Salmon Days marks 40th year

September 29, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Salmon, lined up like rush-hour commuters, return en masse Sept. 25 to the fish ladder at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, just in time for the 40th annual Salmon Days Festival. By Greg Farrar

Salmon, lined up like rush-hour commuters, return en masse Sept. 25 to the fish ladder at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, just in time for the 40th annual Salmon Days Festival. By Greg Farrar

As the Issaquah Salmon Days Festival marks a ruby anniversary — a color chinook take on as the fish swim upstream — festival organizers and volunteers looked back at how the festival changed and grew over 40 years.Since 1970, Salmon Days has turned from a small-town fair to a regional festival — and a crucial draw for out-of-towners and tourism dollars.

Salmon Days also provides a chance for local nonprofit organizations to reach out to the community, and for the festival and city to showcase sustainability efforts. Despite the advances during the past four decades, organizers and officials said the purpose of the festival remains the same.

“Salmon Days is all about the heart and soul of the community,” Pauline Middlehurst, spawnsor and public relations manager for the festival’s office, said with a week remaining until opening day.

A 2004 study showed the festival pumped $7.5 million into the Issaquah economy. Middlehurst said the figure represented the dollars spent outside festival grounds. In other words, money spent for gas, meals and lodging at local businesses.

The festival is “a great way to show off Issaquah to the greater region,” city spokeswoman Autumn Monahan said.

Though she had attended the free festival several times, Monahan volunteered at the event for the first time last year.

Salmon Days is unique because “it’s so much fun to see so many different aspects of our city together in one place,” she said.

Original event started in 1936

Salmon Days has brought together Issaquah residents since its inception. The event grew from a popular Labor Day festival held in Issaquah since 1936. The first salmon-themed event, then known as the Salmon Festival, was small compared to the modern-day version. About 15,000 people descended on then-tiny Issaquah for the event. In addition to hatchery tours and the Kiwanis Salmon BBQ, the art show and parade originated then.

In a 1997 interview with The Issaquah Press, the late president of the local chamber of commerce in 1970, Earl Robertson, recalled the decision to focus the festival on the return of migrating salmon.

“So many folks were already visiting Issaquah during that time of year to watch the returning salmon, so why not take advantage of it?” he said. “It was a natural thing for the town.”

Since the first event, thousands of attendees have turned out each year, whether to bask in sunshine or defy soggy weather.

Longtime festival volunteer and Issaquah native Pam Stevens said she cannot recall a year when the weather was so bad that crowds stayed away en masse. But she recalled years when windstorms made messes of artists’ booths.

“It was always a pottery booth,” Stevens said.

City Economic Development Manager Dan Trimble said the weekend festival showcases Issaquah to both residents and visitors.

“Anytime you can get your community on the map, it’s really important for your business community,” Trimble said.

He noted how Salmon Days appeals to large and small businesses alike. A small business owner, for instance, might consider locating a business in Issaquah because of a boost related to Salmon Days. A large corporation, on the other hand, might consider Issaquah because the festival increases the quality of life for city residents.

Trimble said the festival helped visitors realize the connection modern-day Issaquah has with the historically important salmon run.

“With the salmon, that’s something that’s connected to our history and part of our community,” he said.

Organizers renamed the fish-centric event Salmon Days in 1971. The latest incarnation of Salmon Days will include more than 500 volunteers, dozens of corporate backers and likely more than 200,000 attendees for the weekend-long event.

Numbers have grown over the years

In 1972, members of the local Kiwanis Club barbecued a mere 600 pounds of the title dish. More than 2,000 pounds of salmon will meet the grill during the latest Salmon Days.

The festival started piling up superlatives early. The parade was named the Biggest Small Parade in the West in 1973. Since the humble Salmon Festival, Salmon Days has claimed dozens of awards and prizes for being a well-produced event. The most recent honor came last week when the International Festivals & Events Association named the event as the top festival worldwide.

As the festival entered its second decade in 1980, festival Chairman Jack Porter turned Salmon Days into a Seafair-sanctioned event and oversaw the creation of the first Salmon Days float. Porter, also a member of the Seafair board of directors, juiced up the Salmon Days parade with Seafair flourishes, such as clowns, floats and pirates.

The revamped parade marked the evolution from the first festival parade, which featured children, pets and Salmon Days mainstays J.P. Patches and Gertrude. When the 2009 parade kicks off Oct. 3, more than 80 floats and organizations will join in.

Within the 1980s and into the early 1990s, licensed Salmon Days merchandise hit the festival grounds. Festival goers toted home pins, prints and sweatshirts embellished with salmon-themed art and the Salmon Days logo.

Big sponsors — or spawnsors in Salmon Days parlance — came aboard in the 1980s. Nowadays, the festival spawnsor list reads as a Who’s Who of big Eastside, Seattle and Pacific Northwest businesses: Snoqualmie Casino, Overlake Hospital Medical Center, Microsoft, Costco, more than 70 in all.

The festival marked another milestone in the late ‘80s. By 1988, Salmon Days was too big for volunteers to handle alone. Dorothy Knitter, a longtime festival volunteer, was hired as the first Salmon Days director.

In recent years, organizers have prided themselves on the eco-friendly nature of the event. In a new feature for 2009, food service items — containers, utensils and the like — at the 2009 festival will be compostable.

Expect innovations next year, too. Middlehurst said organizers have new ideas in store and have already started planning for the 2010 return of the festival.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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