Every year someone raises the question: Why does McKinleyville celebrate Pony Express Days, being that the famous mail service of the Wild West never delivered to the North Coast?
The answer: The town festival was actually named after a Pony Express-style horse race which was the main attraction in the early years of the event.
The first Pony Express Day was planned for Sunday, Aug. 25, 1968 by the Greater McKinleyville Chamber of Commerce.
Whipple and an army of volunteers planned a barbecue, parade, baseball game and the “main feature of the day” – a Pony Express Race held in what’s now called Pierson Park, which back then was the Pony and Pals Saddle Club horse arena.
“We think you really will have a good time, and do wear your western togs,” Whipple told the McKinleyville News.
But on the day of the festival there was an unusual August rainstorm. The parade and baseball game were canceled, while the horse race was rescheduled for Sept. 8, 1968. The barbecue was moved to Pete’s Bella Vista (now the Six Rivers Brewery.) Nearly 3,000 people showed up to consume 2,000 lbs. of beef. Tickets were sold for a ”donation” $1.50 per adult, $1 per child.
Some lucky residents also won $5 gift certificates to local businesses during the rained-out event. The McKinleyville winners listed in The Arcata Union were E.M. Thompson, G. Schirmann, A. Cade, K. Richard, J. Johnson, J. DePeel, J. Pinlett, L. Ponfilia, R. Miller, M. Manyes, J. DePell, A. Hooven, R. Frazier, L. Forson, M. Harding and L. Sample.
On Sept. 8, the Pony Express Race was held behind the McKinleyville Fire Station. Teams consisting of five riders raced their horses, and used mail bags like batons, handing them off to each other as they raced around a circular track.
The winners of the first Pony Express Race were Jess Robert, team captain from Arcata, Fred Carlson of Samoa, Velma Carlson of Samoa, Eric Hought of McKinleyville and Maurice Letz of McKinleyville. There were also barrel races, egg throwing and pancake flipping contest.
The next year, 1969, organizers were still worried about having their event rained out.
“Although the sponsors probably got the fright of their collective lives when it started drizzling for a while early Sunday morning, bringing fears of a rerun of last year’s drenching, McKinleyville’s weatherman cooperated by blowing the clouds and fog away to give the second annual Pony Express Day warmth and sunshine,” stated a front page article in the Aug. 27, 1969 edition of the McKinleyville News.
The 1969 event began with a parade. The local Pony and Pals Saddle Club won the best youth group award for their equestrian parade entry. Democratic Assemblywoman Pauline Davis was the guest of honor and rode in the lead car in the parade.
There was no official count of how many people came out to watch the parade, but there were about 1,800 who attended the annual barbecue.
“The main attraction, is of course, the Pony Express Race. In this event, which at times gets very rough, and at other times almost comical in nature, especially when the horse won’t play the game according to the rules, teams of five riders in a relay attempt to ride a 300-yard plus course in the quickest time. Instead of passing a baton a saddle bag is used, reminiscent of the Pony Express of the 1860s,” stated an article in the McKinleyville News.
Maurice Letz was once again on the winning team.
“Only 15 seconds separated the team captained by M.D. Letz, which took first place over the second place team headed by Floyd McBride. Other members of the Letz squad, which finished the course in 2:49.5, plus a 10 second penalty, for a net time of 2:59.5, were Dee Knowles, Linda Richardson, Ed Henry and Dave Emery.”
Former McKinleyville resident Patty Peeples, who now resides in Virginia, recalls racing in the event.
“It was fast, furious,” she said about the race. “It was exciting.”
Peeples was the first Pony Express Queen, and rode in the parade with a crown.
In 1970, two-time Pony Express Race winner Maurice Letz decided to try something different and ride his horse to Fieldbrook and back on the “new Fieldbrook Road,” a 10-mile round trip.
Letz wore western garb and carried a Pony Express-style mailbag full of Pony Express Barbecue tickets, which he planned to sell to Fieldbrook residents when he arrived.
Letz made his way over the hill to the Fieldbrook Grange Hall, where there was a free chuck wagon breakfast.
Letz then rode back over the hill so he could attend the dedication of the new McKinleyville Chamber of Commerce A-frame building, which now houses The Complete Look across from McKinleyville Ace Hardware. Also at the dedication was Miss Humboldt Gail Straughan, that year’s Grand Marshal.
An article in the May 31, 1988 edition of The Union announced that stunt men from the Lazy L Ranch on Fickle Hill would stage their Wild West Show, complete with gunfights, quick draw contests and horse-riding tricks.
For several years the festival included professional rodeos held at the McKinleyville Rodeo Grounds on Kjer Road. But for the past decade and a half, the only major equestrian event during Pony Express Days has been the gymkhana held by the McKinleyville Rodeo Association at the rodeo grounds,
So whatever happened to the festival’s namesake, the Pony Express Race?
According to McKinleyville resident Dennis Mayo, variations on the Pony Express Race continued through the early 1990s, although they weren’t held every single year.
There were at least two challenges with keeping the race going. One was location. The horse arena at what’s now Pierson Park became off limits to horses, and eventually was developed with Azalea Hall, McKinleyville Activity Center, McKinleyville Library and the Sheriff’s Office.
The last races were held at Clam Beach, Mayo said. But when the snowy plover was federally listed as a threatened species, complications arose and they stopped holding the race at the beach.
Asked why the Pony Express Race couldn’t be held at the McKinleyville Rodeo Grounds, Mayo had a simple answer: It’s too small.
The Pony Express Race needs a large course. When it was held at what’s now Pierson Park, volunteers tilled a track that was similar in size to the race track at the Ferndale Fairgrounds.
Another challenge to keeping the race going was continuity, Mayo said. Organizers of the race, and Pony Express Days, come and go. They get hurt and can no longer participate. They have babies. They get jobs elsewhere and move away. Some die.
So Pony Express Days is an ever-changing event which ebbs and flows depending on the volunteers of the time.
In 2005, the leadership of the McKinleyville Chamber of Commerce, lead by President Ben Shepherd, decided to take the festival in a new direction with a new name – the Azalea Festival.
The idea was to make it an event that better promoted the area’s local businesses. It was going to be a fancier affair, with wine and culinary treats from local restaurants.
At Pierson Park, there was a “Food Garden” and a Wine and Beer Tasting. While adults were sipping cabernets and pinots, and nibbling on local cheese, children were making crafts in “The Children’s Garden,” where they assembled giant tissue paper flowers, pinwheels and kites.
Despite the new twist, the event still had much of the same flavor of the old Pony Express Days, with the parade and deep-pit barbecue being the highlight of the weekend.
But the response to the wine tasting and high-brow culinary events were lackluster. Many old-timers complained and wanted the event changed back to Pony Express Days.
The chamber leadership changed again and there was a new batch of volunteers. In 2009, the chamber conducted a survey, in which 75 percent of those who responded said they wanted to change the name back to Pony Express Days.
“The Wild West has returned to McKinleyville!” stated a June 3, 2009 article on the front page of the McKinleyville Press. “Last year’s Azalea Festival has morphed back into the original Pony Express Days, which many residents believe is closer to the true spirit of Mack Town.”
While there still isn’t a Pony Express Race, there will be several equestrian entries in Saturday’s parade, which begins at 11 a.m. On Saturday, June 1. The McKinleyville Rodeo Association holds its annual gymkhana all day Sunday, June 2 at the McKinleyville Rodeo Grounds on Kjer Road.