(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)
What started as a celebration for our nation’s bicentennial has blossomed into a celebration of the town we all live in and love…
The saying goes “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” When Chataqua started in 1975, it wasn’t even know as Chataqua in Chewelah.
A small group of Chewelah residents joined together to bring the work of “Rainbow” Emily Touraine to town, as it would explore Native American themes, art and ceremonial costumes. Around this time, the nation was gearing up for the Bicentennial in 1976, so the group created a non-profit to work on developing a Bicentennial celebration for southern Stevens County.
Chataqua was born, well sort of: the group held the “Bison-tennial celebration” in 1975 during July with art and music being displayed in the Chewelah City Park, which looked different than what it does now due to the absence of a big center stage structure.
The event attracted 5,000 people, and according to the Independent, the big hit was a performance by the Wenatchee Youth Circus. There were also several musical groups, some who traveled from as far away as British Columbia and Yakima to perform in the event.
It was such a hit that the local group hosted Bison-tennial II, which again was held in July and matched up with the official dedication of the Sand Canyon Airport in Chewelah. The event featured a fly-in from a “Red Baron” tri-plane and was again deemed a succeed.
According to Community Celebrations President Al Day, the parade for the event was “the best Chewelah had seen in a long time.” While the group took a $650 loss in the books for the weekend, they did make $381 in the beer garden.
In 1977, the “Chewelah Centennial” was celebrated on the 100th anniversary of the Chewelah Post Office receiving its charter. In 1978 a new name was selected for the event “Chataqua”
Historic “Chautauqua” events were held at the turn of the century in the United States, and they amounted to large community gatherings, beginning in the State of New York, and lasted until the 1920s. The Chewelah group simplified the spelling to distance themselves from the Chatauqua Society which is still in existence at Lake Chatautauqua in New York.
A quick glance at the Chewelah Independents in the late 1970s show a town that is not unlike today’s version. There was chatter of new businesses opening, construction happening on several structures we now view as landmarks and other news stories that show nothing ever changes: thefts happening around area lakes, the city talking about what to do with its streets and people running for election in a variety of positions.
There were also some time period pieces: Northwest Alloys was constructing their plant that now sits dormant, and shortly after the second Bison-tennial, Chewelah received the great news that it… would be receiving a stoplight.
In the first official Chataqua, which featured another busy weekend in the park, The Independent penned an editorial entitled “Chataqua: It’s a valuable asset” praising what an event it had become.
“Chataqua – and we hope the group decides to keep this name for the annual July celebration – has the makings of a major festival, comparable to Wenatchee’s Apple Blossom Festival and the like.
It needs community support in order to become this,” the editorial read.
If they could only see what it has become: a four-day event with 30,000 people walking through the park in a town of 2,600.
The first official Chataqua saw arts and crafts come to the park for the first time, along with many quality food vendors and continuous music throughout the event.
But… there was no structure, just a raised wooden platform and a piano sitting in the back of a pickup. Wooden bleachers were hauled in from the football field while people also brought lawn chairs or just sat in the grass.
In 1981, Community Celebrations worked with the City of Chewelah and completed the first phase of the outdoor pavilion which serves as CenterStage today. It was completed in 1984 to the form you see today thanks to a $20,000 grant from the Alcoa Foundation.
Chataqua has grown through the years, featuring square dancing at the football field and a full carnival of rides. Many kids from the 1990s can remember daring each other to brave the Graviton. Chataqua has spilled out over into other side streets with vendors, and there are other events now tied into the big festival.
The Chewelah Center for the Arts now hosts a film festival and the Chewelah Arts Guild has a Chidlren’s Pavilion with a variety of activities for kids. The Chewelah Boy Scouts host breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, there is now a 5k run/walk with the event as well. The Chewelah Golf and Country Club hosts a tournament.
First Thursday Art Walk moves to the second Thursday, partly to avoid the 4th of July and partly to earn some out-of-town traffic.
Helicopter rides take off from the Gess Elementary playground. Chewelah Little League hosts a tournament that lasts all weekend as well. Chataqua is more of a mindset for the town than just something happening in the park.
Who changes their eating schedule during the weekend just to sample everything down at the park?
For those community organizers in the mid 70s, the event has morphed into something even they couldn’t predict. The footprint on the town is as big as the elephant ears they sell at some of the food vendors.
Chataqua is part of the heritage and culture in Chewelah and here is hoping to another 46 years of community celebrations.