Special celebrations marking the seasons have been a part of every society. Ancient seasonal festivals of the Old World still influence the timing of some modern Christian holidays, conveniently spaced near equinoxes and solstices. Even our July Fourth holiday, seemingly the accidental birthdate of a nation, had the good sense to position itself near the height of summer.
The first people in these verdant valleys along the River, the Pomo and Wappo Indians, waited out centuries of wet winters in brush dwellings and semi-subterranean sweat houses. In the "World Sleeping Time" (winter) activity and travel slowed, leaving long hours for basket making and story telling. Such activities brought spiritual, social, and ceremonial renewal in the dim smoky intimacy around the fire. Each cold, damp week brought them closer to "World Becoming New - Budding Out Time" (spring). With the warm weather came the "first fruits" ceremony, honoring the new foods of spring. A special leader blessed these life-sustaining plants and then the people danced and ate in celebration.
Like the earliest springtime revelers here, the first white settlers also rejoiced at the passing of winter.
Although it eventually drew thousands of out-of-town spectators, the unique spring event first held in Healdsburg in 1857 was originally intended for the enjoyment of the towns 100 to 200 residents. Roderick Matheson probably instigated the first Healdsburg May Day Festival and Knighthood Tournament. It began soon after he moved here from San Francisco, and was held on the part of Matheson's property now known as Oak Mound Cemetery.
Under the gnarled arms of ancient oaks, local store owners, smithies, and barkeeps donned the regalia and imagined names of medieval knights. These "Knights for a Day" tried their best to capture wooden rings with the point of a seven foot lance while galloping at full speed. Meant to approximate the skills needed for real jousting, this sport was referred to as "tilting".
No May Day would be complete without a flower-bedecked Queen of course. Miss Mary Jane Mulgrew, eldest daughter of the local blacksmith, reigned as the very first Queen of the May. 
The Healdsburg Knighthood Tournament was an outgrowth of that era's fascination with a mostly idealized vision of medieval chivalry and romance. Sir Walter Scott's novels, like Ivanhoe, and the Scottish aristocrats of the Waverly novels, became popular throughout the United States in the 1850's. Jousting tournaments also became a common event, especially in the upper classes of the South, who viewed themselves as aristocrats.
May Day "tilting" in Healdsburg disappeared for a time after the departure of Matheson, who was killed in 1862 while serving as a colonel in the Union Army. But by 1877 the May Day Knighthood Tournament had returned to its full glory.
At nine in the morning that year the crowd gathered in front of Powell's Theater on Center Street (near the southwest corner of Matheson and Center Streets). At that spot all aspiring lancers had the Order of Knighthood conferred upon them by "King Godfrey", on other days known as attorney and local political kingpin, L.A. Norton. Twenty-five local men assumed new identities such as "Prince Baldwin of Lorraine" or "Duke Narbona of France", taking an honored place behind the Healdsburg Band to lead the May Day procession. Next came the local judges and City Trustees, the major fraternal orders, the Volunteer Fire Department, the entire student body of the local public school, horsemen and volunteer "guards", assorted decorated carriages, and finally, the pedestrian rabble (or what little remained of the population of Healdsburg and outlying towns).
This impressive train continued on a parade route along Center to North Street, and then to Fitch. Cutting a left to Piper and then to the main street, the procession made its way back to Matheson for the final leg of the journey to the "Tilting Grounds". "Tilting" still took place near the original jousting site, on the old Matheson estate, then known as Matheson Field.
By 1877 "tilting" consisted of an armored rider trying to impale as many wooden rings as possible during a 100-yard dash after the peal of a bugle sounded. The five knights with the highest number of rings to their credit picked the queen and her attendants. Later that evening Powell's Theater was the site of the Coronation Ball.
Floral Festivals: Commercials for California
The May Day Knighthood Tournament continued fairly regularly until 1895, when another event took hold. As they readied for the regular May Day festivities in that year someone suggested adding a floral show. Then someone added another attraction; and another, until it grew to an outlandish pageant. The organizers admitted being inspired by similar floral festivals that had been so successful in other California cities, like Pasadena (1888) and nearby Santa Rosa (1894).
What the show lacked in originality, it more than made up for in enthusiasm, for as the Tribune reported, "not less than 5,000 people packed the sidewalks and looked from the windows, and porches, and awnings, or stood upon the housetops fronting the beautiful square." The procession was a mile long.
Although armor-clad knights still figured in the event, they now seemed eclipsed by the brilliance of the Queen and her maids of honor, drawn in an ornately decorated carriage by four white plumed horses. Other decorated carriages and floats followed, as well as beribboned bicyclists and costumed riders. One clever float, by Joe McMinn, featured a cover of greenery framing a small orchard of cherry trees. Four lovely "summer" girls stripped the fruit from the trees as they rolled along, tossing it to the crowd (the inexhaustible supply of fruit came from containers hidden beneath their feet).
The real purpose of this pageant and others like it could be seen in the float entitled "New England". Beside a miniature cottage an unfortunate man lay half buried in a high snowdrift (made of cotton). On another, labeled "California", bowers of ferns, fruits, and flowers surrounded a serenely smiling child.
Sheer entertainment was always a happy byproduct of such spectacles, but Promotion (with a capital "P", and that rhymes with "C", and that stands for "Commercial") was the main purpose of such gala pageants. The civic and commercial motives of the event might be guessed from the makeup of its executive committee, which included the largest fruit processor (James Miller), a bank president (George Warfield), owners of the largest retail firms (J. Gunn, A.W. Garrett), the owner of the most popular saloon (S. Hilgerloh), and the editor of the local Enterprise newspaper (J.J. Livernash).
That doesn't mean it wasn't loads of fun. Many people stayed over for the two-day event, filling the local hotels and guestrooms to capacity and fulfilling the fondest hopes of local shopkeepers. "Tonight the City is in the full flood of hilarity. The Plaza is brilliantly illuminated and crowds throng the street." enthused the Tribune as it described outdoor entertainment on the plaza and a moonlight picnic at the old "tilting" grounds on Matheson Street. The second day of festivities included cycle, foot, sack, and "Indian" horse racing, with concerts in the afternoon and evening.
Floral Festival Liquidated
Only two more floral extravaganzas came to full bloom, one in 1896 and the last in 1904. Healdsburg's multi-day festival may have required too much money and effort, or it may have been eclipsed by the popularity of Santa Rosa's Rose Carnival. The coming of the automobile probably had something to do with the "liquidation" of that event into the Healdsburg Water Carnival.
After 1901 an increasing number of people purchased automobiles of their own. The Russian River had always been a popular destination for resort-bound city dwellers who came by stage and train. Now with an automobile at their disposal, more and more Bay Area families flocked to the Russian River, for vacations and weekend recreation.
The "Russian River Fiesta", later known as the Water Carnival, was born in 1905, the year following the last Floral Festival. On August 15 and 16, 1908, it was a full-scale summer splash spectacular featuring a water pageant with enormous decorated floats (and they did). Although it did not draw the same attendance as the best of the Healdsburg Floral Festivals (referred to in the newspaper as "land carnivals"), the 1908 event drew "many thousands" to the banks of the river at Sotoyome Lake (now Memorial Beach).
There were a few familiar features: the inevitable Queen and her attendants, a parade down to the banks of the River, and a grand ball to close the event. Along with enormous water floats came other new attractions like diving exhibitions from the top of the Railroad Bridge by the Olympic Club of San Francisco, and fireworks by the banks of the moonlit water.
The floats, unhindered by the friction of land travel, grew larger. Predictably the winning float made good advertising copy, a golden barge bearing a maiden representing the fair State of California. Its beauty inspired one reporter to laps into verse: "Soft the crystal waves divided, While a rainbow arch abided, On its canvas' golden fold." But it was Ed Snook's truly monstrous floating swan that captured the imagination of the crowd.
Favorite of the Pioneers: July Fourth
The next year, 1909, Healdsburg's main annual celebration came full circle as the Russian River Fiesta melded with the July Fourth celebration. The favorite holiday of the earliest American pioneers once again prevailed. At this point in history Independence Day also had the distinct advantage of falling at the height of tourist season.
Although there is no record of the first community celebrations of the earliest American and European settlers in northern Sonoma County, it is a good guess that Independence Day played a large role. The accounts of immigrants on the trail and in the new towns and cities of California record many Independence Day celebrations.
The earliest July Fourth celebration recorded in Healdsburg was in 1858. When the Hassett Brothers built their new flourmill (near the southeast corner of the current Healdsburg Avenue and Matheson Streets) in June of that year it was the largest building in town. Before the steam-driven mill machinery arrived the cavernous structure held a gala Independence Day Ball. Organizers of the event included John and Aaron Hassett, entrepreneur Ransom Powell, Dr. Elisha Ely of Geyserville, storekeeper George H. Peterson and other leading citizens. Tickets, including the price of supper, cost $5.00, a significant sum in those days.
The next Healdsburg Independence Day celebration recorded, in 1866, teetered with a precarious balance between factions that had so recently fought a bloody civil war. Although an estimated 2,000 people from the north County turned out to hear poetry, patriotic oration, eat potluck and witness the pyrotechnics, the local newspaper fretted, "...we entertained fears lest some indiscretion on the part of our leading citizens might cause an estrangement rather than a union of sympathies on the occasion."
The same sort of program came off the next year, but this time hosted by Windsor residents, (known as "People of the Big Plains") at the Guilford School Grounds. After the railroad united most of the towns of the County, the main Independence Day celebration traveled about, one year in Santa Rosa, the next in Petaluma, and the next in Healdsburg.
In 1897 a "Goddess of Liberty" and numerous beguiling attendants added to the spectacle of a parade. The old May Day Knights continued to tag along even after being transplanted to mid summer, until about 1907. Independence Day dominated local celebrations from about 1897 to about 1935, and as described, was focused primarily on the Russian River from 1905 on. The zenith of its popularity came in 1925 when a reported crowd of 15,000 attended.
In later years water sports (relay races and diving contests) and other competitive games, including twilight baseball and the Fitch Mountain Marathon, took the foreground. These were probably less expensive than spectacular water pageants during the lingering economic stranglehold of the Great Depression.
After disappearing for several years during the mid 1930's, the Russian River Festival returned in a new season and with a new name. Beginning in 1937 the Healdsburg Harvest Festival, "staged over Labor Day to attract thousands of bay area, Redwood Empire and county residents," moved to the fore. Several familiar features -- a Labor Day parade, queen contest, coronation ball, water sports, fireworks display, and Fitch Mountain Marathon -- assure us that this "new event" was simply repackaged and repositioned for maximum tourist impact. Although it once again has turned it attention to the Plaza instead of the River, this Harvest Festival survives to the present day as Healdsburg Heritage Day.
Squeedunks: Spoofing Patriotic Puffery
One of the more puzzling of Healdsburgs historic parades is the "Squeedunks". These were men dressed in ridiculous or horrible costumes riding ridiculous or horrible vehicles. According to local historian, William Shipley, such "Squeedunk" parades, or "grotesque pageants," used to come at the end of Independence Day celebrations as far back as the 1880's. He remembers his parents talking about such things in even earlier years. Also known as "Horribles" or "Callithumpians", the Squeedunks meant to shock or frighten the citizenry, especially the children. Revived by William Miller in the 1930's these Squeedunk parades remained popular for many years.
Santa Rosa historians Gaye LeBaron, Joan Mitchell, and Dee Blackman in their book, Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town, traced the Squeedunks in that city back to the national centennial celebration in 1876. Following a long rambling speech in Spanish by General Vallejo, the County's first citizen, "...a band of masked men in outrageous costumes mounted the speaker's stand and explained their presence in the same stentorian voice adopted by General Vallejo. 'One hundred years ago today,' they intoned, 'the booming of the patriotic cannon awaked from their heroic slumbers a band of ancient Squeduncques.'"
The Squeedunks apparently set out to spoof the pompous patriotic puffery of the normal July Fourth program, mocking every aspect of it from a band that played hat racks and garden hoses to the election of a queen and her attendants from the ranks of their least attractive male members. Like the ubiquitous Floral Festivals, it may not have originated in Santa Rosa or Healdsburg, but had become fashionable in many California cities in the 1870's. I suspect that the cynicism and lingering bitterness of Confederate sympathizers may have initiated it. Thereafter its delightful irreverence made it a counterbalancing fixture in the patriotic pageantry.
The Great Depression really put a crimp in Healdsburg's partying style by the mid 1930's. When World War II hit, the party was over. For the duration, there were no parades, no queens, no fireworks, and definitely no Squeedunks.
A small fair started in about 1948 by the old American Legion Hall (west side of Center between North and Piper Streets) was a tiny thing really, on a dusty lot, just for the kids who would be the Future Farmers of America.
Like Healdsburg's first festival, it was held in May, for that was when the boys and girls neared promotion, graduation, and summer vacation. It sort of grew into a parade.
The Future Farmer's Fair, now held at Giorgi/Rec Park, is very near the site of that first May Day Festival in 1857, held on the lot now called Oak Mound Cemetery. Back to the Future -- Farmer's Fair.
© 2003 Hannah Clayborn
Vera-Mae Fredrickson, Mihilakawna and Makahmo Pomo, People of Lake Sonoma, 27, 46.
W.A. Maxwell, "Early Healdsburg Memories" in Tribune 2 April, 1908, 1:3). "J.S. Williams Writes Reminiscently" in Enterprise, 14 Feb. 1914.
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire; the Civil War and Reconstruction, 48.
Handbill for Knighthood Tournament, May Day 1977, Healdsburg; Healdsburg Museum Archives.
Gaye LeBaron, Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town, 155.
Reprint of original article 17 May 1895 in Tribune 20 Aug. 1956
Ibid. Letterhead for Healdsburg Flower Festival, May 6-8, 1896, listing executive committee, Healdsburg Museum archives.
Enterprise 8 May 1889; 26 March, 16 April, 7 & 14 May 1904. Tribune 9& 16 May 1895; weekly 19 March to 14 May 1896. Handbill advertising Healdsburg Flower Festival, May 26-28, 1904, Healdsburg Museum Archives.
Tribune 6 Sept. 1906; 16, 23, 30 July, 13 & 20 Aug. 1908; 28 May, 4, 11, 25 June, 2 July 1909.
W.A. Maxwell, "Early Healdsburg Memories", in Tribune, 26 March 1908, 1:5 & 4:5.
Democratic Standard, 11 July 1866 (2:1); 11 July 1867, 3:1. Gaye LeBaron, Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town, 151,
Tribune, 1 July 1897, 5:1. Enterprise 9 July 1925, 1:6; 23 June 1932, 6:2. See also Democratic Standard 11 July 1866, 2:1; Russian River Flag 3 June and 1 July 1869, 3:3 & 4:1; 7 July 1870, 3:1. Knighthood Tournament: Enterprise 27 June 1903, 1:1. Tribune 20 June 1907, 1:1.
Tribune 2 July 1909. Programs for the 1913 (July 3-5) and 1931 (June 20,21) Russian River Festivals, Healdsburg Museum Archives.
Tribune, Diamond Jubilee Edition, 26 Aug. 1940, 68.
Dr. William Shipley, Tales of Sonoma County, 136, 137.
Le Baron, Mitchell, et all, Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town, 151-153