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Marilyn Lensch, 78, holds the Gary Muhlenbruck carving of an American Widgeon that she won in the grand raffle at the 30th annual Woodcarvers Festival in Blackduck.

Goodhue woman wins raffle carving at Woodcarvers Festival

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When Marilyn Lensch, 78, and her husband, Harold, 81, visited Blackduck this weekend for the Woodcarvers Festival on Saturday, July 27, she had no idea that she would ultimately take home the grand prize.

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"I didn't have any idea or inkling that it would be possible that my name could be drawn out of a thousand," Lensch said.

Lensch was referring to her name being drawn for the final raffle prize of the day -- the Gary Muhlenbruck carving of an American Widgeon drake which was pulled from a bucket of almost 1,000 entries.

"It was Gary Muhlenbruck that carved it and we stop and admire his stuff every year that we've been there," Lensch said. "He's a tremendous artist."

Each year, Lensch and other attendees put their names into a raffle for a carving by a local artist. The sales of those tickets are put toward the basic expenditures of the festival: Tents, advertising, tables and merchandise.

But despite winning for the first time, it wasn't the first Woodcarvers Festival for Marilyn and Harold Lensch, who try and get to Blackduck on the last Saturday of each year. Harold Lensch, who carves, bought some wood blocks from a vendor and has carved for many years.

"He's done a lot of woodcarving of birds and ducks and he does intarsia," his wife said. She added that his carving skills make the festival more interesting for the couple.

"We try and make it every year if we possibly can. We had a cabin on Moose lake for 11 years, just south of Blackduck," Marilyn Lensch said. "We just sold our house and moved into a nice twin home here in Goodhue. We are a little more free to travel now and will likely be in Blackduck area more often."

Her prize now sits on the mantel above her fireplace and thinks that it serve as a good home for the widgeon.

"(The festival) was great. I thought they had more exhibitors than they ever had," Lensch said. "I thought there was a really good crowd considering the weather."

Bundling up

The weather itself brought both ups and downs for the 30th annual Woodcarvers Festival. The bitter wind and chilly temperatures kept some visitors away, but also boosted the sales of other items such as commemorative sweatshirts and hats.

"We didn't sell many last year," organizer and local business owner, Rob Stomberg said of the warm weather apparel. "We brought them back this year and we almost sold out."

Stomberg's store on Summit Avenue, the Northlander Gift Shop, organized the printing of the sweatshirts.

"I work with one of my vendors to make them," he said. "(The sweatshirts) and the tickets both help offset costs."

Selling the craft

Because the $30 booth fee is waived to non-profit groups and food vendors, tickets and merchandise sales go toward the planning and organization of the festival each year.

For those who are subjected to a site fee, the visibility that the festival brings for many carvers improves sales and even repeat customers for company vendors.

For Paul Jones of Bemidji, the Woodcarvers Festival is a door to a wider consumer market.

"I get a lot of people started with carving," Jones said. "People buy a knife from me and they become repeat customers."

Jones owns a company called Deepwoods Ventures, a hand-forged knife maker that specializes in woodcarving knives.

"When I was a kid, my dad would bring home hacksaws and blades. I learned to carve but I liked working with the tools more," he said.

Jones started the company seven years ago and has been attending the festival for five. His tent, located near the front of the park facing Highway 71, displayed the many of the knives that Jones forges. Although not all stopped to purchase a knife from Jones and his wife, Pat, many visitors paused to simply look at the knifes which were often commented as "beautiful" and "unique."

"People called me earlier this week just to make sure I was going to be here," Jones laughed. "A lot of people see the knives and get interested in carving."

Setting the tone

One of the new additions to the Woodcarvers Festival this year was the music provided by Jon Romer, a former music teacher that has become known throughout the area for his skills on the Native American flute.

From 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., visitors could find Romer under the pavilion in the center of the park where he played traditional and original Ojibway and Native music over the loudspeakers. As people walked about the booths or ate food from one of the many vendors, Romer's renditions of Ojibway love or farewell songs were heard across Wayside Rest, setting the mood and peaking interest in the style.

"I think there is a nice bridge," Romer said, between the festival and wood crafts and the wooden flutes displayed before him. "The unique thing about the native flutes is that they can celebrate or play the Native American songs but they also, because of the tuning, can play music from the broader American repertoire. It is a bridge in that regard too."

Approximately fifteen flutes lay on a table near his microphone, each unique and with a different sound. Almost constantly between songs, Romer had to inform inquisitive listeners that his flutes were not for sale but his CDs were, allowing many of his new fans to take home a piece of his music.

Romer has been playing the Native flute for about 12 years. Originally from Albert Lea, he directed choirs at Gustavus Adolphus College and the University of Missouri and then ultimately settled in the Blackduck area where he started music programs at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School and Leech Lake Tribal College.

According to Romer, much of what he has learned over the years about Native music and the flute, he learned from a Red Lake teacher and writes his own music during the long Minnesota winters.

"Most of what I played (at the festival) are things that I've written," Romer said. "The others are traditional Native songs."

A carvers perspective

For carver, Hal Bitzer of Williams, carving is a therapeutic activity that also allows him to get out to local festivals to make some extra cash and meet new people.

"If I leave with more money than I come with, I'm happy," he said.

His booth, "Bitz of Wood," sat near Jones' vendor station and other vendors selling wood supplies and featured Norwegian and Scandinavian carvings. Throughout the year, Bitzer travels to about six Scandinavian festivals in the region to sell his carvings.

"There are more people here," Bitzer said, in comparison to other area festivals. He has been attending the Blackduck Woodcarvers Festival for about 10 years. "I like it. Most of the time it's good weather. It could hotter and the wind is a little bothersome, but I'm not complaining on the weather. It's a good day."

Because of his Norwegian heritage -- his maternal great grandparents were Norwegian immigrants -- Bitzer has been creating kolrosing carvings since the 1990s because he finds it relaxing. Kolrosing is the art of carving very fine lines or designs into wooden spoons, utensils and boxes.

Rain, rain, go away

It was easy to knock on wood to prevent rainfall at the 30th annual Woodcarvers Festival, where dozens of carver's booths lined the Wayside Rest.

"We'll have rain before it and we'll have rain after it," event announcer Jennifer Parker said. "It's something that everyone remarks on: Never in 30 years has (the festival) ever been rained out."

But despite darker skies and lower temperatures, no drops were shed on the festival, which started at 10 a.m. and wrapped up with the final raffle of the Gary Muhlenbruck donated carving of an American Widgeon at 4 p.m.

The booths were organized in an inner and outer circle, allowing visitors to walk around the park and take in the wood-carved art on all sides.

But one of the gems of the festival is the Heritage Pole, a totem pole carved by the festival's founder Jim Schram Sr. and three other couples, which stands on the south end of the park year-round and towered over the Woodcarvers Festival on Saturday.

For Parker, whose parents helped carve the 10-foot pole, it is a reminder of the legacy that the founding carvers brought not only to the festival, but to the town.

"(Schram, Sr.) started it and he started it with his wife and three other couples, my parents among them," Parker said. "They're all gone now -- everybody in that original group. But it goes on."

And goes on, it does. For the past 30 years, the Woodcarvers Festival has drawn thousands of visitors, carvers and crafters to Blackduck in addition to ethnic food sold by Blackduck residents and groups and demonstrations by local carvers.

According to Parker, only about 20 or 25 exhibitors attended in the first year.

"It just got bigger and bigger and people came from farther away," Parker said, recalling the first few years. "Then they added the craft sale on the other side which brings in even more appeal. There are more food booths all the time."

On the other north side of the park, Summit Avenue was closed off in front of the Good Samaritan Nursing Home to make room for the more than 60 crafters that placed booths along the street selling anything from flags and soaps to garden ornaments.

"I haven't been here every year, but I see a lot of people enjoying the crafts," Blackduck native Torry Miller said. "I think its good to have an annual thing that everyone can come to and attract the people around (the area)."

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