Salmon Days is a two-day affair held the first Saturday and Sunday in October in downtown Issaquah (King County). It is a family-oriented event that features numerous attractions and arts and crafts, all with a decidedly salmonesque flair. The festival began in 1970 as an event designed to celebrate the annual return of migrating salmon to Issaquah Creek as well as to replace the town’s Labor Day Festival, which had ended two years earlier. Salmon Days remained a small local event through the 1970s, but grew rapidly in the 1980s, and during the 1990s and 2000s the festival has enjoyed an attendance (in years with good weather) of between 150,000 and 200,000 annually.
Issaquah’s Salmon Days festival was spawned in 1970, as a result of the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce’s search for a good replacement to the town’s once-popular Labor Day Festival. (The Labor Day Festival began in 1936 and in its prime was a huge event in Issaquah, but during the 1960s interest faded and the festival ended in 1968.) Earl Robertson, president of the Issaquah Chamber in 1970, suggested a salmon festival to spark new life into the community. The idea made sense: People were already trekking to Issaquah in the early fall to watch the salmon (chinook and coho) make their annual return to Issaquah Creek to spawn, and there was a fish hatchery there. It seemed like a natural idea for the town.
The first festival, called simply the Salmon Festival (renamed Salmon Days in 1971), opened in downtown Issaquah under warm but smoggy skies on Saturday, October 3, 1970. It was a small event, featuring the hatchery as much as the festival itself. The 1970 festival included the Kiwanis salmon barbeque, puppet shows, and a children’s parade complete with cameo appearances by J. P. Patches the clown and his faithful sidekick, Gertrude. Saturday evening featured political speeches and square dancing. The festival continued Sunday, with a water fight by seven district fire stations the big event of the day. The firefighters didn’t have to look far for water, because it rained during their show.
The Issaquah Chamber had hoped for 10,000 people at the first festival, but 20,000 reportedly came. Still, it was touch and go for Salmon Days for its first two years. The event was not a big crowd-drawer, and received limited local press coverage. But in 1972 the festival was promoted more aggressively, and it worked. More attractions were offered, and more people came. Salmon Days grew slowly during the rest of the 1970s, though it remained a relatively small, casual event, so laid back that during festivals in the seventies a doe would wander down from Mountain Park into the festival and hang out with the crowd.
The future arrived for Salmon Days in 1980. The festival became a Seafair-sanctioned event, which brought Seafair clowns, pirates, and floats to the celebration. By 1980, in addition to the children’s parade, there was an adult parade. (Ivar Haglund [1905-1985] served as Parade Marshall in 1980.) The adult parade soon became known as the Grande Parade. And 1980 was also the first year for parade floats. Miss King County East Scholarship Pageant took first place in that year’s float contest, with second place going to Jim Nold’s 1923 Model T and the Barbershop Quartet.
Salmon Days bloomed in popularity during the 1980s. Attendance grew from an optimistically estimated 65,000 at the 1980 festival to 150,000 at the 1988 festival. Staffed solely by volunteers for its first 15 years, during the 1980s the festival grew so large so fast that in 1985 it joined the Northwest Festivals Association (a group that helps organizers plan and execute community festivals) and in 1987 hired its first paid festival director. By 1988 the Grande Parade had become such a big event that people complained that the parade was too long and also delayed the start of the Children’s Parade.
The 1988 Grande Parade was memorable for another event. At the 1987 Salmon Days festival, bundles of standard-sized balloons marked “Issaquah Salmon Days” were released from Memorial Field. One of the balloons made it into the jet stream, where it flew halfway across the country before landing fully intact the next day in a field near Newman Grove, Nebraska, about 110 miles northwest of Omaha. A man working nearby found the balloon and took it home for his 2-year-old son. Curious as to what “Issaquah Salmon Days” meant, the family investigated, learned of the festival, and wrote the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce to tell them of the balloon’s journey. As a result, Pepsi-Cola (a festival sponsor at the time) flew the young family of three from their home in Nebraska to the 1988 Salmon Days festival, where they served as Grand Marshalls for the Grande Parade.
Salmon Days Today
During the 1990s and 2000s Salmon Days has averaged 150,000 to 200,000 visitors a year on good-weather years; somewhat fewer on years with rainy weather. In 2006 the festival reported 41 different food vendors, 269 arts and crafts vendors (and another 65 non-profit vendors), 36 musical bands to play and four stages for them to play on, and over 2,000 volunteers who donated more than 12,000 hours of labor.
The festival’s economic impact to the city in 2006 was estimated to be $7.5 million. The Kiwanis barbeque remains a perennial favorite, as does the Grande Parade, which typically features more than 100 entries, including 15 floats, clowns, marching bands, equestrian entries, school groups, and dance teams. Sporting events (golf and running) are also held at Salmon Days.