Commencing in the middle 1970s, and originally dubbed “Old West Days,” the 49er Festival and Chili Cook-off celebrates Groveland’s early days in the gold rush era, where shoot-outs in the streets and hangings occurred regularly.
Groveland, established in 1851, under the name of Garrotte, which is Spanish for “death by strangulation,” was a gold country boomtown with numerous saloons and brothels. Today, visitors to and residents of Groveland begin the 49er Festival with an old fashioned parade down Main Street past a grandstand on the balcony of the historic Hotel Charlotte, which is draped with colorful saloon girls. Generally, mayhem breaks out at the end of the parade with a western shoot out, bank robbery and kidnapping that carries the crowd over to the town’s park for an all day event with vendors offering themed crafts, live western music and dancing, and a chili cook-off, featuring booths constructed to look like gold rush era buildings.
The day long festivities begin early with a pancake breakfast, sponsored by local charitable organizations, followed by a fly-over of local antique airplanes from the nearby airport (Pine Mountain Lake). These kick off the parade, at 9 AM, down Main Street (which is also CA Highway 120, a main artery into Yosemite National Park), and into Groveland's community park, where festivities continue with themed vendors offering food, beverages, crafts, and souvenirs.
About twenty years ago, the 49er Festival incorporated the Chili Cook-off, previously a separate event, into this single popular festival. With booths that are built by the chili sponsors to look like their favorite historical building, the contest draws dignitaries from as far away as our county seat, to judge the chili. An official panel of judges, as well as the general public, taste and rate each chili entry. Trophies are awarded later in the day at the main stage.
Musical entertainers perform at two different stages in the park throughout the day, interspersed with a live auction, raffle, and silent auction, as well as other presentations and speakers.
The 49er Festival also features many activities for young folks capitalizing on our local amenities, like the Skateboard Park, with age grouped competitions, and a Young Ladies Fashion Show for the teens. The festival has long appealed to the younger kids with a Bounce House, Dunk Tank, Face Painting, Pony Rides and Petting Zoo.
All day, free musical entertainers, live and silent auctions, raffles, beer and wine, a variety of foods, artists, crafters, and representatives from Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest, fill out Groveland's park. The concurrent Chili Cook-off, from noon to 3 PM, fills everyone's tummies, as they vote for their favorites.
The 49er Festival is managed by the Yosemite Chamber of Commerce, and is usually held on the Saturday of the 3rd weekend in September, two weeks after the Labor Day holiday weekend.