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News / Life / Clark County Life

Barely afloat in Battle Ground: Without a site and new volunteers, the 69-year Rose Festival tradition is finished

Battle Ground’s Rose Float Committee needed an infusion of young volunteers but that hasn't happened

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 9, 2024, 6:13am
4 Photos
1984: &ldquo;Wizard of Oz&rdquo; (Contributed by Battle Ground Rose Festival Committee)
1984: “Wizard of Oz” (Contributed by Battle Ground Rose Festival Committee) Photo Gallery

DESPERATELY SEEKING VOLUNTEERS, BIG WORKSHOP. To maintain proud decadeslong tradition, Battle Ground’s Rose Float Committee needs new management, new muscle and a spacious new site. All for free, please.

That’s one potential classified ad. Failing adequate response, here’s another.

FOR SALE: Unique vehicle chassis, 18-by-8 feet, assembled out of Chevy, Dodge, Ford and International Truck parts. Moves with deliberate slowness. A little rusty. Storied history. Best offer.

A crew of energetic Battle Ground volunteers used to spend every March through July brainstorming, designing, building and deploying a handmade float for Portland’s Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade. The heartfelt and surprisingly durable display of hometown pride goes all the way back to 1955.

But barring a big infusion of inspiration and energy, as well as new real estate, the Battle Ground Rose Float appears to have sunk. No float went to Portland in 2023, and there are no float plans for 2024. Battle Ground’s Rose Float swan song appears to have been in 2022, according to group president Marla Polos.

22 Photos
1963: &ldquo;Carnival of Animals&rdquo; (Contributed by Battle Ground Rose Festival Committee)
Battle Ground’s Rose Float Committee floats through the years Photo Gallery

The last time a new cohort of Rose Float volunteers really banded — and bonded — together was in the 1990s. Those folks are aging out after decades of dedication, and several have died in recent years.

“When those people pass away, it’s like pieces of the float going away,” said Louise Tucker, a longtime volunteer and former cochair of the nonprofit Battle Ground Rose Float Committee.

The committee’s need for young volunteers and fresh energy has been no secret recently, Tucker said. But help just hasn’t materialized.

“Kids these days, they are involved in so much,” Tucker said. “They have activities and jobs after school. I think it’s just not too enticing to them.”

The mom-and-pop shops that once characterized Battle Ground were also mainstays of the float effort, whether through monetary donations or simply by stopping by with sandwiches and coffee for volunteers, said Louise’s husband, Bill Tucker, who has served as treasurer and co-chair of the float committee.

“The businesses owned by local people, those were the ones that really got involved,” Bill Tucker said.

While it’s painful to contemplate ending such a happy hometown ritual, he said, it also seems inevitable.

“We give thanks to each volunteer who helped keep this tradition alive over the years,” said Polos, the current president of the Battle Ground float organization. “Thousands of volunteers chose to be a part of this community-spirited project, and felt immense pride.”

Creativity in motion

As per parade rules, each whimsical, colorful float design was always all-natural, imaginatively fashioned out of painted-and-glued split peas and lentils, and coated with dried flowers.

This decorated platform was affixed to a homemade chassis that hid a driver who also operated moving parts, such as eyes that blinked, paws that waved or piano keys that tinkled. Posing amid all that handmade whimsy were glamorous Battle Ground princesses grinning, waving and projecting perfect poise and grace.

“These amazing young ladies … proudly represented their schools and the greater Battle Ground area,” said longtime volunteer Barbara Evans, part of that cohort of volunteers who began in the 1990s. “They learned valuable, lifelong lessons of citizenship and comportment.”

But if the float construction is over, so is the selection of new princesses, Evans said.

The size of the slow-moving chassis and its artistic topper changed over the years. But it was always considerably wider than a roadway travel lane. It enjoyed police escort while being towed to Portland for the annual June parade, where it stood out as homespun, Bill Tucker said. A few weeks later, in July, the float would also charm folks at Battle Ground’s own Harvest Days festival and car cruise-in.

Its makers like to boast that Battle Ground’s annual float was the longest-running all-volunteer, nonprofessional, civic-pride entry in the Grand Floral Parade. Most floats in that parade have been professionally built or sponsored for years, agreed Nick Brodnicki, the CEO of the Portland Rose Festival Foundation. (In recent years, Brodnicki added, community- and civic-pride floats have been participating in the Starlight Parade rather than the Grand Floral Parade.)

Highlights of Battle Ground float history include a Rose Festival Kids’ Sweepstakes Award in 2003 for a baby elephant king in bubble bath, and a Grand Sweepstakes (best in parade) Award in 2006 for a rotating baby grand piano, decked out in red roses and featuring moving piano keys.

“It was a fun challenge to work on every year, and it really brought out the creative juices,” Tucker said.

But because of the pandemic, the Grand Floral Parade took a pause in 2020 and 2021. When it came back in 2022, Polos said, professional parade building and sponsorship had dropped off significantly. The whole event feels smaller and less of a regional focus now, she said.

Floating home

In addition to needing new volunteers, there’s also the problem of a permanent home for that oddball 8-by-18-foot chassis and all the stuff that gets piled atop it.

“It’s bounced around,” Tucker said. “It hasn’t been easy to find someone who can accommodate it.”

Minimum requirements for float HQ are power, heat, running water, bathroom access and lots of workshop and storage space, according to Battle Ground’s float committee.

It’s a cherished piece of Battle Ground history that the float used to live in its own Rose Float Building, which was on the campus of today’s Battle Ground Community Center. But that building didn’t last, and the float eventually moved to what volunteers hoped would be its forever home — the city’s own Flex Building, a public works garage.

In 2018, the city ended its long-term lease with the Rose Float Committee because it needed to store its own trucks and equipment in the Flex Building.

At that point, the Rose Float Committee fell back on building smaller floats atop a golf cart. Meanwhile, the original float chassis and decoration materials wound up stored a few miles north of town in the garage of Mark Van Vleet.

Van Vleet said he’s had a soft spot in his heart for parade floats since he used to help build them for San Francisco’s Mardi Gras-style New Orleans By The Bay parades. He even takes the chassis out for a slow spin every few weeks, just to make sure it’s still road-worthy. Driving the naked metal chassis on local streets is an interesting experience, he said.

Battle Ground Rose Float Committee contacts

Barbara Evans: 360-624-8252
Marla Polos: 360-687-3772
To inquire about the vehicle chassis only, contact Mark Van Vleet at 925-640-0320

“I’ve driven it back and forth to Main Street in Battle Ground,” he said. “The police just love me.”

The metal chassis itself was entirely hand built, welded together out of vehicle parts scavenged from a Dollars Corner junk yard, Bill Tucker recalled.

“It was a real hodgepodge, but it worked,” he said.

Van Vleet said he isn’t impatient to jettison the chassis but, like the Rose Float Committee, he’d rather see it get used than sit pointlessly in his garage. Not to mention all those dried beans, he added.

“I’ve got 50 five-gallon buckets half full of split peas and dyed coconut and alfalfa seeds,” he said. “I could just leave them in your garage. Want them?”

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A community group — or farm with a big barn — would be the most welcome taker, he said.

“It would do well for somebody,” he said. “A church, a school, a scouting group. If it was Girl Scouts I would help build a new float and load it full of cookies.”

“We’d love to find somebody who’d use it for a float,” Bill Tucker said. “The last option is to junk it.”

“It’s sad,” said Louise Tucker. “It’s nice for a smaller community to have these traditions to look forward. But as you grow, that hometown feeling is diminished. So many folks live here now. We’re not so small anymore.”

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