The McCleary Bear Festival was dreamed up in 1958 by Norman Porter, then editor of the McCleary Stimulator, the home town newspaper. It wasn't that he disliked bears, but he and other residents of this area knew that bears liked to eat the soft cambium layer of the inner bark of young evergreen trees. They especially crave this delicacy when they emerge from hibernation, and to satisfy their hunger they often strip a tree of all its bark, causing it to die. It started with a remark by a friend of Porter's by the name of Roy Craft, then editor of the Skamania County Pioneer in Stevenson, Washington, who claimed that Skamania bears, if properly cooked, were the world's most delicious. Porter countered with the claim that Grays Harbor's bears were the tops. The two agreed to meet head-on in a bear-tasting contest in McCleary. Civic minded McClearians got interested, formed committees and decided to stage something more than just a bear-eating contest. Working with Porter, they created the First Annual Second Growth and Bear Festival. It not only helped to rid the forests of unwanted surplus bears, but also supplied the Festival with bear for the barbecue.
In 1966, fifteen bears went into the communal pot. Now selected portions of inspected bear meat is combined with beef to provide the distinctive flavor associated with McCleary Bear Stew. McCleary is a slumbering little lumber town 30 minutes west of the Capitol City, Olympia, and depends greatly upon the forests surrounding it in Grays Harbor County for survival. The Simpson Timber Company always replants harvested land for future use of the timber industry, as do all other timber companies in the Northwest. It is these young trees that bears find so tasty and damage readily each spring.
By the ninth annual Bear Festival, 4,000 visitors were gathered in McCleary. The cooking crew by then had grown to several local sportsmen who started two days ahead of time to make sure the bear stew was ready on time. Now we host upwards of 10,000 people from all over the United States and Canada who have heard one way or another about the big three-day celebration on the second full weekend of July each year.
100+ pounds of meat go into the stew with a small portion of that being beef for flavoring. There are also hundreds of pounds of potatoes, carrots, onions and a large kettle of "special" spicy sauce cooked just right with seasonings that are added just before serving. The stew is cooked in enormous iron kettles on stoves in the City Park kitchen. This is one case where too many chefs don't spoil the stew, for it takes about 40 people to handle the cooking chores; taking 'round the clock shifts watching and stirring and adding the right ingredients at the right time to make the stew just right. The menu also calls for a ton of watermelon, 3,000 rolls, and baked beans by the kettles full. It is served immediately following the Grand Parade which always starts at 12:00 noon on Saturday.
Although the Bear Stew is the big attraction to the festival, there is also a Kiddies Parade, Grand Parade, Royal Court Ceremony, Bands, Dances, Softball Tournament, and many other events in all three days.