Oregon Festivals History: Types of Festivals

Log rolling competitors
Contestants participate in the log rolling competition at the circa 1979 Sutherlin Timber Days Festival. The event ran from 1948 until 1997. (Douglas County Museum)

How We Work

Where can you compete in log pole climbing, axe throwing and log pond roll offs? The Estacada Timber Festival’s timber competitions celebrate the logging industry’s past. The festival struggled with attendance in the early 1990s, when the timber industry was in sharp decline and finally closed in 1993. But in 2013, nostalgia for the logging industry and a sense of community sparked the reopening of the festival, which drew more than 3,000 people in 2018. 

In Cottage Grove, Bohemia Mining Days recall the area’s hard-rock mining heydays in the 1860s, when miners pulled about $1 million of gold and silver out of the nearby mines. Today, the festival keeps memories of the industry alive with costumes, history presentations and mining demonstrations.

Most of Oregon’s pioneers were employed in agriculture. Farm Day at the Farm, in Eagle Creek shows how they did it. Festival goers learn how to make rope, plant and harvest crops using the tools pioneers used, and how to farm as Oregon’s pioneers farmed.

Early pioneer women often turned quilt-making into an art form and today the Mt. Hood Oregon Trail Quilt Show: Past & Present (A Heritage Exhibition) in Rhododendron, displays heritage quilts along with contemporary quilts.

Crops

Baking the world’s largest strawberry shortcake each year, putting it on parade through downtown, and then serving all 8,000 pieces of it — that’s Lebanon’s homage to the strawberry. The Lebanon Strawberry Festival has been baking the record-breaking cake since 1931. To bake the cake in 1975, ingredients included: 514 cups of sugar, 992 cups of flour and 448 cups of milk. The cake weighed more than 5,700 pounds.1

People congregate around shortcake float
A crowd forms around the World's Largest Strawberry Shortcake as free portions are served to hungry spectators at the 1966 Lebanon Strawberry Festival. (Lebanon Strawberry Festival)
Five percent of the nation’s cranberries are grown around Bandon which gives the city more than enough reason to host the Bandon Cranberry Festival. Festival attendees can watch cranberries being harvested in nearby bogs and sample delicacies like cranberry jelly and cranberry fudge. 

Quick: What is Oregon’s official state nut, and what is its largest nut crop? So large, in fact, that Oregon produces 99% of these nuts in the United States. Hint: It’s the star of Mt. Angel’s Hazelnut Festival. 

Not all Oregon crops are edible as the state produces more lavender than any other state except Florida and California. Walterville, east of Springfield, throws the annual McKenzie River Lavender Festival, while Canby holds the yearly Dahlia Festival, Salem is home to the Peonies in Paradise celebration, and Keizer hosts the Iris Festival.

Cultures

“Some events 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.”2 And some festivals are about both — retaining a sense of community and reaching out to a broader community. Among Oregon’s oldest cultural festivals are the Portland Greek Festival, established in 1952; Junction City’s Scandinavian Festival, first held in 1961; and the Woodburn Fiesta Mexicana, established in 1964. 

At the Idaho/Oregon Buddhist Temple near Ontario, the Japan Nite Summer Obon Festival features Obon dancing, Japanese Food, and live Taiko. Eugene’s Asian Celebration highlights several Asian cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese, including art displays, performances and food, to “create opportunities that foster greater understanding of Asian and Asian American cultures … to promote friendship and harmonious relationships.”3 

A German-themed band
A German-themed band performs at the 2013 Mt. Angel Oktoberfest. (Mt. Angel Oktoberfest)
Music and demonstrations of how to make traditional Easter-egg art highlight Springfield’s Ukrainian Day Festival, along with dancers performing traditional dances in traditional costumes. Joseph Oregon’s Alpenfest bills itself as the only Swiss-Bavarian festival in the West, and features polka music, dances, and Swiss yodeling.

The Mt. Angel Oktoberfest, held every fall since 1966, mirrors traditional Bavarian celebrations of the German and Swiss which is only fitting since a good majority of the people of Mt. Angel are of German and Swiss heritage. Festival proceeds go to local causes and have funded a forty-nine-foot high Glockenspiel in the middle of town — it is the largest Glockenspiel in the United States.4 

In Portland, the first annual Black History Festival NW was held in 2018, billing itself as “A celebration of culture and heritage showcasing African American artists, businesses, organizations and leaders.”5 

In the mid-1800s, immigrants from Mexico began coming to rural Oregon, working as sheep herders, cowboys and farmers. Today, their heritage and contributions are highlighted each May at Portland’s Cinco de Mayo celebration. Portland’s sister city, Guadalajara, Mexico, sponsors the celebration, with folk dancing, exhibits of native art, and international musicians. 

Art

Oregon’s growing film industry has sparked movie festivals throughout the state, including the Ashland Independent Film Festival, Bend Film Festival, Portland International Film Festival, and We Like ‘Em Short Film Festival in Baker City. Oregon’s art festivals are as varied as Oregon’s artists. Reedsport hosts the Annual Oregon Divisional Chainsaw Carving Championship, while Eugene is home to the Oregon Bach Festival, attracting musicians and classical music fans from around the world.

Geography

A goose
The Harney County Migratory Bird Festival celebrates over 300 species of birds that make the area a bird watcher's paradise. (Oregon State Archives)
Cascade Locks hosts the Pacific Crest Trail Days at the northern terminus of Oregon’s portion of the trail, while bike riders and hikers can circle Crater Lake without worrying about cars during the national park’s “Ride the Rim”, when vehicles are banned on the lake’s East Rim. 

In April, birdwatchers may want to flock to Burns for the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival. The United States Bureau of Land Management and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife staffers lead birding tours and often find bald eagles and sage grouse. They also lead tours of Native American petroglyphs in the area. 

For festival goers more interested in rocks than birds, Hines sponsors the annual Obsidian Days Rock & Gem Exhibition. Nyssa’s Thundereggs Days and Festival offers something for everyone. Thundereggs are nodule-like rocks created during volcanic eruptions. Native American legend holds the nodules were considered to be the eggs of the thunderbirds that occupied Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson. When the festival began in 1965, it was geared for rockhounds. In 2018, the Nyssa Police Department Bubble Ball Tournament was added to the celebration to widen the festival’s appeal.6 

Honored Individuals

Daredevil Al Faussett, who specialized in riding canoes over Pacific Northwest waterfalls and barely survived a wild 1928 trip over the 177-foot South Falls waterfall at Silver Falls State Park, near Silverton, is celebrated as part of the annual Historic Silver Falls Day with a miniature canoe race celebrating Faussett’s quest for notoriety. The celebration also showcases the park’s heritage with horse logging demonstrations and displays of Civilian Conservation Corps artifacts. 

Nearby Silverton honors its most famous native son every year at the Homer Davenport Community Festival. Davenport, who died in 1912, became one of the nation’s most famous political cartoonists. He never forgot his roots and arranged to be buried in Silverton. 

South in Jacksonville, the Peter Britt Music Festival, established in 1963 on the grounds of the Britt home, is named for the pioneering photographer who took some of the first photographs of Crater Lake – pictures that helped Crater Lake win its designation as a national park.

Category-Defying Festivals

A zany band performing
A colorful band performs at the Oregon Country Fair near Veneta. (Oregon Country Fair Archives)
Seaside’s Ghost Conference bills itself as the Pacific Northwest’s largest paranormal convention and features lectures by local paranormal experts. “If The Truth Is Out There,” it may be out in McMinnville, home to the McMenamins UFO Festival, which welcomes both believers and non-believers with its alien costume parade.

Separate Civil War re-enactments and campouts are held at the Clatsop County Fairgrounds, Colton, Camp Sherman and Brooks. The Oregon Country Fair, in the woods near Veneta, is a three-day throwback to the 1960s. Brightwood celebrates the elusive Bigfoot with the annual Mt. Hood Salmon, Mushroom & Bigfoot Festival with Native American storytelling, Sasquatch lectures, mushroom identification and art shows.

As times and culture evolve, so do festivals. “Cultural festivals and events are increasingly becoming arenas of discourse, enabling people to express their views on wider cultural, social and political issues. In Eugene, an example of that is the Society for the Legitimization of the Ubiquitous Gastropod, or SLUG.  SLUG lampoons and protests the common festival practice of crowning female festival queens and princesses. The Eugene Slug Queen Competition holds a mock-pageant, satirizing beauty contests. Contestants are judged on their wit and campy costumes. Winners include actors, postal workers, and drag queens. 

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 the Oregon experience with festivals.

Notes

  1. lebanonstrawberryfestival.com
  2.  “Seasonal Celebrations.” oregonhistoryprofect.org/narratives/Oregon-folklife-our-living-traditions
  3. Eugenecascadescoast.org
  4. James V. Hillegas-Elting, “Mt. Angel Oktoberfest,” Oregon Encyclopedia
  5. blackhistoryfestival.org
  6. Pat Caldwell. “Nyssa Is Ready to Rock at Thunderegg Days” The Malheur Enterprise