Shirley Tinner, the honorary grand marshal at the 50th annual Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival, has not missed a single festival since she helped found it half a century ago.
A lifelong Astoria resident, Tinner has watched the event become the North Coast’s premier celebration of Astoria’s Scandinavian heritage — a salute to the Swedes, Finns, Danes, Norwegians and Icelanders who emigrated to the Columbia-Pacific region in the late 1800s and early 1900s, helped build the town and shape its industrious Old World character.
This year’s festival takes place Friday through Sunday, June 16 through 18, at the Clatsop County Fairgrounds. Visitors can feast on Scandinavian cuisine, collect handcrafted items and enjoy musical performances by Scandinavian bands.
For the 50th anniversary, a reunion of past Scandinavian princesses and queens, and festival dance groups, will take place Saturday afternoon. The entertainment centerpiece is Arrival, an ABBA tribute band from Canada, who will perform Saturday evening in the fairground arena. (The original ABBA hailed from Stockholm, Sweden.)
The three-day gathering would not exist without a trio of women, including Tinner, who founded the festival as a fundraiser for their daughters’ Brownie troop-turned-Scandinavian folk-dancing group.
Tinner, 80, is unable to walk in Saturday’s Optog Walking Parade, but her daughter, Kim Supple, will represent her, along with members of the original troop.
“It’s an honor to have been asked to do that,” Tinner said.
Tinner, whose father was a Swede-Finn and mother a pure Finn, can still speak the “Uniontown” Finnish she learned as a girl.
The festival’s other two founders, Carol Obie and Nelly Norrman, can no longer tell the story of the event’s founding: Obie passed away in 2009, and Norrman, who lives in Sweden, is in her late 90s and in poor health. “We’re extremely grateful to them for starting this festival 50 years ago,” Janet Bowler, the festival’s entertainment coordinator, said. “We hope these traditions will continue for future generations of Astorians, Scandinavians and people who are interested in diverse cultures.”
Brownies to folk dancers
In the mid-1960s, the Girl Scouts were organizing an international festival recognizing the organization’s founder, with each troop representing a country. The first- and second-graders of Astoria’s Brownie troop — a pre-Scouts ensemble that included Supple — took Norway.
They memorized a Norwegian song and dance, borrowed costumes from a vocal group and performed in the old 4-H building (where the Astoria Aquatic Center now stands) for International Scouting Day.
“We were a hit,” Tinner said. “We were so cute.”
Word spread. Pretty soon, the local Scandinavian groups — such as the Swedish Lodge (Vasa), the Sons of Norway and the Finnish Brotherhood — were inviting the troop to perform.
Obie, Tinner and Norrman — three troop mothers — decided to turn the troop into a dance group, giving rise to the Astoria Scandinavian Folk Dancers.
The first festival
The young dancers became traveling entertainers, and their venues grew increasingly prestigious. Twice they performed live on Portland’s KGW. Between high-profile gigs — including at the Lloyd Center, Seattle’s Space Needle and Knott’s Berry Farm in California — they journeyed along U.S. Highway 101, dancing at Scandinavian lodges.
“I remember a lot of laughing, I remember a lot of dancing, and I remember sore feet,” said Supple, who was 10 when the dance group was formed.
By the time the group disbanded in the early 1970s, the group of eight girls had expanded to 24 girls and boys.
On June 15, 1968, at the old 4-H site, the dancers hosted a festival to raise money for a trip to Disneyland and Solvang, a Danish village near southern California. They invited the local Scandinavian lodges to set up booths and sell food and crafts items, while the dancers headlined the event.
“We didn’t know if anyone would be interested or not,” Tinner said.
The dancers needn’t have worried: “I’m not kidding you: You couldn’t get in. It was so packed,” she said.
This was the first Scandinavian festival — the event that became the model for each one that followed — “and it was a huge success,” she said.
Though the inaugural festival had a built-in fan base in the Scandinavian town, the event’s popularity reached beyond Scandinavian cultural groups and families of the dancers. “Everybody came,” Tinner said.
In that first year, the founders laid down festival traditions that have continued for five decades — from the Scandinavian court, to the walking parade, to the hex burning (a Danish ritual in which participants throw straw dolls into a fire to ward off bad luck for a year).
Even a first-year ceremony that received mixed reviews — namely, the princesses’ speech “What My National Heritage Means to Me” — has enjoyed unexpected longevity.
“Afterwards, a lot of people said, ‘Oh that’s dumb,’” Tinner recalled. However, “they’re still using that today.”
Supple, who lived through the folk dancers’ adventures and the festival founding, later served as Senior Miss Finland and was crowned Miss Scandinavia.
She remembers her mother coming home from her full-time day job as a Clatsop County judicial assistant, cooking dinner, then working into the night to plan the festival entertainment.
When Supple became a mother herself, she realized what Tinner and the other troop mothers did for their children, from sewing their dancer costumes to pulling off the annual event.
“When we were little, sure, we appreciated it, but we didn’t really get it,” Supple said. “And now it’s like, ‘Whoa’ … I think a lot of us girls are all thankful, and in awe of what our moms did. It’s really cool”
From the 4-H building, the festival later relocated to the Astoria Armory, then to Astoria High School before moving to the county fairgrounds.
The event caters to more visitors and has more to offer — for example, the Sunday church service — but these additions merely expanded on Tinner, Obie and Norrman’s original concept.
In the early 20th century, Astoria’s Scandinavian immigrants stayed largely within their own groups. The Finnish settled in Uniontown, the Swedes and Norwegians in Uppertown, with a smattering of Danes and Icelanders taking up residence. They spoke their own languages and upheld their own traditions, identifying solely with their own culture and nationality.
But two things happened to bring them together: the exceptional Astoria High School basketball team in the 1930s that integrated athletes from the different Scandinavian groups, and the Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival — two projects that required cooperation and camaraderie.
After these milestones, the groups began to see themselves as part of a larger family of immigrants with a shared stake in the town and a mutual interest in working together.
“I think we brought them all together,” Tinner said. “I really do.”