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Calithumpians in Columbia City

History of parades and festivals in the Rainier Valley

In 1915, a grocer named Bill Phalen had a vision: a spectacular celebration that would bring the whole Rainier Valley together. (He also had a lot of friends and a great deal of energy, which is what it takes to make this kind of vision a reality.) The first annual “Rainier Valley Fiesta,” held on June 25th, 1915, started a tradition that continues today with the annual Rainier Valley Heritage Festival.

Bill Phalen was a baseball player turned grocer who moved to Columbia City in 1901 and quickly became a community leader, serving as Mayor twice before the town was annexed to Seattle in 1907. As a successful businessman, he understood that a community has to have roads and schools and a fire department in order to survive. But he also knew that a community has to have fun – together – in order to thrive.

There were parades in Columbia City before 1915, but we can be pretty sure nothing on the scale of Phalen’s Rainier Valley Fiesta had ever occurred before. The printed program declared the organizers’ intention “to start a community spirit of oneness,” and ended with this exhilarating command: “From this time on, let all the citizens within the limits of this place, amalgamate as one!”

The organizers pulled out all the stops in their pursuit of unity. The event started at 2 pm with a Calithumpian Band riding on a streetcar all the way from Seattle to Renton. This was followed by a Punch and Judy show, pony rides, a merry-go-round, and performances by “the children of the playfields.” From 3 to 6 pm Mr. Cavanaugh’s band played – the program advised listeners to “Let joyfull, weird, and soothing music sounds cause all forgetfulness of care.” An intermission followed, with activities for those “awaiting the hilarity of the night.”

At 7:30 pm a Calithumpian Parade marched from Edmunds Street to Kenney Street in Hillman City –  and back again, in the fine tradition of small-town parades. The Lakewood Choral Club performed, followed by the Eagle Band, the Tillikum Drum Corps, the Redman Drill Team, and a speech by Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill. The festivities continued late into the night, with musical performances, a Hitt fireworks display, and Lantern Slides. The Street Dancing began at 10:45 pm. According to one report, 20,000 people attended this marvelous event. 

If you’re wondering what “calithumpian” means, it’s derived from the Greek words for beauty (“kallos”) and noise (“thumpos”) and roughly translates as “big, beautiful noise” – just the thing to get a bunch of citizens amalgamated as one.

The Fiesta and its descendant celebrations continued, evolving over the years in response to current events and community changes. For instance, when the Rainier Valley streetcar rails were removed in 1937, the community held a three-day festival to celebrate. The streetcar had ceased operation in January and the rails, sunk in a foot-deep trench in the middle of the road, were now nothing but a road hazard. The celebration included a parade that went from Dearborn Street to Rainier Beach – and yes, back again.

Nineteen thirty-seven also saw the first Rainier District Pow Wow, a community festival that took place every year in Seward Park until 1990. Chaired by state representative John L. O’Brien, the Pow Wow featured music and dance, fireworks, pie-eating contests, and the crowning of the Pow Wow Queen and Princesses. These lovely ladies graced many community events, including parades, over the years. John O’Brien himself drove the Pow Wow royalty car in the 1950 Hillman City Christmas Parade, organized by the Hillman City Business Roundtable. (These brave business leaders must be commended for even contemplating a parade in December in Seattle, let alone pulling it off with style!)

It’s not clear when Columbia City’s annual parades ended, but they were revived in the late 1970s when Columbia City’s historic district was created. Early sponsors included the Columbia Merchants Association and SEED, then a brand-new organization. The Rainier Chamber took over in the 1980s and has been running the show ever since. 

Parade theorists – and yes, there are such people – tell us that a parade is a community’s way of showing itself to itself. That has certainly been true of the Rainier Valley Heritage Parade, whose entries promote local businesses, and celebrate the neighborhood’s cultural diversity, and showcase the creative, calithumpian spirit of the Rainier Valley.

by Mikala Woodward