By Marian D. Beadle
(Editor’s note: Marian Beadle edited this feature for 18 years and contributed a number of articles during that time, including this excerpt from one entitled “The Zinnia Festival” which was originally published in the late 1980s. Hopefully this will “fill in some of the blanks” from my previous article).
Life in the mid-thirties in Big Rapids was idyllic, at least to a young girl…….One of the highlights of those summers was the Zinnia Festival. The first one was to have been held in 1936, but record-breaking temperatures in the high 90s and 100-plus degrees scorched 12,000 of the 29,000 plants.
The zinnia was chosen as the city flower after a poll of citizens was conducted by members of the Big Rapids Garden Club. It was considered an ideal choice because of the hardiness of the pant, its long blooming period and its wide variety of colors.
The weather conditions that prevail in Big Rapids were considered extremely favorable, and the fact that they take just ordinary care made it the choice for Big Rapids to become “the Zinnia Capital of the Nation.” There were to be three days in mid-August of celebrations, beginning with a festival ball on Friday evening in the Armory, where the queen would be crowned and preside over the festivities.
Saturday was to have special events from morning until night. Sport, exhibits, tours and a pageant were to have been among the attractions. Sunday, the final day of the festival, was reserved for more musical programs.
The next year, 1937, the festival became a reality with 60,000 plants cultivated. A contest to write a zinnia song carried a prize of $5. The first Zinnia Queen was Betty Freeland, sponsored by the Wednesday Club, and chosen from nine candidates.
A large bed of flowers that occupied several full size city lots on State Street near the business district attracted widespread attention from visitors both years, and a triangular plot at Riverside Park was added.
In addition there were beds at the filtration plant, city hall, one on Bridge Street and one on Third Avenue. The Farmer’s Cooperative Creamery and Ward Lumber & Coal also participated.
A calliope advertising the Zinnia Festival played in various nearby towns including Paris, Stanwood, Morley, Mecosta, Remus, Chippewa Lake and Barryton. A total of 11 floats made up the parade and A.P. Miller was the winner of the zinnia song contest. He put the words to the tune of “Michigan, My Michigan.”
In 1838 the second Zinnia Queen was Bonnie Yeo, who was chosen from eight candidates. She was crowned queen in a fitting ceremony held on the stage before a large audience at the fairgrounds. Bonnie was surrounded by her court and driven to the crowning platform on a large float banked with zinnias. She sat under a white arch, which was trimmed with zinnias in a variety of colors.
This year the spaces between the sidewalks and curbs along the full length of State Street were filled with zinnias, planted mostly by gas station owners, some of whom had saved seeds from the previous year’s prize blooms.
This writer can’t locate further information beyond 1938, and the Zinnia Festival vanished permanently during WWII and resurfaced in a small way beginning in 1987.
Larry Martin, retired librarian and historian at Ferris State University, was an enormous help in supplying dates and facts for this article, and this writer is most appreciative.