Forgotten festivals of Clark County

From 'The Return' to Decoration Day to the Prune Festival, county's been home to many celebrations




You can tell a lot about a place by what it celebrates.

Back when the Hudson’s Bay Company was running the show in Clark County, feasting and 21-gun salutes marked a grand salute to British Queen Victoria’s birthday each May.

Fast forward from the mid-1800s to the 1920s, and Victoria was all but forgotten. New celebrants crowned their own monarch — the Prune Queen — in a vast festival that celebrated the predominant agricultural sector of the economy.

In the 1930s and ’40s, prunes went by the wayside, replaced by great boat races along the Columbia River as part of the Mid-Columbia Regatta.

And in the ’40s and ’50s, Camas paper enthusiasts held balls and a parade for their own monarch, Queen Papyrus, as part of the Camas Paper Festival.

In 100 years from now, you have to wonder what people will make of some of our events — such as Cruisin’ the Gut and Sausage Fest. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, here’s more about some of Clark County’s forgotten festivals:

• 1820s to 1840s: “The Return.”

One of the oldest British festivals from the Hudson’s Bay Company era was an event generally known as “The Return.”

The two-week celebration of the return of the fur traders each June included extra rations and alcohol for the men, and quite a bit of raucous partying, said Greg Shine, chief ranger at Fort Vancouver National Monument.

“There would be a lot of interactions, some with the local Americans,” Shine said. “There was lots of prostitution, drinking, partying. There would be several brigades all here at the same time, and they’d take a little break before heading out again.”

The celebrations lasted into the 1840s, when the Hudson’s Bay Company left the area.

• 1840s: Queen Victoria’s Birthday.

Queen Victoria, born May 24, 1819, was a big deal back in the day when the British were busy running the Hudson’s Bay Company in Vancouver.

Her birthday was toasted far and wide even before it became an official holiday for British colonies in 1845, Shine said.

“While Queen Victoria was on the throne, it was something to be revered,” Shine said. “An extra regale was given out, which was an extra portion of food and alcohol. It was a way to celebrate specifically British things.”

One firsthand account of the celebration by Thomas Lowe, a clerk at the company, describes the May 24, 1846, festivities this way:

“24th (May) Sunday. Showery. This is Queen Victoria’s 27th Birthday, and the (HMS) Modeste (a Royal Navy sloop-of-war anchored near the wharf) had all her flags displayed in honor of the occasion. At noon she fired a royal salute of 21 guns, as was likewise done from the Fort Bastion. Several of us dined onboard with the Gun Room Officers.”

The holiday in other areas lasted long after Victoria’s death in 1901. It’s still celebrated today as Victoria Day in Canada.

As Americans moved into Vancouver, though, and the Brits moved out, the grand celebration faded from our region, said Karen Washabaugh, visitor services coordinator at the Clark County Historical Museum.

“Early Vancouver did everything they could to pretend that England didn’t exist,” Washabaugh said. “The queen certainly wasn’t very popular after that.”

• 1876 to present day (sort of): Decoration Day.

The somber military holiday of Decoration Day, a predecessor to Memorial Day, first came to Vancouver in May 1876.

The event was founded at the end of the Civil War as a way to honor those who died on both sides of the war. The tradition focused on decorating graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.

“It was very much focused on decorating graves, and it wasn’t quite celebrated the way we do today,” Washabaugh said.

While the holiday was originally held in Portland, a May 6, 1876, story in the Vancouver Independent noted that it was more fitting for Vancouver, home of the Post Cemetery and headquarters of the 21st Regiment:

“We understand there is but one soldier’s grave at the cemetery in Portland,” the story notes. “Now if the dead soldiers are to be honored by decorating their graves, let it be done where they are buried and not with a fancy flourish of trumpets over at Portland-on-the-Willamette to please an idle populace, regardless of the true object of the day’s commemoration.”

It suggested that instead, the Portlanders should head over to Vancouver on a few steamboats to pay their proper respects.

“Here they will find the graves of many soldiers to honor with their floral offerings, and a beautiful spot whereon to pay a fitting tribute to the memory of the dear departed,” the story said.

• 1919 to 1920s: Prune Festival.

Back when Clark County was covered in prune orchards, industry boosters called the Prunarians put on a big annual parade and festival. The Big Prune, the group’s leader, would proudly declare one lucky girl the Prune Queen, as onlookers and hungry visitors touted the importance of the mighty wrinkled fruit.

In the 1920s, Clark County shipped about 10 million pounds of dried prunes each year to places all over the world, in an industry that had been thriving in the area since the late 1800s.

Alas, it was not to last. World War I and its economic aftermath put a damper on prune sales since Germany, one of the biggest purchasers of Clark County’s hallmark crop, couldn’t afford to buy American prunes anymore. The festival was launched in September 1919 to promote and broaden the market for dried prunes both at home and in other new markets overseas.

“They had a fraternal organization of Prunarians that would go around the state and promote prunes,” said Brad Richardson, a historian and volunteer at the Clark County Historical Museum. “They would put on these sandwich boards with things that said ‘Full of Prunes.’ It was pretty crazy.”

Fay Vance Meneice was crowned the first Prune Queen in 1919, in a festival tradition that lasted for perhaps a decade.

The event continued to grow through most of the Roaring ’20s, but just wasn’t a strong enough rival for Portland’s Rose Festival, which organizers thought of as competition, Washabaugh said.

“They had this idea it was going to be as big a deal as the Rose Festival, but they didn’t quite understand that it wouldn’t have the same cachet to be the Prune Queen as it did to be the Rose Queen,” Washabaugh said with a laugh.

Despite the competition, though, the first Prune Queen did lower herself to make a guest appearance at the Rose Festival in 1920.

“Over a hundred Vancouver people, including the Prunarians, the marching club and the band marched in the parade and in the rain, and Queen Fay, who occupied the place of honor in the float, displayed a royal indifference to the moisture,” a June 26, 1920, story in The Columbian said. “The Prunarians were in the same sections with the Cherrians and other clubs from other cities, and carried off the lion’s share of the applause.”

It’s hard to determine the exact year of the Prune Festival’s demise, although it may have been in June 1927, when organizers encountered funding issues.

During the Great Depression, market prices for prunes went through the floor, and after several years of bad growing conditions in the Pacific Northwest, prune farming became only a shadow of what it once was in Clark County.

The market never returned, and now only two local growers — Joe’s Place Farms and Kunze Farms — still have prune orchards.

• 1930s to 1940s: Mid-Columbia Regatta.

Founded by the Vancouver Junior Chamber of Commerce in July 1933, the Mid-Columbia Regatta had a brief and spotty history celebrating the area’s waterways.

Ruth Short was crowed the first Regatta Queen and was touted on the front page of The Columbian on July 10, 1933, congratulating Kenneth Hayslip of Vancouver for winning the “25-mile General Four-Star” event for Class C stock runabouts.

Two other Vancouver men, Leonard Davis and Sig Unander, finished second and third, respectively.

“An exciting moment in the race also is shown with three racing boats grouped as they rounded a buoy on the course, with the Interstate Bridge in the background,” the description notes.

Marion Cartlick followed Queen Ruth’s reign in 1934.

Sadly, a stunt diver, Roland McCall, was killed in 1934 when he attempted a 110-foot jump from the top of the Interstate Bridge.

But that tragedy didn’t end the Regatta. It continued in 1935 with many gala events, under the proud authority of Queen Lois Johnson.

In 1936, the Vancouver American Legion and Chamber of Commerce, which had discussed taking it over, dropped the idea because they ran out of money.

But that didn’t stop it from returning once more, in 1946, as the “Van-Gatta,” drawing fireworks and large crowds along the river and netting $300 for the Junior Chamber of Commerce, before the event faded into history.

• Camas Paper Festival.

The Camas Paper Festival officially launched on July 26, 1940, with a crowd of about 1,000 on hand to watch Sally Stenehjem receive her crown as the first Queen Papyrus.

She had to accept the honor indoors, though, because the first event was plagued by rain.

According to a story in The Columbian that day, “The coronation ceremony was to have been held outdoors on the high school field but was moved into the high school auditorium where more than 1,000 persons saw Mayor H.D. Woodworth place the crown on Miss Stenehjem’s head.”

The homecominglike festivities included a grand ceremony, a banquet and a ball, with many high-schoolers in attendance.

“Queen Papyrus took her place on a gold and white throne for a program which included numbers by the Camas high school band and ballet dances by pupils of the Zumsteg School of the Dance,” the story said.

The two-day event also included a parade, boat races and a softball tournament.

By 1956, the event name was changed slightly, to The Camas Golden Paper Festival, and featured 45 floats, drawing a crowd of about 7,000.

In 1958, the name changed again, to the Camas Paperoo Festival, which lasted five days.

Richardson said it’s hard to tell what happened to the event after that, but it may have simply transformed into Camas Days.

“I honestly think Camas Days is sort of a continuation of that,” Richardson said. “I know when I was little, growing up there, Camas Days sounds a lot like some of the things they do now.”