James J. Hill Days festival Combines Old History and New Traditions to Create Wayzata’s Largest Community Event

The James J. Hill Days festival combines history and new traditions to create Wayzata’s largest community event.

When September arrives and the leaves start to turn, Wayzata throws summer’s last bash.

Forty-two years running, James J. Hill Days is Wayzata’s largest community festival, packed with small-town charm and big-time fun. Although the festival might feel “small town,” its 40,000 attendees speak for themselves.

“It’s no longer just Wayzata’s largest community event,” says Brooke Beyer, Greater Wayzata Area Chamber of Commerce’s director of community events and marketing. “I really think that it’s one of Minnetonka’s and the west metro’s largest events.”

The festival began in 1975, and since then has been dedicated to honoring one of Wayzata’s most famous historic figures, James J. Hill. Though his business dealings with the Great Northern Railroad Co. led to a rift with Wayzata residents for more than 15 years, the train depot that now stands in town at 402 E. Lake St. was built as a peace offering in 1906. The depot remained in use until 1971 and has since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The railroad is certainly a large part of our history,” Beyer says. “Wayzata definitely loves its railroad, and we really try to embrace it and promote it throughout the weekend.”

Beyer says the festival will feature railroad-themed merchandise and, of course, the train itself—which is especially a draw for local kids.

Beyer has been with the chamber of commerce for five years and has led the steering committee for the festival. “The festival was very different five years ago,” Beyer says. “It was still a cute, quaint, typical town days festival, but within the last few years there have been a lot of game-changers for us.”

Some of those game-changers include new features of the festival, like the Lake Minnetonka Carnival, fireworks and the Beach Bash concerts, all of which Beyer says have transformed the face of James J. Hill Days.

Beyer says one of the committee’s goals has been to incorporate more water activities, using one of Wayzata’s biggest assets: the lake. This year, one new event is the James J. Hill Days Wake Throwdown. Taking the place of previous years’ waterskiing show, the wakesurf competition features head-to-head wakesurfing as well as wakeboarding, waterskiing and flyboarding.

Another new addition is Key Log rolling, a modernized version of the age-old lumberjack sport. Developed by a local family, the Key Log is a synthetic log that moves the same way a real cedar log would, but weighs a fraction of the real thing. “It’s just a fun activity,” Beyer says. “I think it really captures the essence of the lake and a sport that a lot of people don’t know about, but it’s unique.”

The festival also includes a Minnesota Veterans Ride—a fundraising and awareness event for military veterans organizations including Folds of Honor.

Many beloved events will return this year, including one crowd favorite in particular: dachshund races. “When people think of James J. Hill Days, they think of the dachshund races because they’re unique and so fun,” Beyer says.

But this breed isn’t the only one lapping up the last days of summer—other kinds of dogs have been invited to participate in the Splash for Cash event. At Depot Dog Park, dogs will use their dock-jumping skills to compete for cash prizes and help raise money for the Top Dog Foundation. They’re also welcome to dole out some puppy kisses at the dog kissing booth or have their portrait drawn by a local artist.

Beyer expects last year’s 40,000 attendance mark to be exceeded this year, thanks to “an incredible amount of interest” outside of the Wayzata area, including from businesses and vendors who want to join in the fun.

“Wayzata is such a unique place and really a destination, and I always look forward to the planning of this event and promoting the people involved,” Beyer says. “Anything that we can do as a chamber to really promote our members and our community, we’re proud of that. And this community is proud of James J. Hill Days.”

James J. Hill Days

September 9–11
Downtown Wayzata
Visit the website for more details and a full schedule of events.