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Homestead Heritage Celebrated

Annual event remains a constant for changing small town

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For the past 68 years, Hot Springs has hosted a Homesteader Days celebration on the second weekend of June.

What originally began as a festival to celebrate the opening of Camas Hot Springs Spa and a reunion for the original homesteaders evolved into a yearly celebration of small town heritage.

Skies were clear for this year’s event as residents and visitors gathered for parades, a car show, rodeo, foot races, live music and more on June 9-11.

Although crowds weren’t as large as they were in years past, there was still an influx of out-of-town visitors who travel to the event.

Vendors lined Main Street and live music could be heard throughout the weekend from a centrally located stage. Main Street was also the site of the car show, now in its fifth year. In the evening people moved to the edge of town to watch rodeo events.

Festivities continued on Sunday with a pancake feed and a gospel service followed by the Grand Parade. An honorary luncheon was also served to the descendants of original homesteaders.

The very first Homesteader Days was held in 1949 when the town was larger and Hot Springs was a popular spot for summer vacationers from across the world. When the spa opened, it was said that the mineral rich water could heal a person of any ailments if they stayed for 21 days.

Randy Woods, Mayor of Hot Springs, is a descendant of one of the original homesteading families. He said he remembers when the town was booming. Locals would rent out small homes and apartments to those who visited the spa. At the time, Hot Springs was largely a logging and ranching community with additional income provided by tourism.

Homesteader Days was a big deal back then. People would come from all around to watch the rodeo, powwow, and participate in logging games. The celebration mixed both tribal and western heritage.

When the logging industry left, a lot of the town’s prosperity left with it.

Homesteader Days continued without the logging games, and as the tribal presence in the area shrunk, the powwow ended. While several activities are no longer held, the rodeo and parade remain staple events.

“In Hot Springs, there are only a handful of people who have been willing to put on the events, and when the same people are doing everything, eventually they get burnt out,” said Woods.

Camas Hot Springs Spa has been closed since the 1980s. Woods said its decline was largely brought about by changes in vacationing habits. People come for the weekend and no longer stay for extended periods. This not only hurt the spa, but the people who rented to the spa goers as well. The whole town went into a state of decline.

In the late 1980s the town was at its worst state of depression. There were several abandoned buildings and much of the town was in poor condition, Woods said. And Homesteader Days was known back then as one big party.

Woods said there would often be people passed out on the street and in the park. For that reason, many locals refused to take part in the event. Even now, people refuse to come because of the reputation. A movement arose to change that perception. Abandoned buildings were torn down, and the town began to come alive again.

Younger people started buying businesses, Woods helped increase police presence in the town, and the Symes Hotel underwent a revitalization. In 1996, Leslie Smith took over Symes, renovating it and increasing its size to 47 motel units.

In 1997, Smith became the organizer of Homesteader Days. She said she has tried to keep the event as close to its tradition as possible.

According to Joe Ferguson, owner orf Fergie's Pub and Grill, tourism is again on the rise and Ferguson said he’s noticed that both his bar and Homesteader Days have more of a family-friendly feel.

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