Prairie Pothole Day designed to inspire generations of outdoors enthusiasts in west central Minnesota

Oct. 29—NEW LONDON

— Families and outdoors enthusiasts from all over west central Minnesota flocked to Stoney Ridgey Farm near New London on Saturday, Sept. 10, to take part in the 39th annual Prairie Pothole Day.

The event, hosted by friends and volunteers of the Prairie Pothole Conservation Association, helps raise money for conservation efforts in surrounding communities.

"This year would have been the 40th," year for the event, said Tom Hanson, 61, president of the conservation group, but the group opted not to host the event in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Prairie Pothole Day is designed to get Minnesota families to spend a day outdoors and learn about sporting and conservation through activities and exhibitions. Admission has always been free, and different raffles are held throughout the day to help raise money for conservation efforts.

Despite the event's long history, the Prairie Pothole Conservation Association is adjusting to a new period in its life.

According to Hanson, the association formed out of necessity. The group used to be a chapter of the now defunct Minnesota Waterfowl Association, which dissolved in 2019. Hanson said the association is still looking for other conservation groups with which to collaborate.

"We're kind of in the fledgling states of getting our name out to different areas," he said.

Even with the new uncertainty, the association has been able maintain Woodie Camp, an outdoor summer camp for kids at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls. Hanson said a big portion of the day's proceeds will go toward that camp, as well as the wood duck house building and maintenance that the group does all year.

Hanson said Prairie Pothole Day raised around $15,000 in 2021 and, based on the day's turnout, he expects a similar fundraising result from 2022. The event attracts thousands of people each year, and Hanson estimated a 2022 attendance upwards of 5,000 people.

Roger Strand, 86, who owns Stoney Ridge Farm near New London, has been involved with the Prairie Pothole Day since its inception. According to Strand, it developed out of a group of outdoor enthusiasts wanting to host an event similar to the Game Fair, another outdoor and conservation event held yearly.

"I said if we're going to do that ... then we can hold it at my place." Strand said. "The rules would be there's no admission charge and all the children's events are free."

Having a permanent location like Stoney Ridge Farm has allowed for generations of people to come to the event to help build an entire community of outdoor enthusiasts.

"Without this property, we can't exist," Hanson said. "(Strand) opens up the whole (area) to us and says 'do what you guys need to do.' We turn around and, if we see a trail or something we want to do different, we take him out, show him and he says, 'yeah, do it.'"

Strand said the vision for Prairie Pothole Day was a family-focused event.

"It starts when they're about that age," he said, pointing to a small child playing in the sandbox across from his exhibition stand of wood ducks and wood duck shelters. "Then, as they get older, they start to volunteer here and race around the property doing the chores, and now we have third-generation committee members, and nobody makes a dime. It's all volunteers."

Strand's property is a remarkable place for an outdoor event. There are surrounding lakes, rolling hills where the firearm ranges have been set up. Heavily wooded areas host a camp of Boy Scouts, and other activities including an archery course. Strand's uniquely designed wood duck shelters dot the entire area.

"It's unbelievable," Hanson said. "When we're out here at the start of August, we see deer, ducks, swans, turkeys, squirrels (and) numerous other birds. It's just a wildlife habitat out here."

The 40th annual Prairie Pothole Day is scheduled for Sept. 9, 2023, and organizers have plenty to consider in the year ahead.

"Lots of different ideas (are) being talked about," Hanson said. "We basically end up with a core group of exhibitors every year, but we want to expand that and bring in different types of outdoor activities that will just go, 'wow!'"