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Twin City

An Annual Convention Twice as Good as Any Other



Twin City

They didn't dress alike--at least not identically, not like the Doublemint Twins or those Armor All guys. One of the Millin brothers--Terry or Jerry--was wearing jeans, a red baseball cap, and a black T-shirt with a stock-car applique on the front; the other wore sunglasses, a black tank top, and navy shorts. But they were identical enough; both were the same size, at least six feet, with a medium build. Both had light complexions, dark hair and mustaches. They drank their beer from cans in Styrofoam "huggies,"and laughed a lot. They were killing time and a couple of beers during the nine-minute cruise across the Mississippi River on the last ferry from Millville, Iowa to Cassville, Wisconsin, where they were heading for Twin-o-Rama.

The 28-year-old twins were returning, as they have every year of their lives, to Cassville for its annual celebration of twinship, held the third weekend in July. Nothing gets Cassvillians' hearts a pumpin' like Twin-o-Rama, their pride and joy and probably the biggest tourist attraction in the area. During Twin-o-Rama, ousiders pour into Cassville for the festivities, which include a dance, a carnival, a twin parade, and twin competitions.

"Twins come here from Colorado," boasts a local waitress, a twin herself. "People take their vacations just to come here. Even though it's a small town, everybody knows where Cassville is. We're on the map."

Even in the off-season, Cassville has more than its share of twins around. No one, not even Cassville Historical Society president Chuck Lange or Twin-o-Rama board chairman LaVern Kirschbaum, offers any plausible explanation for the high incidence of twins in this sleepy little river town with a population of only 1,144 or 1,270 depending on which border sign you believe. Jane Bernhardt, a writer with the Grant County Herald Independent blames it on "that Mississippi River," but that can't be taken as more than a joke. According to Berhardt, there were 38 sets of twins who called the area home in 1994, though the number has dropped from past generations.

Twin-o-Rama's seeds were planted in 1929 in Livingston, Wisconsin, about 40 cow-specked miles northeast of Cassville, when 71-year-old twins Henry and Charles Kuenster organized a twin picnic as a chance to socialize with the other twins in the area, of which there was an inordinately high number. The Kuensters and their ilk had such a ball that they decided to hold a similar event the following year, this one in Cassville. Soon it became a tradition. By 1934 the annual affair was attracting crowds of some 4,000 people intrigued by the prospect of seeing double.

Henry Kuenster died in 1937 and Charlie two years later, but their groundwork was continued by the Cassville Civic Club, which in 1944 expanded the Twin Picnic to a two-day event. In 1946 the shebang went on hiatus because of World War II restrictions like gas rationing and, presumably, postwar efforts to produce new batches of twins. In 1961, the event was reinstated with vigor, a joint, nonprofit product of the Civic Club and other local organizations, including the women's club, volunteer fire department and rescue squad, Council of Catholic Women, Saint Charles Service Committee, and the local VFW post, all of which decided to add a day to the event and rename it "Twin-o-Rama." While the number of twins and occasional triplets who register for Twin-o-Rama hovers around 500 individuals each year, proud natives will boast that the event has drawn anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 people to the festival's most popular attractions.

Those attractions have varied a bit over the years. Only about six years ago, the Friday and Saturday night teen hops drew up to 4,500. But in 1994, the year Twin-o-Rama celebrated its 50th anniversary, Friday night's dance was dead. The outdoor dance floor contained nothing but a small clique of preadolescents, while most of the teens smoked cigarettes and milled around the rides and carny booths. The adults wafted in and out of the Lions Club-sponsored bingo tent.

Kirschbaum, who has chaired the Twin-o-Rama for the past 15 years, says, "The teen hops are, uh...we're going to have to disband the teen hops....We've been losing money every year for the last four or five years." He explains that "this drunk driving law really knocks the heck out of it."

Of course, the Saturday evening KAT Cruise--a slow-moving procession of some 250 classic autos (a nice slection of Stingrays, Bel Airs, Edsels, Caddies and mid 60s muscle cars like Mustangs and Chargers) chugging 30 miles northeast from Dubuque still had 1,700 people lining Cassville's main thoroughfare, Amelia Street. And the festival-capping Sunday-night fireworks launched from the Iowa bank of the Mississippi bring to the park a big crowd of friendly folks bidding a sentimental adieu to Twin-o-Rama for another year. And naturally, the bingo tent rakes it in.

But cruises, teen hops, and fireworks are incidental to the main event. The last Twin-o-Rama, according to Kirschbaum, had the largest number to date: 273 sets of twins and other multiple births in matching outfits competed for trophies in various categories like most alike, least alike, oldest, youngest and farthest traveled--the winners in this category heralded from New York.

Sally Kirschbaum, a distant relative of LaVern, no longer competes in the festival's "Judging of the Twins" with her identical twin Samantha, perhaps due to the nagging reminder that her mother dressed them in identical outfits until they were in high school. For her, twinship hasn't always been something to celebrate.

"It has its advantages," she says, "but then, too, you're not your own person, because it's always 'the twins.' If one's in trouble, it's always both. And you always have to share birthdays. It's not fun, sometimes. We share everything, though. Not husbands."

The judging took place in the Cassville High School gym at about 9:30 AM on Sunday, the same day as the twins parade down Amelia Street, and "Twins on Review."a rehash of the award winners held in the park bandstand.

Sunday's events kicked off with a greeting by Cassville village president William Whyte and comments by Kirschbaum and some of the surviving members of the Kuenster family. Then judges like the Grant County Dairy King Matt Rupp and Twins Without Partners founder Alwin Richmond--a 72-year-old Aurora resident whose twin, Arthur, died in 1987--called the charges, set by set, before them for review.

"We compare height, facial expressions, weight, if they sound alike," Rupp says of the "most alike" competition. "A lot of it is facial expressions. You can tell they look alike."

But there is also a "least alike" category, won last year by Kelli and Kim Bauman, 31, of Juda, Wisconsin. Kim and Kelli, who learned from Twin-o-Rama from their mother and her twin, don't even appear to be on the same branch of their family tree though they were born two minutes apart. Kim is five foot two with brunette hair and a thin frame. Kelli is an endomorphic blond two inches taller. Strangely enough, no proof of twinship is required for the competition.

"We assume everyone is honest and they would not be interested in a twin event unless they were twins," Bernhardt says.

The stars of the proceedings were the former Rowe sisters, LaVelda and LaVona, 60-year-old women who were bedecked in glittering, sequined, homemade gold dresses, hats and shoes worn specially to commemorate Twin-o-Rama's 50th anniversary. LaVelda and LaVona are so completely dedicated to a lifetime of promoting twinnery that at the 1973 Twin-o-Rama they met and became engaged to the Richmond twins. This past year was the 12th time, in 27 visits to Cassville and the 5th time in a row, that they had taken the winning trophy. "They're identical down to the spaces between their teeth," says the Cassville Historical Society's Chuck Lange, judge of the "women's most alike 55-80" category. LaVelda and LaVona once worked as news photographers for the Chicago Daily News and now shoot special events on a freelance basis. It was immediately apparent, as they answered questions in sing-song voices either simultaneously or in serve-and-volley fashion, that they had crossed the line from merely reveling in their twin status to going whole hog into a fanatical, Dianeticslike twin trance. LaVelda and LaVona had coagulated into one inseparable entity.

"We live together," they said in unison. "We got married to twin brothers and we had a double wedding, a double honeymoon. We worked together when we were working. The license on our car says 'Twins 1.'"

"It's very competitive," they said later of the judging. "It's a special honor to be a twin. And it's a special honor for the public to recognize you as an identical twin. We have over 250 trophies at home and wouldn't part with a single one of them."

LaVelda and LaVona belong to the Hawkeye Twin Club of Iowa, and the Chicagoland Northern Illinois State Twins, attend another annual twins gathering, Twins Day in Twinburgh, Ohio, and have been named International Twins and Illinois State Twins. They wonder if they will age at the same pace. "You get older, you're starting to change." LaVelda/LaVona said. "One twin might shrink faster than the other."

Alwin Richmond, LaVona's husband, along with his late brother, Arthur, is one of the last vestiges of a family tradition in twinship that extends 700 years. Neither of them has children who are twins. In their younger days as members of the West Aurora High School track team--which Alwin said included six sets of identical twins--Alwin, a miler, would start the first part of a race, dip behind the grandstand to be replaced by Arthur's fresher, identical legs for the kick, or so they say. They'd replace each other in class and in odd-sounding events like water-drinking contest. "We never got kicked out of school," he says, "but we had a lot of fun."

The fun came to an end when Arthur died of brain cancer in 1987, which prompted Alwin to help organize the Fort Wayne-based Twinless Twins support group. "It's like your soul goes out of your body," Alwin says. "A bond is broken. You're down in the dumps when you have your birthday, and our anniversary. You know he's with you all the time, but the idea he's gone--you just, like, sit in the corner somewhere."

After the 78 trophies were awarded to the top twins and the runners-up, it was back out into the fresh country air for the Twin Parade, again drawing streams of people lining Amelia Street. By the time the twins found their floats and the parade began, a crowd had assembled at the Pitcher's Pub, located at the corner of Amelia and the optimistically named Wall Street. Its facade caked with mayflies dead and dying, Pitcher's Pub is Cassville's official sports bar, owned by a balding, low-key, semi-fast softball pitcher named Jim Hochhausen, who keeps tabs on local softball leagues, offers free billiards, and airs such televised fare as Packers games and speedboat and stock car races. He doesn't seem to mind when people take their Schlitz outside to watch the parade.

A bigger event for Cassville than the Fourth of July, the Twins Parade allows local politicians (village president Whyte with his twin grandsons, Chris and John) celebs (Grant County Pork Queen Rebecca Fowler, Junior Pork Princess Katie Brunton) and business (Udelhoven Log Homes and Forest Dozer Service) the opportunity to promote themselves or the products they represent while carting convertibles and truckbeds full of twins from the "youngest twins," 11 weeks, to the oldest, 77 years.

The twins and their 175-odd floats rolled by with a few true gems; a twin who owns, "two world records on guitar," lip-synching to BTO's "Takin' Care of Business"; the freewheeling Northeast Iowa Shrine Motor Clowns--pretty much your typical Shriners in go-carts, but this troupe enlisted an oversized driver who looked like Penn Jillette in a rainbow wig; a truck with its bed boasting "15 sets of twins from 1893," featuring live twins on folding chairs interspersed with faux tombstones symbolic of the ghosts of Twin-o-Ramas past.

By the time the big water pumper finished blasting its air horn and the sanitation team completed the time-honored duty of sweeping horse flop, the fat lady had just about sung. Some twins dispersed and some stuck around for the fireworks show before heading home with their gold honorary 50th anniversary digital clocks. Amelia Street emptied as the Cassvillians returned to the park for bingo, beer and barbecue. The Dubuque Marching Band, a haphazard ensemble somewhere between the Irish music of the Stockyards Kitty Band and the brass band on The Andy Griffith Show, leads the parade stragglers Pied Piper-style back into the Pitcher's Pub for a couple more Schlitzes.

"It went real good," LaVern Kirschbaum said Monday, reflecting on the weekend's events over an Old Milwaukee tallboy in Vogt's Town Pump. On the barstool next to him was Twin-o-Rama committee vice chair Dave Junk.

"We had 546 twins, more than we've ever had," Kirschbaum said. "The weather was perfect. Everybody enjoyed the ski show. The parade was excellent."

Junk agreed. "No major accidents."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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