Written by Lindsay McWilliams
In 1966, the first Mount Angel Oktoberfest consisted of one beer tent, seven or eight food booths, Die Fruchtsäule (the Harvest Monument) and a few high school bands performing. Don’t let the limited infrastructure fool you. The first Oktoberfest was attended by 39,000 people. Needless to say, the festival was low on portapotties that year.
Today, this Oktoberfest in the small, Willamette Valley town of Mount Angel draws up to 400,000 people in a weekend during September. It is now the largest folk festival in the Northwest.
Photos courtesy of the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest
Attribute its beginnings to nine local business owners: Leonard Butsch, Paul DeShaw, Ron Hannon, Dick Zeiz, Virgil Diehl, Sam Bates, Jim Unger, Francis Schmidt and Ed Jenck. In case their last names don’t give it away, many of these men had German roots and even spoke German.They were turning over ideas for a new town festival when they began to notice that many of the churches and buildings had a German feel to them. “In this ideal setting, why not start an Oktoberfest?” they thought.
The men borrowed $100 from the Mount Angel Chamber of Commerce to throw a kickoff party, from which ticket money was used to buy beer for the festival. With the festival fuel purchased, rallying commenced in the center of town, at the crossing of Palmer and Main streets The first Oktoberfest had some quirky festivities, such as a group sing-a-long at the Bandstand and—believe it or not—auto racing. Competitors revved their engines to race around the blocks of downtown Mount Angel.
One of the biggest evolutions at Oktoberfest through the years has been the beer.
In the good ol’ days, there was one beer, and it was either Olympia or Blitz—whichever one offered a better deal, said Monica Bochsler, director of marketing and public relations for Oktoberfest.
Back then, the focus was much more on consumption. With the craft beer movement flourishing in the last ten years, festival-goers’ attentions have turned more to quality and appreciation of beer. The Mount Angel Oktoberfest was ahead of this curve, with a “microgarten” as early as 1992 that showcased Portland Brewing Company.
Since then, the festival has continued the tradition of hosting a local craft brewer. This year’s brewer? Hopworks Urban Brewery from Portland, which is crafting a special Oktoberfest beer just for the festival, called Volksbier.
Times have changed since the first Mount Angel Oktoberfest in 1966, and the festival has grown and expanded in turn. There are, however, many things that have held true throughout the life of the annual event. This Oktoberfest has always been a family-friendly event with opportunities to keep the little ones entertained at no cost; admission to the Kindergarten is completely free and includes live performances, rides, bouncy houses and a petting zoo.
The festival is also committed to giving back to the community, and has donated $3.2 million over the years to various local groups and organizations.
Perhaps like any cultural festival, tradition is still the driving force behind the Mount Angel Oktoberfest.
We’ve survived because there is an extremely strong streak of tradition, Bochsler said. You’ll still find tons of people wearing lederhosen, dancing traditional German routines.
Keeping with German Oktoberfest traditions, this year’s festival will combine many in a new event called the Oktoberfest Olympics. Prove your German-ness by holding a bier stein in the air for an absurd amount of time, hammering a nail into a tree stump faster than your competitors, scarfing down a sausage as fast as you can or rolling and stacking kegs. The true and final test of the Oktoberfest Olympics is to attempt your best yodel.
“We just feel like the winner should be able to yodel,” said Bochsler.
The 52nd Mount Angel Oktoberfest will be held September 14-17 in downtown Mount Angel. For more information, visit oktoberfest.org.