Reviving the River

Petaluma volunteers plan Rivertown Revival Fest to honor city's origins


Cheryl Aronson doesn’t want to resort to sabotage. “He’s been pretty cocky,” she says of her art-boat drag race rival. “[Our boat is] not built for speed; it’s built for style, so we don’t want to resort to underhanded tactics. But you never know.”

The art-boat showdown that Aronson is anticipating is the centerpiece of the Rivertown Revival, a volunteer-driven festival slated for July 24 that’s aimed at celebrating Petaluma’s historic roots as, well, a river town. “Petaluma River is the reason that Petaluma exists,” says event coordinator Kelin Backman of Clementine Eco Events, who helms the festival with her business partner, Vanessa Hauswald. “We were originally a river town. I feel that we need to acknowledge and celebrate that. Too many of our events focus on our historic downtown, but [this] event focuses on our river and history.”

Once known as the Egg Basket of the World, Petaluma evolved as a shipping town that subsisted by ferrying goods and services down the river to San Francisco. Since then, residents have certainly expanded their professional repertoires, but the river remains a part of the town’s geography and recreational offerings. Backman often sees kayaks, canoes, yachts and transport ships traversing the waters while dog walkers onshore enjoy the view. But most people still don’t visit the river as much as she thinks they should.

“We want people to just remember there is a river,” says Chris Aluia, owner of Lions and Tigers and Hair and supervisor of the fest’s children’s area. “You forget about it except when you get stuck [in traffic] trying to go over the drawbridge.”

Petaluma celebrates its aqueous past with the Rivertown Revival on the McNear Peninsula, home of the 100-year-old Livery Stable, more commonly known as Ghirardelli Barn. This is the first time an event has been held on the peninsula. Jutting into the river, this strip of land showcases a view that melds the industrial and the organic. Corrugated warehouses play steward to the brown-blue water, and dried summer grass gives utilitarian metal behemoths a touch of elegance. As a perfect snapshot of the marriage between the man-made and the natural, McNear Peninsula may be the ideal place to host a festival about Petaluma residents reclaiming their river.

The blend of historical consciousness and whimsical playfulness with which Backman approaches the event means that it’s not just any old party; it’s a costume party. Backman describes the theme as “turn-of-the-century nautical clothing” and adds that the festival will have a “playful carnival kind of feel.” In other words, whip out those corsets and parasols.

A longtime costume lover, Backman has been browsing shops in search of a vintage bathing suit. “It just makes everything so much more fun when people are in costume,” she says. “If you’re in costume, you can be unfettered and get into your role. We see that at Renaissance fairs, Burning Man, the Dickens Fair. Crowds just love it.”

Locally, the Rivertown Revival most closely resembles the Handcar Regatta, slated for its third year this September in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square. Backman is careful to differentiate the two. “We love the Handcar Regatta, and we’re friends with them, but we’re trying to find our own way,” she says. “We want to be very respectful; we don’t want to copy what they’re doing. Ours will be less steampunk, more Tom Sawyer.”

She adds, “Our costume aesthetic will be different. We’re looking toward celebrating our river at the turn of the last century, thinking how someone a hundred years ago would have dressed at the Petaluma River at a carnival.”

Aronson’s art boat has a similarly vibrant and eclectic theme. She classifies it as “Tom Sawyer meets Venice with a little Gypsy thrown in,” describing chicken wire, flowers, carpets and even candelabras as key parts of the décor. Another boat is made entirely of recycled materials and powered by peddling two exercise bikes sunk into a raft. Lagunitas Brewing Company is sponsoring a boat constructed entirely of pressurized kegs and bicycles. It doesn’t get more Petaluma summertime than that.

The course is only a few hundred feet and in full view of the peninsula, which guarantees that the races will be fast and furious. In keeping with the environmental vibe of the festival, human effort will power the boats. No gasoline will be burned. Competing boats will face off according to propulsion method—either pedals or rowing—in hopes of taking one of three categories: Overall Fastest, Most Artistic Endeavor and Least Likely to Make It to the Finish Line.

When they’re not cheering on their favorite art boat, crowds can enjoy live local music provided by Old Jawbone, Hillside Fire, the Crux, Baby Seal Club, El Radio Fantastique, the Hubbub Club and others; patronize vendors; take the kids to the children’s section; and watch the carnival-esque sideshows. Backman promises stilt walkers, unicyclists, fortunetellers, circus performers, palm readers and wandering accordionist Amber Lee trailing cabaret like delicious sonic snail slime.

All this fun and frivolity raises funds for Friends of the Petaluma River and the Petaluma Arts Council, two nonprofit organizations that Backman calls “the future of Petaluma.” The city of Petaluma has plans to someday turn McNear Peninsula into a more expansive park with an amphitheater, production gardens, shade trees and campgrounds. The Rivertown Revival planning committee hopes that the extra bump in resources will help the city act on its plans more quickly. They will also continue to support the city and entertain the community with planned barn dances later in the summer and fall.

As Backman, her daughter Sawyer, Aronson and Aluia tramp out to the Peninsula in full costume regalia, a man sitting on a bench calls out, “Top o’ the morning, ladies!” Backman affects a Cockney accent and chirps “‘allo!”

Ever the spirit of festivity with a purpose, she reminds, “You have to throw the party you want to go to.”

The first annual Rivertown Revival is slated for Saturday, July 24, on the McNear Peninsula, Petaluma. 11:30am to 6pm. Free. 707.290.6723.

Sonoma County Library