BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — Erin Ayriss was on her way to work Wednesday afternoon when she came upon a group of island old-timers waving yellow-flowered Scotch broom branches and cheering on a game of sidewalk bench tiddlywinks.
She couldn’t help but ask what was going on. Suddenly, all attention went from the plinking of little plastic tiddlywinks to her.
“Will you be our queen?” asked one of the Scotch broom wavers.
Before she knew exactly what saying “yes” would mean, she was crowned with a Scotch broom garland, loaded onto the back of a convertible and paraded down Winslow Way for all to hail the return of the Scotch Broom Queen.
The Scotch Broom Festival — a free-spirited, slightly absurdist island tradition — has been dormant for more than a decade. Or has it been that long?
Longtime festivalgoer Willie Grimm can’t quite recall.
“Jan, you’ve been here for a hundred years; when did this start? Did it always have tiddlywinks?” Grimm asked Jan Herren.
“Oh, it’s never the same thing twice,” Herren said. “It’s just nonsense.”
The festival’s time and location are usually kept a secret. It erupts suddenly, and usually involves lots of shrub waving, some tiddlywinks, the crowning of a queen and sometimes a king, and then a quick parade that ventures down only half of Winslow’s main street, leaving dozens of befuddled smiles in its wake.
The whole thing is usually over in a matter of minutes. This year’s festival lasted a whopping 30 minutes.
Members of the Bainbridge Kiwanis Club sparked the festival’s comeback. The old ceremonial golden toilet plunger — or “scepter” as its called on festival day — was dug up and passed on to the club’s newest member, Doug Burns.
“They said: ‘Here you go. It’s your job to bring it back,”’ Burns said.
The plunger is showing signs of age. Its rubber end is cracked, and there are flecks of mold on its yellow ribbon. Gold glitter on its handle sloughs off with every touch.
Ayriss, 21, had never heard of the festival until she was crowned its queen.
“It’s unexpected and it’s awesome,” she said after the parade, which she spent smiling and waving at puzzled shoppers along Winslow Way.
Ayriss nearly lost the throne when she admitted her allergies to the pervasive weed.
“I think she has to abdicate,” said a festivalgoer.
“She can’t even hold the bouquet,” another said.
Come hives or ah-choos, Ayriss said she would not shrink from her royal duties.
“This is a great part of island’s history,” she declared.
No one’s really sure how the festival started. Festival organizer Fred Grimm said it was started around 1965 by the late John Rudolph, an architect and “well-known gadfly.”
According to a newspaper clipping from 1984, Rudolph happened to stop by the island’s Chamber of Commerce when a state agency called asking whether Bainbridge had anything to add to its calendar of annual festivals. The hapless chamber clerk punted the question to Rudolph, who reportedly answered, “Sure, the Scotch Broom Festival.”
And why celebrate a plant most people consider a noxious weed? “It’s just a spoof,” said John Jay, Scotch Broom King, circa 1999. “Nobody likes the stuff.”
Jay said off-islanders still ask when the festival is happening. Besides an official state events calendar, the festival also found its way into some travel books and magazines.
Fred Grimm said the festival faded away shortly after the city began requiring permits and a police escort for the parade.
“It got too formal, too organized,” he said. “There was too much regulation from the city. There wasn’t the frivolity and the spontaneity anymore.”
Keeping the festival’s preparation and location under wraps is a way to circumvent the official channels.
Jay winked when asked about a permit.
“We’re just doing this as a mob scene,” he said.
A Bainbridge police officer only smiled when he passed the boisterous group of revelers, most of whom were past retirement age and slowed Winslow Way’s traffic for just over five minutes. An irate motorist nearly clipped the leg of a parade-walker, but most spectators seemed to enjoy watching the procession.
For passer-by Carol Winston, the festival was a flashback to her early days on the island.”I can’t believe it!” said Winston, a Bainbridge resident for nearly 30 years. “I love the spontaneity of it, and I love the tradition. I think it’s great that it’s back.”