Maple Grove Community Organization Turns 25

What started in the rain has grown into a community organization that brings joy to Maple Grove each year.
An early parade photo features Shriners and lots of waving.

Jim Deane remembers it clearly; he made it two blocks in the Pierre Bottineau Parade before an avalanche of rain came down. Water was sloshing over the tops of his shoes, band members, clad in their soggy wool uniforms bailed and ran back to their buses; a few headstrong parade marchers made it the whole route.

“The water was from curb to curb, was as high as the curb and running over the top of the curb,” Deane said. “You were wet immediately, just drenched when you stepped out into it.”    

That’s just one of the many memories that mark the annual Maple Grove Days celebration, an event that since its inception has been backed by the Maple Grove Community Organization (MGCO), an organization that celebrates its 25th birthday this year. The MGCO is not only responsible for coordinating all of the intricacies of Maple Grove Days each year its members also host Breakfast with Santa, the family fun Halloween event, the Sleigh Bells and Sparkle Parade, and the holiday lighting contest.

The organization took root in the city with the upstart of the parade more than two decades ago. What started as a 15-minute route with a band and 40 people pulling kids in wagons or riding on the backs of cars has expanded into a five-day community celebration and year-round events.

Today’s parade welcomes more than 105 units and is watched by a crowd of 9,000 to 10,000 people. Though Deane and his wife Joyce have been heavily involved in Maple Grove Days festivities since the early years, they give a lot of the credit for the success of the city’s community events to John Garritsen.

“He was the Maple Grove Community Organization before anybody thought of how significant it would be,” said Joyce Deane. “He did so much of it on his own; he was the heart and soul of the MGCO.”

The parade and the Breakfast with Santa all started with Garritsen. Raised in Detroit under the shadow of the annual J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving day parade Garritsen relished the tradition. He and his family attended every year and every year he watched as the parade closed with Santa Claus. When he moved to Minnesota he wanted to create traditions for his own family.

“I was on the long-range planning commission as a commissioner for the city and we sent out a survey and it came back that most of the residents wanted something for the city to do…something to bring people together,” Garritsen said.

So was born the first parade; it lasted only a few blocks, Garritsen said, and whoever wanted to join in could. The Osseo High School band participated and Garritsen deemed it a tiny success. He began planning community events including the parade, with a core group of four or five volunteers.

But, Garritsen didn’t stop there. He grew up relishing in the memory of Santa Claus closing out the festivities and he aimed to create his own bit of Santa magic. He orchestrated the first Santa Claus event, which morphed into Breakfast with Santa. He gets emotional as he explains how the kids lit up when Santa arrived in a limousine, head poking out of the top and waving. “The kids didn’t even let him inside,” Garritsen said. “Santa just got down on his knees in the snow and listened.”

Over the years Maple Grove Days has been home to talent shows, water ski shows, a children’s fishing derby, a Pierre Bottineau look-alike contest and a kiddie parade among dozens of other activities. Garritsen is modest about his own contributions claiming that volunteers made it all possible.

Today, Maple Grove Days is an almost week-long celebration and Deb Syhre, who has been leading the MGCO since 2003, said she anticipates 25,000 to 30,000 people will participate in this year’s events.

Syhre gives praise to all the volunteers and sponsors who contribute to the organization.

“It’s (all about) people coming together through the organization,” Syhre said. “It’s the longevity of their involvement that makes this group successful.”

“To go down the parade route and see all the kids lined up waiting patiently for the one Tootsie Roll, their little faces glowing.” Syhre continues. “It’s families together and neighborhoods together and groups at the fireworks at dusk, to see the whole hillside covered with people…just knowing that you had a little teeny tiny part in making that happen is all worth it.”//

John Garritsen passed away on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, shortly before the publication of this article.
The staff of Maple Grove Magazine extend their condolences to the Garritsen family and the Maple Grove Community Organization.