JENNIFER JACKSON’S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR COLUMN: Woman rebuilds Victorian Festival

As a teacher, Kathy Liu imparted the basics of chemistry, physics and biology to high school students in Daly City, Calif.

Then she helped start an online professional development resource for biology teachers called Access Excellence, working with the sponsor, Genentech, for 15 years.

Moving to Port Townsend in 2002, she and her husband, Chelcie Liu, built a craftsman-style house and commissioned a traditional wooden boat, the Townsend Tern.

Now, Liu is rebuilding the local Victorian Festival from the keel up, starting with a new name.

But Libby Palmer, who is coordinating the Orca Project at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, didn’t know that when she got a call from Liu, asking if Palmer would give a presentation about whales for Victorian Heritage Days.

“She was surprised,” Liu said. “Then I explained the idea, to look at attitudes towards whales then and now. In Victorian times, whales were used for lamp oil, corset stays and scrimshaw.”

Victorian ties

The request exemplifies the new approach Liu brought to the festival: Instead of making a list of events and trying to find sponsors and coordinators, she made a list of nonprofits in town and went around asking if people wanted to participate by highlighting aspects of their work that have a Victorian tie.

“The focus is on our community and understanding the connection between past and present,” Liu said. “It’s not so much dressing up as understanding what Victorian left us and what we still use.”

Also on board for the March 18-20 festival are the Northwest Maritime Center, where boat builders employ 19th-century skills to maintain wooden boats, and the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, which has been involved in preservation and restoration of buildings at Fort Worden State Park.

For Victorian Heritage Days, Kevin Palo, who teaches at the school, will give presentations on understanding old houses and weatherizing them.

Liu is weatherizing the festival by addressing one of the problems in past years: the unpredictable March weather.

“All of the events except the walking tours are inside,” Liu said.

Outside, however, is where Liu made the connection that led to her volunteering to coordinate the festival.

Rhody Run roots

It was the spring after she and her husband had moved to town, and they were attending the annual Rhody Run party hosted by Bill and Wendy Metzer at their house, which is on the course. Guests sit at chairs and tables set up along the road and cheer on the racers, with Bill passing out slices of watermelons.

“We started talking to the couple at the next table and discovered that the man, Frank Durbin, and I had gone to high school together in Ketchikan, Alaska,” Liu said.

Frank’s spouse, Pat Durbin, has been director of the Victorian Festival and is a founding member of the Victorian Society in America, Northwest chapter, which put the festival on two years ago.

Trying to figure out how the festival could be organized so that it wasn’t too much work for the organizers, Liu came up with the idea of drawing on local resources.

“I see it as opening up the history of the community,” she said. “We need to be looking at all these different aspects of it.”

She also suggested making the festival’s signature event, the Grand Ball, less grand and more user-friendly by de-emphasizing the need for Victorian costume and lowering the ticket price.

The result: the inaugural Equinox Ball on Saturday, March 19, in the renovated JFK Building at Fort Worden State Park.

The theme is “Hands Across the Centuries,” with people encouraged to come dressed as people from any century, past, present or future.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for under 18.

“We want everyone to come out and have fun,” Liu said. “You can come and listen and talk. It’s a social event.”

The Uptown Cotillion will play “genteel dancing music,” including waltzes, foxtrots and quadrilles, on violin, concertina and harp.

There may be a grand march, a tradition at balls in the past, but it will not be an evening of called dances, Liu said.

Victorian Festival traditions that remain untweaked: the Victorian Teas and the Victorian Fashion Show, the latter put on by JoAnn Bussa as a fundraiser for the Jefferson County Historical Society’s scholarship fund.

Old and new

New this year: living model presentations by Sarah and Gabe Chrisman on a Victorian lady’s dressing sequence, a Victorian gentleman’s dressing sequence and how Victorians wore their clothes.

Free events include a Victorian Family Social and Victorian parlor games for children at Jefferson Community School and an interactive quilting and handwork demonstration amid the antique velvet couches and crystal chandeliers on the upper floor of the Vintage Hardware Building.

Realtor Nancy Stelow is creating a list of houses with historic significance that are for sale that will open for viewing during the weekend. The list will be online (victorianfestival.org) or can be picked up at Heritage Days headquarters, the former Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center on Sims Way.

Also available will be a $15 pass that covers the admission fees at the Marine Science Center and participating museums: the Commanding Officer’s Quarters and Coast Artillery Museum at Fort Worden and the Jefferson County Historical Museum and the Rothschild House in town.

Tickets for bus tours and walking tours are $10 each.

Liu kept the cost low by going to Seaport Landing and Discovery View Apartments and asking for the loan of their buses. The directors were glad to oblige.

“I do hope people will see what we’re doing as a beginning and next year come to us and say, ‘I want to participate in this way,’” Liu said.

Anyone who wants to hold an event in conjunction with the festival this year is free to put out a sign and do so, Liu said, and she will be glad to add it to the list.

“This is not about making money,” Liu said. “This is about building community and making connections.”

Contact Liu at 360-379-1954 or vic.soc.nw@gmail.com.

________

Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or e-mail jjackson@olypen.com.

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