Chuck Austin returned last weekend for the 50th anniversary of Coon Rapids Snowflake Days, the annual winter celebration he founded as a member of the Coon Rapids Jaycees in 1964.
Austin, 82, drove up I-35 from his home in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 13 and attended the Valentine’s Day Sno Ball Dance put on by the Coon Rapids Snowflake Days Committee at the Coon Rapids Civic Center Feb. 14 before emceeing a reunion Feb. 15 of members of the Coon Rapids Jaycees and Mrs. Jaycees from the 1960s.
He brought with him a boxful of memories from those days – scrapbooks of Snowflake Days and Jaycees memorabilia, newspaper clippings, photos and awards.
Austin, his wife Marie and their children moved from Des Moines, where he grew up, to Minnesota in 1960 when he took a job as Super Valu’s Minnesota division bakery products manager. They decided on Coon Rapids mainly because he had relatives living in the city – in the Thompson Park area of Foley and Northdale boulevards, according to Austin.
The Austins moved into the first house built on the 11600 block of Xavis Street NW, near Morris Bye Elementary School, where some of his children went to school.
In fact, his oldest daughter, Vickie, graduated from Anoka High School and three others from Coon Rapids High School, which opened in 1963 and had its first graduating class in 1966, Austin said.
He joined the Coon Rapids Jaycees and his wife the Mrs. Jaycees because they were thriving organizations. In the 1960s, the Coon Rapids Jaycees topped 150 members and was No. 1 in the state, Austin said.
“We were very active in the community with our many projects,” he said.
What Austin liked about the organization, besides the camaraderie, was its emphasis on leadership development and the requirement that each project had an action plan drawn up by those involved which had to be approved by the Jaycees’ board of directors, Austin said.
“I have developed an action plan for any project and program in which I have been involved since then,” he said.
At the time he came to Coon Rapids the population was about 6,600 and when the Austins left in late 1969, it was some 37,000, according to Austin.
But early in the 1960s there were efforts to change the name of the city. “We didn’t need a name change, we needed a change in attitude,” Austin said.
That prompted Austin to start work on a winter celebration for the city and Coon Rapids Snowflake Days was born in 1964.
He picked winter rather than summer because “Coon Rapids was a young community and everyone came from somewhere else,” according to Austin.
In the summer months, people would go back to their home town to visit relatives, himself included to Des Moines, but they would stay in Coon Rapids in the winter months with their children in school, Austin said.
The celebration lasted 10 days and always began the first week in February – right after the St. Paul Winter Carnival was over, he said.
The Jaycees had limited resources that first year of Snowflake Days. It was headquartered on Crooked Lake using canvas-topped pop-up campers, Austin said.
Events included snowmobile races on the former Minnesota Dragways on Main Street, motorcycle races at Sand Creek Park and a snow sculpture contest. The second year, the Miss Coon Rapids Pageant was added with the winner going on to the Miss Minnesota Pageant, Austin said.
Indeed, Snowflake Days grew to the point that by 1968, it was too large for one organization to put on, so the Coon Rapids Snowflake Association was formed with a broader base of the community. That year Austin was chosen as the first marquis of Snowflake Days.
According to Austin, he had paved the way for wider community involvement in Snowflake Days by creating the Coon Rapids Gavel Club, an organization comprising presidents of all community groups in the city that would meet monthly to talk about what their organizations were doing and to avoid conflicts in event scheduling.
“I invited each club or group to sponsor and provide an activity as part of Snowflake Days,” Austin said.
Austin’s work with the Coon Rapids Jaycees earned him many honors, both at the club and state level, where he also held several offices.
Among those awards and honors were Coon Rapids Distinguished Service Award, Minnesota 10 Outstanding Young Men, Blue Chip Chapter President, Coon Rapids State Director and Jaycees Life Member.
The Austins were also very active in the Morris Bye Parent Teacher Association and the picnic table he built at his home became a gathering place for the many neighborhood kids as the area grew, Austin said.
He and Marie started a teen center at the then-Coon Rapids Junior High School with Friday night dances as well as tapping into local talent for Battle of the Bands contests, he said.
Austin was also one of the founders of the Coon Rapids Athletic Association and his wife, Marie, worked with the-then music director of Anoka-Ramsey Community College to form a Coon Rapids Community Chorus.
The Austins left Coon Rapids in late 1969 after Austin was recruited to become general manager of the Davidson Sunbeam wholesale bakery plants in Portland and Eugene, Ore., which had been losing money for some time, Austin said. Within a few months the plants were back in the black, he said.
The Austins were on the move again in 1972 to Farmington Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, Mich., when he accepted a position as Allied Super Markets’ corporate bakery director.
But in 1975, the Austins were back in their hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, to stay when Austin returned to Super Valu and remained until he retired in 1995.
“We got the chance to go back to Des Moines,” Austin said. “Marie did not like the Detroit area.”
Ironically, the house they purchased in Des Moines was exactly the same as their Xavis Street home in Coon Rapids – only reversed, he said.
Marie died March 28, 2013; the couple had been married 58 1/2 years. They had six children and many grandchildren, but their second daughter, Phyllis, died from cancer in 2009.
Austin looks back on their years in Coon Rapids fondly. Leaving the city was “bittersweet,” he said.
So he was delighted to have the opportunity to return to Coon Rapids for the 50th anniversary of Snowflake Days, having only been back to the community on a couple of occasions since the family left in 1969.
He had a great time at the Sno Ball dance Feb. 14, Austin said. “The band was great, the food was good and there were a lot of people,” he said.
Austin was given an opportunity to speak and he challenged the community to get young people involved. “Organizations need new blood,” Austin said.
Indeed, the only disappointment for Austin as he drove around Coon Rapids Friday was the lack of promotion for Snowflake Days – lack of banners, no advertising in businesses and no window painting by kids, according to Austin.
But he was impressed by the growth that has taken place in Coon Rapids since 1969 and how the city has managed that growth, Austin said.
“There was a lot of farmland then,” he said. “Everything is built up now.”
Austin continues to stay busy in Des Moines. He has a consulting business and is assistant pastor at church where his son, Mark, is pastor.
“I still keep my toes in the water,” Austin said.