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Hometown pride grows deep roots at Potato Festival

Small town pride takes a big stage with the 81st annual Potato Festival in Merrill starting Friday – a grand historic celebration honoring the Klamath Basin’s agricultural heritage and close-knit communities.

The event may take place in Merrill, but it encompasses familial and friendly ties among all communities across the Basin in celebration of the annual potato harvest as a chance to reconnect after a busy growing season. Selected in 2014 by the Oregon Heritage Commission as an official Oregon Heritage Tradition, an honor bestowed upon a handful of annual community events in recognition of Oregon cultural importance; qualifying events for the honor must have at least 50 years of continuous operation, provide broad public appeal, be easily identifiable as unique from other events, and provide participatory activities.

“I am proud of the unity in our community to put this together each year,” said Vickie Liskey, co-secretary for the annual Klamath Basin Potato Festival. “Everybody has their place and there is a remarkably small amount of coordination needed – everyone knows their role and shows up and does it. I am proud of my community and how well we manage to get everything done.”

Liskey would know, as someone who has participated or planned Merrill’s biggest day on the calendar for much of her life. Her family first came to the Klamath Basin in 1886, and aside from a few years living in New York and North Dakota, has called the Klamath Basin home. In 1950 she was a junior princess on the Potato Festival Queen float, a grand tradition that continues to this day. Now she along with a dedicated group of residents work for much of the year to plan and prepare for the fun to come.

Preparation for the next festival begins almost as soon as the previous one is over, but work ramps up in the spring before the school year ends. Schools are solicited to nominate students for the Klamath Basin Potato Festival Queen competition – a vital cog in the events because candidates are the driving force in raffle sales which help cover festival expenses.

There are sponsors to be sought, permits obtained, vendors confirmed, and travel plans to book for those coming home for the many family reunions that surround the festival. Many people play a role to ensure it all gets done, such as Greg Matthews who orders port-a-potties and acquires Oregon Department of Transportation permits, co-secretary Radina Petrik who works alongside Liskey in much of the organization, Steve Kandra who coordinates the parade, festival president Rhonda Neighorn, Chris O’Grady in charge of a free barbecue that feeds over 1,500 people, queen chaperones, decorators, cooks, exhibit judges and many more. It is an event that after 81 years runs like a well-oiled antique farm machine, much of it spanning multi-generations who have called the area home and handed down tasks.

The Merrill Lions Club are official sponsors of the event, and nearly every member of the organization takes some role in the Potato Festival’s planning and execution.

“There are probably over 30 people who are actively working on it,” said Liskey. “It is extremely important to the people who grew up in the area, if you live elsewhere now you come home on Potato Festival weekend. We seat 1,500 at a free barbecue, and there’s only 900 people in Merrill. There are a lot of people we get to see maybe only this one time a year so it’s an important glue for our community, and working together makes me proud how all of those efforts come together to make a really great event.”

Festivities officially commenced last weekend with the annual talent show banquet and queen coronation, where 16-year-old Olivia Boettger, a senior at Tulelake High School, was chosen as this year’s Potato Festival Queen and Irene Aguirre of Lost River High School was selected as first runner-up. The event included a talent portion won by Aguirre with a monologue about suicide prevention, and second place in talent was won by Michaela Nelson of Mazama High School for an art demonstration. The queen and princesses will be a prominent piece of the annual parade, along with these year’s grand marshals – the Ongman family.

Activities begin Friday with a free potato bake at Merrill Umpqua Bank, followed by the exhibit hall opening at 1 p.m. featuring submissions for baked goods, photography, vegetables, floral arrangements, needlework and more. Friday evening culminates with the annual Spud Bowl, a high school football game featuring Lost River High School, but a tradition that began as a community game among farming families from Merrill and Malin.

Saturday begins with the Linkville Lopers’ Spud Run, a community fun run through Merrill starting at 9 a.m. Added to this year’s festivities is a Rural Communities Health and Wellness Fair on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., offering free glucose and cholesterol checks and even free haircuts. The Potato Festival Parade commences at 11 a.m. down Front Street, followed by a free community barbecue at 12:30 p.m. Throughout the afternoon will be live entertainment, a beer garden, and Pop Warner football games.

The Potato Festival culminates at 4 p.m. with raffle drawings inside the Merrill Civic Center – grand prize is $500 cash alongside a variety of gift certificates and donated prizes.

“It is just a great day, if you’re broke and don’t have much money you can do most everything without spending a dime,” added Liskey. “It is a lot of fun, especially for families, and the weather will be beautiful this year.”

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