The History of the Manistee National Forest Festival

The formation of the first Forest Festival- July of 1936

Whenever a particular milestone (i.e. a birthday or anniversary) is reached it is often customary to reminisce and recall the origins of the thing we are celebrating. With that said,  this weekend celebrates the 81st anniversary of the first Manistee National Forest Festival which began when a group of like-minded individuals decided to do something different than what had always been done before.

Summer festivals have had a long, storied history with the city of Manistee. Beginning in the late 19th Century, the main summer festival was called “Homecoming” as it was not only meant to celebrate the Fourth of July but for the purpose of welcoming former residents who had moved away back to Manistee. In conjunction with the Homecoming was a typical array of summer festivities which included dances, picnics and a parade.

The First Forest Festival Parade – 1936

In the summer of 1935, the Homecoming Festival included a tour of the Manistee National Forest as well as a parade that included numerous Forest Service exhibits. With this aspect of the Homecoming deemed successful, it was decided that the next year’s summer celebration would be changed to a forest theme and would center on the Manistee National Forest Purchase Unit which was established in 1933.

An article published on July 11, 1935 (just mere days after that year’s Homecoming Festival) explains the formation of a new festival corporation. Portions of the original article follow:

“From the rich, historic background of its early lumbering days and the promise held for future forest development through the Manistee National Forest, the city and county of Manistee will draw material for an annual Forest Festival that will rival any celebration in Michigan, according to plans formulated yesterday afternoon by a group of local men meeting in the forest ranger’s office in the federal building. The Festival, it is planned, will supplant the annual Fourth of July Homecoming, although old-timers will be invited back to attend each year, it will be national in scope, the first effort of its kind in the world to center attention upon the rebuilding of the nation’s forest resources.

“Yesterday’s meeting of a small group of interested persons was preliminary to the formation of a Forest Festival Corporation, in which will be represented every organization in the city.

“Work on the Festival will start at once, allowing sufficient opportunity to secure part of the necessary funds months before the event. Benefit performances, dances, keno games, some held under the auspices of the Festival Corporation and others under cooperating groups have been advanced as a means of raising at least $1,000 in preliminary financing efforts before April or May of next year. Full cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service has been assured.”

Additionally, it was also noted that the official name of the new festival would be the Manistee National Forest Festival and that its inception, “…is an attempt to bring back the glamour and the color of the lumbering times, to show the region as a summer playground, and to focus attention on the development due in this part of the state as the result of federal and state programs stressing conservation, recreation and reforestation.”

On July 15, 1935 the Forest Festival Corporation was officially organized with Tom Hauck named President; Harry Musselwhite as Honorary President, Harold Hill, the first Vice President; Ted Brown the second Vice President; Ewald Pfeiffer, Secretary and George Kruse as Treasurer.

Likewise a number of committees were formed to aid in the planning of the new festival. The committees included: a Planning Committee, Publicity Director, Special Housing Committee, Auditing Committee, and Finance Committee. The Forest Festival Corporation as well the committees also partnered with representatives from local organizations and businesses to assist in the celebration plans.

Over the months, donations were sought through letters sent to chain organizations and firms that serviced local retailers. Other monies were donated through individuals and businesses and as the goal of $6,000 neared its mark, the local factories blew their whistles every time $500 was donated.

As is the tradition with many area festivals, the topic of selecting a queen to lord over the festivities was a brought up during the early stages of planning. In November 1935, a 20 year old Ottawa woman, named Wabisheshikwe, who lived in the lower camp in Brethren near the Manistee River, was appointed as Indian Princess of the festival. While Wabisheshikwe was originally used as marketing ploy in order to promote the Forest Festival, it was later deemed that since the festival was to stress the old time lumbering days (with less emphasis on the modern world) the edict was put out that there would be no Festival Queen because, “…Manistee’s celebration would gain distinction by eliminating a queen and concentrating on the Indian Princess who would be truly symbolical of the entire Festival theme.”

The listing of events and activities that took place (on July 2, 3, 4, and 5) during the first festival is exhaustive but included: the dedication of Chittenden Nursery, an Indian Tepee Village displayed near the Manistee River Channel, naval training ships on display in the channel, the coronation baseball games, a State Police Exhibit at Rotary Hall, local historical displays, Forest Fire demonstrations, an Ottawa ceremonial dance, a Grand Parade with 75 floats, banquets, bands, log rolling contests, etc…

On July 6, 1936 the first Manistee National Forest Festival was deemed a rousing success with over 50,000 people in attendance. The Forest Festival continued to be the city’s summer festival for the next several years but was later changed to the Sports Festival in the 1950s. After reverting back to the Forest Festival again, the summer fete was changed to the National Strawberry Festival in 1966. Finally, in 1977, it was switched once again to the Manistee National Forest Festival where it continues to be celebrated each Fourth of July holiday.

Article courtesy of the Manistee County Historical Museum – Mark Fedder, Executive Director