In the summer of 1964, Washington celebrated the 75th anniversary of its statehood; this year marks its 129th year of united bliss. In Coupeville, the Block House Inn was considered the best place to stay overnight; it burned down in 1968. The Sea Gull Restaurant on Front Street was the un-fancy place everybody went for fish and chips; it closed in the late 70s. The historic structure at No. 8 Front Street served as Sealey’s Tavern at least since World War II; today it’s still a packed local hangout but now it’s called Toby’s.
And, in that summer 54 years ago, Coupeville leaders and businesses organized a small art gallery and handicrafts festival hoping to attract tourists to an historic little town that didn’t get all that many. A few hundred came that summer, likely more locals than out-of-towners; there were still empty parking spaces on Front Street. This year’s 54th edition of the Coupeville Arts and Crafts Festival may attract upwards of 15,000 visitors during its Aug. 11-12 run; there’ll be parking available but not anywhere near Front Street.
Like Coupeville itself, the Arts and Crafts Festival has grown and shifted with the times, but it’s remained remarkably true to its roots.
The festival’s much bigger size today mirrors Coupeville’s dramatically increased popularity with tourists. But perhaps the main reason the festival has survived is because it’s always been organized and managed entirely by volunteers, a reflection of Coupeville’s tight-knit town spirit; and since 1964, all proceeds from space rentals and commissions have gone for grants and scholarships within the community.
This year, more than 200 artists and vendors will display their wares along Coveland and Front streets and in the Recreation Hall. “We’ve grown to cover just about every square inch that’s available; we’re about at the town’s capacity,” said Festival Board President Carol Moliter. “People really like it because it’s so well contained and easy to walk in such a beautiful spot with lots to see and do.”
In the first few years, paintings, sculpture and other art were displayed but not for sale; now they are. The handicrafts that were sold – sewing, knitting and ceramics – were usually the work of local people – farm wives and retired people.
By the mid-1970s, others came from all over to sell their wares at the Coupeville festival. Many were part of that era’s “alternative” (read hippie) culture, bringing their paintings and sculptures, of course, but also everything from macramé handbags to designer kites. Some of those aging “alternative” artist-vendors still come to Coupeville every year.
Barb and Rick Owens are among them. This, they believe, is their 30th year at the Coupeville festival, selling their famed Bromeliad “air plants” that grow without soil and hang delicately in the air. Now in their 60s, they started their business more than 35 years ago and the Coupeville festival was a venue where they really wanted to sell.
“We were wait-listed the first year, then we got a small space on a street downtown with a steep slope,” Barb said. “But we didn’t care because we had this gorgeous view of Penn Cove and the historic buildings and the people were so friendly.” This year, they expect to see repeat customers who come almost every year to buy more plants.
The vendor with perhaps the longest history of coming to the Coupeville festival is Michael Loeffler, 67, from Seattle. This year, he believes, will be his 40th anniversary. “As best as I can recall, it was 1978 when I set up a booth in Coupeville.”
Michael makes hats on a 1908 Singer treadle sewing machine that belonged to his grandparents. He brings the machine to the festival every year to entertain visitors with his skills. “I’ve been making hats since I was in the 10th grade in 1967 and I still love doing it, especially at festivals.”
He proudly acknowledges being part of the “alternative” culture back in the day and he’s grateful that he has been able to spend his life doing something he loves and making a living at it. “I have second- and third-generation hat customers now.”
And why do people like Rick and Barb Owens and Michael Loeffler keep returning to the Coupeville Arts and Crafts Festival?
“It’s run by volunteers who really care and they charge very fair space fees and commissions,” Barb said. “And the visitors are so mellow, having a good time in a beautiful place; it really is unique among the arts festivals we know.”
And Michael added, “This is a community festival, run by the community. Some of the others are much more commercial. Coupeville’s special.”