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End of an era for Nordicfest

by Derrick Perkins Western News
| December 17, 2019 10:49 AM

Nordicfest is no more.

The 34-year-old Libby tradition, a multiday celebration of community and the region’s strong Scandinavian roots, enjoyed its last hurrah in September. Organizers said declining interest and a shortfall in volunteers led to the decision to end the annual festival.

“The last three years the attendance has been going downhill and this year it was just not good,” said Ray Eanes, president of Nordicfest Heritage Festival’s board. “These past few years, we just kept hoping it would resurrect itself.”

Nordicfest’s backers were aspirational from the start in 1985. At the beginning, organizers envisioned a regional festival drawing thousands of visitors to the Libby area.

June McMahon, festival co-chair and then-staffer at The Western News, saw the event as an economic driver for the area as well as a boon for local charitable organizations.

“The money these visitors bring in will benefit the community all year around through the activities of the participating organizations not to mention the dollars spent here during the actual festival weekend,” she wrote in the lead up to the inaugural event.

“We hope that Nordicfest will become the major fundraiser for many civic and charitable organizations,” McMahon wrote.

And by her account, the first Nordicfest was a rollicking affair. Taking off her hat as co-chair and serving as a reporter, McMahon described the inaugural event as a “howling success.”

The biggest problem, she reported in September 1985, was the overwhelming influx of out-of-town visitors. Hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts quickly filled up.

“The Skandia Folk Dancers of Seattle, Wash., who decided to participate only the week before, pitched sleeping bags at the parish hall of St. Joseph Catholic Church,” she wrote.

For years, the festival sailed along, said Eanes. It featured food — including the oft touted Viking-on-a-stick — a craft fair, horse show, parade and quilt show. At one point, said committee member Gina Huffman, local businesses adorned their frontage with decorations for the event.

In 1997, 22 people sat on the committee tasked with organizing the event, Eanes said. Today, there are three.

“We’re all gray hairs and gummers,” she said. “We’re all getting older.”

In recent years, organizers have actively recruited volunteers with an eye toward younger members, but without much success, Huffman said.

Pointing to the recent closure of the Libby Elks Lodge 2231 earlier in the fall, Eanes said the lack of volunteerism likely is a widespread problem.

Launched in 1961, the local outpost of the Elks, a national fraternal order, closed after the organization was unable to fill leadership positions this year. Money was not the problem, said William Lindsey, the then-trustee chair of the organization.

“But all the bad things we heard that they couldn’t pay their bills weren’t true,” he told The Western News in October. “When the older officers left, no one remained to mentor the younger officers and when the membership couldn’t provide a viable slate of officers, the decision was made.”

Like the Elks, the Nordicfest organizers enjoyed financial stability — they just lacked someone to hand the reins to, Eanes said.

“If we had somebody who would take over, it would be different, but right now there’s nobody in charge of it,” Huffman said.

Still, the group plans to continue drawing on its fundraising efforts to give out scholarships to local students. Historically, Nordicfest has given out about $2,000 annually to college-bound area teenagers.

Eanes and Huffman said the decision to drop the festival was not easy. Both expressed regret that it had fallen to them to end the annual tradition. But there were no other options, they said.

“We’re sad,” Huffman said. “We’re really sad.”

“We really have tried the past few years to keep it going,” Eanes said. “It really has come time to let it go.”