Cherry Festival origins stretch back to 1940
The Northwest Cherry Festival story has several beginnings, including the 1979 launch of the modern festival.
Some people trace its origins back to 1940, when Helen Spickerman of The Dalles was picked as Cherry Queen. She represented local growers with a full-fledged float in Portland’s Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade. But that auspicious beginning was not repeated the following year, and America’s entry into World War II after Pearl Harbor put the idea on hold.
A second beginning came in 1960, when the Wasco County Fruit and Produce League, The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Fruit Commission joined to promote a new symbol of the industry, the Cherry Sweetheart.
Cherry orchardists of the time felt the new aluminum industry in The Dalles (Harvey Aluminum started operation in 1958) was drawing all the attention from government, from local merchants and from the general nonfarm population.
“At least it gave us a little recognition in the area,” Mabel Renken told The Dalles Reminder in a 1993 interview. “I dont’think the people of The Dalles knew how much we contributed to the area. We did most of our shopping here, especially the big stuff, equipment and such.”
In light of the bi-state nature of the agreement, two sweethearts were chosen that first year. Sharon Lee Parman of Maupin was selected from three applicants in The Dalles and another girl was chosen in Yakima.
Out-of-town judges, including a representative from the US Department of Agriculture’s Portland office, interviewed and judged three local candidates at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 23, 1960. That day at a noon reception at the Hotel Dalles, the winner was announced. Coronation took place the following day at a buffet dinner at The Dalles Junior High School hosted by the Chenowith Grange. Other than those two events, the organizers suggested a pair of routes for people to drive to observe the orchards in bloom. A parade had been planned as well, but as The Chronicle reported, “A downtown parade was planned originally but has been cancelled because of commitments that would prevent musical and other groups from taking part.”
This relatively modest schedule was well accepted by the public, and has been repeated annually since, though for 1961, an agreement was reached with the Washington Fruit Commission for the Cherry Sweetheart from The Dalles to represent the cherry industry in both Oregon and Washington and the Washington apple court to represent the apple industry in both states, leaving a sole Cherry Sweetheart.
By 1962, the contest had settled into the format it used for the next 30 years, with four contestants, each representing a Wasco County high school - The Dalles, Wahtonka, Dufur and Maupin (later Wasco Union).
For a number of years thereafter, the coronation took place in conjunction with The Dalles Lions Club’s Home and Auto Show, a large annual promotion held at the old Seufert Cannery, located west of what is now the Shilo Inn. When the building was torn down following the 1967 Home Show, the coronation moved to an annual banquet
A third beginning took place in 1975, when the number of events associated with the Cherry Festival increased dramatically. The Cherry Festival Parade began that year, and the 1975 schedule included such things as a carnival at The Dalles Junior High, a tropical fish show by the Wet Pet League, a four wheel drive and RV show from The Dalles auto dealers, a play by The Dalles Masqueraders, the first slow-pitch softball tournament and the Mosier Grange smorgasbord.
Each year since then has seen some modification, major or minor, with changes in the events, times, schedules, activities, and even the name of the event. In 1977, it was labeled The Dalles/Mosier Cherry Festival, only to return to the Northwest Cherry Festival the following year.
The format changed in 1992, when a single Cherry Sweetheart reigned, without a court. The following year, a group of finalists was selected without regard to school, from the pool of entrants, and it has continued in that format since.
A surprising number of events have been part of the festival at one time or another. Here’s a selection, followed by the year it first appeared:
• Art show (1978) • Native American dancers (1979)
• Battle of the Bands (1979) • Wee Folk Fair for kids 6 and under, sponsored by the National Association of Educators (1980)
• Scoutcapades and Pinewood Derby (1981)
• Nationally-sanctioned Pit-Spitting Contest (1983)
• Health Fair (1983)
• Bed Race prior to the parade (1984)
• Cherry Stomp (1985)
• Donkey basketball game (1985)
• Bluegrass gospel concert
• Cherry City bowling tournament (1987)
• Motorcycle Show and Shine (1987)
• Polka Daze, with noon to midnight music, dancing and beer garden at St. Peter’s Parish (1988)
• Jaycees March of Dimes Walkathon (1988)
• Little Miss Royal Ann and Little Mr. Royal Andy junior royalty (1988)
• Winetasting to benefit The Dalles Swim Team (1988)
• Big Wheel races for preschoolers (1988)
• Archery shoot (1988)
• Helicopter rides (1989
• “It’s the Pits” Lip Synch contest (1992)
• Shriners oyster feed (1992)
• Collectors car show (1992)
• King Bing and Queen Ann (1994)
• Mountain bike races, above Sorosis Park (1995)
• KACI Home Show (1998)
• Quilt Show in the Civic Auditorium (2000)
• Very Cherry dessert contest (2001)
• The Dalles Yacht Club open house (2002)
• Horsin’ around spring horse sale (2003)
The Cherry Festival has also received visits from the U.S. Navy twice, as the 172-foot minesweeper U.S.S. Pledge tied up at the marina in 1986, and the U.S.S. Conquest made the trip in 1990. The USS Conquest was scheduled to dock in The Dalles in 1992, but illness on the part of the captain prevented the trip. The Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge filled in, and came back for several years following.
The Cherry Festival Parade has also grown into a formidable event.
U.S. Air Force Band marched in the 1985 parade, and by 1987, the parade had grown to 70 entries. The steel drum band “Lions of Batucuda” entertained in 1999.
Gov Barbara Roberts and Scott Gill, a soldier from The Dalles wounded in the Gulf War, served as Grand Marshalls of the 1991 parade.