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07/10/2007

Early festivals put charge in tourism

eparsons@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — Something had to be done to attract tourists to the Grand Traverse area, local resident and community leader Jay P. Smith declared in 1925.

Henry Ford had introduced a new automobile that allowed people to travel long distances with ease, and Hannah, Lay & Co. spurred a growing business atmosphere here, but tourism still lagged.

So Smith created the Blessing of the Blossoms festival.

For one day in May area residents and visitors traveled out to the Old Mission Peninsula to view fields of cherry blossoms from the vantage point of two towers, then flocked to a downtown parade that moved east on Front Street from Elmwood Avenue to Railroad Avenue.

"This was kind of a big deal,” said Gary Kaberle, a former National Cherry Festival president. "People really liked this.”

But Smith and his committee quickly realized that a May festival meant children weren't out of school and tourists were less likely to have time off work, so they moved the festival to July to coincide with the cherry harvest.

On July 19, 1928, an estimated 30,000 people lined Front Street to watch the first-annual Michigan Cherry Festival parade. Then-Gov. Fred W. Green, Mayor James T. Milliken and other area leaders attended and the day went off without a hitch, save for an afternoon downpour, reported a Record-Eagle article from the time.

"Rain sent the crowds scampering in the afternoon and it struck full force in the evening, but the Festival was too great a success for anyone to worry about such an annoyance. Eating places were filled as never before, and the people came into the stores and purchased not only trinkets but shoes and suits and washing machines.”

Lifelong Traverse City resident Mel Gee was born a year before the 1928 parade, and lived just a short distance from the original parade route. He remembers the event's earliest days.

"The parades were lined up in front of our house on State Street, so I could sit out on our front porch and see quite a few of the floats. Then my dad and mother would always take me downtown and we would watch the parades down there; always a lot of fun,” Gee said.

In the early years, Gee said, horses pulled most of the floats. Other things changed: In 1931 the Michigan Legislature renamed the festival the National Cherry Festival, and the event gradually expanded from one day to three, then five, six and eventually to the current eight-day format.

Other milestones include 1939, when the local cherry queen presented an 80-pound cherry pie to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the cancellation of the festival from 1942 through 1947, in part because of World War II.

Festival organizers have always tried to honor the festival's roots, but this year the show will go on without the traditional Heritage Day parade, due to financial constraints.

"The cost structure of putting on the parades and 87 events for free was getting too much to bear,” said Tom Menzel, festival executive director. "We literally did not have enough money.”

Of the three traditional parades, festival organizers decided the Heritage Parade was the most logical to cut, but some day they hope to bring it back.

"The real challenge is, to me, to try to sustain a historical venue, but to pay for it,” Menzel said.

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