Group wants to bring back Coho Fest’s glory days for Honor
There was a time when the Honor Coho Salmon Festival brought thousands of people to this small Benzie County town.
In recent years, whether due to fatigue or the economy or small-town politics, the festival lost its oomph.
Attendance and activities dwindled. Last year, the festival had just three volunteers.
To some, the Honor festival looked doomed.
That’s when Bud and Becky Lane decided it was something worth saving.
“Once we figured out that we were going to have a lot of outpouring from the public and a lot of close friends, [we] decided that we were going to step up and take over the Coho Festival,” Bud Lane said. “We didn’t want it to die.”
How did a festival go from being among Northern Michigan’s most popular to an afterthought at the end of summer?
In many ways, the ups and downs of the Coho Festival mirror the ebb and flow of salmon fishing on Lake Michigan.
The festival began in 1967, a year after coho salmon fingerlings were first planted at the Platte River State Fish Hatchery just up the highway.
Biologists expected the alewive-eating salmon to do well in Lake Michigan, which was becoming overrun with the small invasive fish. No one expected the coho to do as well as it did.
Soon, anglers from around the world mobbed Benzie County in search of the fish that could reach 12 pounds in less than a year. Fishermen yanked coho from Lake Michigan by the boatload.
“People don’t realize, that year there were cars parked from the mouth to M-22. People were walking three miles to go fishing,” Bud Lane said. “A lot of people go, ‘I can’t believe you guys named a festival after a fish,’ and I have to explain, ‘Well, Honor wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the coho.’”
AN EXTRA YEAR
When the couple took over the festival, the best word to describe it was “disarray,” Bud Lane said.
For example: Last year’s festival was called the “47th Annual.” It was really the 46th. The mistake had been made years ago and no one caught it.
“It stuck,” he said. “Nobody ever did their homework. They just stuck with it.”
The discovery gives organizers an extra year to whip the festival into shape, however – they want the 50th to be special.
Lane said there is a lot of work to be done. Over the years the festival bylaws have been lost or forgotten. Sponsors dropped out. Residents felt ignored.
“The community didn’t feel like they had a voice anymore,” he said.
The new board seeks to change that.
The board meets twice a week. They hold monthly community meetings that feature ice cream socials or spaghetti dinner fundraisers.
They spent two weeks boiling down several paragraphs to a one-sentence mission statement.
Pat DeLorme, the board treasurer and only holdover from last year, said she believes excitement for this year’s festival is contagious.
“I think the community is getting a lot more excited,” DeLorme said.
DECLINED FOR YEARS
For the past two years, the Coho Festival was run by another couple, Walt and Laura Langille. No one puts the decline of the festival on them; they say it’s been in decline for years.
Bud Lane doesn’t know for sure what happened. Part of it could have been the economy, he said.
“I can’t really put a reason on the decline, except for, I would say, small-town politics,” he said. “People would get bitter and then the bitterness would go to their friends, and before you know it, people would only show up to one event or the parade.”
Volunteer fatigue also set in. “A lot of the people that had stepped up to the plate in the previous years, they’ve been doing it so long, they just got burned out,” he said.
Now, Coho Fest organizers are busy planning activities, recruiting volunteers and signing up sponsors.
They’ve already lined up a big one – Turtle Creek Casino.
“For me to say we could’ve ran it without them, we sure could have, but it wouldn’t have been the festival that we wanted,” Lane said. “Turtle Creek has been outstanding.”
Chris Theobald, an owner of the Honor Motel, said the festival has been in decline since she arrived in town eight years ago.
“It was already in the decline, but it was still more successful than it’s been in recent years,” Theobald said. “I don’t know if it will ever get back to what it used to be, but I certainly hope so.”
She’s optimistic the festival could be turned around under new leadership.
“They’ve got a great volunteer base this year and they’ve got some great plans,” she said.
TOO MUCH TOO SOON
Walt Langille said he and his wife took over the festival because they wanted to help Honor, but in retrospect, they may have tried to make too many changes too soon. And it didn’t help that he came from out of town.
“The problem that we encountered is that we’re not from here, I guess is the way to say that,” he said. “Bud’s a friend of mine. I think that they’re going to do alright.”
The biggest change the Langilles made was to move the festival from Maley Park near the center of town to the softball fields out of town, a move Langille now knows was a mistake.
He wanted to make the festival bigger but wound up frustrating some old-timers.
Langille said he’s pleased with the plans of the current board to move some of the activities back to Maley Park and keep some at the softball fields.
Family activities this year will take place at the park and downtown. These include the parade, children’s games, food vendors, arts and crafts show, and 5K run.
Adult activities – like the beer tent and live music – will remain at the softball fields.
The fireworks and a parachutist show will also take place at the fields.
Langille said he believes some people misunderstood what he was trying to do.
“We want the Coho Festival to succeed.
We want it to do well,” he said. “Hopefully, Bud and Becky will be able to win the hearts of the community and be able to make it happen.”
BENZIE COUNTY NATIVE
Bud Lane, 40, says he is a Benzie County native even though he was born and raised in Florida. He thinks so and everybody in town seems to think so, too.
Lane’s wife, Becky (née Rayner), is from Honor.
That should give them the credibility to turn the festival around, Lane said.
“I was born and raised in Florida, but all my family is right here from Honor and the Frankfort area,” he said. “I spent my summers coming up here, looking forward to the Coho Fest.”
His grandfather on his mother’s side was Bud Rosa, the former owner of Bud’s in Honor, the gas station. His father owned the Villa Marine in Frankfort. Lane’s mom and dad decided to leave Benzie County for Florida before he was born.
“From a very young age, I always wanted to live here. I always used to ask my parents, ‘How come we live here in Cocoa Beach, Fla.?’” he said. “You know, they never really gave me a good answer.”
What: The Honor Coho Salmon Festival
Where: Village of Honor, on US 31 in Benzie County
When: Aug. 22, 23, 24
Wanted: Lots of volunteers; lots of people to come and have fun
Why: Attendance and interest in the festival has dropped off in recent years. Organizers of this year’s Coho Fest want to turn things around by adding more events and better incorporating the history of the coho salmon into the festival.