When Vickie Chambers, her husband Randy and their two school-age children Christian and Emily moved to Coupeville in 2003, they didn’t know the town at all. They had been managing a ski area near Spokane for a number of years and had never been near our Rock.
“Randy picked out Coupeville for us in order to get away from all that snow, and he had to show me where it was on a map,” she said with a laugh. “It’s been an adventure from the get-go.”
Indeed it has. Vickie retired this month as chair of Musselfest, after managing a spectacular 36th annual edition in historic downtown Coupeville on March 5-6. Throughout the festival, Vickie was constantly on the move, walking through the vendor booths, talking to visitors, directing volunteers, talking on her cell phone.
“I love the mood at Musselfest,” she said. “It has a laid-back feeling. There’s no particular ‘thing’ to come for. It’s just a fun, free event where you can wander around, eat, drink, listen to music and mingle with the thousands of other people doing the same thing. And you can bring your kids and dogs.”
But though she’s leaving her Musselfest responsibilities, Vickie is not going away. She and Randy will continue to operate Coupe’s Last Stand, the hotdog emporium at the foot of the Coupeville Wharf from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It’s been 12 years since they took it over from Maury Christiansen, the original owner.
She looks forward to enjoying Musselfest next year as just one more visitor, fading back into the community as another happy Rock dweller. “It’s time for me to step away. I have worked with great teams that love Coupeville. And I am leaving it in the very good hands of Kellie Sites and Amanda Hertlein-Martin, who will be the new managers.”
Musselfest is one of the longest-running tourist events on Whidbey Island. Vickie became part of the event management team about a dozen years ago. At that time, the chairs were Cindy Olson and Lark Kesterke, who had been in charge for a decade and had dramatically revived Musselfest after it had become disorganized and was in danger of not happening.
Under the Olson-Kesterke team, Musselfest grew dramatically, sometimes attracting up to 10,000 people. And it’s fame continued to spread far and wide under Vickie, who became chair in 2018 with big help from her team — son Christian Chambers and Amanda Hertlein-Martin.
The pandemic forced it to be cancelled in 2021 — the first time ever. And there was some trepidation that it might not attract a huge crowd this year. “We had to scale it back for safety. We eliminated the shuttle for the chowder contest and the mussel-eating contest, and we had just one beer tent.”
But they needn’t have worried. The town green parking area was full with 1,250 cars by 1 p.m. both days, and people were parking as far away as Coupeville High School and walking into the historic downtown. Vickie estimates that, because most of those cars carried at least two people, the crowd this year was likely 8,000 or more. Tickets for the chowder contest sold out early, but nobody went hungry. Local restaurants and other vendors sold plates of mussels, paella, popcorn, curly fries and other treats.
“It just amazes me that a community as small as ours manages to put on this free event every year,” Vickie said. “We had 235 local volunteers this year doing every chore imaginable, and all our local restaurants produced 2,000 ounces of chowder each that they gave away.” (Money from chowder ticket sales goes to promote preservation and stable growth in the historic business district.)
All those local efforts for so many years have really put Coupeville on the map — something that Vickie remembers she had to find it on as a newcomer years ago.
Mussels have now become synonymous with the town. It all began in 1975, when the Jefferds family started a mussel farm in Penn Cove by placing platforms on the south shore with long ropes on which local mussels spawn and grow. Penn Cove mussels are a unique species — Mystillus trossolus. The farm — now managed by Ian Jefferds and his brother Rawle — began on a small scale by selling mussels in Pike Place Market in Seattle and a few other places.
Two well-known Seattle chefs from France bought some and quickly dubbed them the best mussels they’ve ever tasted because of their tender, cream-colored meat. Shortly thereafter, famed Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson wrote about the delicious mussels from Coupeville, and their popularity took off like a rocket.
Then in 1986, Captain John Stone, long-time owner of the Captain Whidbey Inn, asked the Jefferds to supply mussels for a “festival” he was planning for the first weekend of March. The idea was to get local people to start dining out again after staying home in the cold winter months. It was such an initial success that other restaurants on Front Street in Coupeville asked to join in, and the rest is history.
What’s surprising is how little Musselfest has changed in the intervening 36 years. It’s still a low-key, fun family event. At the latest edition, families with children and dogs meandered in the historic downtown area. Kids played in a grassy area near the Recreation Hall and dogs were petted, greeted and treated by hundreds of dog lovers.
“What I do know is that Musselfest is as enjoyable and indelible as it has always been. That general feeling will never change, and I am so proud to have been part of making it happen,” Vickie said. “I know it will always be that lovely local festival where kids can play on the grass and families can walk up and down in the middle of the street without a care.”
• Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and now lives in Central Whidbey.