On Friday night, to break out of the house and forget about COVID-19 for a little while, up to 500 vehicles cruised on the streets of downtown Owatonna — bringing back a longtime tradition of teenagers and young adults who socialized by “cruisin’ down Main.” (Photo courtesy of Charles Jarvi)

OWATONNA – The streets along Central Park and downtown Owatonna were alive Friday with lights, laughter and hundreds of cars taking part in the longtime practice of “crusin’ down Main.”

After Owatonnans Tom Sweet and his son-in-law John Simon decided that it would be fun to bring back an old tradition they used to do in high school: cruising around downtown in order to socialize with their friends, a quick Facebook post caused quite the stir in the community for residents that had been cooped up for roughly two weeks.

“I figured we’d get about 10 to 15 people down there,” Sweet said. “But it just exploded.”

After weeks of little to no traffic due to the coronavirus pandemic and Minnesotans being encouraged to stay home and practice social distancing, the downtown came alive. From 7 p.m. to just moments before the stay-at-home order from the governor’s office went into effect at 11:59 p.m., Simon estimates that anywhere from 300 to 500 vehicles participated in the cruise.

The night, he said, brought him back to his younger years.

“The way downtown looked Friday night was what it used to look like every Friday and Saturday night,” Simon said. “When we used to cruise in high school in college, the average age group was 16 to 25. But that night I saw ages from 16 to 65 that were driving down there – all of them with smiles on their faces.”

Social media that night was flooded with photos, videos and comments about the cruisers bringing Owatonna back to life. Lauren Everhard said she had just closed up her photography business on Johnson Boulevard until May when she decided to head downtown to take part in the nostalgic ritual to take her mind off things.

“This was such a huge spirit lifter,” Everhard said. “It brought smiles to us adults and even bigger smiles from my girls who felt like there were in a parade. This was so awesome for our community.”

Sweet said that he was excited about the idea to invite people down for a cruise because it would allow for friends to see one another while still practicing social distancing guidelines. He added that it was important for public to shake things up a little bit and find different ways to have fun during a confusing and chaotic time.

“This was a community thing that brought a lot of people together,” Sweet said, adding that a Facebook post he made earlier in the week about cruising on Friday generated an array of phone calls and messages of those wanting to participate. “I didn’t do this for any recognition, I did it so people could have fun. I truly thought a couple of my buddies were show up, we’d wave at each other, and leave 10 minutes later. I ended up saying hi to a lot more people through my window.”

Simon echoed his father-in-law's comments, saying that the night was most definitely a morale booster for the entire town.

“The best part about it was that no one was talking about the coronavirus,” Simon said. “Everyone was talking about downtown, how much fun they were having, and sharing memories.”

“It took away from the situation at hand for a little while,” he continued. “It made everyone remember the good times of the past.”

Posts have already begun circulated social media calling for another cruise down Main on Friday, April 10. While Simon and Sweet admit that they have not had a hand in planning the reunion cruise, they agreed that it isn’t a bad idea to reignite the tradition.

“I will certainly help anybody organize anything that will bring joy and fun to Owatonna and beyond – whoever wants to can come and cruise,” Sweet said. “Let’s organize this and do it once a month, all summer long and just continue to bring people together.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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