Editor’s Note – Tom Allman did not introduce the Lumberjacks. Adam Van Wormer is not part of the Keystone Kops but a member of the Kangaroo Kort. And he uses a blank-firing reproduction revolver, not a plastic gun. These corrections were made on September 7, 2023.
FORT BRAGG, 9/6/23 — Once was the day when the Mendocino 4th of July Parade was controversial, and the Labor Day Paul Bunyan Days parade was staid and old-fashioned.
But this year the Mendocino parade became a G-rated event for kids, and history stirred debate at the Fort Bragg parade, especially afterwards on social media.
Fort Bragg Forever, the group dedicated to maintaining the town’s name, made a dramatic showing on Labor Day. They claim outsiders are trying to rewrite history by eliminating Braxton Bragg, a slave owner and Confederate general, from the town’s name. Their contingent was the largest among 45 floats. And that’s saying something, as this was one big and very long-lasting parade. The parade carried on for almost two hours, more than an hour longer than the parade in 2022.The event has been going on since at least 1939 to celebrate Fort Bragg ‘s timber heritage.
Also stirring some controversy on social media on Tuesday was a very old tradition — logging trucks armed with gargantuan logs. Two competing lumber company trucks rolled down the route, each carrying three massive logs plus spacers. Logs saved for the parade in this manner were once so big electric lines had to be lifted to allow them to pass underneath.
But times have changed, and the trucks have not carried such big logs in recent years. And while mostly cheers were heard at the event for the trucks, the cutting of big trees drew criticism the next day as dozens of people posted parade photos.
Critics point to the sins of the logging industry: wiping out the old growth trees and destroying the local Coho salmon in small rivers and streams in the process, by muddying and blocking the salmon grounds on the likes of the Noyo, Navarro, Ten Mile, and Garcia rivers. One logger, who didn’t want to be identified, said everybody had missed the point. These monster trees on display were second growth giants grown thanks to responsible, scientific management practices. He said those practices could keep Fort Bragg alive long into the future. He agreed that the legacy logging industry earned its bad reputation justly, but that all loggers should not be chained together with those two Deep South companies that owned much of Mendocino County, Georgia Pacific and Louisiana Pacific.
Paul Bunyan Days has always been the event where Fort Braggers celebrate their history without many of the tourists, with the holiday deliberately picked to be past the end of the summer season. Those times have changed too. From the announcer’s stand, longtime Paul Bunyan Association President John Skinner asked for a show of hands of those from out of town. He said he was surprised that the number, around 20 percent, was so high.
The Fort Bragg Forever group, consisting mostly of locals who have been here since they graduated from Fort Bragg High School, has been in a culture war on social media with the nonprofit Change Our Name, led by retired professor Philip Zwerling. Fort Bragg Forever signs have popped up in the windows of businesses, and several made their position known with vehicles in the parade.
The other side did not march. Zwerling rode with the Seniors on Bikes, affectionately called the SOBs. The Golden West Saloon, whose mural was appropriated and used as the logo of Fort Bragg Forever, has asked the organization to stop using the Golden West’s image in Fort Bragg Forever’s increasingly ubiquitous signs. The Saloon says it is not taking sides and particularly objects to the removal of the artist’s name in the logo. “Get your own logo,” a post purporting to be from the saloon asks the group.
At the start of the parade, the Skunk Train used its newly renovated bright red tank car to help block the intersection. A train full of tourists went out and back on the Skunk while the parade was going as the antique steam engine, the Chiggen, provided horn blasts.
The parade’s garden theme was a hit this year, with a sizable silver-haired contingent from the Native Daughters of the Golden West having great fun wearing flowers while swaying in nonexistent wind on the bright and sunny parade afternoon. Human bees swarmed everywhere — people from firefighters to kids on floats and running alongside wore yellow and black striped outfits, antennas and even stingers. The environmental firm Dark Gulch Consulting was one of the top award-winning floats, featuring a giant banana slug on front, a big hummingbird and flower on the back and human bee-ings on motorcycles circling the float.
Shriners, in their deliberately funny little cars and hats, were back in force this year, with about two dozen participants. Shriners, an elite branch of the Masonic Lodge, fund Children’s Hospitals and other causes.
Every year cheerleaders and football players from all Fort Bragg schools make up a big part of the parade. The Fort Bragg boys and girls soccer teams have grown greatly in popularity. The high school teams joined arms for a dramatic team cheer in front of the announcer’s stand that could be heard blocks away.
A huge contingent of fire trucks and emergency vehicles started the parade, along with an honor guard from local veterans groups. There wasn’t much celebration of labor. The Service Employees International Union, which has traditionally been in the parade, was not visible this year. The only presidential candidate with a float was Robert Kennedy Jr. Candidates for local supervisor, Fort Bragg Mayor Bernie Norvell and real estate agent Georgina Avila-Gorman, both had floats.
There was an ultimate Frisbee group playing through, an antique fire truck carrying staff of the Mendocino Coast Clinics which won first prize for restored vehicles and an antique car carrying the local senior center contingent. Tom Allman, former sheriff and now a Fort Bragg real estate agent, served as parade announcer, providing jokes and history. Later he turned the microphone over to a student for a booming introduction straight out of professional wrestling for the Marching Lumberjacks, the eclectic marching band from what used to be Humboldt State, now called Cal Poly Humboldt. The band, which has been coming to the annual parade in Fort Bragg for 50 years, made the most of the introduction, dancing, jiggling, spinning each other and playing lively tunes.
The horrors of real life hit the event just as Paul Bunyan Days got started. On Saturday, a fatal motorcycle accident closed Highway 1 at Cypress Street just as Highway 1 was blocked off for the tricycle races and kiddie parade less than a mile north. Fort Bragg police said the still unidentified motorcyclist who died had been driving recklessly on Hwy. 1 when he ran a red light at Chestnut. He had hit and run two other cars before zooming through the light at a high rate of speed and crashing into a motorist, who was not seriously hurt. The man was confirmed to be local but as of Wednesday afternoon, the county said they still had not contacted his out of town next of kin so his name was still not being released. No information was available on the structure fire call.
Later on Saturday, hundreds turned out for the popular Fire Department water fights, including a huge mob of kids. But life stepped in again. Minutes after the interdepartmental hose competition began, radios chattered, and the firefighters had to leave the fun to respond to a report of a structure fire. “We are all dressed and ready to go!’ said one firefighter as he left. People applauded them, even if some of the younger members of the crowd were disappointed the entire event was called off. The water fights, where two different departments try to out-squirt each other, has been canceled since 2020, when the pandemic closed the entire event. Fire departments are already spread thin covering for each other in fire-prone inland regions.
Also on Saturday, this reporter counted 150 motorcycles in a row, which I was told were from the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club. It’s an annual tradition to visit on Paul Bunyan weekend, as one of the most famous bikers in history, Wino Willie Forkner, was from Mendocino and started a club after World War II, that broke into several branches, including the Boozefighters. His grandson is head of Wino’s Crew, a local club involved in many local charities. The biker killed was apparently not associated with any of the clubs. Actor Lee Marvin portrayed Willie Forkner in the 1953 movie, The Wild One, featuring Marlon Brando. The Boozefighters Club were a peaceful group, although they were seen blocking traffic so they could all go through at once. A woman in a white van blasted her horn at them over and over at the merge lane at Highway 1 and Laurel Street. The accident that had happened a short time earlier was apparently not related to the motorcycle club gathering.
One biker said it was the 3rd Annual Wino’s Crew, Wino Willie Days Labor Day Run.
The Run started in Redwood Valley at the Wino’s Crew Halfway House, and ends up in Inglenook for a big party with live music and such.All the money from selling raffle tickets goes to the Fort Bragg schools, arts and music program.
Earlier this year, organizers pleaded with people to volunteer for Paul Bunyan Days. Things sounded bleak until people stepped up and produced one of the biggest ever weekends. New Paul Bunyan Association President Heather Webster, Mike Stephens, who plays Paul Bunyan for the festival all year round in town, along with 19-year former president John Skinner managed to attract new volunteers, get the Kangaroo Kort, the dog contest, craft show, logging show and many other events together, culminating in the Labor Day Parade.
Although many beauty contests have faded in recent years, the belle of the Redwoods was never a beauty contest. Instead, like most everything else at Paul Bunyan Days, the Belle contest was aimed at 19th century imagery. Girls and women dress up in old-fashioned dresses with a theme. Belles sell raffle tickets, get part of the proceeds and the rest goes to scholarships. The historical whimsy goes way back. The 1939 event, in which city leaders traveled all through Northern California putting on a kind of circus with an actor playing Paul Bunyan and his supporting cast, entertained by recalling the alleged glory days of the 19th century frontier. That trip, and many like it after World War II, were early efforts to attract tourists to the simpler charms of Fort Bragg. That one culminated in a visit to San Francisco City Hall, where the mayor gave the Paul Bunyan Days organizers the keys to the city, a token gesture common in those days. The Old-Fashioned Dress Review on Saturday drew a packed house to St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church. There, a dozen women and girls walked the runway showing off special outfits from previous eras ranging from the 19th century to the 1980s. Joseph Sverko, renowned for finding historic fashion gold in his job at the Mendocino Coast Humane Society Thrift Shop, served as emcee, describing the fashion trends and the outfits.
In the 1950s, when Paul Bunyan Days was at its height, men who appeared with a “smooth puss” (beardless) were fined by the Keystone Cops and had to appear at the Kangaroo Kort on parade day. Local women got in similar trouble for not wearing long 19th century style dresses. Today, the Kops and Kangaroo Kort still harass prominent citizens on trumped-up charges.
The biggest event of Paul Bunyan Days, Sunday’s Logging Show, had a crowd of hundreds on the Skunk Train’s property on the old mill site. Kyle and Debbie Dean chaired an event run by John Skinner, the event’s long-serving president and probably best known history buff in town, who also was the high school shop teacher for many years. The event drew logging talent from all over California for logging feats such as using old-fashioned one and two-”man” saws, modern saws, chainsaws, axes and more. Competitors from all over California came but the best all-around woman logger was from Fort Bragg, Cassandra Renteria. The overall logger man was Wes Palmer from Central California. There was also an attached Forestland Expo, where government, Native and environmental groups provided information on what’s happening in the forest now. Redwood Forest Foundation Inc’s (RFFI) Alicia Bales, along with longtime community activists and volunteers Bill Heil and Linda Perkins, were on hand. RFFI inherited one of the largest and most overlooked forests, the Usal Forest, and is using it for environmental restoration, sustainable logging and carbon credits.
At the Gem and Mineral Show at Town Hall, amidst Covelo Jade and Lake County diamonds, volunteers broke thunder eggs with gigantic chain pliers to the delight of kids. Thunder eggs are rocks that may be crystal geodes inside or may just be round rocks.
Behind the Skunk Train depot was the model train museum display and at CV Starr Center was a craft fair sponsored by one of two Soroptimist clubs in Fort Bragg. The Soroptimist Club is down from over 40 members to fewer than 10, said organizer Lonna Oliver. There were 70 vendors, down from 85 last year. The booths drew a huge crowd all weekend.
Next to the craft show were participants at the Ugliest Dog Contest. Some Fort Braggers have always maintained their ugly dog contest was first, and the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest in Santa Rosa, which has been going since the 1970s, took the idea from Fort Bragg. The local event is a bit different now, focusing on more traditional dog-training activities, while maintaining the popular ugliest dog and dog-owner look-alike contests.
Philanthropist Marilyn Wagner was picked as Grand Marshal of Monday’s parade. Her family was instrumental in founding the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, the Garden by the Sea that was the theme of Paul Bunyan Days this year. She and her husband Larry have lived all over the world, especially in New York City, before coming here.She says nothing beats a small-town parade.“You have to have lived in the big city to really appreciate the kind of community we have in our small town,” she said.
Complete information on this year’s winners of all the events is expected to be posted on the Paul Bunyan website this week.