The History of Sweet Pea Festival
It's that time of year again!
Tour buses are streaming into town, chalk is out on the sidewalks, and colorful posters are displayed on every bulletin board, shop display, and telephone pole. The excitement brews in the summer air as Bozeman embarks on the 44rd annual Sweat Pea Festival this week!
2020 Poster for Sweet Pea Festival of the Arts.
In 1978, Sweet Pea was "born out of a community’s desire to celebrate the arts."
A collective of about 17 people committed to bringing a three-day, multifaceted art festival to Bozeman. The notion of celebrating the Sweet Pea flower was inspired by Bozeman's Sweet Pea Carnivals that were held around the turn of the 20th century.
Early Days: Sweet Pea Carnival
Before white settlers staked claims on the Gallatin Valley, the native people who lived here knew this place as the 'Valley of the Flowers,' a homage to the stunning wildflowers and overall fertility of the region. In the early 20th century, the Gallatin Valley had over 17,000 acres of cultivated peas.
During this time, the Bozeman Commercial Club, now the Chamber of Commerce, was competing with Billings for the placement of a lucrative sugar beet processing plant in Montana. After seeing sweet peas growing in yards around Bozeman, the idea for a Sweet Pea Carnival was born!
Sweet Pea Carnival during the early 1900s. Image courtesy of Bozeman Magazine.
According to journalist Angie Ripple of the Bozeman Magazine, "the first Sweet Pea Carnival was held in August 1906 seeing a surprisingly large turnout. Bozeman quickly became known as the Sweet Pea Capital of the nation, and was second only to Portland’s Rose Carnival in the idea of presenting a floral carnival. Visitors riding trains to Bozeman for the carnival were greeted with fragrant bouquets of Sweet Peas. The first events featured a parade down Bozeman’s dusty and unpaved Main Street, an especially grand king and queen coronation, and a baseball game. The edible and fragrant sweet pea flower was the Carnival’s emblem and was used to promote the festivities."
Photo Courtesy of Museum of the Rockies Facebook Page
After several years, Bozeman did not get the sugar beet plant, and the Sweet Pea Carnival slowly died off. For a generation, the legacy of the "Sweet Pea Capital of the World" faded into memory.
Then to Now: Sweet Pea Festival
Fast forward to the summer of 1978 - the first annual Sweet Pea Festival of the Arts was in full swing. In the early years, the event quickly grew to over 12,000 attendants, who travel from all over to enjoy local food, local and national musical acts, and the work of local artisans and craftsmen.
The 1982 Sweet Pea Festival poster. Courtesy of Sweet Pea Festival.
Sweet Pea Festival is truly unique to Bozeman and to its community-minded roots. This festival emphasizes the value of volunteers. With over 400 people stepping up from the surrounding area to take tickets, clean up, set up and tear down, and manage events, it's really something that Bozeman can be proud of.
One of the proudest traditions the modern Sweet Pea Festival carries - they choose to give all proceeds back to the community in the form of grants, art education, and various community projects - especially to help improve Lindley Park where the Festival takes place.
By Zach Altman
Edited by: Cassi Miller, Alexa Jorgenson