The Tokay Carnival, the city’s first grape harvest celebration, was held 106 years ago on the dirt streets of Downtown Lodi.
Although it was held only the one time in September 1907, the Tokay Carnival served as the inspiration for today’s long-lasting Lodi Grape Festival, which has been a fall tradition since 1934.
In 1907, Lodi was a bustling community full of promise. Lodi residents had recently voted to incorporate as a city. In the spring of 1907, the new city leaders were busy establishing laws, setting up a constable and volunteer fire department, and planning to improve streets, sewers and utilities to make Lodi a progressive and modern city.
By 1907, most farmers in the region had made the move to replace watermelons, the former reigning crop of the region, and replant with the more profitable Tokay grapes. When the mid-March floodwaters finally receded, the tiny sprouts appeared on hundreds of acres of Tokay vines, and the idea of promoting the new city of Lodi and its fiery red Tokay grapes with an elaborate celebration was born.
Charles Ray was the man credited with dreaming up the Tokay Carnival, with the bold goal “to advertise to the world the beauty and value of the Tokay grape,” according to papers of the late Maurice Hill, a Lodi resident at the time.
An executive committee of 27 men was formed to raise money and plan the event. Ray was named manager. The committee assembled an immense group of volunteers that spread the enthusiasm and gained support in money and sweat.
By June, $1,780 had been raised, and the committee announced that the Tokay Carnival would be held on Sept. 19, 20 and 21. By the time the event was held, there were 80 sub-committees of volunteers working on the endeavor.
On June 8, 1907, the Lodi Sentinel threw its support into the effort with an article written in the civic booster style of the times. “Lodi will show to the world what she produces by displaying the real product before their eyes, and (we’ll) decorate the town with vines and grapes, making this city resemble a living vineyard as near as possible ... We have the most prosperous as well as one of the most beautiful districts in the state. We know it but the outside world does not. Let us show them. There is no other way — it’s the only way — just show them. Santa Barbara and Pasadena became famous on account of their flowers; oranges made Los Angeles and fruit made San Jose famous — let grapes make Lodi famous. Lodi is the greatest Tokay grape district in the world today.”
In the three months before the carnival, the committee worked tirelessly to promote the event. Residents going on vacation were urged to pick up posters advertising the Tokay Carnival at Frank Chrisman’s drug store and distribute the posters at the summer resorts they visited. Others mailed up to 100 postcards advertising the carnival to friends and relatives out of town. Steamer ships operating on the San Joaquin River between Stockton and San Francisco displayed posters advertising the Tokay Carnival.
In the weeks before the event, a contest was held to select a Queen Zinfandel and her court to rule over Lodi during the carnival’s three days. All Lodi stores sold ballots for one cent each. The title of queen went to the young lady who garnered the most votes, and the maids with the next 10 highest votes were named to the queen’s court.
Bertha DeAlmado was the Tokay Carnival’s Queen Zinfandel. She was given $300 to obtain an appropriate costume and whatever clothing befitted a queen. The young ladies in her court were Minnie Harvey, Nina Wilson, Maple Cook, Norma Stannard, Tillie Doering, Helen Dougherty, Gladys Graham, Esther Jones, Inez Smith and Myrtle McClung.
While the queen contest was going on, two arches were built on Pine Street. The arches were entrances into the Tokay Carnival to be held Downtown on Pine Street and the Southern Pacific Railroad Park along Sacramento Street.
Between July, when the Stockton architect revealed his plans, and September, when the carnival began, a mission-style cement lathe arch was built over Pine Street between the railroad tracks and Sacramento Street. The arch was 40 feet high and spanned 30 feet with the opening for street traffic to pass through. Mission bells of different tones hung inside openings near the top of the structure. Construction costs were estimated to be $800.
While this arch was designed to be permanent, and still graces Lodi today, a temporary wooden arch was also built further west on Pine Street. Later, this arch was torn down after the carnival.
All the elaborate preparations ended on Thursday, Sept. 19, when the grand Tokay Carnival opened at 10 a.m. The city was awash in the carnival colors of red and green, and grapes, vines and electric lights adorned tents and booths lining Sacramento Street.
The carnival began with a lavish parade featuring Queen Zinfandel, who rode in an ornate carriage drawn by four white horses. After cruising through the principal Downtown streets, the Queen and her court arrived at the stage with a structure built to resemble a throne room.
C.M. Ferdun gave a welcoming address and crowned the queen. Mayor George Lawrence gave a speech and presented the queen with a key to the city. California Gov. James N. Gillett arrived then on the train and was driven to the stage in a fine automobile. The governor gave a short speech. After lunch, the governor and the royal party attended the Wild West Show.
The next three days of the Tokay Carnival were full of activities, including concerts at the arch by the 22-piece Tokay City Band and Third Artillery Band of Presidio, vaudeville acts in the Lodi Opera House, bronco busting, a grape competition and the grand parade.
The last day of the carnival reportedly drew 10,000 people from Stockton and the south county on the train and the Central California Traction line, according to the Stockton Record’s estimate. The parade, led by grand marshal J.W. Dougherty, featured the Lodi Band, Queen Zinfandel in her royal carriage, decorated automobiles and almost a mile-long stream of wagons loaded with Lodi’s famous Tokay grapes.
By the time the Tokay Carnival was over, the exhausted citizens looked back on a successful event that drew an estimated 30,000 people to Lodi. It was a huge success in every way but one, according to Hill’s written account: the Tokay Carnival was $500 in debt.
Despite its popular success, the Tokay Carnival was not repeated. It is not known why the carnival did not live on as an annual event, but it is likely the inadequate funding and huge volunteer effort required was too big of a hurdle. There was some talk of continuing the carnival the next year and later in the late 1910s, but no harvest celebrations were held for the next 27 years.
Finally, in 1934, Lodi’s acting Police Chief Clarence Jackson led a huge volunteer effort to stage another citywide harvest celebration to honor Lodi’s famous grapes. This event, patterned so much like the original Tokay Carnival, had a new name — the Lodi Grape Festival.
The first Lodi Grape Festival opened on Sept. 7, 1934. The three-day event was based at the Southern Pacific Railroad Park along Sacramento Street by the Lodi Arch, just like the original Tokay Carnival.
Today, the Lodi Grape Festival, changed over time and changed in location, continues the carnival tradition with its annual tribute to the city’s prime crop.