McCleary Bear Festival stays close to tradition

‘It’s like a family reunion”: Thousands gather for parade, (non-bear) stew, music, cars and softball

Evenings are mostly quiet in the back room of the community kitchen in McCleary’s downtown city park, except for one night each year on the second weekend of July.

Massive metal pots line a homemade aluminum trough with peeling blue paper. Gas burners the size of small banjos link short concrete stalls nearby. The walls are white, gray and bare, except for a few bent gold name plates above the kitchen door — a loser’s log from the annual softball game between police and firemen — and an old wooden sign that reads, in red font, “Drink beer on premises.”

The room was designed specifically for cooking stew.

Throughout the night, firemen from the volunteer department cycle through on four-hour shifts. For the town of McCleary, their task — to ensure no vegetables burn to the bottom of a pot, and that the stew is properly mixed — is perhaps second in importance only to the regular firefighting services they provide.

The stew feeds thousands of people at the McCleary Bear Festival, a six-decade tradition and the town’s signature event. The 64th annual festival started Friday and wrapped up Sunday, highlighted by a parade, softball tournament, live music and a car show.

“It’s like a family reunion, you get to see people you haven’t seen all year long,” said McCleary Fire Chief Paul Nott, who was chosen as the festival’s 2023 Grand Marshal.

Since moving to McCleary 30 years ago, Nott has worked as the city’s light and power supervisor and volunteered with the fire department, serving as chief for about a third of that time. Nomination poured into the bear festival committee commending Nott’s years of service.

“I was really humbled,” Nott said. “I’m blessed to be part of this community.”

Instead of riding through the festival’s Grand Parade in a sleek convertible, Nott chose to ride in a fire engine with his crew.

After the parade, a mass of people flocked to the kitchen from Simpson Avenue, forming a line that stretched nearly the entire block to city hall.

More than 24 hours earlier, dozens of volunteers — who, along with the firemen, make up the “stew crew” — gathered under a pavilion to help chop hundreds of pounds of vegetables. It was a healthy turnout, said Sue Michalak-Budsberg, who has orchestrated stew prep for 25 years.

As a small child she chopped vegetables herself, and upon returning to McCleary, took the lead on the festival stew with some encouragement from former fire Chief Ron Pittman.

It was in her blood, after all. Her grandmother, Marj, headed up the very first veggie chopping station. Her mother, Donna, directs the onion chopping table — a hardy group who wears gloves to avoid the lingering stench.

Each ingredient, including a blend of spices and tomato-based sauce, is detailed in a recipe passed down from older generations and penned by Michalak-Budsberg. Quantities have been pared down since the time of her predecessors, though, as fewer people attend the festival now than did in the 1980s, when some say 10,000 people made the trip to McCleary each July. This year’s recipe serves 1,500.

The recipe now differs from those in past decades in another way. It’s missing the festival’s namesake ingredient.

When the festival first began in 1959, it went by a different name: the Second Growth Festival. That was a reference to the hope that a new stand of timber (the original round of trees in the area were all logged) would be enough to sustain the Simpson Logging Company plant, the lifeblood of the town’s economy.

But those young trees faced a threat from black bears, which, in the spring, would hungrily rise from their dens to claw at the bark and feed on the sapwood. The town’s future, then, became linked to black bears.

And it became a great source of pride, especially for Norman Porter, the editor of the McCleary Stimulator. When another newspaper editor asserted in a column that “Skamania County bears are best,” Porter challenged him to bring one of their bears to the McCleary festival for a competitive barbeque.

It grew from there, and a few years later, they cooked bear stew instead. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife issued timber depredation permits for nuisance black bears each spring, when McCleary hunters would harvest hundreds of pounds of wild meat for the festival. The controlled nature of the spring hunt allowed the festival to comply with food safety rules set for the festival by the Grays Harbor County environmental health department.

But in 2022, the state wildlife commission put a pause on the spring bear hunt, and without the regulated hunt to provide it, bear meat was absent from the stew. Later last year the commission banned spring bear hunting indefinitely. The stew now contains more than a hundred pounds of beef instead.

Michalak-Budsberg hopes bear meat can return to the stew in the future.

“The bear meat has its own distinct flavor and taste,” said volunteer Jeffrey “Big” Prowse as he cut into a watermelon on Saturday, wearing a white apron covered in buttons from past bear festivals. As a volunteer with McCleary Fire, his grandfather lit off fireworks at the original bear festival in 1959. “It’s very rich. It doesn’t take as much to fill you up.”

Even without bear meat, Prowse said, the festival will go on. Children of fire chiefs now know their way around the massive pots in the community kitchen. Children of the stew crew know to start boiling stew meat promptly at 4 p.m. on Friday.

Younger McCleary residents are beginning to take over planning the festival.

Sarah Daniels and Andrea Dahl took over this year as chair and co-chair of the festival committee after several organizers left during the pandemic. This year, three committee members completed the work that would normally be up to six. They organized the bulk of the festival: the Grand Parade, a softball tournament, a car show, food and craft vendors, live music and other events.

“Traditions seem to die in our day and age,” Daniels said. “When we heard that people needed help, we were like ‘this is a huge tradition, 64 years, we definitely don’t want it to die.’”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or

Clayton Franke / The Daily World
Jeffrey “Big” Prowse slices watermelon at the McCleary Bear Festival on Saturday, July 8.

Clayton Franke / The Daily World Jeffrey “Big” Prowse slices watermelon at the McCleary Bear Festival on Saturday, July 8.