Peaceful, loving Strawberry celebration in Lebanon

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

Is it possible for the Strawberry Festival to be too successful?
“Not yet,” according to event vice president Joe Calderon.
With an estimated 22,000 attendees from June 1 to 4 at Cheadle Lake Park, the 114th annual event featured musical entertainment and a new Family Land area, but some areas needed improvement — long lines, most notably.
Saturday made up about two-thirds of the attendance count, but Thursday and Friday weren’t as busy as Calderon had hoped. In 2018, the year he joined the Strawberry Festival Association (SFA), Rainier Amusements estimated about 40,000 attendees at the carnival, but Calderon couldn’t verify that number. He believed the Strawberry Festival brought in between 3,000 and 5,000 people before 2018 and had heard numbers were dwindling.

Enchanted Willow Dancers toss candy to kids during the grand parade.

He attributed the more recent attendance increase to changes the SFA made when he came on board, including more corporate sponsorships, a main stage with live entertainment and state recognition as an Oregon Heritage Tradition.
“If you’re not offering what the big festivals offer, you’re not going to be a big festival, so it would be limited to (only) some local people wanting to attend,” he said. “We upped the game in every area possible, which prepared it for larger crowds. The biggest thing is the marketing.”
Calderon said the festival’s marketing campaign was expanded to attract visitors from outside the area, and the Heritage designation puts the event on billboards and brochures across the state. But entering a bigger “game” means making changes some people may not like, including leaving drinks at the gate and paying an entry fee.
As a big event, he said, the SFA works with the Lebanon Police Department, Linn County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Justice and Homeland Security to make the weekend safe and fun for families.
“We are following direction and advice from the people that are protecting the attendees,” he said.

VISITORS were subjected to bag checks upon entering the festival grounds as part of new safety requirements.

Some of that advice includes not allowing visitors to bring liquids onto the festival grounds for the same reason they can’t do it on a plane. It’s a safety issue.
“The world is different,” Calderon said. “What used to be a small event in Lebanon is now a statewide event, and we are vulnerable. We are volunteers, so we need the advice and help of the professionals that are seeing what’s happening around the country.”
The larger Strawberry Festival also incurs bigger expenses, but corporate sponsorships and the $8-$10 general entry fee for visitors over age 12 still don’t cover it all.
“We are striving to break even each year,” Calderon said.
Operating as a nonprofit with about 100 volunteers, SFA-incurred costs include, but are not limited to, fencing ($20,000), scholarships, electricity, parking attendants, a cleanup crew, land rental for parking, tables and seating, banners, advertising, a new family arena, payment systems, fireworks and, if there’s anything left, support for other nonprofits.
Calderon knows some people are used to attending the festival for free, but, as he said, “it is no longer just a small-town event.” He pointed out that children are allowed in at no cost and the entry fee is less than what would be charged elsewhere.
“It’s a great value compared to any other festival,” he said.
Plus, entry grants access to the strawberry shortcake, Family Land, vendors, the Hero’s Day award celebration, the festival queen’s coronation, fireworks show and musical entertainment.

Ringmaster Caton Raintree chooses an eager group of kids to participate in his Circus Imagination act. The circus fun was part of the new Family Land entertainment area. With his wife and two kids, Raintree puts on an interactive show that lets kids from the audience become tigers and butterflies and human cannonballs.

Diamond Rio was this year’s headliner, which Calderon believes contributed to Saturday’s large numbers. Another highlight was the new Family Land area that featured a comedy show, one-man musical jamboree, water table and the interactive Circus Imagination. Family Land entertainment was free for attendees, and Calderon said the board received multiple emails and comments of praise for its addition. As such, SFA plans to increase its Family Land budget for 2024 and expand its offerings.
“It was definitely one of the best creations we had,” he said. “That whole area is just a relaxing place for the parents as well. They don’t have to pay for that, and their kids are having a great time.”
First-time attendee Sabra Granillo of Junction City would agree. While her daughter, Thea, played with a Skip It toy, Sabra said the Family Land made a “great addition.”
“We spent more time here than we did (at the carnival),” she said. “We went on two rides, but we’ve been over here for two hours.”
However, Calderon recognized that other areas of the festival needed improvement, like the addition of more food vendors and entry points for parking. As an event that has likely quadrupled in attendance, addressing such areas is just part of “growing pains.”
On Saturday, Highway 20 traffic stretched out in both directions with cars waiting to turn onto Weirich Drive. The SFA will look at increasing the number of parking entrances, he said, but much of what slows the flow is simply cars decelerating to pull in. He likened it to a car wreck on a busy highway. Even when it’s off the roadway, he said, drivers tend to slow down to watch, and that simple act can jam traffic for miles.
“It was pretty simple for me to see where we can improve and where we can continue to grow,” Calderon said. “The Saturday crowd was probably as much as we’d want to manage, but we’ll start marketing and try to create a better Friday.”

Isabella Howell, 5, works hard to earn her first place prize in the strawberry shortcake eating contest for her age category.

Sekayi Malek of Salem, another first-time attendee, heard about the Strawberry Festival and, since her son loves strawberries, she thought she’d check it out. The free strawberry shortcake was the first thing they tried, but they didn’t know about the shortcake eating contest, which may be enough to entice them to return.
“It’s a small, intimate event, but there are really, really good vendors (here),” she said. “There was a lot of local vendors that I’ve never seen before at other places like the state fair.”
Overall, she called the Strawberry Festival “fabulous.”
“We’ll definitely come back again,” she said.