When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the 98th annual Planters Days celebration in Woodland, organizers knew they couldn’t let the historic event lapse. But they also knew it wouldn’t look the same as in prior years.
Planters Days, a community-organized festival first held in 1922, is the longest-running festival of its kind in Washington state. The event, historically held on the third weekend of every June, typically features a carnival, fireworks, a car show and heaps of other activities. It’s volunteer organized with no direct involvement from the city.
After so many other summertime community events had to be scrapped in light of state social-distancing rules and guidelines resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, organizers scrambled to rethink this year’s event.
“We felt really strongly that we didn’t want to have an interruption, as far as just dumping the whole thing,” said Planters Days board president Keith Bellisle. “There’s a lot of tradition there, a lot of history.”
And this year was a definite success: Despite the digital transition, Planters Days sold about 15,000 raffle tickets, Bellisle said, even more than last year.
Organizers were worried it’d be hard to get donations for raffle prizes, Bellisle said. They ended up with 60.
The top three prizes have already been given away, and festival organizers plan to announce the winners of the 57 other donated prizes on Monday.
“Even though we didn’t think people would have the resources, people stepped up,” Bellisle said.
On Facebook, organizers held an online car show, where residents could enter by simply posting a picture of their vehicle. Awards were passed out by organizers or voted on through the “Like” button. The children’s sidewalk chalk contest made a similar transition to online, as well as an online talent contest, and organizers encouraged local commerce by letting residents earn raffle entries by posting selfies with receipts from local businesses
But some of the biggest changes came from this year’s three princesses in the Planters Days Court, a program for high school girls in the area that teaches them civic, business and leadership skills while enlisting their help in fundraising for the celebration. This year’s princesses were Ashley Burney, Jasmine Erickson and Emerysn Finn.
Ordinarily, the high school juniors spend the spring season before Planters Days visiting local celebrations, city meetings and business events, and get to represent Woodland while learning the ins and outs of how a city functions. Along the way, they sell tickets for Planters Days, helping fund the event. Any girl who is a junior in Woodland high school can apply to be a princess.
Each of the three princesses earn a $1,000 dollar scholarship, and Miss Woodland receives an additional $1,000. The Planters Days team buys the girls’ court attire, including slacks, polo shirts, jackets and formal dresses, and local business owners like photographer Erica Ripp donate and contribute their work, too.
It all helps fund Planters Days, but the girls grow too, said Lesa Beuscher, one of the girl’s Planters Days court chaperones.
“When the ladies come in February, they are very shy, timid, and scared,” Beuscher said. “They’ve just gone through an interview, which most of them never had before. Then we start doing community events. Most often you seem them come out of their shell. They are hanging out with the city council, police chief, business people from our community. … You can see them evolve and become more confident ... and they come away with a much bigger awareness of what is going on in our city.”
Miss Woodland is decided by which princess earns the most points by getting involved in the community. But pandemic-related shutdowns meant the girls missed out on many of those usual opportunities, Beuscher said.The girls rose to the challenge and found new ways to interact using blogs, Facebook videos and other on- and offline solutions to support the event.
“They’ve been very creative on how they’ve gone out and tried to market the tickets,” Beuscher said. “It’s been a very, very unusual year for the ladies, and they’ve been really resilient in coming up with ideas to sell tickets.”
The Planters Days group livestreamed the coronation of Miss Woodland Emersyn Finn on June 20.
Why all the extra effort to keep the event going this year? Because after nearly a century of keeping the event alive, it seems Woodlanders weren’t ready to just give up.
Beuscher, who has lived in the community for the last 30 years or so, said Planters Days feels “kind of like a family or class reunion,” drawing back many Woodland natives who have moved away.“Even during a war, the community of Woodland came together and supported war bonds instead of a parade or carnival,” she said. “So our premise this year was, if they could do it in those times of adversity, there has to be a way to do it our own way in this day and age, a way to still keep the history or the tradition alive, just in a new COVID age. It was really hard to just say ‘Let’s throw in the towel. ‘ “
Organizers are already looking for volunteers for the 99th and 100th Planters Days festivals. Those interested can learn more at https://www.planters-days.com/.
Bellisle remains hopeful that the pandemic won’t further interfere with those celebrations and is excited for the run up to the event’s centennial bash.
The anticipation of an in-person Planters Days could make the next two celebrations even sweeter. As Bellisle puts it: “We’re gonna make them big.”
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