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The main focus of the Hot Air Affair is balloons. This launch from several years ago shows the Rock Elementary School launch area with a large crowd on the ground. (Submitted photo)
The main focus of the Hot Air Affair is balloons. This launch from several years ago shows the Rock Elementary School launch area with a large crowd on the ground. (Submitted photo)

Organizers reflect on 25 years of Hot Air Affairs

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life River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

When the annual three-day Hot Air Affair kicks off on Feb. 7, it will mark the 25th year of the popular winter celebration.

The event has seen changes over the years, but what makes it unique is that the same three people have led the charge for all 25 years. The three are Evy Nerbonne, Carla Timmerman and Linda White.

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The Hot Air Affair grew out of an effort to have some sort of promotion to bring people to Hudson in the middle of winter. The current event is sort of a combination of a balloon promotion that was held at the JR Ranch in the 1980s, and Cabin Fever Days offered in downtown Hudson in the 1980s.

The Chamber of Commerce actually helped sponsor the event the first six years. The Chamber was involved, but the trio of ladies did most of the leg work. When the Chamber backed away, the ladies put together an active committee and took over all the planning and organizing in 1997.

“We were new to event planning,” said Nerbonne. “The Chamber had the expertise and the insurance.” In those days, the Chamber office was essentially manned by Gayle Zosel and Mary Beth Schilling.

“We hoped to attract 10 or 15 pilots that first year; we had no idea how well it would go,” White said. As it turned out, 30 balloons showed up for the first Hot Air Affair in 1990.

“It was really well received and we were hooked,” Timmerman said.

The main staple of Hot Air Affair, of course, is the launching of hot air balloons at Rock Elementary School. Launches are always scheduled each Saturday and Sunday morning, plus Saturday afternoon.

The trio learned early-on, however, that it was important to expand the weekend events to include non-ballooning activities that appeal to the public.

The first year had just a handful of non-ballooning events; now there are well over 40. A couple events that have stuck on the schedule for all 25 years include the moon glow, held this year on Feb. 8; and candlelight skiing which was one of the pre-Hot Air events held Jan. 18 at Camp St. Croix.

Over the years, however, popular events were added each year, including smooshboarding, torchlight parade, fireworks, craft fair and a long list of other events. But, it didn’t always go smoothly. The first year a parade was added (1993) organizers wanted a band, but soon discovered that the local high school band didn’t have winter mouth pieces. To solve the problem, the committee organized a kazoo marching band contest – the kazoo tradition continues on today!

Some of the early events that were lost over the years included outdoor volleyball, snowmobiling and horse events; and who could ever forget free admission to St. Croix Meadow Greyhound track for fans wearing a Hot Air button?

“We learned early that we couldn’t have just balloons,” Timmerman said. “We’re proud of our launch record, but the balloons can’t always take off.”

In fact, ballooning can be a difficult event for organizers.

“We have had successful launches most years,” Nerbonne said.

“But there are so many factors,” Timmerman said. “No wind, too much wind, fog, too warm – oddly enough, too cold is usually not a problem.”

White added, “It’s not just the ground wind, but we have to watch the upper air winds.”

She said sometimes it can appear like good conditions on the ground, but the upper winds are too strong. A balloon weather officer watches aviation forecasts and on the day of the launch will send up a helium filled balloon, called a pie-ball.

“It may go straight up, but suddenly shoots off,” Nerbonne said. “Then we know the upper winds are too strong.”

The balloonists also watch the smoke coming from the Allen S. King plant in Bayport.

Ideal winter ballooning conditions are less than a 5 mph wind, 20 degrees and sunshine.

“Interestingly, over the years we have had weather temperatures ranging from -43 degrees to 55 degrees,” Nerbonne said. “That’s a 100 degree swing. Who plans a celebration with those variables?”

Community impact

The event has brought thousands of people to Hudson each year.

“It has had a positive impact on the community,” said White. “There’s one group of about 20 women who come here every year from Milwaukee. They really get into the spirit of things, dressing up and participating in all the events.”

Nerbonne said the balloons have had a big influence on the community.

“Consumers see Hudson as a balloon area,” she said. “You see balloon images on company logos, in parks -- the branding has been big.”

Timmerman said the weekend has a huge impact on local businesses.

“The retailers and restaurants are always very busy during the Hot Air Affair weekend,” Timmerman said. “The hotels fill up. The people come to enjoy the weekend, knowing they may or may not see the balloons take off.”

Obviously the three original organizers have fond memories of the event.

“The committee and people involved in the event have gotten very close,” Nerbonne said. “We have become integrated in each other’s lives. We attend family weddings. Tt’s to the point that we even have a signature balloon flower arrangement for funerals when a parent of a committee member dies.”

Timmerman said the involvement has generated numerous friendships.

“I have friendships with members of the community, the committee members, the business partners, the balloonists -- the list goes on,” Timmerman said.

White said she loves to see the excitement when the balloons take off.

“There is excitement in the air when the balloons fly,” she said. “It’s fun to see the eyes of the kids light up. It’s fun to see families together and share the excitement.”

White is actually part of three generations active in the Hot Air Affair. In addition to White, her daughter Linda Webb is active, as are her granddaughters Taylor Scheel and Kyler Spencer.

Of course, all the three have heavy family involvement. Nerbonne’s siblings volunteer. Timmerman’s daughter Jody played a big role in bringing pilots to the schools for an educational element to the event.

Keeping up with technology has been a constantly changing element of the Hot Air Affair.

In the early days organizers used walkie-talkies to communicate during the balloon launches. Now cell phones are the norm. In the early days, publicity of the event was essentially newspaper articles – now there is Facebook, the Internet, Twitter and more.

“We have three or four committee members who just do Facebook and Twitter updates all weekend,” Nerbonne said.

Most of the Hot Air Affair pilots come from the five-state Midwest area, but some have come from Canada, California, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and other states around the country. One pilot, Wynn Gustafson of Arden Hills, Minn., has been to all 25 Hot Air Affairs. This year, eight of the original pilots from the 1990 Hot Air Affair are returning for the 25th anniversary.

“I truly takes a village of volunteers to make this happen every year,” Nerbonne said. “Over the years we’ve had in the neighborhood of 300 sponsors – some of whom have been with us since day one, the Hudson House Grand Hotel, Zappa Brothers, Dicks Bar and Grill and Resco.”

Nerbonne is a sales representative at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul; Timmerman is director of sales at the Hudson House Grand Hotel; and White is owner of Family Hair Care in Hudson.

Probably not anytime soon, but the day will come when Nerbonne, Timmerman and White will be stepping aside. So what about the future of the event?

“I hope there is enough momentum to carry it on for years to come,” Nerbonne said. “Of course, we’re always looking for more volunteers for the key jobs.

“Essentially, however, the event has a life of its own. A few people leaving the group will not doom the Hot Air Affair.”

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Hudson Star Observer 715-386-9891 customer support
Doug Stohlberg has been part of the Hudson Star-Observer since 1973 and has been editor since 1987. He worked at the New Richmond News from 1971 to 1973. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.
(715) 808-8600
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