"Here come the Westies!" the parade announcer says enthusiastically as the two-block-long-procession of West Highland Terriers dressed as furry, four-legged versions of Uncle Sam--complete with red, white and blue handmade costumes and matching miniature top hats--comes into view on the downtown Wayzata street; their two-legged owners are similarly attired in patriotic wear.
It's the 37th annual James J. Hill days parade, and the Wayzata Westie Walkers, who have been participating in the parade since 1996, always know how to make an entrance.
The crowd cheers and hoots in the warm, early afternoon sunshine. it's a lovely day to be a Westie, and a Westie owner. And the kind of day Ginny Nelsen imagined when she formed the Wayzata Westie Walker group in 1996.
Nelsen was attending the parade the year prior and thought about how cute her beloved breed, West Highland Terriers, would be strutting their stuff down the parade route. "I didn't know who would help me organize it, but I knew it would be fun," says Nelsen excitedly, sporting Westie earrings and a necklace, her Westie photo albums and Westie bag on the table nearby.
"A few weeks later I was walking my two Westies and a gal with two Westies came up next to us and we started walking and talking, and she seemed nutty enough, so I asked her if she would help me do the parade," Nelsen says, "She said, 'Oh sure,' and that was that."
So Theresa Wilson and Nelsen put up signs at coffee shops, on street posts, anywhere they could tell people about their club. That first year, there were 13 Westies in the parade. By the third year there were 150.
Sue Storms, public relations coordinator for the group joined in 1998 and has helped to not only keep the group informed about upcoming events but spread the word about this merry little band of LWDs (little white dogs). She has also fostered relationships with local pet shelters, including Crossroads Animal Shelter in Buffalo, and whenever a Westie rescue comes into the facility they contact Storms, who sends out an e-mail to the Wayzata Westie Walker group (over 500 strong now), and frequently someone from the group will step up.
"Many of our Westies were adopted as rescues," Storms says.
The creativity meter was cranked up in 2002 when Lynn Voigt came on board. What began as bandanas for costumes before Voigt joined has now turned into a full-scale costume extravaganza at each James J. Hill days parade, with costumes such as bumblebees, hobos, sailors, firefighters, clowns and cowboys. They also put on a style show after the parade, complete with the newest pet fashions from New York.
But this group has proven they're more than just pretty faces and creative costumes. They support The Pet Project, which is a local nonprofit that collects pet food and distributes it to food shelves so folks in financial difficulty won't have to worry about giving up their pet. For several years, the Wayzata Westie Walkers have held a pet boutique where group members crafted pet-related items to sell; the money was donated to local charities.
These Westie lovers are keen on getting together whenever they can. During the winter months, a smaller group might meet for a walk in the park; in the summer months, they put together a mini-parade around a neighborhood culminating in lunch in someone's backyard.
"I never thought my idea would turn into something so big," says Nelsen, "but we are so delighted and happy it did."
Catch the Wayzata Westie Walkers at this year's James J. Hill Days, September 8 and 9 in downtown Wayzata. For more information visit the Wayzata Chamber's website.