Stephenson Island

Last July, during a weekend that would have packed a gala of activity across Stephenson Island for the Logging & Heritage Festival, the area remained much as it was on Friday: still and quiet. The city chose to cancel the 2020 festival as it endeavored to prevent further COVID-19 proliferation. This year the event returns, subdued ... but only temporarily and not enough to spoil the fun.

 

EagleHerald staff writer

MARINETTE—The City of Marinette steeps with individual and community stories from the ancient culture of the Menominee tribe to the longshoremen and lumber shovers guiding that once critical product of Wisconsin industry down the Menominee River.

The whispers and remnants of the city’s heritage and history permeate nostalgically, proudly, intriguingly and sometimes mysteriously through every inch of land, brick and mortar, ancient tree and individual now residing within the City of Marinette.

And this summer, on July 10, one of Marinette’s cherished celebrations and a seminal northeast Wisconsin festival, returns to celebrate the area’s heritage. Albeit, a temporarily scaled-down version of its former gala.

Since 2011, every July, Marinette packed three days of food, fun, music and other activities into an event that honored and commemorated its rich cultures, traditions and legacies: the annual Logging & Heritage Festival. For nine years after, the festival continued to bring area residents and outside tourists a summer jamboree of entertainment. Volunteer-run and supported largely by donations, the festival can sometimes draw over 15,000 people to Marinette, with many activities centralized on Stephenson Island.

However, last year’s dark descent of COVID-19 cast a heavy shadow across a quiet and deserted Stephenson Island at a time when the park would usually be brimming with the festival’s activity. For some that cancellation dashed the hearts of lumberjack hopefuls, history buffs and many others looking for a weekend excursion to the prevalent Marinette festival.

Area residents lost more than just entertainment, that year.

As once noted by longtime festival chairperson and coordinator, now retired, Judy Alwin, the festival runs much deeper than the joy it brings. In a few short words, she embodied the meaning of the festival during a 2013 interview with the EagleHerald.

“People are learning what Marinette is all about and that we have a heritage,” Alwin said in that interview. “Marinette is not just a name; it’s our heritage and I think that’s something people and kids need to learn like what our forefathers did for us. We all have to learn about our community and celebrate us.”

But last year, across the nation, communities like Marinette confronted the proliferation of pandemic and subsequent economic impacts wrought on local businesses. Community festival cancellations became the norm as efforts to allay the COVID spread and secure the health and safety of the nation took priority. In Marinette, city officials acted to cancel several other entertainment events besides the Logging and Heritage Festival, such as many events slated at the Community REC Center. Additionally, in Marinette, another driving force behind the decision to ax the festival stemmed from the economic burdens faced by local businesses at the time.

“(Last year) we just didn’t have the donations that we normally have,” said Lana Bero, City Clerk and this year’s festival chairperson. “And the city didn’t want to put that additional burden on their donors in the middle of a pandemic.”

The 2020 festival committee captured that weighted melancholy with crestfallen words in a Facebook post by Chairman Kent Kostelecky and Bero.

“It is with GREAT sadness that the Logging and Heritage Festival Committee has made the decision to cancel the 2020 … Festival. The decision weighed heavily on the committee but with the COVID-19 pandemic being a huge concern and making the health and welfare of the community our first priority, it was a decision that had to be made.”

A GRADUAL COMEBACK

As communities throughout the nation continue addressing efforts on recovery and ongoing financial hardships, the Marinette officials felt a toned-down version of the festival aligned better with continued recovery this summer.

“Because we are still not out of the woods yet and there are still restrictions, we thought about bringing (the festival) back slowly,” Bero told the EagleHerald during the April Common Council meeting.

As such, the festival will represent a low-key version of its usual multi-event jubilee production, which is usually broadcast throughout Wisconsin in months and weeks leading up to the event. While the festival returns this year, July 10, it will span only a single day and not an entire weekend as is the usual case. Additionally, a more subdued advertising strategy, dedicated primarily to the local Marinette market and surrounding communities will promote the event. And because it is not a full-fledged festival, organizers and not counting it as the “10{sup}th{/sup} annual” festival. It will resume count when the full three-day event returns next year.

“We are keeping it more of a centralized community event,” said Marinette Director of Tourism & Marketing Melissa Ebsch. “Normally, in the past, we would advertise heavily outside the Marinette area on billboard and radio and some print. But with the event only being one day we are marketing (primarily) in our region.”

Social media will also provide a promotional platform. As the date of the festival approaches, interested individuals can check out the Marinette Logging & Heritage Festival Facebook page or the city website (marinette.wi.us) for more information not the festival.

“It may not be a three-day event but at least we are able to hold something for the community that we have always done,” Ebsch said.

During the Marinette Common Council’s April meeting, the city delved into some of the planning details and actions to bring the festival to fruition. Alderpersons approved two entertainment agreements that promise mesmerizing and marvelous magic alongside some rip-roaring, heart-stopping, two-wheeled aerobatics. Those approvals procured two entertainment companies for the festival, Mischief & Magic and the Division BMX stunt team for the one-day event on Stephenson Island.

Importantly, and in light of the lingering pandemic financial fallout, Bero expressed gratitude for the generous funding that makes the festival possible each year and especially this year, after so many businesses and former donors experienced challenges due to the significant pandemic-related economic hardship. As of Friday, according to Bero’s current tabulations, the current event donations from area businesses and non-profits totaled $7,450.

“We are very happy that our sponsors really came to us this year and were willing to help us out,” she said. “We are still trying to finalize some of the (festival plans), but we have the main contracts booked … and of those contracts, we have already fulfilled (their costs) from donations.”

Aside from non-profit food vendors, Mischief & Magic, Division BMX and other activities, two local bands, “The Dirty Martinis” and “Rosebrook,” will weave the musical ambiance. And then, of course, comes the traditional and spectacular festival conclusion, which lures all eyes skyward to absorb the bold colors and reverberations of the big fireworks show at dusk … and perhaps, a glimpse of brighter times to come.

And in a similar fashion, Bero peered with optimism to 2022.

“We are full force next year, for a full three-day huge festival,” she said.