by Jim Bulls
Before wheat, there were the Yokuts people who lived along the river. They would build rafts to float to the great Tulare Lake during flood time, to fish and hunt for geese and ducks in preparation for the winter. They lived off the land and were good caretakers of the environment.
Before Reedley, there was wheat. T.L. Reed had close to 30,000 acres under cultivation in Tulare, Fresno and Madera counties. Wheat was king in California in the late 1880s. After harvesting it was stored in the Granger Warehouse, and then shipped by rail to points all over the United States, and then by ship to Europe. It wasn’t long after the railroad crossed the Kings River that Reedley came into existence.
Before the Fiesta, there was the Fall Festival. This was a time to celebrate the harvest of new crops; those that replaced wheat when the alkali surfaced in the soil. Figs, apricots, peaches, plums, wine and table grapes, and the new delicacy derived from drying grapes: raisins. The Granger transitioned from storing wheat to storing raisins. This sweet candy-like dried fruit could be found in the rations of the dough boys in the trenches of France during World War I.
The Fall Festival seems to have disappeared during the Great Depression, and there were no celebrations during World War II.
In 1946, Art Tabler, the local Santa Fe station agent, thought there should be a big event to welcome home the troops, celebrate Reedley’s rich ethnic heritage, and gives thanks for a good harvest. The Reedley Fiesta was born. I like to think it was a dress rehearsal for my benefit; my first Fiesta was in 1947.
Reedley was, and still is, the fruit basket of the world. Family farms, of an average size of 20 acres, grew fruit that fed the nation and the world. These farmers represented immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, the Philippines, Armenia, Lebanon, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, and Canada (just to name a few). Although the Mennonites and “Okies” are not nationalities, Reedley had those too. (Trivia question: Would a Mennonite from Oklahoma have dual citizenship?)
A hometown is a comfort zone, security, a place where your family is raised and your friends live. Reedley has familiar landmarks, the river, the sound of church bells, a noon whistle, trains passing in the night, churches of all denominations, a community college, high schools and elementary schools both parochial and public. The early Reedley Fiestas brought us all together and the ethnic diversity could be seen in the many different food booths lining the downtown park.
I don’t know if it was burn out, but the Reedley Fiesta went on hiatus from 1957 to 1965. Only the YMCA Pet Parade continued its annual march down G Street. In 1965, Budd Brockett was responsible for revitalizing the Fiesta tradition.
The second generation Fiesta was, in some ways, a more sophisticated even. Instead of a Fiesta Princess, local girls participated in the Miss Reedley Pageant where the winner went on the Miss Fresno County Pageant and a chance at being named Miss California. Susan Zaninovich (1969-70) and Jean Harder (1970-71) both represented Reedley in Santa Cruz at the Miss California Pageant. In 1974, Miss Reedley winners no longer participated on the county level; they went directly to the Miss California Pageant. That year, Christine Reimer was the third runner up in Santa Cruz, and Diane Frandsen (1980-81) was one of the top ten Miss California contestants. Sadly, the Miss Reedley Pageant came to an end in 1995.
There were other changes, some good and some bad. Smooth cheeked citizens were no longer hauled off to a kangaroo court in the mobile “jail”, but cited and asked to pay a dollar for a “Smooth Puss” button. The frog jumping contest was great fun for the kids (and for the bigger kids–er, adults–who caught the frogs the night before). New cars were no longer raffled off; cars were a lot more expensive and the dealers bidding for the car donation had dwindled down to five. As a grand finale, so to speak, the Fresno County Health Department came to the Fiesta. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be in the parade, but to inspect the food booths. Gone were the teriyaki sticks, the shish kabobs, the tacos and tamales, the pancit and bihon noodles, the homemade pies and a plethora of other goodies. Certified concession trailers and food trucks took over the old food booths.
Another Fiesta is right around the corner. At the parade on Saturday, I look forward to seeing Reedley High’s “Big Green Marching Machine” and the Orange Cove “Titan Blue Pride” march down G Street, and of course the vintage and hot rod cars. If I am working at the Reedley Museum on Friday night, I may visit a food truck for supper in the park, but if I know 20% of the people there it will be a miracle.
I might just pay a visit to the Reedley Cemetery on Saturday afternoon because there are lots of Fiesta memories there. Mary Emery Hepner who was the drum majorette for the Reedley High/Reedley College band in the 1950s. Gary Nickel who played trumpet and Ralph Eymann a fellow percussionist. Herman Huebner who used to watch the parade with me in front of Kerr’s Chevron. Gerald Barsoom who used to wear his duster and driving goggles while steering his big, brass radiator Cadillac down G Street during the parade.
The older I get, the less involved I am with the Fiesta as a participant or a spectator. Perhaps one of our younger readers can write about their experiences on Friday night, at the parade, and whatever they did on Saturday night?
Learn more about this year’s Fiesta on KRL’s Reeldey Fiesta event page.
For more local and California history articles, including more Reedley history articles by Jim, be sure and check out our Hometown History section.