By Marie Havenga
A 1924 private picnic has parlayed into a perennial party – and you’re all invited.
When Coast Guard members and their families spread blankets and opened baskets at the old Coast Guard Station (the now private residence with a boat house on the north side of the channel), they never could have imagined it would explode into a full-blown festival that attracts visitors from across the nation.
In the early days, picnic organizers invited other Coast Guard members from along Lake Michigan to compete in activities such as life-ring throwing, rowing and rescue swimming.
“The parade was Coast Guard men marching down the street for citizens to cheer them on and appreciate them,” said Coast Guard Festival Executive Director Mike Smith.
But celebration turned to sorrow on June 13, 1943, when Grand Haven’s home port cutter, the Escanaba, went down off the coast of Newfoundland. Only two crewmen survived.
“That affected tremendously our local population,” Smith explained. “So much so that they decided during the annual time they would host a memorial service to remember the 101 folks who died. That became the heart of, and the grounding piece, of the festival.”
Smith said the memorial service continues to honor those who lost their lives serving in the Coast Guard – this year, the focus will be on the four who perished in the recent helicopter crash in Mobile, Alabama.
Two of the families plan to attend.
“We don’t want their last memory to be of the triangular-folded American flag,” Smith said. “We want it to be a joyous remembrance of their service. At their funeral service, it’s hard to grasp the importance they played in our history. With a little time, we can honor their heroics with celebration, not just solemnity.”