If your town must have a reputation, it’s not bad being known as the place that throws the best parties. From before the Civil War to beyond WWI, the festivals at Healdsburg were frequent and famous, drawing crowds of thousands even in horse and buggy days.

The Santa Rosa papers treated these events like hometown affairs, showering the preparations and celebration itself with the kind of laudatory attention given the town’s own Rose Festival. Who would be named queen, and who would be her attendants? Was a marching band coming from San Francisco? Santa Rosans wanted to know these details because they were sure to attend in force. Despite being the largest town in the area, there wasn’t much to do in Santa Rosa; the town didn’t even have a single public park. Yes, there was the Grace Brother’s beer garden at the corner of Fourth St. and McDonald Ave. but that was privately owned so it wasn’t always open, and worse, suffered from decades of neglect; the 1908 fire map reported structures were “old and dilapidated.” If you liked roller skating or swimming the skating pavilion and pool were open most of the year, but such options fell far short of a true park, where kids could frolic as the rest of the family stretched out and picnicked on grass or shore. For those primal Victorian-era pleasures, Santa Rosans took the electric trolley to places like Graton, where thousands waved the stars and stripes at the 1906 Fourth of July. Or they rode the train to fruit or gardening celebrations held at Cloverdale or Healdsburg. it was a bit like Sonoma County was burdened with a wealthy uncle who just expected he could drop by unannounced upon his poor relations to mooch a holiday dinner.

Healdsburg’s festive traditions began in 1857 with the “May Day Festival and Knighthood Tournament,” which was quite Renaissance Faire-ish, complete with jousting and other competitions from days of yore. (“Healdsburg’s Festivals and Parades” by Hannah Clayborn is the primary source for much of my information on the background of these events, along with “Splash from the Past” by Holly Hoods.) The year following Santa Rosa’s first Rose Festival in 1894, Healdsburg shifted likewise to a floral fest; while there were still men in armor clanking about the sidelines, the local paper reported that 5,000 were drawn to the town to witness the mile-long pageant of elaborate floats.

The last street flower parade was held in 1904, and was followed by an incident that might have gotten dangerously out of hand. The Windsor Herald published an anonymous poem titled, “In Healdsburg” that poked fun at the town in a most unfunny way. Besides calling the residents “an anarchistic bunch” – a potent insult for the day – there was a racial slur against the queen of the festival, Isabel Simi, the 18 year-old daughter of an Italian immigrant. (That same year, this young woman found herself the manager of the Simi Winery when her father and uncle unexpectedly died.) Healdsburg was outraged, and an effigy of Ande Nowlin, editor of the Windsor paper, was burned in front of the Union Hotel. In fact, they were so outraged that they saved part of the effigy to burn again the following day, when a crowd that stretched beyond two blocks participated in a mock funeral for the editor. “There was no doubt as to the excitement and feeling of resentment the lines had caused in Healdsburg,” the Press Democrat understated.

Perhaps fearing that festival mania had become a bit too manic, it was four years before there was another Healdsburg extravaganza. The 1908 Water Carnival was worth the wait.

The concept of an event centered upon the Russian River was not new; Gaye LeBaron wrote there were earlier “Logger’s Picnics” in 19th century summers, with lotsa log rollin’ and wood choppin’ fun. Monte Rio held a “Venetian Water Carnival” in 1907, complete with a parade of decorated boats. But the Healdsburg Water Carnival raised high the bar; with more than a generation of experience hosting such blowout events, the Healdsburgers put on quite a show. A brass band greeted arriving trains and led visitors to “Lake Sotoyome” (now Memorial Beach, but with a higher water level set by the dam). San Francisco’s Olympic Club performed a high diving exhibition from the railroad bridge, there was a firemen’s tournament with competing departments from Marin and Sonoma Counties, and a concert by the San Francisco firemen’s band. After dark there was a grand ball on a dance floor by the beach, fireworks, and a midnight farewell as the orchestra played “Home, Sweet Home.”

(RIGHT: The lost Van Gogh, “Carnival on the Water at Healdsburg”)

But ah, the centerpiece. The grand water parade was truly grand; the floats – now literally floating – were larger and more stately than anything that could have been pulled by horse or motorcar down Main street. On one float Dr. Morse’s wife, Bertha, posed as Cleopatra; on another the festival’s queen and maids of honor – check out the elegant feathered hats – were surrounded by giant artificial water lilies. The Rosenberg and Bush department store presented a float with “Swastika good luck emblems.” And then there was the “Monstrous Swan” entry from banker E. B. Snook, the secrets of ifs artful construction sadly now lost.

The water carnival made the old street parades seem rather flat, and gone were poor sightlines from the crowded sidewalks. Spectators could watch the water parade from the riverbank, from the railroad bridge above, or even from a boat, making themselves a bit of background in the show. The many surviving photographs of the 1908 and 1909 water carnivals also differ in being unposed. In every picture are seen people in motion – boats being pulled or rowed into position; a man in derby leaning forward from the prow of a rowboat for a closer look; a dozen or more kids packed tightly together on the edge of a dock, their toes dangling barely above the river. These are scenes that suggest paintings by great impressionists such as Monet or Van Gogh, and there are some photos that make one ponder what Seurat’s “La Grande Jatte” might have looked like if viewed from the riverside, while riding in a rowboat garlanded deep with California poppies.

Healdsburgers revived the water carnival in 2011, and are planning an even greater event on July 14, 2012. Float applications are now being accepted, although the first guideline is a notice that one particular design is reserved: “The Swan is taken. (we have a series of engineers and very brilliant people creating a replica – sorry).” Ed Snook would be so proud.

(Photos courtesy Sonoma County Library)


Success Smiles on the Healdsburg Carnival
Day and Night of Pleasure for Everybody–Beautiful Illuminations of City and Lake–The Prize Winners–Fireworks Display–Queen Opens Ball

Fine weather, the presence of thousands of merry people, a firemen’s tournament, coronation of a gracious sovereign, grand pageant on Lake Sotoyome, aquatic sports and dancing in the day time, and magnificent illuminations up town, and on the lake, a splendid display of fireworks on the water, and a grand ball at night, with plenty of band music and entertainment at all times, made the first annual water carnival which was the glory of Healdsburg on Saturday a triumphant success.

The Ladies’ Improvement Club, the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce and all those who contributed to make the water carnival a success must have felt happy and well repaid for their effort by the crowds that congregated within the gates of the ever loyal city to the north. People came from far and near to attend the pageant. They were all pleased and compliments were bestowed on all hands. It was a proud day for Healdsburg, one long to be remembered.

At early morning the people began to flock into the city. Hundreds of people arrived from Mendocino county and northern Sonoma on the special train from points north. From the south two big trains carried hundreds more. Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cloverdale, Ukiah, Geyserville, Sebastopol, and all way points contributed well to swell the crowd. All roads led to Healdsburg, and from ten o’clock in the morning when the parade formed at the depot and marched up town until the last strains of “Home, Sweet Home,” had been played by the orchestra at the close of the grand ball at midnight in the city and lake rang with merriment.

In the firemen’s tournament in which the Petaluma, Healdsburg, and Mill Valley teams competed, the first prize was won by the Petaluma department, under Chief Meyers. Healdsburg was second and Mill Valley, third. Petaluma captured another prize, her float being awarded first premium.

Of course the main feature of the afternoon was the coronation of Queen Winifred, which took place on the royal barge on the lake. It was a pretty coronation scene. The band played, the people cheered, and Queen Winifred’s joyous reign was auspiciously inaugurated.

Queen Winifred’s maid of honor were…


Following the coronation came the parade of gaily decorated flats, rowboats, canoes, etc. The floats were of striking design. The Healdsburg Woman’s Improvement Club Float, “Cleopatra,” met with hearty recognition at the hands of the assembled throngs. On the float Mrs. Edgar Morse represented Cleopatra…

The Petaluma float, representing “California,” garlanded with a wealth of California poppies, won first prize. The float representing a large white swan, in which the Misses Snook were seated, entered by E. B. Snook, won second prize. Other notable floats were entered by the Woodmen of the World, the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs of Healdsburg. In the row boat division in which there were many entries, the one representing “Water Lilies,” in which the Misses Tully rowed, won first prize, and the boat entered by Joe Miller took second prize. The Healdsburg Red Men, in true Indian costume, paddled canoes and were given much attention. The water parade was a big success…


At night–and Healdsburg people can justly feel proud of this feature–the plaza and business center of the town was brilliantly illuminated with strings of vari-colored electric globes. The City Hall was outlined by clusters of lights. In addition the business establishments were prettily decorated. In the plaza, the firemen’s band from San Francisco gave a concert in the first part of the evening. Thousands of people witnessed the fireworks and illuminations on Lake Sotoyome. The Healdsburg band played for the concert and dancing on the platform on the lake. The grand ball was opened by Queen Winifred.

Here’s to continued success and progress for Healdsburg. And here’s a prediction that the second water carnival next year will be an even greater success than the first.

– Press Democrat, August 16, 1908

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