The "Caravan of Patriots — Spirit of 1776" caravan rolled into the quiet streets of Ottertail at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 15, right on schedule. But their quarry was gone.

The man they call a "dictator" and a "tyrant," Gov. Tim Walz, had left Otter Tail County a little after 8 a.m. after kicking off the Governor's Fishing Opener, saying he had to tend to legislative negotiations.

Organizers had lined up cars, trucks and motorcycles festooned with American flags, Trump 2020 signs and "Don't Tread On Me" flags. They were hoping their grievances would reach the governor and the media following him.

They started outside the Detroit Lakes Pavilion at 3 p.m., about 60 protesters with plans to caravan through Becker and Otter Tail counties to Thumper Pond on Otter Tail Lake, where most of the Governor's Fishing Opener activity was taking place.

They picked up steam along the way, and about 65 vehicles passed Thumper Pond Resort where Walz had spent the night, then continued, lights on and horns blaring, into the old part of Ottertail.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Two people wearing "Rocks and Cows" sweatshirts waited on the sidewalks for them and waved and cheered as they rolled into town. The phrase is part of a quote from Walz that Republicans claim is an indication that he doesn't care about rural Minnesota.

The caravan stopped at the park, and people got out, met by supporters who weren't able to take part in the caravan. The crowd had swelled to about 200. There were hugs, excited introductions, references to "the rabbit hole" and QAnon.

“We love our country, and we don’t like the direction it’s heading to. We like capitalism. We like freedom. We don’t like government mandates, government telling us what to do, government taking out money," Merle Hexum, one of the organizers of the caravan said before it started rolling. "We’re just frustrated with it all.”

Hexum said they planned the event for later in the day to catch people coming off the lakes and into the towns. But it was too late to catch the attention of the governor. In the crowd, some grumbled that Walz had left Ottertail so early.

The crowd spanned infants to retirees and drew a mix of locals and people who had driven from hours to take part in the caravan.

“I’m a patriot, and I believe in our freedom. That’s why I’m here,” said Tammy Ziegler, of Otter Tail County, at the outset of the caravan.

Prior to leaving the Detroit Lakes Pavilion on Saturday, May 15, gathering protesters sang the national anthem. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Focus)
Prior to leaving the Detroit Lakes Pavilion on Saturday, May 15, gathering protesters sang the national anthem. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Focus)

Marva Kroells, of Green Isle in southern Minnesota said she drove for three and a half hours to take part. Her hopes for the caravan were that it would spur people to get organize and inspire them to run for office.

"We want true patriots to serve, someone who follows the Constitution and believes in it," she said. "If they believe in God and country, then they're in."

Tom Koors beat her in terms of distance traveled, hailing from San Rafael, Calif. A Vietnam veteran and retired professional window cleaner, he said he travels across the country every year by car. He had recently finished a stint in Fergus Falls, holding a banner at the intersection of Lincoln and Union for an hour.

"I always pray over people as they're driving by, to zap them for God," he said.

Speakers bashed Walz for leaving Ottertail early in the day. They criticized his mask mandate and school closures, steps he took to contain the pandemic, and also for allowing COVID patients to die in nursing homes.

The organizers have been disparaging toward the Black Lives Matter movement, saying it stands for "Burn, Loot and Murder."

"They say defund the police? I say let's defund the government," proclaimed Larvita McFarquhar, owner of a Lynd, Minn., restaurant, who is being sued by the Minnesota Department of Health for violating Walz's executive order closing restaurants. Her comment drew loud applause and cheers.

A woman donates money to Larvita McFarquhar, owner of a Lynd, Minnesota restaurant that is facing state prosecution for operating despite the governor's order closing restaurants during the pandemic. Holding the bag is Merle Hexum, one of the caravan organizers. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)
A woman donates money to Larvita McFarquhar, owner of a Lynd, Minnesota restaurant that is facing state prosecution for operating despite the governor's order closing restaurants during the pandemic. Holding the bag is Merle Hexum, one of the caravan organizers. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

She also drew applause when she said she was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 during the insurrection.

"Me too!" a man yelled from the crowd.

She repeatedly invoked "Yahweh — God," as a flag fluttered behind her with the words "Proud American Christian" and the American flag shaped into the design of the Christian fish symbol.

She attacked "global elitists," big government, big tech, media and insurance companies.

Otter Tail County and much of northwest Minnesota leaned heavily Republican in the last election that saw longtime Democratic congressman Collin Peterson of Detroit Lakes unseated by Michelle Fischbach.

Speakers included a Libertarian candidate Travis "Bull" Johnson, who says he will challenge Rep. Fischbach for her seat in the next general election.

“Let people live their own lives,"" Johnson said in Detroit Lakes before the caravan got started.

"There’s no reason for the government to get involved with every little discussion,” Johnson said. “All these people who are here, it’s because they don’t feel like they’re being heard. They feel like their representative isn’t listening to them. That’s where a lot of the frustration is coming.”

When the caravan moved on Thumper Pond, the area was quiet again.

Several protestors outside the Detroit Lakes Pavilion on Saturday, May 15, expressed their dislike for the Governor’s Fishing Opener happening in Otter Tail County on their cars. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Focus)
Several protestors outside the Detroit Lakes Pavilion on Saturday, May 15, expressed their dislike for the Governor’s Fishing Opener happening in Otter Tail County on their cars. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Focus)

At Thumper Pond, a banquet was taking place, organized by the local planning committee for the 2020 Governor's Fishing Opener.

Committee chairman Erik Osberg said he was aware of the protest, and that law enforcement was prepared in case protesters circled the governor in boats.

However, he felt that the event was relatively untouched by the protests.

"I don't feel like it affected our events at all," he said.

Although protesters criticized the governor for leaving after fishing, Osberg said the governor had spent all Friday in Otter Tail County, touring Lund Boats in New York Mills and other Otter Tail County businesses.

"I went into this weekend prepared for the worst and hoping for the best, and I think we came out on the best side," he said.

Elizabeth Vierkant and Michael Achterling contributed to this report.