Monday, May 19, 2008
I do hope that Rhody not only makes it but lasts another 73 years. Even this outsider could see that this is a truly special weekend with deep roots in the local community. Thank you to all the Rhodies who gave me such a warm welcome.
The local schools let out early for the annual ritual of the Kiddie Parade, held separately so that the kids are then free to be spectators for the later Grand Parade. Parents and friends lined the streets for the event which featured children in costume, on floats, riding tiny vehicles, and making music. This year, in another effort to appease the Town Council, the parade ran fewer blocks and was held uptown, away from the main business district. Though spirits were high, for some paradegoers the new route sent a troubling message.
That’s not an inner tube or a Depends undergarment. Each float has security holsters to keep the queens from toppling off their perches in bumpy conditions or sudden stops. One past Rhody queen told me the story of a time that the float got directed off the parade route and ended up on Interstate 5—the girls harnessed into place as they wove among freeway traffic, waving gamely to the startled drivers.
Festival floats, which bear a town’s court to other cities and towns, are a big deal, and parades often feature competitions between them. At right, the Daffodil Festival float (longest in the parade) was sponsored by a casino and featured not only moving parts but an amplified sound system; it cost $60,000. The Rhody float was built in a board member’s yard and featured lots of paint, glitter, and spirit; it cost $2,000. And a little TLC can be just as good as cash--ealier this month, the Rhody float won its division at the 2008 Wenatchee Apple Blossom Festival, the first parade the float appeared in.
In a parade with 93 floats, marching bands, and participating ensembles, there were endless ways to be a princess. There were canine princesses, cowgirl princesses, elderly Norwegian princesses, and even a man-princess or two. Here, you see a mer-princess, one of the girls on the Royal Court of--no kidding--The Irrigation Festival. How’s that for glamour?
One tradition the town hasn’t yet crimped: a local fish company presents a King Salmon to the Queen during the parade. Queen Rachael Wiles is shown here reacting to the gift. The look on her face is genuine; she had missed out on this little tradition and was horrified to learn she really was expected to take the heavy (and, thoughtfully, pre-gutted) fish home with her.
In addition to having their photos splashed all over the local newspaper and traveling the length of two states to attend other festivals, Rhody queens and princesses get the honor of having their handprints cast in the sidewalk--kind of the Port Townsend equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Or at least, this will be true when the festival find a new home for the handprints; the town is now refusing to let them use any more downtown sidewalk space.
The brawny crown-wearing Episcopals seemed destined to win, coming in ahead heat after heat--right until they lost the title bout to the fleet lads of the Paper Mill team, who aren't pictured because their very fast bed was also dead boring to look at. As one woman in the crowd murmured aloud, "I suppose it feels nice to win, but it's not much fun to watch."
This is a run for a bed pan. While some Rhody traditions have not lasted (including the Beard Pageant or the Beer Keg Toss) the Bed Race still draws big crowds, with the winning team of 4 runners and one rider (who must weigh 100 lbs or more) earning a silver-plated bed pan for their efforts. The three-time champions were the Safeway grocery store team, with a store clerk glammed up in pink (left); newcomers from the Food Coop (right) were fan favorites immediately, with their carrot-mobile. Keeping the beds on course was the "Kinetic Cop" (center).
This is what my grandmother would call a "lemonade story" (as in the best outcome when life gives you lemons): Among six girls who ran for Rhododendron Queen in 2007, Chelsea (left) was a self-described tomboy and farm girl who ran to get outside her comfort zone--not your typical queen candidate. Dana (right) was a cheerleader, drum major, and student body leader—more the profile you’d expect. Dana did win, but Chelsea didn’t just lose--she placed fourth, which meant she wasn’t on the three-girl court at all—no scholarship, no travel. Just before this year’s queen, the 2008 winner, was crowned this spring, last year’s results were rediscovered to contain a horrible error: a column of points had been omitted, all from Chelsea’s score. Not only should she have made the court; she should have won. When the truth was revealed after the 2008 queen was crowned, Dana (who had served all year) found out literally just before leaving on vacation—with no way to control what people would say about her while she was gone or when she returned. And then the story made the newspaper all the way down the Peninsula all the way to Seattle. The girls were not really close to begin with—even their friends weren’t friends—so the awkwardness could have turned easily into something worse. In fact, there were adults who said some negative things in the aftermath and the local paper claimed that the festival’s reputation had taken a hit. It was up to these young girls themselves to rise above it: Dana called Chelsea and not only congratulated her but offered Chelsea her crown to wear; Chelsea proclaimed to the press that Dana had been a terrific Queen; and, when it came time for this year’s Rhody Festival Returning Royalty Luncheon, they both came as Queen and stayed together, side by side proving what it means to lead.
My ride from the airport was hours late, so I missed the Pet Parade, but all the winners got to take a victory lap (so to speak) later in the weekend, including this pair. 200 participants were involved in this year's competition, including children with slugs and a girl with a silk-draped horse. One annual favorite is the girl whose chicken rides a bicycle. (Sadly, not pictured here.)
When the carnival itself is telling you spend your money judiciously, we are in a very different economy. As it turns out, this carnival is part of family-owned Funtastic Shows and they're feeling the pinch like everyone else. The cost of filling up the trucks for the drive from Portland to Port Townsend was so much higher than last year that the carnival had to ask for a surcharge on ride tickets (for the first time ever) just to squeak by. The carnival VP told me with some surprise that nobody complained about the added fee, and local residents told me the same thing. Everyone seems to get it: unless you're an oil exec, the cost of fuel is an equal opportunity offender.
Rhody is also the only family-focused festival all year. While there are plenty of town-promoted events directed at retirees and weekenders, Rhody offers a carnival (the only one on the Peninsula each year), as well as a Pet Parade, and a Kiddie Parade—and, until this year, a trike race, which three generations of locals participated in before the Town Council complained it was an insurance risk.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
The Rhododendron Festival, in its 73rd year, is the second oldest festival in Washington. Port Townsend has an endless stream of weekend festivals marketed to visitors throughout the year—representing musical genres, arts, boats, Victoriana, and so on—but only Rhody (as this festival is known) is directed at the local population. Its value in terms of cultural capital seems lost to the Town Council, which has a lone member who was raised here; the council this year instituted fees to the all-volunteer Rhody Festival for the first time, with warnings of greater “cost-recovery” to come. This was influential in this year’s festival board cancelling one day’s events and relocating some activities away from the shopping district, and some fear that it may well cripple the festival, which has always been free. That strikes me as a potentially great loss in a town where residents set out lawn chairs to reserve prime viewing spots more than a day before the parade actually begins.
As removed from “new” Port Townsend as possible, the annual Kiwanis Fish Fry raises money for local kids with special needs. The cod was freshly caught in Peninsula waters, deep-fried beyond recognition, and served up with slaw and fries in the American Legion Hall. (It was a vast improvement over the nearby carnival's corn-dogs which came pre-made, 28 to a box, and tasted like it, a tragic betrayal of my secret love.)
A consistent tension emerges here: the Town Council is intensely focused on marketing Port Townsend as a “Small Victorian Town” to tourists and new residents (mostly retirees from other places on the West Coast). That means no chain retailers of any kind, no stores that spoil this carefully maintained vibe, and “shop local” signs at every turn. As implied by the sign above (which manages to imply crunchy and elitist all at once), the town is a kind of theme park for progressive sentiment glossed with a decidedly upscale sheen. As a result, there are no department stores and very limited budget-friendly options anywhere in town. Water Street (the equivalent of main street) is lined with boutiques, artisanal crafts galleries, and upscale restaurants. A local mom told me that when she needed tights for a daughter’s dance class, she had to choose either fancy designer tights from one of the town's two upscale children’s store for $30 or drive almost an hour to another town to get basic ones. Yes, you can shop local, as long as your needs are oysters on the half shell, pricey blown-glass vases, and handmade jewelry.
The Olympic mountain range rises majestically over the town, and if you see this view from certain angles, it looks like wisps of fog wreath the foothills. But a clear view reveals the truth: the puffy white clouds are the discharge of the smokestacks of Port Townsend Paper Mill. This dynamic taps into a source of tension for the town. Two camps of transplants to the area hate it for their own reasons: the retirees who move here for the quaint seaside locale hate the smell; and the earth-friendly Food Coop folks are petitioning to get PT Paper shut down for ecological reasons. Yet PT Paper is Port Townsend’s single largest employer and the bulwark of the economy. As one native said, “When new people complain about the smell, I say that’s the smell of a house payment.”
Friday, May 16, 2008
After a 17-hour trip, I finally arrived Thursday night on the Olympic Peninsula, the last slip of the continental U.S. I am in Port Townsend, a 19th-century shipping port which has been transformed in the last two decades as a weekend getaway spot for upscale travelers. Just walking down the main drag is to encounter the uneasy dance between the well-heeled visitors trolling the little boutiques on Water Street and the frustrated year-round residents trying to live and work here when so many of the small town's resources are directed at visitors. To get a sense of one tradition that is truly local and whose benefits are squarely focused on those who live in Port Townsend, I have a full schedule ahead today, including shadowing the Rhododendron Festival queen and her court as they move from Kiddie Parade to Bed Races to Fish Fry. Watch for posts.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
While at the Wild Turkey Fest, I met photojournalism student Amelia Holowaty Krales, whose evocative photos of Vinton County and neighboring Athens County can be found on her website here.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
In the Miss Wild Turkey Festival pageant, 8 finalists attended all four days of the festival, required to wear crown and sash at all times. I met each and asked why she wanted to be Miss Wild Turkey Festival. Considering that a tiny town like McArthur needs its festival to attract as many visitors as possible, I found most of the conversations with the girls worrisome—the Paris Hilton look-alike just rolled her eyes; another girl, nursing a huge hickey on her neck, hurriedly dug her sash out of her pocket, where it lay beneath her cigarettes, seemingly afraid I’d tell someone she’d taken it off; a third girl told me she didn’t know why she’d entered. No surprise that a number of people I talked to were a little concerned about the potential attitude of the three-girl court (Queen and two attendants) who would be the face of the town for the coming year all over Ohio. By the end of the weekend, after just a few interactions with the girls, I found myself unable to resist rooting for the three girls who seemed most enthusiastic about McArthur. The out-of-towners who served as judges, each from locales with their own festivals, apparently had the same reaction and those indeed are the three girls who won: Megan, Breana, and Emily.
In a county where the annual per capita income averages $12,000-$14,000, most girls cannot afford an array of expensive dresses to attend these events. Often, past queens loan or give away dresses, or sell them for far less than their original cost. At the Volunteer Fireman’s Hall, where the queens met, the coatrack was hung full of dresses available to the girls for $20 or less. That's a big help to girls who must each attend 10-20 events a year for their town in order to earn their scholarships.
More than 100 visiting queens, princesses, attendants, contessas, and chaperones attended the Visiting Royalty lunch. These girls earn scholarships for their service, a commitment to travel statewide for a year, encouraging others to come to their towns and support their festivals (upon which local economies and charities often depend). The gathered queens, ranging in age from 13-19, defied the kind of conformity of beauty that the media perpetuates--all sizes and body types were refreshingly represented, and braces were every bit as common as mascara. Some girls represented unusual themes—(at left) The Miss Swiss, just 15, who had to demonstrate knowledge of cheese for her title, and Miss Bratwurst (at right), who told me she was too often asked if she was carrying any sausage with her. A rare few girls worked the haughty queen angle—the Apple Queens (center) boasting their fancy dresses were paid for by “our mommies and daddies”—but most reveled in a spirit of community, gamely playing along when the event's entertainment (top) began: a hypnotist who led them to feeling their arms float away as if tied to balloons.
Much to everyone's relief, the first true sunlight of the weekend broke through the clouds just at the moment that sirens sounded the beginning of the Grand Parade. Farmers on tractors were joined by dozens of floats, including a politician’s granddaughter in her wagon, and a rural chapter of the Red Hats.
The midway was not the focal point of the fair, even for children. A little dispirited, it sat at the end of Main Street, juxtapositions in every view: Fun Slide next to dilapidated bus, tombstones beneath a tilt-a-whirl.
The fair schedule listed one Turkey Drop a day. I had no idea what it meant--frozen turkey bowling? A live turkey dropped from a height?
Nope--it's part of the tradition in which the festival uses the proceeds from raffles and craft sales for local aid. The Lions Club “Turkey Drop” offers a split-the-pot prize for raffle ticket buyers whose tickets match the numbered squares on a big grid. The outcome is determined by Charles Wilbur, the wild turkey pictured here (named by Darlene, the turkey wrangler in the cowboy hat). If Charles Wilbur poops on the grid numbered the same as a buyer's ticket, the ticket-holder gets half the prize money and the Lions Club gets the other half--$500 each for winner and Lions alike in good years, when all tickets sell. The Lions Club money goes entirely toward providing eyeglasses and other visual services (like seeing eye dogs) for Vinton County residents with no insurance to help them buy their own. But sales were down a third this year, because, as the local probate juvenile court judge said, “When gas is $3.69 a gallon, you don’t have money for a raffle ticket.”
Fair food is fried food—and you can deep fry anything: pickles, cheese, Oreos, Snickers bars, even Coca-Cola. At left is a deep fried cola, which involves soda, funnel cake batter, hot oil, powdered sugar, a cherry, and a willing disregard for flavor. At right was the most prominent food version of the festival theme: turkey drumsticks the size of a small child, surprisingly often seen being consumed by small children. I saw a girl about five years old walking through the fair with the bone end of a turkey leg clutched in her tiny fist, turning the meat in slow circles for small bites, much you’d eat an ice cream cone.
You wouldn't want to miss breakfast in the Main Street Diner, where the $3 breakfast bowl gets you eggs, sausage, potatoes, and gravy. Ate with The Politician & The Preacher, as they are known, who hold court and greet everyone who enters. (Think Click & Clack of Appalachia.) Tom, the Politican (left) moved back to McArthur after years away because the area was in decline and he wanted to do something about it. Jim, the Preacher (right), goes “yard saling,” convincing people not to throw away clothes that he can donate to Goodwill in exchange for clothing credit for poor people. This matters because the general budget for the county lost $200,000 this year—almost 10% of its budget—with the same percentage lost in Family Services.
For $50 cash a night, I got a twin bed, a sink, and a tv, all in a small, dark room full of Indian-themed tchotchkes. Among the decorations: this framed print of what appeared to be Ricky Martin’s early work as a model for Romance Novels about love between warriors and settler women; and a curio shelf that featured a sad Indian clock and Native American Troll doll who apparently loves me “this much.”
I checked into the Hotel McArthur, built in 1839 and the oldest building in town. Owner Krazy Katie—a nickname she chose herself—told me that although the vast second floor ballroom had been partitioned long ago into smaller rooms, the original sprung-wood floors may still be found underfoot. A handwritten sign on the front door reads "Smile, you're on camera." Once through the door, you'll find a bar on the first floor, the Buzzard’s Knest (with a “K” for Katie), where Bikers are Welcome. Recently gave up her hotel license to instead run the place as a boarding house that takes overnight guests, a distinction that allows her to ignore the state rules that prohibit smoking in rooms. The Wild Turkey Festival midway was set up directly in front of the hotel. From my room, the amplified live entertainment—nightly shows by up-and-coming Country Music artists—filled my room with echoes of steel pedal and the throb of bass guitar.
Here in hardwood country, 8 sawmills are the core of industry. Tractor trailers burdened with logs roll down Market Street on their way to Highway 50. The yellow cab on this truck is the only sunshine on the first day of my visit, where smatterings of rain hurt festival attendance.
Entering Vinton County following the curves of Rt. 93 brings you to McArthur, population 865. At the end of Main Street, this stately tree presides over the smaller of the town’s graveyards (now more populous than the town itself, according to a local preacher).
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Friday morning, I head south southwest into Vinton County Ohio to tiny McArthur (pop. 865) for Wild Turkey Days. I’ll be staying in a boarding house known as Hotel McArthur, the oldest building in town, built in the mid-19th century. (The Governor has publicly described the owner, whom he calls Crazy Katie, as “a hoot.") In the next couple of days, I’ll meet the queen contestants, attend a turkey drop (more details to come), attend the Grand Parade, and talk to as many people as I can. Stay tuned for my report, with pictures and quotes from the people of Vinton County. (Photo credit: Vinton County Travel.Com)