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This is the second part of the story of the Peach Festival series. Read the first part here.
“It’s the peach center of the world. We should call it Peach Festival.
These are the words of Pentictonite Henry Meyerhoff, who helped shape much of Penticton’s festival history and helped launch the city’s Peach Festival in 1948.
Brian Wilson, Archivist and Executive Director of the Okanagan Archive Trust Society, has written a biographical article on Meyerhoff and his journey across Canada.
“The first Peach Festival, it wasn’t even going to be called the Peach Festival and it kind of had to do with a guy who started the circus here,” Wilson said.
Meyerhoff’s roots were in the German-American state of Wisconsin. His father had started by running a small traveling show he called “Herman Meyerhoff’s Dramatic and Variety Show”.
According to Wilson, the show originally took up residence on Eldridge Street, near New York’s Bowery.
But when Meyerhoff’s father died suddenly in 1899, the 15-year-old was granted sole ownership of the circus. With the help of the workers, he put everything together to continue running even on the verge of bankruptcy.
“Throughout the three decades, the show traveled to every major and medium-sized town on the East Coast and even as far as Ottawa. Strangely, this is where Henry first heard of ‘Penticton’ In 1916, while on a Canadian tour, he purchased municipal bonds from the District of Penticton, the origin of which did not come to Henry’s mind until 1933,” Wilson wrote.
“Soon after that it was decided to stay in Ottawa and make it the headquarters for touring Canadian cities. They stayed in Eastern Canada and toured from Sydney to Windsor for over 20 years. During those years they were a central feature of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.”
In the 1930s the show fell on hard times during the Depression and Meyerhoff decided to take his show on and had previously bought Penticton bonds for the city, settling in a farmer’s field south of the city.
But his permission to install the show on the site was refused by the city.
“Many good citizens wanted nothing to do with a traveling gypsy show in their town,” Wilson wrote.
After going to local businesses to apply for credit, Meyerhoff found they were all willing to help him, and he was able to return to town hall and get the go-ahead from the council to get a license.
Wilson said Meyerhoff’s success really came in the 1940s, once he found the “right deeds, the right animals
and good concessions” for its traveling circus. He purchased 10 acres of land at the corner of Calgary Avenue and Main Street where he built a house and a large barn to house his animals.
In April each year, the carnival and circus was held for the locals for two or three weeks before being loaded onto wagons and heading to Victoria or Edmonton.
Once the travel season was over, he would return to Penticton and prepare the carnival for an October stint before putting it away for the winter.
“It’s really strange that we used to have a wintering ground for a world circus and it was exactly where Safeway is today, just in that whole section there. It had everything that,” Wilson said.
“It was common to go down to this area and see elephants, camels and zebras. And he had a very large barn that had lions and tigers in it.”
Meanwhile, Meyerhoff was asked to join a planning committee in organizing the beginnings of an annual festival for Penticton. The committee wanted to call this festival “Mardi Gras” but Meyerhoff argued for Peach Festival.
According to the history published on the Peach Festival websiterepresentatives from four local service clubs (including Lodge 49 – Knights of Pythias, Penticton Rotary Club, Gyros and Kiwanis) met with Warden Robert Lyon to discuss the idea of a festival.
Penticton had wanted a “day” to call its own for years, with many attempts to achieve it.
This came to fruition in 1948.
“There was a children’s parade and races and there was a little midway that was put together, of course, by Meyerhoff and his little circus group. He had a separate contractor who handled all the Midway stuff. who always went there. They had music in Gyro Park, but it’s funny, they didn’t have the bandstand they have now. It was also done with proceeds from the circus,” Wilson said. .
“He was that guy in the background who was always donating money to the community.”
This first annual peach festival has earned the community “priceless publicity”, according to the Peach Fest website. From there it would expand to include a large band parade, professional wrestling, a boxing exhibition featuring local and valley amateur boxers, and a fireworks display.
In 1971, Peach Fest included an air show featuring Tutor jet trainers flying in formation for the very first time. The three-jet team, which performed its first-ever show that year, is known as the Snowbirds.
The Sandcastle competition debuted at Peachfest in 1983.
In 1991, events expanded to include the Penticton Invitational Lawn Bowling tournament, the Peach Classic Triathlon, the ninth annual Jaycees Raft Parade bungee jumping demonstration and stunts, the Breakaway Junior Triathlon, the Beach Olympics and music at Gyro Park Bandshell.
Sponsors began increasing their donations throughout the 2010s, allowing the festival to attract more well-known artists.
A study released by the City of Penticton found that the festival creates a local economic impact of $3.6 million.
Today, thousands of locals and visitors come to watch the city’s biggest free festival.
Meyerhoff would eventually sell his property for the Penticton Plaza Mall in 1958, but would keep the house lot separate. He lived in his house on the corner of Calgary Avenue until his death in 1962.
More information on Fishing Festival events can be found here.