Photos: Forestville’s Poison Oak Festival supported community

“It was great fun, like the local apple festivals — only with poison oak,” said one of the organizers|

In the mid-’80s, the Forestville Chamber of Commerce was looking for a hook to make its new summer sidewalk sale a more memorable event.

It needed its own quirky festival that celebrates something common to the town — while Sebastopol had Gravenstein apples and Guerneville had banana slugs, Forestville had poison oak.

In August 1987, Forestville introduced the Poison Oak Festival at its sidewalk sale, including food booths, arts and crafts, live entertainment and a contest of who had the worse case of poison oak — which required students to submit an essay detailing their best (or worst) poison oak story, and/or how they had the worst case of it.

The plant came to be an appropriate symbol for the community of Forestville, which happens to be the “Poison Oak Capital of the World.”

Herb Nurmi, an organizer of the festival, told the Sonoma West Times & News in July 1987 that poison oak has flourished despite centuries of eradication practices, “demonstrating a remarkable resilience and indomitable spirit, which we like to think reflects the resilience and spirit of the people of Forestville.”

During the Valentine’s Day Flood of 1986, hundreds of Forestville residents helped each other evacuate amid mudslides and water shortages. It was this community spirit, where folks united to support one another during difficult times, that epitomized what Nurmi saw as Forestville’s good-natured resilience — like that of the ecologically helpful poison oak.

Forestville’s first Poison Oak Festival generated wide interest. The event was featured in a segment on San Francisco’s KGO TV and in various newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times.

During the first festival, Heidi Franceschi earned the title of “Queen of Itch” for having what local pharmacist Dave Henry said was the worst case of poison oak he’d ever seen. Franceschi was crowned with a garland of fake poison oak — an act to which a Tuolumne County city, Columbia, took great offense.

Columbia had established an annual Poison Oak Festival five years earlier, and its residents planned for months to enter poison oak-related competitions. One Columbia musician called Forestville’s festival an “upstart imitation,” though Forestville chamber officials swore they had no knowledge of Columbia’s celebration.

“We were completely innocent as far as starting a war with Columbia,” said chamber member Joanne McMann in a Sept. 26, 1987, article in The Press Democrat. “But now we’re going to have to get serious if we want to compete.”

For the following years until 1994, when the festival was scrapped, the annual event included art shows, a children’s carnival, berry cooking contests and bicycle tours. Proceeds of the festival would benefit merchants as well as local students — the “Queen/King of Itch” contest offered a $250 scholarship for the El Molino High School winner and the “Princess/Prince of Itch” contest awarded a $50 savings bond to the Forestville School winner.

Cyril T. Hofmeister, one of the originators of the festival, told the Sonoma West Times & News in 1995 that the event was one of his fondest memories of Forestville.

“It was great fun, like the local apple festivals — only with poison oak,” he said. “We had poison oak man, Ken Smith, who’d dress up in poison oak and terrify everyone by threatening to touch them.”

According to a Sept. 10, 1997, column in the Sonoma West Times & News, residents and even many of the merchants who helped establish the festival began to object to it by the early ‘90s. The two-day event brought in out-of-town competition, massive congestion, lack of parking and logistical requirements that overwhelmed the small Chamber.

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