Founding member Jerri Plaster looks back
Gold Rush Days – the multi-day festival in Valdez that celebrates the town’s roots as the all-American route to interior gold mines – is itself celebrating its golden anniversary.
While modern day cancan girls tighten up their garters and organizers work feverishly behind the scenes to bring the people of Valdez and its numerous visitors a grand celebration, Jerri Plaster, one of the original founders of the five-day event, looked back in time to the humble beginnings of Gold Rush Days.
“The first one was the most magnificent one,” she said of the 1962 event.
Hometown hero and then-governor Bill Egan marched in the first Gold Rush Days parade, setting the tone for future politicians, many of whom today still consider the parade a must-attend event.
While Gold Rush Days has become a major contributor to many good works in Valdez – most notably the thousands of dollars worth of scholarships its board awards to Valdez High School graduates each year - Plaster said she had to take out a bank loan of $150 to fund the first event.
The original founders got a hold of surplus test tubes from the Army hospital located in Old Town at the time, filled them with melted ice from the Worthington Glacier and a piece of Spaghetti. Plaster said she used India ink to dab eyes onto the pasta.
“The spaghetti would swell up and become an ice worm,” she chuckled, “We would sell them to tourist for a dollar.”
Plaster said the idea for the event came from herself, La Rue Rogers and Enola “Shiny” Olds, friends who were looking for a way to bring some excitement to town. They never dreamed the event would endure for 50 years, or become a major philanthropy.
“You know, it never came to mind,” she said of the event’s growth. “We were just bored to death and looking for something to do.”
The ladies definitely found plenty to do after that according to Plaster.
“We’d get up on the Pinzon Bar,” and dance cancan, Plaster said, “All the men would buy beer so they could look up our skirts!”
Scandalous stuff for the day, Plaster admits. She says the first Gold Rush Days also featured mud races and a unique challenger to the testosterone infused culture of the time in the form of a six foot tall woman named Mary who drove a cab in Valdez at the time.
“She was a leg wrestler,” Plaster remembered, “Any man, she challenged him – and she never lost. The soldiers would be so embarrassed to be pinned by a woman.”
Plaster also recalled that a hometown war-hero called president JFKs office to request help in securing a surplus army tent for the event, where most of the shenanigans took place.
After fifty years, Plaster is going to be crowned Queen of Gold Rush Days Wednesday evening, during this year’s kick-off event at the Valdez Civic Center. Festivities begin a 6 p.m.
“It’s nice to be the Queen of the Gold Rush Days,” Plaster said.
Special events run through Sunday, August 5. Look for Jerri Plaster, with son Dan as King, in the parade that starts on Egan Street this Sunday at 3 p.m. A free community fish fry, complete with old fashioned games for kids, begins at 4 p.m. on the Kelsey Dock.
Check the flyer in last week’s edition of the Valdez Star for the full schedule of events, or check out the website, www.goldrushdays.org