Opinion: McCleary Bear Festival beginnings

The year 1959 doesn’t seem that long ago in this writer’s mind. It was the year I turned 13. Alaska became a state and the McCleary Bear Festival was born.

It was also the year the McCleary Historical Society was formed. Norman “Pop” Porter, editor of The Stimulator, sponsored a summer festival and held a contest to choose both a name and a theme for the celebration. A prize of five dollars was to be awarded to the winner of the contest. The postmaster, Zack Whinery was named coordinator.

Porter suggested barbequed bear be served. That would be in keeping with McCleary’s interest in forest preservation as an adult bear could eat 40 fir saplings a day.

The newspaper was flooded with articles about the fledgling event. The coverage was understandable given it was the editor who was sponsoring it. On March 5, 1959, the headlines read, “Annual celebrations set for July 31-August 1.” The March 12 issue of The Stimulator warned people the deadline for naming the festival was fast approaching. The McCleary Historical Society would be meeting on March 16 and would choose a name at that time.

In the April 2 issue, it was announced Elmer and Vesta Cole had submitted the winning name of ‘Second Growth Festival.” Second Growth did not refer to just the Douglas fir trees, but to the rebirth of the town, planning and directing its own destiny.

The McCleary Stimulator published an editorial on April 30 asking “Whose bears best?”:

”Porter challenges Roy Croft, a ‘traitor,’ who used to work on The Stimulator, and now publishes a newspaper in Stevenson, Washington, and brags that Skamania County have better bear, to a bear cookoff. He credits Croft with turning a swamp in McCleary into an airport, another swamp into a housing development, but doesn’t believe ‘his well-nigh magic typewriter can turn a Skamania county bear into finer eating than a Grays Harbor county bear.’ The challenge is for Roy Croft to bring a bear to McCleary and side-by-side the bears of Skamania and Grays Harbor counties will be prepared exactly the same. He goes on to say, ‘And we do know that Grays Harbor bears grow up on the same blackberries, huckleberries, cascara bark and skunk cabbage that Roy grew up on — and we don’t know of a plumper, more delectable looking editor in the whole state than Roy.’”

The Invitation Committee published a town bulletin on July 16. They acknowledged the bear competition between Mr. Croft and Mr. Porter. It was told that Mason County had joined in the contest. All bears were to be prepared by Wendell Peugh.

On July 9, Mr. Porter published a picture of Joe Wallman and his bears. It was said that the bear meat was so tender you could cut it with a fork – raw. And the real worry was how to keep Jimmy Yakima’s bees away from the McMillan Locker Building where the carcasses were being held for the barbeque date. They were that sweet.

“Did you ever see a dream growing?” was the headline in the July 16 paper. Mr. Porter had gone to Mohney’s Prairie to try to bag another bear for the upcoming festival. He didn’t get his bear, but he got the best view of the town from high on the hill beyond the prairie. He described the site “as a place to drop anchor forever.”

Time was drawing near when, in the July 16 issue, appeared a recap of events. Here we learned that the Friday night event, the street dance, was all that was happening that night. Saturday would bring the bear eating, a frog jumping contest, with Dr. James Arima as trainer for the jumping frogs, Little League ball games, a hole-in-one golf tournament, carnival attractions and a parade. The Old Timers’ Reunion, set for Sunday, would be set up in the park, new city building and the new VFW hall.

Mere days before the well-publicized event, the public was informed that the Children’s Parade would lead, as it does to this day. Judging of the floats would concentrate on two central themes, “second growth” and “keep Grays Harbor green.”

After the festival, the headlines read “McCleary’s bear just too good for open competition.”

McCleary’s bear did win — all judges judged it that way. When they asked the hunter why his bear was so much better he admitted to hand feeding it oatmeal for a month. It was not penned up, but it was hand fed. Consequently, Roy Croft, of Skamania, won first with Mason county taking second and McCleary was disqualified.

Today’s Second Growth and Bear Festival is the second weekend in July. This year that is July 7-9.

Linda Thompson is the editor of the McCleary Museum Newsletter. She has been a volunteer at the museum since 1990.