Native tribes in the Pacific Northwest have held festivals for thousands of years. The earliest festivals were potlatch celebrations among the Pacific Northwest Coast tribes. Potlatches are “feasts and gift-giving ceremonies that serve a variety of functions: creating alliances, promoting altruism, redistributing wealth, vanquishing rivals and, not least, showing off.”1
Today, four Pacific Coast tribes – the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe, the Coquille Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians — gather to continue the potlatch tradition. They co-sponsor the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, where participants paddle canoes and camp along rivers on a week-long journey, celebrating the tribes’ relationship with and dependency upon water. The journey ends with a potlatch featuring traditional dances, music and crafts.2
In Oregon’s interior, Native American tribes celebrated their communities with different traditions. They faced “the severity of cold winters on the high Plateau and its often semidesert environs. Rivers played a key role in the lives of the peoples of the Plateau.”3 Along the Sprague River in Chiloquin, the Klamath Tribes gather every year, as they have for thousands of years, to honor the Lost River Sucker fish, which they call the C’waam. The fish, now endangered, has been “the mainstay of the Klamath Tribes’ diet and a centerpiece of cultural ceremonies.”4
Different festivals have different goals. Some are “private, reinforcing an internal sense of ‘us’ as a group; others are public displays, offering the broader community an insider’s view of a culture.”5 When representatives of the United States government first arrived in the Pacific Northwest, Native American tribes seized the opportunity to use their festivals as public displays, to broaden the government representatives’ view of their cultures – and to expand trade. Matthew Ordway, a junior member of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition, described a Native American festival on the Columbia River, 25 miles north of what is now Umatilla. The Walla Walla tribe invited about 150 members of the nearby Yakima tribe to meet the explorers. “We played the fiddle and danced a while,” Ordway recorded in his diary on April 28, 1806. “Our men sang two songs … they tried to learn singing with us. We danced among them, and every few minutes one of their warriors made a speech.” Lewis and Clark bought dogs, fish, and roots from the tribes and set off for Washington, D.C. the next day.6
A century later, another Oregon tribe got a wildly unexpected opportunity to use a festival to offer “the broader community an insider’s view of a culture.” In 1915, officials in Philadelphia put the United States’ Liberty Bell on a national train tour, to promote national patriotism as the country faced World War I. The Umatilla Pow-Wow was in full swing in Cayuse on July 12, when the Liberty Bell train steamed into its tiny depot. Hundreds of spectators, including tribal members wearing full regalia, Chinese laborers dressed in native silk robes, and African-American ranch hands crowded around the Liberty Bell. Liberty Bell officials and the train crew, surprised to find themselves in the middle of a Pow-Wow, disembarked and joined the party. “It is doubtful whether the red people were half as interested in the bell as the Philadelphians were in them,” The Daily East Oregonian
reported, as the Native American festival in the tiny town of Cayuse became a triumph of cultural diversity.7
Early Euro-American Fairs
When settlers flooded into Oregon, they began holding festivals as a way to build community and to improve crops and trade. Because many of Oregon’s first settlers were farmers, most early festivals focused on agriculture. County fairs held competitions for local crops like wheat and fruit. Yamhill County hosted Oregon’s first county fair in 1854, in Lafayette. Enthusiasm soon grew for a state fair and the first official Oregon State Fair was held near Gladstone in 1861. The next year, the state fair moved to its permanent home in Salem.8
From 1865 until 1910, the most common festivals, after agricultural fairs, were one-day “camp meetings” — evangelical religious gatherings that often included entertainment and other social events. At these festivals, “Peddlers appeared as if by magic. Local politicians sometimes used the intervals between religious sessions to campaign for office. Men traded horses, nails, tools and good advice. Old friends, isolated by distances or weather, met. Life was a lot of struggling then,” as one attendee remembered a camp meeting in Huntington. “Those who lived out in Eastern Oregon didn’t have much in the way of intellectual or emotional stimulus. The camp meetings were excited.”9
State Fair and World's Fair
In the Willamette Valley, the Oregon State Fair also encompassed entertainment and social events, trade, and politics. In its first years, horse races were the most popular event. Officials cancelled the 1905 fair because crowds and exhibitors flocked to the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exhibition in Portland. In 1933, in the midst of The Great Depression, Governor Julius Meier ordered that no tax dollars be used to pay for the fair, declaring, “Feed the people before we entertain them,” and fair officials cut admission in half, to twenty-five cents. During World War II the fair was again cancelled because the military was using the fairgrounds and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration urged states to cancel state and county fairs so that the public would use less gasoline.
Oregon State Fair visitors included pioneering feminist Susan B. Anthony, who camped out on the fairgrounds in 1871; entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., who performed in 1946; and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who campaigned for the presidency in 1960. (After Kennedy campaigned at the fair, he went to Medford, where the Pear Blossom Festival parade was just about to begin. Kennedy immediately agreed to be the parade’s grand marshal, hopped in a car, and rode through downtown Medford.) However, not everyone liked coming to the Oregon State Fair. On opening day 1979, a steer named Rufus escaped the fairgrounds, swam the Willamette River, and successfully hid in a cornfield for six weeks. Rufus’ owner admitted he was planning on turning the escape artist into hamburger, but instead state fair officials turned Rufus into the fair mascot, saving his life.10
A century after Lewis and Clark wintered near Astoria, Portland hosted its first and only World’s Fair, the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905. The four-month festival drew more than 1.5 million visitors. Part celebration of Lewis and Clark’s triumph, and part regional boosterism, the Exposition included contests for the best local crops, displays by the U.S. Navy, and the world’s largest log cabin constructed from Oregon Douglas Fir.11
Portland Rose Festival
At the exposition, Portland Mayor Harry Lane told the crowd that Portland needed “a festival of roses” and two years later, the city held its first Portland Rose Festival. The 1907 festival included a parade of floats through the city streets and fireworks. In later years, events included chariot races and synchronized swimming shows. The Royal Rosarian Court, made of approximately 100 Portlanders, dressed in white wool suits and white hats, represent the city at the Portland Rose Festival and other events. For example, in May 1918, they were on hand to welcome President Woodrow Wilson at Vista House on the newly constructed Columbia Gorge Highway. In 1908, Carrie Lee Chamberlain, daughter of Governor George Chamberlain, became the first Rose Festival queen, a tradition still continued today although, since 1930, the queen and her princesses have been chosen from students of Portland high schools.12
Today, the festival’s centerpiece is the Grand Floral Parade, featuring flowered-covered floats gliding through downtown Portland. At Waterfront Park, U.S. Navy ships dock and conduct guided tours for the public, while sailors enjoy shore leave.13
Three years after the Portland Rose Festival began, Pendleton established in 1910, a very different celebration — the Pendleton Round Up, now held every September. While the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition and the Portland Rose Festival touted Portland’s future, the Pendleton Round Up focused on Oregon’s past. It billed itself as “a frontier exhibition of picturesque pastimes, Indian and military spectacles, cowboy racing and bronco busting.” Today, the festival remains true to its goal of celebrating Oregon’s past. Its Westward Ho parade includes sheep, horses, and cows — but no motorized vehicles, and its week-long rodeo draws spectators from across the nation. Native American events at the Round Up, include performances of tribal dances and music. In its early years, soldiers from nearby Fort Walla Walla came to the Round Up, bringing their Army band and performing military drills.14
A Range of Other Festivals
Other communities began organizing festivals around the arts and culture, a sense of place, local crops, and Oregon industry. One of the earliest festivals, the Astoria Regatta, began as a celebration of Astoria’s maritime heritage. The first regatta in 1894, featured dances on the wharfs and races on the Columbia River. Today the festival centers on the Highwater Boat Parade and sailboat races.15
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is Oregon’s largest art festival. It opened in 1935, tickets cost $1, and the first performances were Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice. The festival limited itself to plays by William Shakespeare until 1969, when it added plays by other writers. Today, it is a world-renowned regional repertory theater, with an eight-month season, an annual budget of $32 million, and 400,000 visitors per year.16 Few Oregon festivals have enjoyed the longevity of the Ashland Shakespeare Festival.
The Bend Winter Carnival became so rowdy that it closed in 1964, three years after it began. More than 6,000 people, many of them college students, attended the week-long 1964 festival. Its official events included “ski races, a talent show, queen’s coronation and ball, bonfire, and noise parade.” Its unofficial events included “lusty ski ballads” and “acts that just escaped being risqué,” as well as acts that didn’t escape being risqué.17
By comparison, the Vortex I Music Festival was relatively tame. In the summer of 1970, opposition to the war in Vietnam was tearing the nation apart when the American Legion announced it would hold its annual convention that August in Portland. Rumors swirled that President Richard Nixon would attend, and the state braced itself for anti-war protests. Governor Tom McCall came up with a solution — hold a Woodstock-like rock festival at Milo McIver State Park, on the Clackamas River near Estacada. Thirty-five thousand young people showed up at McIver, Nixon skipped the convention, and Portland remained peaceful.18
As communities changed how they perceived themselves, their festivals changed. McMinnville started holding its Turkey Rama in 1938, when the Yamhill County turkey industry was rapidly growing. When the county’s turkey production peaked and began declining in the 1980s, local community tensions threated to derail the festival. In 2009 and 2010, disagreements between the McMinnville Chamber of Commerce and the McMinnville Downtown Merchants Association split the annual celebration. The Chamber and the Merchants held separate turkey events. By 2012, the two organizations reconciled and joined to co-sponsor the Turkey Rama. Due to changing attitudes about animal rights, the festival abandoned turkey races.19 Similar concerns prompted the Pendleton Round Up to ban ear-biting in its Wild Horse Race in 1967.
Science and Politics
Scientific advances also changed festivals. The Oregon State Fair began as an agricultural event, only to become a showcase of new technology as scientific advances swept the nation. Many Oregonians saw their first telephone at the 1877 fair. They saw their first car when the 1904 fair featured its first automobile show, and six years later, an airplane was the top attraction of the 1910 fair. After years of introducing Oregonians to national inventions and innovations, the fair extended its reach to outer space in 1970, by displaying rocks from the moon.
Changing political views about alcohol also changed festivals. The Oregon State Fair Commission decided that beer could be sold at the fair in 1952, then reversed its decision a few days later after church groups protested; beer was not sold at the fair until 1971.20 Today, the explosion of Oregon’s craft beer industry has spawned several local beer festivals, including North Bend’s Annual BBQ, Blues & Brews by the Bay, and the Oregon Brewers Festival in Portland. Oregon’s burgeoning wine industry is also represented with festivals like Canyonville’s Greatest of the Grape celebration.
As new festivals emerge, older festivals end. After 60 years, the Jefferson Mint Festival and Frog Jump suspended its celebration in 2018, citing a lack of volunteers to staff the festival. The Albany Timber Carnival, which once attracted 1.5 million people, closed in 2000. “As the character of the town changed and the importance of timber to Albany's economy declined, support for the Timber Carnival ebbed.”21
Through more than two centuries of changes in politics, industries, the environment, and culture, one thing has not changed — Oregonians’ desire to gather together and celebrate all parts of the Oregon experience with festivals.