Editor’s note: The 60th McCleary Bear Festival is July 12-14. In honor of the nice round number, Charles Fattig, a member of the McCleary Museum board takes a look back where it began.
Early in spring 1959 a group of citizens, headed by the McCleary Historical Society, formed a committee to create an annual summer celebration. They didn’t have a name for it, or even a theme; they placed both before the community in an open contest to the public.
Elmer and Vesta Cole were chosen as the winners for their “Second Growth Festival” name. The theme referred to trees. The future of McCleary depended on the renewal of local forests.
“More than 25 names, all good, were submitted, but we believe Second Growth Festival best expressed McCleary’s interest in and elation over its planned, assured future,” a statement from the committee said as they announced the winner.
“To us ‘Second Growth’ means far more than just a young Douglas fir tree, although we have no intention of belittling the importance of young Douglas firs. The industrial and economic future of our community, and all it portends for us, is dependent upon young trees. But Second Growth also means a reborn town, planning and directing its own destiny and it means young people,” the committee explained.
In the early years of logging, the timber companies felled trees that were then hauled out by locomotives to the mills that dotted this region. With a seemingly endless supply of trees, no one ever gave a thought to the future. It was an unending race to reach the next stand of trees before another company did.
As time went by, however, the supply of logs began to dwindle, and people recognized that timber companies needed to replant as they harvested. Trees were viewed as a renewable resource.
Nurseries mass-produced young fir saplings by the millions to supply this reforestation effort.
An unforeseen problem arose from this new idea. Bears enjoyed eating the tender saplings. The average black bear weighs 250 pounds at maturity, and is capable of destroying forty or more young trees a day.
War was declared against the bears of our woods. One effort in the war was the start of the McCleary Second Growth and Bear Festival.
Norman Porter and Roy Craft were prime movers of the festival during its early years. They had been childhood friends while growing up in McCleary, and both had jobs in the newspaper industry. Their ongoing mock attacks on each other kept interest high as they worked to shape the festival and to attract people from outside the community to our little town.
It is still going after 60 years. The festival has changed over the years. It has been bigger, and it has been smaller. But community volunteers still hold fundraisers to support the festival and other local activities.
Down through the years the community has stepped forward to make the celebration a big success. Literally, thousands of people have volunteered their time, labor, money and material to keep the Bear Festival going.
Andrew “Joe” Wallman was one of the fellows who killed a bear for the very first festival in 1959. Four bears in total were brought in by four different hunters. Wallman still lives about 4 miles down the road from McCleary. He was born in 1931 in Onalaska. Wallman, 88 years old and a Korean War veteran, came to the McCleary area when he was quite young. He was familiar with the location’s bruins were apt to be found, so it was only natural that he would be one to take to the woods and bring in meat for the stew pot.
Wallman carefully checked dozens of fine young bear before selecting one to present to the bear eaters at the McCleary First International Bear Eating and Judging Contest on Aug. 1, 1959.
“No one who enjoys fine eating will be content with anything less than a Wallman selected bear. If the word ever gets out, it will ruin our industry,” the nation’s meat producers were said to have wailed.