When the arts festival and hand-powered rail-car race known as the Handcar Regatta made its debut three years ago, organizers couldn't have guessed they were blazing a brave new trail — into the past.
Blending the fashions, mechanics and science fiction of the 19th century with more modern notions of art, the race and street fair marks its fourth anniversary next Sunday in Santa Rosa's Old Railroad Square.
The event has proved so popular, with estimates of last year's attendance running as high as 15,000, that admission will be charged for the first time this year, partly to keep crowds from overwhelming the event.
"It's primarily to help hold down the attendance," said Ty Jones, who co-founded the event with Spring Maxfield.
The simple fact is that what began as just a fun event has become a phenomenon.
"We started out saying, &‘Let's just do this once and see what happens,'" Maxfield recalled.
What happened is that locals — both mechanics and artists — built and raced fanciful contraptions on the railroad tracks that run through the district just west of downtown Santa Rosa.
And spirited fun-seekers thronged the streets in elaborate period costumes, not limiting themselves to Victorian-era top hats and frock coats. Even the first year, there were several Viking sightings.
"The first day after the very first regatta, a local architect was walking through the site where I was cleaning up from the day before. And she said, &‘It's like a veil has been lifted off this city,'" Maxfield remembered.
"I am just so pleased with the way the community has taken the event and taken ownership of it and made it their own," she added. "If we create environments where people feel comfortable, they're going to come out of their houses."
During the short but exciting life of the Handcar Regatta, the trend towards old-timey community events has extended to other parts of the county. Last July saw the re-emergence of the Healdsburg Water Carnival after a 100-year hiatus, and the second annual edition of the Rivertown Revival in Petaluma.
Kelin Backman, director of the Rivertown Revival, showed her support for the trail-blazing Handcar Regetta this year by turning the Petaluma event's closing party into a fundraiser for next Sunday's regatta in Railroad Square.
"It seems that so many events resonate with a certain demographic. When you go to the Handcar Regatta, you see people of all ages and from all economic walks of life," Backman said.
"It resonates with the crowd because they come and participate in something that feels like a movement, rather than an event. I can go to the Handcar Regatta and feel like, &‘Oh my God, we're cool.'"
Handcar Regatta organizers attribute the event's soaring success to a combination of invention and involvement.
"One of the best things to come out of the regatta is that we have a whole new group of artists who were born out of the regatta, people who never considered themselves artists before — blue-collar contractors, construction workers and mechanics," Maxfield said.
"I also think the regatta hit a chord with this whole do-it-yourself movement, and this desire to create a form of transportation in your own garage with the tools you have available. It inspires people to get out there and try something. There's an incredible sense of empowerment."
Jones said he considers it important to give something back to the people who helped make this grassroots movement so strong. That's another reason why there will be an admission fee this time: $8 in advance; $10 at the gate; free for age 16 and younger.
"The fee goes to start paying these people who put this event on. The economy plays a part in this. A lot of the people who were originally volunteers don't have jobs now, or they're under-employed. We'll give them stipends," Jones explained.
And there's a slightly selfish side benefit for Jones. A little extra help means he can enjoy the party he helped create.
"This is the first year I'll be able to just enjoy it, because I'll actually have some time," he said. "I've never watched a whole race because I've been too busy."
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See his ARTS blog at arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.