; Randy Bachman of Merchants Bank; Jeff Kraus and Tim Malone of Werner Electric Supply; Barb Lacher of Central Bank; Barb Brown of School District 833; Michelle Rageth of Friends in Need; Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey; St. Paul Park Mayor Keith Franke and Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty.
The committee coordinates Holiday Train fundraising and the logistics of the annual stop. Its work begins in late summer and ends after the visit.
Shiely stayed involved with the Holiday Train Committee after her eight-year stint as mayor ended.
“When I left office I could leave everything, but this is the one thing I could not leave,” she said. “It’s the most satisfying project I worked on during the years I was mayor. It is a plus for the community at so many levels.”
The event raises money and food for the food shelf, and it provides entertainment for citizens and is a source of pride in the community, she said.
Committee members said the event’s success is a reflection of the community’s generosity.
“This area is so giving and they have a lot of pride in what this Holiday Train has accomplished,” Wagner said.