Fostering the Victorian Festival

PORT TOWNSEND — Like a character out of Dickens, the Port Townsend Victorian Festival spent its first years of life on the street begging for handouts.

When it was 7 years old, the Jefferson County Historical Society took it in, only to find that its little ward required a big commitment of time and energy.

Now the Victorian Festival is entering its teenage years with a new family — the newly formed Northwest Chapter of the Victorian Society in America.

Based in Port Townsend, the chapter will be the festival’s parent organization as well as sponsor educational lectures, workshops and field trips throughout the year.

“We are hoping to get people in to talk about adaptive reuse, which is the buzzword — converting buildings into something usable.” said Pat Durbin, who was instrumental in creating the new chapter.

Durbin is a past director of the Victorian Festival, which was started in 1997 as a joint community effort and adopted by the Jefferson County Historical Society in 2003. Deciding to no longer be involved, the historical society board held two meetings to discuss the festival’s future.

One suggestion: forming a Victorian society that could take over.

Discovering the Victorian Society in America Web site, Durbin sent out information about VSA and an invitation to a meeting in her Victorian home at the end of August to see if there was interest in forming a chapter.

More than enough people showed up and signed on, fulfilling the requirement for 25 paid members, Durbin said.

PT and Sequim

“We were able to recruit members locally without going outside the Port Townsend area, except for the two ladies from Sequim,” Durbin said.

“It was a good match for us.”

Many were volunteers who helped put on the Victorian Festival or its supporters, including four couples who own bed and breakfast inns.

Ken Kelly, owner of Vintage Hardware, joined as a business member, as did Darlene Startup of Sequim.

Startup has a Victorian costume and hat-making business, Victorian Regalia, and has been involved in the Victorian Festival for several years.

“I love the era, I love the clothes, I love the femininity of it all,” Startup said.

“It’s always captivated me. Everybody tells me I was born too late.”

Her daughter, Chris Bennett, who helps her with the business, also joined the new VSA chapter.

Pending approval by the national organization next week, the new group will be the only Victorian Society in America chapter west of Minneapolis, according to VSA business manager Ken Olin.

Fast track

“We’ve received inquiries of interest from five other communities — Portland, Oregon, and Idaho Falls, plus three back east — but none of them are as far along,” Olin said in a phone interview.

“Port Townsend was on the fast track.”

The Port Townsend chapter is poised to be successful because there is a dedicated base of volunteers who have already been working together, Olin said.

The Victorian Festival was started to draw visitors to town during the off season.

Durbin was the festival director for three years, an unpaid job she accepted when the festival became a subcommittee of the Jefferson County Historical Society board.

Last spring, organizers moved the festival from March to May in hopes of better weather, but it drew fewer people than past years.

Faced with a big investment in relation to the return, the historical society board held two meetings last summer to discuss the festival’s future.

“They have a broader historical base than just the Victorian period,” Durbin said.

“The amount of time and effort to run it were not cost productive.”

Smaller festival

Under the chapter’s management, the 2009 festival will probably be a scaled-down version, Durbin said, but will include the Grand Ball, a key event that draws out-of-towners.

The historical society still will put on walking tours, she said, and the fashion show, a benefit for the historical society’s scholarship fund, also will continue.

By avoiding multiple events during the festival, which burns out the volunteers, the chapter hopes to be able to do more to publicize the festival, Durbin said.

“We’re going to tap into our clientele we’ve built up,” she said.

“In the past, we didn’t have time to focus on marketing it.”

Durbin said that, in time, the festival may grow large enough that the group can afford to hire a director.

The chapter also hopes to expand and draw members from across the North Olympic Peninsula and the Puget Sound region, she said.

Benefits of membership include receiving the VSE magazine and the opportunity to participate in study tours and the VSA’s annual meeting — this year, it’s in Bermuda.

Another dream: “I would love to see the annual meeting held here,” Durbin said.

“It would be wonderful to have the national membership come out and see Port Townsend.

“We have such a concentration of Victorian architecture in such a small area.”

________

Port Townsend/Jefferson County reporter-columnist Jennfier Jackson can be reached at jjackson@olypen.com.

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