Throughout the 61 years that Bohemia Mining Days has been running, Festival Coordinator Cindy Weeldreyer said the spirit from all the volunteers since day one has been: Failure is not an option. With COVID-19 canceling the BMD celebration this year, that sentiment has never been more true.
“It’s killer for us,” Weeldreyer said of the cancellation. “For a small town like ours to have an all-volunteer organization that’s run in recessions and through mills closing. We’ve had lean years but managed to set up a carnival every year. It’s tragic that after all that effort to have a global pandemic break our streak.”
Due to the BMD operation running on a year-to year shoestring budget, the only revenue coming in this year is from donations given by individuals, businesses and organizations. To ensure that there will be a BMD in 2021, the festival board is promoting, “Got a buck for BMD 2021?”
The campaign will be held July 16-19, the days the festival is usually held, in Coiner Park near the tennis court parking lot. Community members can stop by the table and make a donation of any size to help protect BMD’s future. All donors will receive a keepsake button from a previous year, and a limited number of collectible gold coins will also be for sale.
Although BMD officially started in 1959, the idea of preserving Cottage Grove history lived on even before then. In the early 1930s, the original colonizers were dying off and the heyday of Bohemia Mining Days had passed, and their descendants wanted to keep it alive; therefore starting Bohemia Days.
Then in 1955, Cottage Grove held a celebration of “White settlement” before becoming an official City, and had another in 1959 for the State Centennial.
“Cottage Grove loves celebration,” Weeldreyer said.
She describes those who helped start BMD as “visionaries.” Ray Nelson, who is known for being the Father of BMD, said he wanted to see Cottage Grove continue to grow throughout the 1950s. He tried to get people excited about Cottage Grove’s history, “which was really the seed that the event grew from,” Weeldreyer said.
He helped save the Dr. Schnapp House from being destroyed by moving it to its current location, and had plans to start an Old West Village; however, due to the change in flood maps, couldn’t extend beyond that one building. Still, Nelson managed to put a celebration together that required everyone to wear costumes — and fined those who didn’t grow whiskers. That was also when the Lemati Gang gained notoriety for “robbing” the First National Bank and trains.
In 1959, the Prospector Club started (now known as the Prospector and Gold Diggers Club), which started as a boosters club that discussed doing a festival every year.
Now the BMD tradition provides family-friendly activities that include: live music, a kids zone, a saloon, a carnival, a Miners Dinner and Chuckwagon Breakfast, Bohemia-era living history demonstrations, gold panning, cultural presentations, parades and the Slabtown vs. Lemati Feud.
The feud is based on Cottage Grove history, pinning the West and East sides of Cottage Grove against one another. Slabtown was represented by descendants of the Oregon Trail and the Lemati-side came to the area for mining. At BMD, the feud features contests such as cherry pit spittin’, best 1800-era costume and beard, tug-o-war, pie eating and popular bounty hunting.
Don Williams, who has been involved on and off for years with BMD and is helming it for the second year in a row, said that although there have been multiple draws and fundraisers to Cottage Grove, like the rodeo and Mayor’s Ball, BMD is an umbrella fundraiser for many groups in the community.
“Most cities and townships have some sort of yearly celebration, but it has to have a common nucleus to make it happen,” he explained. “BMD is the nucleus in Cottage Grove.”
Due to BMD’s longevity, the festival has ebbed and flowed in popularity over the years, and is especially impacted by the economy. The heyday of BMD was in the 1960s, only to wane in the 1970s and make a resurgence again in later years. The 50th and 60th celebration were two of the big years that spiked the festival’s popularity.
Regardless, BMD is and always has been a part of Cottage Grove and its community. Beyond the festivities of BMD, that weekend is also popular for holding class and family reunions, as well as wedding anniversaries.
“BMD is woven into the fabric of this town,” Weeldreyer said.