Plenty has changed in Lebanon over the last century.
Just for starters, the city has essentially reinvented itself, making smart decisions along the way to move away from a timber-based economy. Plenty of other smaller towns in the West have stumbled trying to make the same transition. That Lebanon has been able to succeed in this difficult task is a tribute to the community's resolve and the long-term vision and focus of its leaders and citizens.
Even in the midst of all that change, however, there has been at least one constant: Lebanon's Strawberry Festival, which has been one of the state's biggest and best parties for more than a century now.
So we were thrilled to hear the news that the Strawberry Festival has been designated an official Oregon Heritage Tradition, joining other long-running events such as the Oregon State Fair, Medford's Pear Blossom Festival and the Pendleton Round-Up. The designation was made by the Oregon Heritage Commission.
You have to demonstrate some longevity to qualify as an Oregon Heritage Tradition: To earn the designation, an event must be in continuous operation for more than 50 years. In addition, an event must demonstrate a public profile and reputation that distinguish it from more routine events. The event must also add to the livability and identity of the state.
The Strawberry Festival checks all those boxes. With 108 festivals already under its belt, the event easily surpasses that 50-year requirement. (Which begs the question of why it took so long for the festival to earn this designation, but never mind that for now; the answer probably has something to do with onerous paperwork requirements.)
As for having a public profile that gives it a distinctive flavor, we note that the festival includes what is billed as the world's largest strawberry shortcake. We rest our case. (The shortcake is not as big as it used to be, but last year's cake still was big enough to feed some 8,000 people.)
The festival itself, as befits any institution that has endured, has changed with its community. It was founded in 1909 to showcase what was then a thriving mid-valley berry industry. The days when the fields around Lebanon were bursting with berries are gone, but the festival itself has grown into a four-day celebration that includes junior and senior parades, a carnival, a 5K race, a bicycle ride and (of course) a court of Strawberry Princesses.
Best of all, the festival now works to embrace not just Lebanon's history, but its present and future as well. Jami Cate, the chair of the festival board, notes that you can see still tractors and log trucks in the grand parade and some of the town's longest-running businesses still step up every year to sponsor the event, just like they have for decades. But the event also includes new aspects of the city as well: medical students serving as volunteers, new breweries and restaurants sponsoring festival events, and even a new city park named (what else?) Strawberry Plaza.
Cate herself is an excellent example of that blend between old and new: She served on the Strawberry Festival court in 2005. Her mother, Ginger Coakley, was queen in 1980 and her great-aunt, Beverly Hanson Curtis, was queen in 1957.
Planning is well underway for the 109th Strawberry Festival, scheduled for May 31 through June 3. The theme this year is "Strawberries to the Rescue." We will be curious to see how that theme is interpreted in the festival's various events, but some things are certain: There will be parades and a carnival and music and laughter, not to mention a really big strawberry shortcake. And fresh memories will be made to go right along with a century's worth of memorable moments. We'd expect nothing less from one of Oregon's Heritage Traditions. (mm)