When the gates swing open on Sept. 13, the Lodi Grape Festival will present the community’s annual harvest celebration that has grown and evolved over the last 78 years.
Born during the waning years of the Great Depression in 1934, the community-wide festival has weathered the turbulent years of World War II, wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. The festival has adapted with the changing times and city growth over eight decades.
The festival is marking this as its 75th year because the festival was officially incorporated in 1937.
Over its history, the Lodi Grape Festival has reflected tremendous changes in the grape industry it honors. When the festival began, men used small, curved knives to pick each grape bunch by hand and lifted the heavy wood lug boxes to gondolas waiting among the rows. The fiery red flame tokay grape, sold as fresh fruit or crushed into wine, was the primary variety grown.
Today, giant harvesting machines straddle the grapevines and move up and down the rows, day and night, mechanically stripping the grapes off. And today, the tokay grapes are gone, and premium varietal wine grapes like zinfandels, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay dominate the vineyards.
In 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945 the festival was not held because World War II drew many Lodi men and women into military service and home life was severely impacted by rationing. With the exception of those years, the Lodi Grape Festival has been an annual tradition staged each September since 1934.
Despite the trials and changes over the last three generations, the Lodi Grape Festival today has the same goal it had in 1934 — to celebrate and promote the region’s primary agricultural product.
The festival’s roots actually go back 105 years. In 1907, city leaders staged the Tokay Carnival, an elaborate three-day event that was officially Lodi’s first community-wide grape harvest celebration. But it was only held that one year.
The Tokay Carnival was a lavish affair and a pure promotional effort by Lodi businessmen. Just the previous year, Lodi had been incorporated as a city, and community members were anxious to promote the region. The carnival’s bold goal was “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 immense group of volunteers directed by a 27-member executive committee of businessmen sought donations and pulled everything together for the huge event. The event was held downtown on Pine Street and Southern Pacific Railroad Park along Sacramento Street. As entrances to the carnival, two arches were built in 1907. A temporary wooden arch on Pine Street was built, and then torn down after the carnival. The mission-style cement arch spanning Pine Street, built specifically for the first harvest celebration, still stands today.
The Tokay Carnival featured a queen and king reigning over the festivities, band concerts, a Wild West show, vaudeville acts, numerous displays and a parade down the dirt streets of downtown Lodi.
The 1907 Tokay Carnival was a great success. However, it was a huge undertaking, and funding was inadequate. There was some talk of continuing the carnival the next year, but nothing was held for the next 27 years.
On April 3, 1934, Lodi Police Chief Clarence Jackson hosted a huge enchilada feed thanking the men who helped police quell the labor unrest during the grape harvest in 1933. This group of community-minded men called themselves the Mustachio Club because the law enforcement volunteers reportedly grew mustaches in order to look different than the strikers. During the banquet, this group of Lodi men came up with an idea to resurrect the harvest celebration.
The community was ready for a celebration and optimistic about the future for the first time in years. The bleakest years of the Great Depression were over. Prohibition, the national law that prohibited the sale and manufacture of wine and other alcohol, was repealed in December 1933. Lodi grape growers, winemakers and the entire community looked forward to prosperous times again. Lodi Mayor George M. Steele, a Mustachio Club member, gave Jackson time off from his police chief job to organize the festival. In the spring and summer of 1934, Jackson and other Mustachio Club members raised money and made plans. They sold club memberships and raised funds at vaudeville shows and dances. Jackson, a natural hand at promotion, got Southern Pacific to publicize the Grape Festival with an article and photograph on the railroad’s August dining car menus. He also got the railroad to serve tokay grapes with meals. While the Mustachio Club led the effort, other organizations got caught up in the festival fever. The Lodi Business Men’s Association held a queen contest where customers voted for registered candidates. The Lodi Chamber of Commerce sponsored a grape competition for the best tokay pack, best tokay bunch, largest tokay bunch and other categories. 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. It was the same central location as the 1907 Tokay Carnival, but the 1934 festival also had activities scattered throughout the city. In the downtown park along Sacramento Street, the festival featured grape exhibits and amusement rides including a giant Ferris wheel and merry-go- round. Set up in other areas of the city were a swimming and diving event at the Lodi Baths (at today’s Hale Park), donkey baseball at Lawrence Park, a golf tournament at the Woodbridge Golf and Country Club, a dog act at Pine and School streets, dancing at Eagles Hall, boat races and fireworks at Lodi Lake and stunt flying at nearby Lind’s Airport.
The highlight of the 1934 festival was the coronation of Queen Marie Graffigna on Lodi High School’s athletic field on the corner of Rose and Oak streets. More than 8,000 jammed onto the field for the ceremony conducted by California’s Governor Frank Merriam.
Another festival highlight was a grand parade of floats and marching bands through downtown. A second parade of “Horribles”, which was fun-loving Mustachio Club members dressed to “thrill and chill” spectators, also was held.
A reported 100,000 attended the three-day festival in 1934. Jackson proclaimed the festival would not die like the 1907 carnival. The festival would be an annual event. “This is just the start,” Jackson declared in a newspaper article. For the next two years, Jackson and the Mustachio Club organized festivals with similar activities as the first event. It was still purely a volunteer effort.
In 1937, the festival leadership became more formally organized, and the festival was incorporated. The Mustachio Club disappeared, and the Lodi Grape and Wine Festival, Inc. became the sponsoring organization. Like the old club, this group was led by Jackson and raised money for the festival by selling memberships and through special events.
Also in 1937, festival organizers dropped the old Mustachio Club’s comic “Horribles” parade. In its place, organizers developed the Kiddie Parade encouraging children, youth and school groups to participate.
In August 1941, months before war engulfed the nation, San Joaquin County designated the Lodi Grape Festival as the official county fair. (The San Joaquin County Fair is a state-run event officially called the Second District Agricultural Association.) This designation made the Lodi event eligible to receive state funds to the great relief of festival organizers weary of fundraising.
In a few months, however, the nation entered World War II. The festival was not held from 1942 to 1945, but the Kiddie Parade and a carnival were still held during those tumultuous years. In 1946, the festival returned and has been held every year since. In 1948, the Lodi Grape and Wine Festival, Inc. bought a 20-acre vineyard and, for the first time, the festival had a permanent location. The festival grounds at the northwest corner of Lockeford Street and Cherokee Lane are the second smallest fairgrounds in the state.
In 1949, the Lodi Grape Festival was held at its new home. That year, the Grape and Wine Pavilion Building was unveiled. Also that year, festival admission was charged for the first time. Admission cost 25 cents.
In 1950, the Grape Pavilion building featured a huge mural depicting seasonal activities in a vineyard. Internationally known artist John Garth of San Francisco painted the colorful mural inside the building. In April 2001, Lodi sign painter and artist Tony Segale added a colorful mural above the east side entrance of the building exterior. In January 2002, Segale painted an “America the Beautiful” mural inside the building as a patriotic tribute following the terrorist attacks four months earlier on September 11, 2001. Grape murals, a trademark of the Lodi Grape Festival, first made their appearance in 1950. In the beginning, grape bunches were used to depict artistic scenes on flat boards. Later, the technique was refined, and individual grapes were glued down to create the colorful designs. Today, clubs, school groups and individuals continue the painstaking work of creating the festival’s trademark murals and compete for cash prizes.
In 1960, festival organizers began selecting themes. In 1976, the festival expanded to four days. The queen contest, long a popular feature of the festival, began to age in the 1970s, and interest faded. In 1981, the queen contest was dropped.
The grand parade, a feature of every festival since 1934, also has shown the wear of time. Due to a steady decline in entries and spectators, the grand parade was held for the last time in 2002. The Kiddie Parade was held a few more years until it also ended. There have been many changes over the decades, but the Lodi Grape Festival remains a September tradition of honoring the community and the grape harvest.