History of Coast Guard Festival
This article was originally published in July, 2013, written by Meredith Meyer, Collections Manager
Grand Haven's identity has been closely linked to maritime industry and activity since its inception, and with the upcoming Coast Guard Festival I believe we should take a closer and more appreciative look at our maritime heritage.
As early as 1847, Congress was convinced that the mariners who formed the country's mercantile lifeline should be protected. However, the situation was not dealt with effectively due to a lack of funds and it was not until a particularly harsh winter resulting in 214 fatal disasters on the Great Lakes alone that action was taken. The United States Life Saving Service arrived in the Great Lakes in 1876, and would make up three of the twelve designated districts. The Grand Haven Station No. 9 opened in 1877 as the headquarters for the Eleventh District, with William Loutit named superintendent.
The station was a two-story building with a two-stall boat house, and an observation tower. It housed the keeper or captain, and a lifeboat crew of six or eight. These surfmen were already a part of the community, as many of them came from local fishing families and had thorough knowledge of the local waters. They lived at the station during the active season, which was generally April through December. When not living at the station they often worked on fishing boats.
The Life Saving Service quickly gained an almost legendary status, saving 4,000 lives annually. Though they were known for acts of heroism, the daily routine of surfmen was more focused on discipline and spent doing drills in order to hone their specialized skills. The most important tools used were the beach-apparatus cart and the lifeboat. Drills consisted of positioning the cart, attaching the whipline to the appropriate projectile and firing it to a superstructure simulating the mast of a wrecked ship, before operating the breeches buoy; a buoy with pant legs attached so that a person could sit securely as they were reeled to shore. This whole operation was practiced daily so that it would take no more than five minutes. Lifeboat drills were also daily, as the lives of the crew as well as those they were trying to rescue depended upon their ability to handle the lifeboat under the most extreme conditions.
In order to reduce fiscal waste and overlapping duties, Congress approved the merging of the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life Saving Service. The new entity would be known as the United States Coast Guard. This took effect in August of 1915, and Grand Haven became headquarters for the nine stations in the new Tenth Coast Guard District. Surfmen would work year round, for multiple year contracts, and would adhere to Navy code.
With the new Coast Guard, crews that were once made up of locals and volunteers now consisted of routine transfers and a more constant flux of new people in the community. In order to build a camaraderie within the ranks, the officers of the Tenth District planned a picnic to be held in Grand Haven. August 4th, 1890 was the founding date of the Revenue Cutter Service, and carried forward as the birthday of the Coast Guard. For this reason, the theme of the picnic would center around the birthday and all officers, enlisted men, and their families from the other nine stations were invited to participate.
The first picnic was a success and the different stations agreed to rotate hosting every year in order to continue fostering the sense of friendship and family. Upon hearing of the Tenth District picnics, the Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington were pleased and inquired as to how they could expand on the idea. The inquiry was shared with Grand Haven civic leaders, and it was decided that the community would sponsor the 1934 annual picnic as a way to show their thanks and wish the Coast Guard a happy birthday. The picnic was successful and the Guardsmen accepted the invitation to hold their picnic in Grand Haven again in 1935.
Races and demonstrations of lifeboat drills and breeches buoy exercises evolved out of healthy competition between crews, and became a source of entertainment for the civilian spectators. By the time planning for the 1937 picnic came around, a committee of Grand Haven community members came up with the theme of "Water Fete", using the lifeboat races and demonstrations as a main attraction and making the event a full blown celebration. This would include parades, dances, and ball games, and an invitation extended to the Ninth and Eleventh Districts.
The Water Fete was incredibly successful, and Coast Guard officers thanked the Grand Haven community by pledging to make the next year's event even bigger and better. The 1937 Water Fete was the forerunner of today's Coast Guard Festival, an event that continues to evolve each year to this day. There is no denying that carnivals and fireworks delight both children and adults alike, but I believe we should focus on and remember that the heart of Coast Guard Festival remains, in its roots, a warm and sincere thanksgiving and celebration of the heroism and bravery of the men and women of the United States Coast Guard.