For four years, from 2008 through 2011, Santa Rosa's Railroad Square swarmed with crowds of costumed revelers one day each summer, gathering at the railroad tracks to watch fanciful contraptions race.
For a day, the historic district became a portal to another time — the late 1800s, but with more modern "steampunk" overtones.
Fans mourned when the founders of the beloved Great Handcar Regatta announced that the 2011 event, which drew 12,000 people, was the last. Expecting track closures because of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) construction, promoter Ty Jones and arts activist Spring Maxfield dissolved their partnership.
After a false start last year, and months of negotiations with SMART and the city of Santa Rosa, Jones is back this year with a new partner and a re-invented event.
Next Sunday, Aug. 25, at Railroad Square, Jones and event promoter Kathy Kingman of the Praetorian USA production company will present Dr. E. P. Kitty's Wunderkammer, featuring the Great Sonoma County Handcar Races. This event is set in the early 1900s, but the Victorian element from the Handcar Regatta is expected to persist.
"There's a lot more live music this year," Jones said.
"I would say this is an old-fashioned country fair and circus."
There also will be a busking or performing stage for local musicians, circus acts, and a greater emphasis on food, art and family attractions. And, of course, two dozen elaborately decorated handcars will compete.
Kingman of Praetorian USA, which produces the annual Northern California Pirate Festival in Vallejo, traces her festival experience to her years with the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Marin County's Black Point Forest.
"From there, we branched out to the Sausalito Arts Festival and the Harmony Festival" in Santa Rosa, which is currently on hiatus, said Kingman, who co-owns Praetorian USA with her husband, Mark Solum. "We have our hands in a lot of events. We have a lot contacts for performers."
Jones, 51, is letting nothing keep him from rebooting the handcar race and festival this time, not even the stroke he suffered earlier this year, and he promises something both familiar and fresh.
If the name Wunderkammer has you wondering, it means "cabinet of curiosities" and comes from the Renaissance Europe tradition of exhibiting collections of oddities or curios.
"This is similar to the Handcar Regatta because you have all these different kinds of people coming together," Jones said. "But it's like baking a cake. If you put in different ingredients, you get a different cake."
Here's a closer look at a few of the diverse participants involved in Wunderkammer:
Joel Allan has been nuts about trains ever since his mother took him out to the tracks to experience the roar of one clattering by.
Or so the family story goes. Baby Joel erupted into screams that day, but his mother believes it sparked his lifelong obsession. Allan's gateway train was a wooden Brio. That advanced to electric trains that overtook his entire bedroom as a kid. He moved on to miniature steam engines that he learned to make himself.
Now, at 38, after a lifetime ramping up the thrills, Allan has taken on the ultimate project: designing and building his own fully operating steam engine.
"I don't know how much bigger I can get," he said, from the back of a noisy Sebastopol warehouse that is headquarters for his company, Tangent Membranes, which makes customized filtration systems for wineries.
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