Tri-cities Historical Museum celebrating 100 years of special connection with Coast Guard

The very first Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival wasn’t a festival at all, but a picnic for U.S. Coast Guard personnel and their families. That first event in 1924 had rowing competitions for the service members.

This year the festival will celebrate its 100th anniversary July 26-Aug. 4, and more than 350,000 people are expected to attend the 10-day festival, including some of the nation’s highest ranking U.S. Coast Guard dignitaries from Washington, D.C.

Opening this Saturday, The Tri-Cities Historical Museum’s Picnics and Parades: 100 Years of Grand Haven’s Coast Guard Festival will include images, objects, uniforms, and documents from the museum collection as well as items on loan from the community and culled from collections of Coast Guard history in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and others.

From fireworks to pageant queens, parades to water fȇtes, the exhibit will display Coast Guard history in photographs, documents, memorabilia, uniforms, and objects on display in the museum's Centennial Hall. 
Museum curators began combing the collection last year to collect more than 100 artifacts and hundreds of images from Coast Guard history. The Coast Guard Festival donated more than 3,000 objects from its on-site storage to the collection. 
“With this donation, we are able to share more of Tri-Cities history with visitors, plus design learning programs for maritime aficionados, students, and community groups around these new artifacts," says Exhibits Curator Kate Crosby.

The exhibit is free.

“We’re not the oldest, we’re not the biggest, but there is that romance between Grand Haven and the Coast Guard,” Tri-Cities Museum Executive Director Erica Layton says. “You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s there.”

It began in 1876 when the Eleventh District of the U.S. Life Saving Service (USLSS) established its headquarters there. In 1998, Congress designated Grand Haven “Coast Guard City, USA.”

The festival, itself, is a stage for the community and “reflective of the community and the community values,” Layton says. The community holds its biggest celebrations during the annual festival — from the American bicentennial to the dedication of the city’s musical fountain.

“It’s not just a tourist thing. There’s a very special connection between Grand Haven and the Coast Guard,” Layton says.

The ties are many. Grand Haven has always been a port town and was once a logging and fur trading hub, a place where shipping was important and water safety paramount. 

The bond was further cemented by tragedy with the sinking of the USCG cutter Escanaba during World War II.

“There wasn’t a family in town that wasn’t affected by the loss of that ship,” Layton says. 

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter was stationed in Grand Haven prior to the start of WWII when she shipped out to be a convoy escort ship. Early in the morning of June 13, 1943, either a mine or a torpedo sunk the cutter. Of the 105 men on board, two survived.

Every year, during the Coast Guard Festival, a memorial service is held for the 103 men who lost their lives.

“Each year since the first picnic in 1924 and the first festival in 1937, we have celebrated our heroes, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard with fun filled family events at the annual Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival,” the festival’s website says.

The festival has evolved and expanded over the years beginning in 1937 when Grand Haven’s annual celebration of the Coast Guard’s anniversary transformed from a picnic to a three day community “Water Fȇte.”

New this year, for the 100th anniversary of the festival, will be additional entertainment, including drone shows, says Annie Lengkeek, Coast Guard Festival marketing director.

“This community really kind of wraps around the Coast Guard,” Lengkeek says. “Having the station right here in downtown GH, right on the water, the community feels a sense of ownership with that.”
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Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.