Button, Button, Does Everyone Have A Button?

by David Swanson

"For a dollar, for just one wadded-up paper dollar that you've got in the bottom of your purse, ma'am; yes, you with the nice new baby buggy! Or in your big fat wallet, sir. Yes (laughter into his microphone) you sir, right, you, the big guy trying to wave me off; for just a buck, you can be the proud owner of this beautiful brand new 1950 Buick, which you can see sitting on the trailer behind me. For that one dollar, you get a chance to win the car when we draw the winning ticket at the Cokato Corn Carnival, August 16 and 17. We'll be serving free, hot, buttered corn-on-the-cob, all the sweet corn you and your family can eat, every day of our fantastic celebration."

"All we're asking you to do tonight is to buy a Cokato Corn Carnival button and we'll give you a free can of Cokato's best sweet corn and a free chance on the Buick."

Those were the playful words of Horace (H. M.) Gebo would use as he would lead a promotional caravan from town to town on shopping nights--Fridays and Saturday--during the weekends before the actual carnival began.

As I remember, it was never clear whether he was asking people to buy the can of corn, the chance on the Buick, or the button for $1.00. I do remember, however, that each time he gave his banter, he would emphasize only one item costing $1.00, and that everything else was free. But with the implication that nothing was free until you paid your dollar. The system apparently took in enough money to pay for all of the Corn Carnival costs, including the car to be given away, before the festival even began.

Horace Gebo lived across the street from me and my family in what is now the Radzwill house. He and a few newcomers to Cokato, along with the Cokato GIs, who had returned from World War II a few years before, brought renewed enthusiasm to the town. I sensed that it was out of the positive attitude that Gebo and other Cokato Businessmen's Association members were able to lead the people of Cokato into "opening up" the town for a celebration.

I can still hear Gebo, who was the owner of the new Chrysler-Plymouth franchise, say "People don't buy cars from me, I sell the cars to the customers." It was that kind of aggressiveness he used in "hawking" carnival buttons as assigned promotional teams went from town to town selling "chances" on the car.

This style of promotion was usually uncharacteristic of the more reticent behavior of American-Scandinavian communities in the 1950s.

It was also clear that the Businessmen's Association not only wanted people to come to Cokato for the Corn Carnival, but wanted them to discover Cokato as their new place to shop.

Cokato Corn Carnival promotion nights would start with a caravan of ten to twelve cars full of Cokato boosters heading to a nearby village to "sell" the upcoming carnival. The entourage would then reassemble outside of town into a loosely organized grand procession which would drive into the town's main shopping center. Leading the parade on a specially designed and built mobile bandstand would be the fast-paced Cokato Corn Carnival Band. Under the direction of Rex Pruitt, the band would blast out Sousa's Stars & Stripes Forever. "The world's only riding marching band," as Gebo would say, would halt in the middle of the busiest intersection at about 7:30 p.m.

After another musical number, Gebo, with his mellifluous voice reminiscent of Arthur Godfrey--who was at the height of his radio and television career at the time--would begin pitching the Corn Carnival through a public address system he had strapped to the roof of his car, a Chrysler, of course.

So for the duration of two or three songs, team members, accompanied by high school girls with winsome smiles, would work the crowd it had drawn. Dollar bills were exchanged for buttons, cans of corn, and "winning" tickets.

When the big pitch was complete, the teams would be joined by band members who would regroup into "unlikely" ensembles to hit the individual businesses.

The format was predictable. Each team would enter a business establishment, play a peppy tune, then deliver the invitation to buy Cokato Corn Carnival buttons. Some teams were very aggressive while others merely made their presence known.

Bars seemed to produce the best results. Customers had their money loose and would often buy more than one chance. I remember, as a teenager, playing my trombone with one of the group in Arney's Bar in Annandale. A patron gave our seller a twenty dollar bill. As change was being made the customer decided to buy twenty chances on the car. When his order was filled, he slid his cans of corn down the length of the bar, pinned all the Corn Carnival buttons to the front his bib overalls, and stuffed the raffle tickets in his back pocket. As I recall, we played My Wild Irish Rose just for him as his friends joined in singing the words.

That nigh our team of sellers sold buttons to nearly everyone in the bar with an energy that represented a new spirit that had come into the people of Cokato in the 1950s. With teenage eyes, I viewed this surge with an excitement for what was possible for the town's future.

This article first appeared in the Summer 1995 (V. 15 No. 3) edition of In The Midst Of.   ©Cokato Historical Society, 1995.