The words of Montesano Festival of Lights founder Margaret Downey seem prescient in the letter recruiting volunteers for the first festival in 1987.
“If this lighting works it may just make this event, (festival) a yearly thing, (like Leavenworth), the first weekend in December EVERY year, Montesano and its unique lighting A MUST!!!!,” Downey wrote.
Her vision for a must-see sensation every December drawing folks from near and far to participate in “our town spirit” has grown and continued since the inaugural event drew some 3,000 folks to downtown 25 years ago. Today, some 10,000 pack downtown every year for the Festival of Lights grand parade.
The earliest days of the festival centered around luminaria, candles in paper sacks, that lined the streets in downtown Montesano.
However, over the years the luminaria tradition waned — the possibility of rain and snow, combined with the tremendous effort and coordination required to prepare and place thousands of lit candles doomed it after a few years.
“We really try to revive the luminaria but people don’t really want to put forth the effort so we brought in other activities,” said Moraya Wilson, festival chairwoman.
They’ve been replaced by festive light displays throughout town on homes and businesses that seem to grow every year.
In addition to the traditional favorites — including the parade of lights, live Nativity, Yule log and Christmas lights, among others — are expanded live music performances, Cocoa Factory and an expanded craft fair and bazaar at the high school.
The only year the Festival of Lights didn’t happen was in the wake of the December 2007 storm that cut power to much of Grays Harbor County for days. So, although 2012 marks what would have been the 26th festival since Montesano’s first Festival of Lights, it is actually the 25th festival held.
The Yule log fire at Fleet Park still happened, though, said 2008 festival chairwoman, Alice Hutchinson. Hardy folks sipped hot chocolate and sang Christmas carols, as well as enjoying some music by Olympia Highlander Bagpipers and Dave Glenn and Associates on the “Big Red Music Factory Truck” from Elma.
Success from the start
The Nov. 26, 1987, edition of The Vidette announces:
“The first ever Montesano Festival of Lights will take place Friday and Saturday, Dec. 4 and 5 at 6 p.m. both days, when all businesses in the downtown area will turn on lights outlining their particular building. At the same time, some 12,000 luminaries (candles in paper sacks filled with sand) will be lighted in front of the buildings to further enhance them. The luminaries (Spanish for lights) are a holiday tradition in New Mexico.
“On December 4, Mayor Mike Daniels is scheduled to ride down Main Street in a Christmas lighted vintage Model A Ford, owned and driven by Marion Bogdanovich. The mayor’s car will be followed by the MHS marching band and flag team, who will be wearing lighted hats.
“Many of the downtown businesses will be open both evenings and members of the Future Farmers of America will be selling hot cider on street corners. Members of the Girl Scout troops and Brownies are scheduled to be singing Christmas carols in the downtown area.
“Montesano joins such cities in the state as Langley, Fairhaven, Leavenworth and Vancouver in a Christmas ‘Festival of Lights’ event as a part of the holiday celebration.”
The next week, Dec. 3, 1987, featured a front-page photo with caption, alerting readers that Montesano will “Spring to Lite.” The caption notes:
“Margaret Downey, instigator of the first Montesano ‘Festival of Lights,’ an event due this Friday and Saturday, hands some replacement Christmas lights to Marc Galland, Montesano’s Chamber of Commerce president. … In addition to the electrically lighted buildings in the downtown area, some 12,000 luminaries (candles in paper bags filled with sand) will be lighted in front of the commercial buildings to further enhance the scene. … The Grays Harbor Transit Authority also plans to have one or two old time trolley buses on hand both Friday and Saturday evening so that people can ride around town observing the luminaries and lighted buildings. Between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday, Montesano’s W.H. Abel Memorial Library will offer hot coffee and holiday cookies to Festival-goers.”
The inside pages of the newspaper carried various announcements from other groups in town about events and concerts they were hosting in conjunction with the Festival, including an art show at the Hank Taylor Gallery, which has become an annual attraction. From concerts and cantatas to civic fundraisers and bake sales, numerous groups were getting in on the ground floor.
The Dec. 3, 1987, “Principal’s Corner” from Ron Bennett said: “The community Christmas season is getting started. It looks like a fun and new beginning with the Festival of Lights starting with a parade Friday evening and continuing through Saturday with tours of the city. Everyone is encouraged to join in the activities and be a part of our great community.”
By all accounts, that first Festival was an unqualified success. The Dec. 10, 1987, edition of The Vidette featured a number of photos and reported, “Police estimated that well over 3,000 people were on the streets or riding around observing Montesano’s first ‘Festival of Lights’ last Friday evening and most Montesanans agreed that this first venture into observing the holiday season was a great success.” The newspaper featured photos showing Dr. Don Walker and Dr. M.C. Lindel lighting luminarias “as the weather cooperated and there was no rain or wind.” Also pictured was Joan Lofgren of the Community School “ taking care of her responsibility of lighting the many luminaries in Fleet Park and of course, Santa Claus made his first appearance of the season Friday on downtown streets before taking part in the parade down Main Street. After the parade, the local shops and restaurants were full of people for several hours, while Transit buses made trips through the city.”
Later, those who had played lead roles were publicly thanked. The. Dec. 31, 1987, edition ran a photo and reported that, “The Festival of Lights committee has been named by the Montesano Community School as Volunteers of the Month for December. The hard-working committee, consisting of, from left, Gerrilynn Lindley, Ann Galland, Georgette Wolcott and Margaret Downey, earned the respect and cooperation of the entire town by performing an ‘outstanding job of organizing’ the event that kicked off the Christmas season. It is hoped and expected that the Festival of Lights, which drew enthusiastic crowds to the city, will become an annual community endeavor.”
A second success
The Festival committee began meeting early in 1988 to plan the second event.
Newspaper coverage began before Halloween with a report on Oct. 13, 1988, that, “A special gift was given to the Festival of Lights committee last week from the Grays Harbor (Transit) board of directors: A donation of six buses for free service at the Festival, slated for Dec. 2-3.
“Church bells will ring out around the city; at 6:00 the lights will go on and the luminaries will be lighted, at 6:15 the parade will begin down Main St., continue down Main to Pioneer, turn right on Pioneer to First St., then to the county Courthouse.
“Reilly Glore will be master of ceremonies.”
After the parade the High School Band played in the rotunda at the Courthouse, and the museum and the art gallery stayed open. The Silvia Center and the library served refreshments. The Community Choir sang carols from the Post Office steps and Santa hung out at the park.
The Kiwanis Club decorated the trees in Fleet Park and the Community School was responsible for the luminarias in the park.
The Montesano Chamber of Commerce’s official sponsorship of the Festival began in 1988, but those who are old hands at putting on the event note that the committee has always included a grassroots cross section of community leaders, not just business interests.
The Montesano Presbyterian Church’s longstanding tradition of offering a “live” Nativity scene during the Festival was announced in the Nov. 24, 1988, edition. In addition to luminarias “aglow in the downtown area … A very special attraction will be at the Presbyterian Church, where a ‘live’ Nativity Scene will again be displayed,” The Vidette’s 1988 article notes. Church volunteers took a one-year hiatus in 2005 before returning the following year.
In the Dec. 1, 1988, edition of The Vidette, the Festival gets more advance billing with pictures of people decorating their homes.
Winners of the home lighting contest, in which there were two categories – “The Best use of Lights” and “Creativity” were Les Bonfield on East Kennaston for “Creativity” and Clarence Wells and Jim Benedict for their combined efforts at a residence on Arland Lane for the “Best Use of Lights.”
Joan Lofgren, coordinator for the Community School, announced that there would be a caroling session in the high school’s choir room on Thursday “in preparation for Festival of Lights. If you would like to warm up your vocal chords, please join us. We will all be singing carols in the park on Friday and Saturday evenings,” Lofgren said. “This is a great chance to get together with your neighbors and catch some holiday spirit.”
The Presbyterian Church announced it would have its 25th annual Christmas Carol Sing that Sunday evening and invited the entire community to join in the singing of traditional sacred and secular music, accompanied by Marjorie Kaufman and Dr. Jim Moore, at the piano and organ. The evening included solos by Lola Cain and Al DeHaven, and “the Methodist Church Cantata Choir, under the direction of Carol Boyer, and the Methodist Youth Bell Choir, directed by Bill Green, will add to the occasion.”
In its Dec. 8, 1988, edition, The Vidette reported that “with the rainy, sloppy weather” that had so dominated much of November “few Montesanans really believed that the second annual Festival of Lights would get by without a shower or two, thus ‘snuffing out’ the many luminarias that were scheduled to be set out. But that wasn’t the case. The two-day affair enjoyed clear skies and cool temperatures as an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people enjoyed the Friday night parade, MHS Band concert in the Courthouse rotunda, Santa Claus and the many lighted buildings and residences in the city.
It was estimated that some 20,000 luminarias, “adorned the city streets, buildings, park and many residences of the town during the two-night affair.”
Third time a charm
In 1989, the parade made its move to Saturday where it has remained ever since. The event drew interest throughout the Northwest thanks to television coverage and spots on news programs.
This year marks the advent of the Festival button, a practice that was discontinued a few of years ago. Proceeds in 1989 were used to help “senior citizens of limited means along the parade route to help with the purchase of small white lights.”
In its Dec. 7, 1989, edition, The Vidette reports that the upcoming Festival “will be a featured television event on KIRO TV Friday and Saturday, and KOMO TV will be devoting some time to the event as well.
“Chairperson Stormy Glick said KIRO will broadcast a preview of the Festival on its Friday night news broadcast, and on Saturday evening, the station’s helicopter will tape the event from the air for its ‘View From Chopper 7’ segment. Meanwhile, Teri Zillyett was to be interviewed on KOMO for broadcast on the stations’ Northwest Today Show.”
Glick said the committee was expecting the “biggest festival this town has ever seen.”
In 1989, Steve McQuaid was the parade coordinator and he reported more entries than the previous year and that numerous “local dignitaries,” would be in attendance, including “personal appearances” by Commissioner Bill Pine, Montesano Mayor A.L. “Jack” Frost, and Miss Grays Harbor.
“It should be good,” said McQuaid. “I just hope it doesn’t rain.”
Glick estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 luminaries would be lit.
Fourth year explodes
In 1990, the Festival Committee launched a publicity campaign that produced amazing results. National news media were drawn to Montesano and there were so many people they couldn’t all get into town. Area roads were jammed. It was estimated that 35,000 people descended on little Montesano that year.
Publicity Chairwoman Shirley McQuaid said the entire event was “fantastic. The entire town got involved.” There were people milling around town until 10 p.m. waiting to board a bus for the tour of lighted homes and businesses, and the publicity included at least two “mentions” on CNN’s world news.
Mayor Jack Frost said he was “speechless with pride” and couldn’t speak highly enough about what the committee and citizens had pulled off.
Settling into a routine
Over the next few years, Montesano’s Festival of Lights settled into a comfortable routine. There were some growing pains and leadership transitions as some of the exhausted founding volunteers made way for others to step into key roles.
Moraya Wilson has headed the festival three of the past four years.
As the community was preparing for its 10th annual event, news of Margaret Downey’s accidental death began to spread. Folks were stunned. Often called the “quintessential volunteer” her involvement in town affairs was so deep and so widespread, that her death created a huge vacuum.
Her obituary appeared on the front page of The Vidette in the Sept. 26. 1996, edition. She died Sept. 22 of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning after being found four days earlier at the cabin of a family friend in Medicine Lake, Calif. Downey had traveled there with one of her grandsons to help make repairs at the cabin. Both were overcome by fumes apparently emitted by a generator left on during the night. He regained consciousness not long after being discovered, but the 63-year-old Downey never did.
Downey and her husband, Daniel, arrived in Montesano in 1965, and she set about making her mark on the town from practically the first day. In addition to being the driving force behind the Festival of Lights, she was key to the annual Tour of Homes and Montesano Community Education, in addition to operating the Cornucopia Restaurant — the location of the very first Festival of Lights planning meeting, in the old telephone exchange where Street, Lundgren & Foster Architects are located today on the corner of First and Marcy.
The Friends of the W.H. Abel Memorial Library created the Downy Award that same year in her honor and each year present the award to an individual who personifies volunteerism and leadership by example.
The December 2007 storm led to the only cancellation of the festival; though a few hearty souls gathered for Christmas carols in Fleet Park.