Dirty Dan Harris Festival offers a glimpse into local history

If you’re new to Bellingham, or don’t know much about the history of our fair city, the Dirty Dan Harris Festival is one place you can learn about one of the town’s early citizens.

Here are few bits of information about the fellow who’s honored this Sunday, April 26, at Fairhaven Village Green.

In 1854, Dan Harris arrived on the shore of Bellingham Bay as a 21-year-old adventurer. He became a legend as a homesteader, land owner, smuggler, hotel owner, and seaman who founded Fairhaven in 1883.

He picked up the colorful nickname “Dirty Dan due to his infrequent bathing. His feats included traveling by rowboat between Fairhaven and Victoria, B.C. (on a much-touted rum run, legend says).

A shrewd business man, he once rolled his piano out of the Fairhaven Hotel in 1890 and straight down Harris Avenue into the bay after the hotel’s new owner wouldn’t pay for it.

In 1862, Harris sold about four acres to the county for use as a cemetery. The acreage, where Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant is now located, sold for $150.

The annual festival is produced by the Historic Fairhaven Association, a nonprofit that promotes the historic character of Fairhaven and puts on district festivals..

The festival is an old-fashioned, family-friendly celebration of the founder of Fairhaven, says organizer Hilary Friedrich, who is treasurer of the Historic Fairhaven Association and works at Fat Pie Pizza and Rocket Donuts, two Fairhaven businesses.

“We love this first event of the year in Fairhaven,” she says. “It gives people a reason to come to Fairhaven to explore all the great shops and restaurants. Fairhaven is a fun community full of history.”

In true Northwest tradition, the festival takes place rain or shine.

The day starts off with the 11th annual Dan Harris Rowing Challenge at 10 a.m. at the north end of Boulevard Park. The event is a re-enactment that may celebrate Harris’ arrival by rowboat in 1853, or may be a nod to his rum run, sponsored by the Community Boating Center and New Whatcom Rowing.

Either way, along with U.S. and Canadian Olympic and National Surfski champions and medalists, plus members of Whatcom County’s intrepid surfski and stand-up paddleboard communities, you can cheer the flash of boat colors and churning paddles as the horn sounds to start the 8.5-mile race.

Amble along the waterfront with an eye on the clock and an hour after the start watch the leaders drive for the finish shortly after 11 a.m., then head to the Village Green for the rest of the day’s activities. Live music, and food and street vendors take place on the Village Green from 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., with emcee DJ Bam Bam.

This year’s festivities include a salmon toss, with two age groups — kids up to age 15 (it’s OK to have a parent as the toss partner), and 16 and older. There’s also a doughnut hole eating contest with three age categories — 5 to 12; 13 to 17; and 18 and older, and Dirty Dan look-a-like and 1800’s costume contests.

All visitiors to the festival are encouraged to come in costume.

At “high noon” you won’t want to miss the exciting (albeit brief) uphill piano race. The story is that Harris sold the Fairhaven Hotel, but the new owner didn’t want to pay for the hotel piano. So Harris pushed it into the street and the piano rolled all the way down Harris Avenue to the bay. For the festival, three teams will race to push a piano back up the hill to the finish line at Harris and 10th St. This year’s contenders are teams from FatPie Pizza, Village Books/Paper Dreams, and from Fairhaven Toy Garden.

After the race, swagger over to the Dirty Dan Sidewalk Saloon, open noon to 6 p.m. on 10th Street next to the Village Green.

The new Chuckanut Chili Cook-Off takes place from 2 to 4 p.m. The contest previously was a chowder cook-off in honor of Harris’ clam-digging pig, but organizers decided there were restrictions on the product and it was expensive for local restaurants to make, and, besides, who doesn’t love chili?, asks Friedrich.

The chili contestants are Grand Ave Alehouse, Sandwich Odyssey, Haggens, La Fiamma Pizza and Burgers, Acme Diner, Skylarks, Danielle’s Back East BBQ, and Lighthouse Bar and Grill. Tickets to sample the chili are $10, for a taste of each chili on hand, a bowl of your favorite, and a roll from Avenue Bread.

Tickets also give you the opportunity to vote in the People’s Choice best chili contest.

For a glimpse back in time, watch this video about Fairhaven by Bellingham’s Lanny Little.