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El Paso club reaches out to enhance area lives

EL PASO--Last month's El Paso Days celebration was among the most successful ever, yet the annual event is just one life-enriching effort for the El Paso Community Club.

Eighty-four years ago this week, the original community club was formed to primarily address the area's cultural needs, according to current President Merlin Blaisdell. The first members didn't organize parades, but they were interested in entertainment, offering music and debate evenings.

"They kept the community informed of what was happening," Blaisdell said Friday.

Creating a local park was one project for the organization founded on Sept. 7, 1922; cleaning up the town along the Rush River was another, he said. The annual Fourth of July festivities were the largest undertaking.

By 1927, a man who would later take in and care for a young Blaisdell was serving as the initial group's president, his present counterpart in the office said. Herman Jones remained active in the club, then a disagreement over a community building led to Jones opening his own gathering spot at his home: Fishermen's Rest.

"He always taught us to be involved," said Blaisdell, today's occupant of that property on the Rush.

As with many service groups, disinterest eventually overcame those early community club members and they began dropping out, he said. The club went dormant, only resurfacing after the modern-day celebration was already a local fixture.

The former owners of the El Paso Bar and Grill handled the first four versions of the event during the 1980s, holding them in September, the president said. At least one was marred by rain, so much so that an informal band whose members expected to march outdoors ended up heading through the bar instead. The El Paso Marching Band came to symbolize what the club's main project was all about.

"Fun and family," he agreed, noting there are few rules.

When the El Paso Days originators left, the celebration's fate fell to Blaisdell, newly returned to the community at the time, and several other area residents, he said. Five men, including himself, Ivan Shafer, Larry Traynor, Rich Anderson and an Ono man named Roatch, were brainstorming celebration ideas at the bar in 1991. To get things started, each invested $20.

To supplement that initial $100, Blaisdell said he got a distributor to supply root beer and a dairy to provide ice cream for root beer floats, sold next to Bjornson's garage to help fund their first try at the festival. A bank sponsored shirts made available for sale, too, as did an Eau Claire brewery for a fun run. Selling t-shirts and caps is still a mainstay of celebration funding.

Traynor recommended incorporating as a club in 1995.

"We were concerned if there ever was a lawsuit we might lose everything we had," the president said.

A set of bylaws accompanied the incorporation, setting February as the month for an annual meeting to elect officers, he said. The first officers of the revived community club included himself as president, Traynor as vice president, Wendy Anderson as secretary, Leanne Dohm as treasurer, and Adolph Johnson and Ivo Schlegel as directors. Presently, Doug Raehsler is vice president, Dixie Raehsler is secretary, Phil Hugget is treasurer, and Terry Odalen and Johnson are directors, with Blaisdell continuing in the president's job.

"I'll keep doing it as long as it's fun," he said, emphasizing, "if you see me resign, it's because people are being criticized too much for something they're doing that comes from their hearts."

The reorganizers long intended to give back to the community, once possible, he said. By 1997, they were able to create a crisis fund, directed at those having a family or personal tragedy.

"We don't ask a lot of questions...all we need is a referral from a club member," he said, estimating during the last five years at least $10,000 has been given.

Former St. Paul's United Church of Christ Pastor Keith Trembath was asked to be a member, Blaisdell said. Trembath not only joined the late Millie Christopherson and the president's wife, Denise, in spearheading the crisis fund, but suggested the ecumenical worship service that's grown as part of the celebration.

A fundraising breakfast was also added to the festivities to support the crisis fund. Blaisdell said all of the food's been donated, especially crediting such sponsors as Lund Egg Company, Sturdiwheat, Nelson's Supervalu and the El Paso Bar and Grill. This year, the breakfast was permanently dedicated to Christopherson and Schlegel.

More recently, Raehsler and his son, Joe, proposed a golf tournament as another crisis fund backer. The president said 14 four-member teams played in this, the tourney's third year, and 60 people attended a meal afterward. Area businesses sponsored holes as well as door prizes.

This year alone, the crisis fund generated over $4,000 and put its money to work regionally by spending nearly all of it, he said. It makes possible a visit by Santa Claus to Adolph's Old Log Cabin every first Sunday in December. It contributes to the upkeep of the Wilkins Family Cemetery, which one club member cares for weekly, plus furthers the St. Joseph's Cemetery Fund. It also provides $1,000 annually to the area food pantry.

The El Paso Community Club requires no membership fee, just a "willingness to work," Blaisdell said.

Fortunately, it has enjoyed an abundance of workers. As for whether it will ultimately fade like its forerunner, he thought about the yearly themes organizers find for El Paso Days and the people whom they spotlight as grand marshals or honorary citizens. The town's church, its store and most of its businesses have been saluted with themes so far.

"People often ask me, 'Are you running out of them?'" he admitted.

But he implies the community's positive experience with involvement means it's a question that really doesn't have to be answered.