It’s a wheely big deal

Posted 5/17/23

It’s that time of year again — the lawn chairs are lining up Lawrence Street, there’s an uptick in dog costume sales, and to the relief of all, the rhododendrons are actually in …

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It’s a wheely big deal


It’s that time of year again — the lawn chairs are lining up Lawrence Street, there’s an uptick in dog costume sales, and to the relief of all, the rhododendrons are actually in bloom. To the residents of Port Townsend, the annual Rhododendron Festival is one of the most highly anticipated events of the year. It represents the spirit of small-town community and childhood nostalgia, and heralds the arrival of summer.

The festival itself comes from humble roots: 88 years ago, a public relations campaign run by Hearst Metrotone News sought out subjects for its series of short films, which were then screened in movie theaters.

Clive Buttermere, a local businessman, convinced Hearst to turn its attention toward Port Townsend and its famed May bloom of rhodys. A contest came about to select the first Rhody Queen, who was to star in this short film.

Out of 13 candidates, Myrtle Olsen was chosen. She rode through town on a rhody-covered car and thus, a tradition was born. The event was such a big hit that those who had volunteered returned the next year, and the next. In the 1950s, the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce took over and created the still-functional Rhododendron Festival Committee to oversee the expansion from a simple parade to a week-long event. The festival has flourished for nearly 90 years, pausing only for a world war and a pandemic. Thanks to the hardworking volunteers, the Rhody Fest lives on and promises a brimming lineup of all the familiar favorite events.

Things kick off with the Trike Race at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 17 for kids ages 1 through 6. Check-in and assembly is in front of City Hall. The race is on Water Street, from the corners of Madison to Monroe. Tricycles, push bikes, and two-wheelers with training wheels are allowed, but every bike must be
12 inches or less. Registration begins at 5 p.m.

The Pet Parade takes place at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 18. Registration begins at 4:30 p.m. Check-in and assembly is at the corner of Van Buren and Lawrence streets. The parade is on Lawrence Street, from Harrison to Quincy. Children 6 and under must have an adult present. Participants of all ages are encouraged to dress up and walk with their leashed/contained pet (horses, dogs, cats, etc.). First-, second-, and third-place prizes are awarded by a team of judges.

The Kiddie Parade is 3:30 p.m. Friday, May 19 on Lawrence Street, from Quincy Street to Chetzemoka Park. Registration, check-in, and assembly is at 2 p.m. at the Rec Center on the corner of Lawrence and Tyler. Participants’ ages range from birth to students in the fourth grade, and kids are encouraged to dress up in any costume they choose. First-, second-, and third-place winners are chosen by six judges.

Also on Friday is the Hair & Beard Contest (registration at
5:30 p.m., judging at 6 p.m.) in front of the American Legion building, and the Bed Races at 6:30 p.m. from Monroe Street to Madison. Check-in and assembly takes place at the corner of Water and Monroe. Contestants must provide their own beds, which must have something that resembles a headboard and a footboard with a mattress or foam pad. The bed must have four pushers and the rider must weigh at least 100 pounds. There is an award for best-decorated (bribing the judges is highly encouraged).

The opening ceremony takes place 7:30 p.m. Friday at Pope Marine Park. The Rhody Royalty are welcomed, and there will be live music, a Chautauqua teaser performance and outdoor viewing of “Chautauqua Shorts” to showcase the works of local filmmakers.

Saturday, May 20 is packed full of events, starting with the Elks Lodge Rhody Fundraiser Pancake Breakfast from 8 a.m. to
11:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, registration for the Grand Parade begins at the Port Townsend Visitor Center on Sims Way (8 a.m. to noon). At
9 a.m., the Rhody Patrons 9-Hole Scramble takes place at the Port Townsend Golf Course. At 12:30 p.m., Sunrise Rotary’s “Running of the Balls” unleashes on Monroe Street.

The Grand Parade commences at 1 p.m., so participants must be sure to assemble Uptown per their entry info and no later than noon. Attendees are encouraged to stake out their spots ahead of time and arrive early to get a good view. The parade wraps up downtown at Pope Marine Park, where the Production Alliance will throw a massive celebratory cake picnic, open to all.

Save some room for the spaghetti feed from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Elks Lodge, register for Sunday’s Rhody Run (anytime 3 - 7 p.m.) at the Floral Building in the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, then head over to Fort Worden’s McCurdy Pavilion for the Chautauqua Big Show at 7 p.m.

At 9 a.m. Sunday, May 21, the Jefferson Healthcare Rhody Run Redux kicks off, starting and finishing at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. There is both a 5K and a 10K route. Registration is $45 for 19- to 64-year-olds, $40 for 65 and older, $15 for 18 and under, free for five and under, and includes a short-sleeved shirt. All proceeds from the race go directly to support school sports programs and youth-oriented nonprofit organizations in the area. There will be vendors, food trucks and plenty of onlookers cheering on the racers.

If golfing is more your thing, the Rhody Scholarship 18-Hole Best Ball tees off at the Port Townsend Golf Course, also at 9 a.m.