2017 marks the 60th year of Olympia’s annual mid-summer party, Capital Lakefair.
Created in 1957 by a handful of local business leaders, Lakefair had as its goal “to provide a pleasant and happy experience, something where the whole family could participate,” says Bob Selene, one of the founders.
While Lakefair has become an integral part of summer in Olympia, it is also part of a colorful history of celebrations in the Capitol city dating back to the earliest days.
Those festivals include an event called the Pagan Frolic, held in 1935, and July 4th celebrations in the last half of the 1800s, says Ed Echtle, a board member with the Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum.
Echtle gave a talk earlier this year about the Frolic and also completed research on early Independence Day activities.
The Pagan Frolic is not a direct predecessor of Lakefair, but included many of the same activities that mark the current celebration: a parade, carnival games, concessions, participation by the Armed Forces, royalty, a float and pins sold to the public to raise money and commemorate the occasion. These are the kinds of activities civic festivals usually encompass, Echtle explains.
The frolic also grew out of the business community, which held a citywide naming contest. The name, “Pagan Frolic” was chosen because Olympia shared its name with Olympia, Greece, named after Mount Olympus, home of the ancient mythological Greek deities, Echtle continues.
Townspeople were able to vote for candidates for Queen Juno and Cupid at local businesses. The current newspaper, The Daily Olympian, then ran a daily count of the total. The queen was crowned by the governor.
It all took place from August 30 to September 1 and incorporated a Pet Parade into the program.
While the frolic drew in the entire community, it apparently lasted only one year. “It was the middle of the Depression and I read a story that said they just didn’t make enough money to keep it going,” Echtle says.
Independence Day Celebrations
The original ongoing Independence Day celebrations in Olympia began on the 4th of July 1851, shortly after white settlers arrived.
“The Fourth of July was a big celebration in Olympia,” Echtle says. While there was no official fireworks display, fireworks – often purchased in Olympia’s Chinatown – were in abundance. In those years, cannons – Echtle says they were probably used in the war with Indian tribes in the 1850s – were fired. Sporting competitions were took place and in one contest, called the “Plug Uglies”, people dressed up in outrageous or provocative costumes. One year, someone dressed as Temperance Movement crusader Carrie Nation.
Olympia’s celebration drew large crowds. Along with Tacoma, Olympia was one of the two biggest towns in the area in the early years, Echtle says. “People would travel here to celebrate the 4th of July,” he says. Lengthy orations were standard. Prominent early settler Daniel Bigelow gave one in 1852.
Tacoma and Seattle grew bigger than Olympia after the railroads arrived in the 1870s, and while its July 4 festival continued, it gradually died out in the early 1900s.
Lakefair became the next ongoing celebration in Olympia, but did not begin until half a century later. In addition to Selene, who owned a local mortuary, founders included Mike Contris, an editor at The Daily Olympian, Mike Bosell, insurance agent and developer, city Parks and Recreation Director Hartley Krueger and Chuck Afdem, a well-known boat racer and local businessman.
The celebration was, and still is, organized by the Capitalarians. The name caused some confusion one year when a reporter was assigned to do a story about the group. “Aryan” white supremacists were much in the news at the time, and the reporter was appalled that “Capital Aryans” were running the festival.
The original Lakefair Festival was in June, Selene said, but that proved to be too rainy, so it was moved to mid-July where it has remained. The event provides a sort of annual glue that bonds the community together.
Eddie Hayes, president in 1988, said Lakefair “provides a place for people to come together and reconnect – to meet old friends they might not have seen for a while.”
His wife Karen, who also served as president, said the group originally was all-male, although women were involved with much of the work. When the group opened up to men and women “the bars came down really easily,” she recalls. Karen first began volunteering when she saw the parade and thought people involved with Lakefair were having a good time.
Selene said that is a big part of why people continue to work to keep it going. “We wanted to promote good will and good feelings about coming to Olympia,” he says.
The 60th Anniversary Capital Lakefair celebration will be held on July 12 – 16 in Heritage Park on the shores of Capitol Lake. Full details on special events, concerts, tickets and more can be found on the Capital Lakefair website.