Contributed photos
Vergas pageant organizers are (front, from left) Jean Soland, Shelley Bunkowkse, Amber Nelson, Melissa Kroetsch, Melissa Hoss and Kayla Olson.

Miss Vergas, Princess  Altona pageants disband

By Barbie Porter


The Miss Vergas and Princess Altona pageants have officially disbanded.

Event organizer Shelly Bunkowske explained the idea has been discussed for several years between pageant committee members, which includes her and her daughters Melissa and Amber, as well as Jean Soland and her daughters Kayla and Missy. The daughters have moved to other cities and the others are considering retirement. 

Bunkwoske said after having 2020 off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group agreed it was time for the end of an era, and made the announcement.

Pageant popularity 

has remained strong

throughout the years

Thirty-six years ago Bunkowske and Teri Osterman were part of a business owner group that had a community focus. They agreed a pageant would be a nice addition to the annual Looney Daze festival, and the two women took the lead. They visited with the program organizers of the Miss Frazee pageant and studied the Miss Minnesota program to create a format. 

When the day came to put out an official announcement of the Miss Vergas pageant, Bunkowske said there was no shortage of young ladies signing up to compete for the crown. The requirements for contestants were that they had hail from Vergas, Frazee, Perham, Pelican Rapids or Detroit Lakes, and be between the ages of 16-20.

“We made the age that contestants could join and compete a little lower (than Miss America affiliated pageants) so the girls could get experience and then go on,” Bunkowske said. “And, almost all of the girls went on to run for Miss Frazee, Miss Northwest or Miss Perham.”

Throughout the years the number of contestants waxed and waned, but the average was about six. Regardless of the number of contestants, the Vergas Event Center was always at capacity the evening of the big event. 

“I’d estimate about 400 people would come out,” Bunkowske said. “We always had a full audience and greatly appreciate the community for supporting the pageant.”

While the pageant allowed young women to show their physical beauty, the stage also offered the opportunity to grow in many other ways, all while collecting scholarships and cash prizes.

Bunkowske said she wasn’t sure how much the pageant was able to give in scholarships overall, but it was all thanks to the generosity of the pageant sponsors. Prizes went to the winner, runner up, Miss Congenially and more. Those funds helped with college costs for many contestants. Bunkowske said the track record of the winners and their career choices has always impressed her.

“Many have went on to graduate college, some got their masters, and have had amazing careers,” she said.

Even with those that walked away without a title or prize, Bunkowske said they almost all appreciated the experience. 

“Many who didn’t get a title have told me the interview part of the pageant was extremely helpful to them,” she said, adding speaking in front of a large crowd, and performing a talent also provided the young ladies with a sense of confidence and understanding on how to hold one’s composure in high stress situations.

The success of the program was held up by many arms, from those that donated, volunteered and those that ran for titles, but ultimately it came down to the pageant committee. The group decided to add a second pageant to the mix about 16 years ago. The Princess Altona pageant for younger girls came about because there was a large request from kids.

“So, we started the princess program and that has been successful, also,” Bunkowske said. 

Reminiscing about the program, and the many girls she watched transform into confident young women gives Bunkowske pause. 

“We will miss the girls and seeing them become young, empowered women,” she said. “There is a lot of joy in seeing them grow.”

  The social studies teacher at Perham High School is looking forward to having summers to spend as she pleases. Normally when school concludes the pageant season and preparation began. 

“People might not realize how much planning goes into the pageant,” she said, explaining the work includes finding sponsors, raising money to cover production costs, as well as creating a opening dance number and working with the contestants to prepare for the big event. 

Bunkowske said there were several businesses that have been a pillar of support since the first pageant, such as Vergas State Bank, and many more have stepped up through the years to ensure the show was top quality.

“Turn In Poachers and (gaming manager) Dayle Peterson, really stepped up and funded the scholarships in the last 10 years,” Bunkowske said. “And Billy’s Corner Bar and Grill have been there every year supporting us and sponsoring the after party. The Vergas Lions have provided support through a community service award with a $500 scholarship. They also provided the float for parades and pulled the float.”

Bunkowske expressed deep gratitude to the many generous organizations, businesses and volunteers that have supported the pageant.

“We want to say thank you to the community for all their support through the years. And we want everyone to know that we are not mad, that is not why we are not holding the pageant. We just feel the time has come.”

Shelly Bunkowske

The Miss Vergas pageant has been around 36 years, and Princes Altona, 20 years. In 1999 the junior royalty pageant was also added to the roster.

The last pageants were held in 2019, as the last crown holders kept their title through 2020 due to gathering limit restrictions in place due to COVID-19. Now Kaylee Baumgaurt will be the forever queen of Miss Vergas and Meghan Reed hold the title of Miss Altona.

Bunkowske said if someone wanted to create their own pageant, she would be happy to see something like that come to the community, but it will not be affiliated with the Miss Vergas or Miss Altona programs.